One less brick in the wall

Researchers in the field of Human Biodiversity inform us that Asian babies will remain placid when a cloth is placed over their faces, but European babies will not. Perhaps this explains why suffocating government is typical of the Far East but conspicuous by its absence here in the West. Further scientific experiments are no doubt required before we can say for certain. In the meantime though, assuming that statists are not born but made – or at least that nature can’t take all the credit – the question arises, “Made, how?

Being sceptical of government, let alone hostile towards it, is very much a minority pursuit, yet the average man comes into contact but rarely, if at all, with those traditionally recognized as ‘agents of the state’ (police officers, judges, military personnel, and, thank goodness, politicians). So how does he acquire his unconscious or ‘knee-jerk’ statism? Who is it that convinces him that he is, as Bob Black puts it, under an obligation “just because a few other people have printed up some stationery”?

A distinction might be useful here. The anthropologist, Pierre Clastres, had it that in free (or ‘state-of-nature’) societies relationships are characterized by “exchange,” but in unfree societies “lack of reciprocity” rears its ugly head. This is, give or take, the liberal view. In a free society interactions between men are voluntary and mutually advantageous; in a hierarchical society, you do things simply because I tell you to do them, you do what l tell you to do “or else.” In the former Pareto-superiority is the rule, in the latter “bettering by worsening” flourishes.

No society can survive for long without the acquiescence of its members. So if an at least passive acceptance of ‘a-reciprocity’ is the necessary condition of authoritarian societies – an acceptance that seems to run counter to man’s nature and his self-interest – how is such an acceptance developed and maintained?

I would suggest that the answer, at least in part, can be found in “the education system”. In the UK (and the West generally) homeschooling is practically non-existent, presumably because of its┬átremendous cost in terms of both time and money. There is also a stigma surrounding homeschooling. Not attending a proper school means a child won’t be properly socialized. (This is likely true in many cases. Although given that “socialization” means nothing more than “becoming a good subject,” this might not be such a bad thing.) As a result, just about everyone spends about six hours a day, five days a week between the ages of five and sixteen, becoming inured to authority.

During his school years a child learns, above all else, that he must follow orders or he will be punished. He has no say in whether he attends school – he must go, and that is that. (Should he refuse to turn up, the police will become involved, and his parents are liable to be fined.) He might like his school work, he might not – he must do it. He might like his teachers and fellow pupils, he might not – he must associate with them. His preferences are immaterial. His teachers, his form tutor, his head of year, the deputy head, the head master, even the dinner ladies – all must be obeyed without question. Reciprocity is not to be found here; each relationship, each interaction, rests on explicit “or elses”. Little wonder that upon leaving school, after having spent over two-thirds of a lifetime there, men are so comfortable with relationships where the “or elses” are unspoken. Authority – when it is recognized at all – has become simply “one of those things,” “a fact of life”.

The success of schooling in cementing the habits of mind that facilitate statism is most visible, a little ironically, in the common attitude towards schooling. As mentioned above homeschooling is thought of as ‘weird’, and quite possibly sinister. Faith schools are seen as oppressive, quite possibly sinister, places. Any move in the direction of “privatizing” education, no matter how small (or how dissimilar to actual privatization), is certainly sinister, and likely disastrous to boot. Yet sending a child to a building owned by the state, run by the state, staffed by employees of the state teaching the lessons the state wants taught, so that they can take exams approved by the state to show how much state-approved knowledge they have aquired is not sinister at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Tempting as it is for decent people to picture teachers as kind, gentle folk doing their best to educate future generations and make the world a better place, this is not the whole picture. Whether they know it or not, teachers are a vital cog in the machine of authoritarianism. The fact that a good number of teachers are indeed kind, gentle folk who have only the best of intentions, is, from this perspective, not a mitigating factor. Rather it only serves to improve their effectiveness as promoters of statism.

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No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do

The British government has decided to outlaw certain kinds of behaviour in British made pornography. This seems like the sort of thing I should write a post about. Everyone else is, after all. I could call my one, “The sexiest canary in the coal mine,” or “If you’ve nothing to hide (from your wife), you’ve nothing to fear,” perhaps.

But I’m not going to write one because, let’s be honest, what’s the point? The government is outlawing consenting adults filming consenting adults engaging in voluntary activities and selling that film to consenting adults. What else can I, or anyone else, say about it? What more can be added? That is it. That’s all that can be said. If you don’t get it by now, you never will. And if you do get it, you don’t need to read yet another post telling you what you already know.

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Useless politicians, glorious politics

This first appeared at Bogpaper in March of this year. I’m reprinting it here firstly because there’s a graph floating around the net showing the loss of faith in government in recent decades, and secondly because I haven’t felt like writing anything for a week or so but I want to keep the blog ticking over. Apologies if you’ve read it before; if you haven’t, enjoy.

Our democracy is in crisis. No wait. Our democracy is in crisis! That’s better. (An exclamation point really puts you in the mood for reading about a crisis, I find.) A spectre is haunting democracy. The spectre of selfies. If only Churchill were here now. He’d know what to do. Oh, yes!

That’s right, top ranking politicians giving themselves selfies (I’m pretty sure that’s the right phrasing) while ordinary hard-working folk stand around them open mouthed, is not only a problem – it’s a symptom. A symptom of a problem. A problem that is symptomatic of a blood-curdling threat to our very way of life. Maybe even a blood-curdling threat to our very way of life! Ordinary hard-working folk are losing faith in politicians. Oh. My. God.

To be serious, the story (or rather the worry) is this. Politicians are doing lots of trivial, silly stuff these days; they are, to a man, non-entities, totally unable to capture the imagination of the public. The voters are turned off by all this, their opinion of the political class is nosediving, and fewer and fewer are bothering to vote at all. What is needed, if our democracy is not to fall apart, is a new breed of politician – closely resembling a much older breed of politician – who can inspire the masses with displays of vigor; good sportsmanship; success in battle; raw sexual magnetism; athleticism; tales of derring-do, etc.

I got a bit carried away towards the end there, I admit. But this is a real problem as far as many people are concerned, and the solution they long for is a more heroic style of politician.

What should we make of all this? Is democracy in danger? While it might, prima facie, appear that way, that would be a faulty conclusion. Of course, in an ideal world there would be a total loss of faith in politicians, so all the allegedly troubling statistics (fewer than two thirds of the electorate vote in general elections, etc), are, in fact, merely a good start. But they are just that: merely a good start. The problem is that while there may be a growing disillusionment with politicians, the belief in politics itself is as strong as ever.

The common criticisms make this clear: our politicians aren’t smart enough to do this; they aren’t brave enough to do that; they don’t care enough to do the other. Which is to say, we need a better class of politicians – cleverer, braver, more compassionate. Our problems, whatever they may be, can and will be solved by politics as long as the “right men” are in charge. Or, at least, “better men” are in charge. And it’s always possible to find “better men”. That’s why we have elections, isn’t it?

So what is politics? What makes something a political issue? Nothing is inherently political, but absolutely anything can become a political issue – there just has to be enough interest in it. But it’s of the highest importance there not be unanimity of opinion on an issue. If there were, what would there be for politicians to do? They would be totally superfluous to requirements: if we would do a thing anyway, what would be the point of an order commanding us to do it? The ‘art’ of the politician consists in seeking out areas of disagreement and forcing non-unanimous decisions upon dissenting parties.

There are a number of points that could be made about this, to be sure, but let’s focus on the ‘practical’ aspect for those of a generally libertarian or classically liberal persuasion. The question is, What are the prospects for limited government? Imagine a disagreement over the use of a resource in a free market. I want to use X for one thing, you want to use it for another. How do we solve this conundrum? We say that whoever owns X gets to decide. If neither of us owns X, we can attempt to buy it (or be gifted it, win it, etc) from the current owner. If it’s currently unowned, whoever gets there first becomes the owner and can then decide what to do with X. In each case there is a definite answer.

But what if – and this might take quite an effort of imagination – instead of a free market, there was politics? In other words, what if how things are used was not a matter for their owners alone? Well, then things would be very different indeed. In politics there are no ‘right answers’. Everything is up for grabs, and every decision is an arbitrary decision. Perhaps “the common good” might be the yardstick in a given case. Perhaps the “greater good”; or the “public interest”; or the “will of the majority”. (Incidentally, as long as there is something to be ‘interpreted’, it’ll only ever be the interpreter’s voice we hear). It doesn’t matter. Unless ownership is absolute, there is literally no limit that can be put on government activity. For on what issue is there unanimity? On what issue can disagreement not occur? On what issue can disagreement not be manufactured to benefit interested parties? And as for “constitutions” as a break on the growth of government, as Anthony de Jasay points out, they are neither self-interpreting nor self-enforcing. They are, in his phrase, “a chastity belt, the key to which is always within easy reach”.

Politicians are not the problem, politics is.

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Against “libertarian” moralism

There are those who say they only want free markets if they make the world better and poor people rich. On the face of it, this is bizarre: an unhampered market must lead to both, it can do no other. Markets, therefore – whether free or not – are perfectly irrelevant to whoever says this. It is plain that we are not dealing here with an empirical, “wertfrei” statement, but a moral one, based on an underlying moral belief about what are “the right kind” of consequences. Namely, a policy is good if we expect it to have the consequence of helping the poor; bad (or indifferent) if we do not expect it to have this consequence.

Other moral positions are possible, of course, even ones that are diametrically opposed to this. And, as every fashionable moral sceptic knows, each is good as any other. Moral propositions have no factual basis, no empirical content; this being so, it is only ever a case of “my word against yours”. Suppose, then, a man (it might help, reader, to picture him with a top hat, a monocle, a glass of port, and a cigar) comes along and tells us, “Though some libertarians really do not like this, I only want free markets if they make the rich richer and the poor poorer”. As unhampered markets do not make the rich richer and the poor poorer, any move towards them will be, according to our Mr Moneybags, bad, wrong. Or, what is the same, the consequences of the unhampered market are not to his taste. Well now, what can we say in reply to this vicious monster? Absent a moral belief that it is right for us to help the poor, not a lot; and even then, not a lot. We are at an impasse (a sophisticated impasse is no less an impasse for being sophisticated). Perhaps we might put our fingers in our ears and shout “na na na, can’t hear you!”. It couldn’t hurt, and it’d be no worse than any other moral argument.

This moral “nonsense on stilts” is based on a belief in a peculiar metaphysical substance, for which there is a peculiar metaphysical name. Sadly, it has slipped my mind at the moment. No matter – I’ll just utilize “liking” instead, because that’s exactly what it means. How it is supposed to work is this: People like things. Some people like some things a lot, some people like some things a little. If you add up all the separate likings that separate people do, you get “society’s total liking” or “social liking”. And “social liking” allows social engineers to do wondrous things. For example, say that one woman really likes apples, and that another really, really likes oranges, – only she can’t afford them. If, using the most precise and up-to-date methods, we subtract apples from oranges, we are left with some amount of liking. If this amount of liking is more than we imagine would be left over if we took oranges from apples, “social liking” increases if we transfer resources from the first woman to the second so that she can buy herself some oranges. And as we are all a part of society, we all share in, and profit from, this additional “social liking”.

This is utter gibberish, of course. The subjective valuations of different people are incommensurable. This becomes wholly obvious (if it wasn’t already) when we say what we actually mean – “liking” – instead of needlessly utilizing ‘scientific’ terminology. My likes and your likes can no more be aggregated, no more be subtracted one from the other, than apples can be subtracted from oranges.

Mind you, having said all that, while it is true that “to add one man’s quiet contentment to the exuberant joy of another, to deduct a woman’s tears from another woman’s smile, is a conceptual absurdity,” it is a conceptual absurdity that empowers us to make policy recommendations whenever the mood takes us. And at the end of the day, perhaps that is what really matters.

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