Tag: libertarianism

Parliament Bound by Contract?

If I really cared about whether our democratic government was truly representative, I think I would be outraged by this story about the government locking in payments to suppliers for ID card contracts against a possible cancellation by the next government.

Ultimately, the next government could, I presume, pass a law saying that payments promised for ID card work were cancelled, and even that payments previously made could be reclaimed. Traditionally, parliamentary sovereignty meant that was possible.

Would that be a good thing? While I suspect that the contracts in question are being written as a kind of “poison pill” to sabotage Tory policy, it is legitimate that a business could seek up-front payments or guarantees to cover the setup costs of the work they are undertaking to do. A company that was faced with the loss of payment for work it had already done because an election had changed the government’s policy would have a very legitimate cause of complaint.

The opposition could mitigate the injustice by giving good notice – now – of what they intended. That is made more difficult by the claim of “commercial confidentiality” made regarding the terms of the contract.

My line on this is that when a government signs a significant contract with a business, then it is not a matter of commerce, it is a matter of politics. It is, if not nationalisation, then at least something which is of the same kind as a nationalisation, but of different degree.

Therefore the ongoing dealings between the government and the supplier are a matter of politics not of commerce. If nullifying the contract is good politics but bad commerce, then it is what should happen. If the supplier doesn’t like it, they shouldn’t have got involved in politics. Furthermore, hiding the details of the contract on grounds of “commercial confidentiality” makes a mockery of democracy even by my loose standards.

I would also add that this sort of thing: Public Private Partnership and use of contractors in general, is a prime example, probably the best example on this side of the pond, of what Giles Bowkett was talking about. It’s the kind of policy which looks, if not exactly libertarian, at least sort of halfway libertarian. It was supported, at least at the beginning, by the likes of the ASI and the IEA. And because it’s a compromise, and because the nature of the political landscape means inevitably that what it was a compromise with was corporate interests – in this case the corporate interests of the consultancies that get paid for work like the ID card project – then as a result it’s the sort of policy where half-way is much worse than nowhere.

If we were back in the 1970s when the only way to do this sort of system was to hire thousands of civil servants to develop it, we would be better off. Outsourcing gives us none of the benefits of the private sector, but a whole lot of extra cost in corruption and obscuring of the truth.

Finally, I suspect that the Tories, even if they had the balls, could not void the contracts as I have described. The suppliers would be straight off to the EU to cry foul. The brief alliance of Thatcherites and Eurocrats in the 1980s that gave us the single market have stripped the voters and their representatives in parliament of the power to do that.

Giles Bowkett

January 9, 2009


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I’ve been reading Giles Bowkett’s blog a long time because he’s doing some interesting things programming in ruby, which is a language I like but haven’t done anything serious in.

He throws in some other good stuff – this piece on the potential demise of record labels echoed almost exactly what I thought when I read the same NYT article.

But then he started producing what seemed like random insults aimed at libertarianism. And I got rather pissed off with that. I mean, I’m all in favour of hearing diverse opinions and all that (in theory, of course, not in practice), but there wasn’t even any content.

On Wednesday, he got around to actually explaining his position. And, in keeping with his normal output, he made some very good points.

Things he says which are true:

  • US libertarian think-tanks end up advocating policies which advance corporate interests at the expense of the general interest.
  • The libertarian movement has been royally screwed by the Republican party
  • This was in principle predictable
  • If you intervene in politics, good intentions are trumped by bad strategy
  • ‘If politics were chess, Libertarians would be trying to win by holding up the pawn, saying “my pawn has a machine gun!”, and making little pew-pew noises. It just doesn’t work that way.’

I couldn’t have put that last one better myself. I know that because I’ve tried.

What I gather from all that is that Bowkett is in fact a libertarian. He’s just one of the substantial number who are hostile to the “think tanks all over Washington”. In fact, despite his generally outspoken tone, he’s a lot gentler on them than many of his fellow libertarians are. The phrase “Orange Line Mafia” does not appear in his posts.

The other quibble I have with him (and my real point here is that I mostly agree with him about concrete issues, as opposed to what labels to use for things), is that even the Washington Libertarian establishment has its good points. Look at what Radley Balko has achieved, and may yet achieve, in the sphere of police and judicial abuses. Look at the fact that the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today says things like “The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you”. That in a piece that opens with the writer’s account of his days at Cato. Would we be better off if the WSJ wasn’t saying that? In November Bowkett admiringly quoted Roderick Long’s article about the pro-corporate bias in much libertarian activism. But, you know, Roderick Long is certainly included in what I think of as “libertarianism”, and that article was published by Cato.

The issues Bowkett raises aren’t immediately relevant to me, because I’m British and the libertarian movement in the UK isn’t even powerful enough to do any damage, let alone to do any good. But, taking a longer view, they’re the exact same issues I’ve been writing about in connection with the recent pieces by Jacob Lyles on Distributed Republic, they’re the same issues I was talking about in the pub last night with the LPUK. And I’m going to be writing a lot more about them.

But even if it’s true that Libertarian activism is counterproductive, doesn’t it matter whether libertarian theory – that government would be better if it did very much less – is actually true or not? If it’s true, it’s worth spreading, even if there’s currently nothing useful we can do about it.

Politics and Metapolitics

January 5, 2009


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Jacob Lyles at Distributed Republic is concerned about the contradiction between advocating policies of individual freedom, at the same time as political structures such as federalism which are likely, in some instances, to produce outcomes which are extremely hostile to freedom.

The problem is not new – since Lenin arrived at the Finland Station, politicians have announced simultaneously policies that should be followed, and structures by which other people should determine what policies are to be adopted.

If I was absolute ruler of the world, all I would have to decide would be policies. As it stands, any practical proposals any of us make are conditional on getting sufficient agreement to practically implement them. That is true whether we acquiesce in the current political structure, or whether we seek to change it.

When we evaluate a proposed political structure, we have three things to consider:

Is it achievable?

Is it stable?

Is it good?

A total autocracy ruled by me has a lot to recommend it, policy-wise, but fails on achievability. We might be aiming at the long term, but there has to be some possibility of bringing our structure about for it to be worth discussing.

Stability is the other side of that. Even if we have established our new order, others will seek to change it. If it was worth creating, it is worth protecting, but protecting the political structure without doing severe damage to freedom is always very difficult. This is where I think our current, deeply unsatisfactory, political systems score. Bad as their policies are, they are cheaper to protect than most alternatives – cheaper both in material and in human freedom. I think that is true even when you count most of the bad policies as part of the cost, in that they consist of building up blocs of society who are tied to maintaining the system. I am hoping to be convinced otherwise on this point, however.

The third question is whether the structure tends to produce good policies. Some would want other things from the political structure, such as fair or just allocation of power, but I am indifferent to that provided the structure can stably produce good policies. That is not to deny that there are arguments that a “just” political order is quite likely to be more achievable and stable than an “unjust” one.

As to what constitutes good policies, that is the other half of the question – politics as opposed to metapolitics. They may be separate domains, but as Lyles’ previous article demonstrated, it is hard to talk about radical political ideas without straying into the issue of what structures might be more likely to allow them than the status quo. Policies also must meet an achievablility criterion, and they may be more achievable within an alternative political structure than in the currently dominant one.

Addressing the original post in this context, what federalism has going for it, arguably, is that (a) while allowing bad policies in some localities, it will allow good ones in others, possibly better overall, and (b) it may be more stable, in terms of not evolving into an overlarge megastate, than a central political authority. The point that oppressive government is harder to prevent where everyone actually wants it is not a justification of the oppression, but a recognition of the achievability and stability constraints on any political structure.

In fact, both federalism and Patri Friedman’s seasteading are in a sense meta-meta-political ideas, since they have the advantage that by exposing multiple different political structures, they may cause better political structures to come about.


Authoritarian MPs

November 1, 2008


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There are a couple of schemes in progress responding to the breakneck progress of the all-knowing, all-powerful state in Britain.

One is the sending of copies of 1984 to every MP, and another is the stroll that some bloggers have in mind for Wednesday.

Alarmed as I am by the situation, I think these protests are fundamentally misdirected.

I do not believe that the Labour Party is pushing in this direction (ID cards, national childrens databases, national ID databases, detention without charge, ID required for buying mobile telephones, etc. etc. etc.) because the MPs are a bunch of authoritarian bastards, despite appearances. It is not their aim to see all these powers gathered and used. I suspect they actually aren’t bothered about it one way or another, and, given the chance to offer their honest opinion, would probably say most of it isn’t worth doing.

They are pushing it all because they think it is a vote-winner, and for no other reason.

That being the case, demonstrating that there is a small group of people who are very strongly opposed serves no purpose. They know that, but we only have one vote each, and they don’t believe there are enough of us to matter.

The only way to win this is to gain the attention of the ordinary voter, and bring home to them the problems of having the all-powerful state monitoring their every move. The biggest publicity victory we have had so far was the news that local councils were using anti-terror surveillance powers to monitor people putting non-recyclables in recycling bins. That beats the by-election victory of David Davis and the Lords’ defeat of 42-day detention.

Even politics doesn’t help. It is true that, in the boxing match of electoral politics, the Conservatives have taken very good positions on most of these issues, and therefore, if they win, there should be some relief in the short term. But in the longer term, the fundamentals will reassert themselves. The Tories will find their pro-liberty positions a liability, and, in due course abandon them. Liberty simply isn’t what the MPs went into politics to fight for, and if push comes to shove, it will be sacrificed to improve electoral chances and therefore whatever it is that they are aiming for.

MPs' Discipline

May 26, 2008


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The fiction which gives legitimacy to our government is that the process of having elections every five years disciplines MPs to act in the general interest. Whatever comes out of Parliament is the “result of the democratic process”.

The significance of Ann and Alan Keen counting ten thousand a year of what is basically an investment as an expense, and getting it signed off as such, is not in the cost itself – the hundred million a year or so that MPs take for themselves is a small part of their impact – it is that this conclusively disproves the legitimacy theory.

If, as the theory holds, MPs are constrained to act in the public interest, then everything they officially do must be in the public interest. Pocketing an extra ten grand a year, effectively in cash, is not in the public interest. Therefore the MPs are not so constrained. Q.E.D.

As a corollary, there is no reason to believe that anything else they do is in the public interest either.

via Devil’s Kitchen

The Essence of Government

April 26, 2008


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Further to my previous post, I have come across this piece from last week by Jim Henley, also dealing with the problem of how libertarianism can make a practical difference.

I think libertarians are, rather, the court jesters of politics. I mean that in a good way. We whisper to Caesar that that he is mortal. We caper about, turning ourselves blue if necessary, reminding everyone that government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested. You’re probably not going to care, but we’re going to make you actively decide not to care. And sometimes, maybe you’ll care after all. As a class, we can be stupendously silly people, believing and saying the most absurd things. But our rulers are silly people too, in different and more malignant ways. And as fools, we have the freedom to say so.

I think he’s right, and if he’s right about America, the same is even more true of Britain, where libertarian ideas are that much further from the mainstream.

The problem is that all politics is based on a lie: that the essence of government in a democracy is to serve the people, and that political questions are about how best to serve the people.

In fact the essence of government, in a democracy or elsewhere, is that the strong enslave the weak. What democracy provides is not a different essence, but, by the mechanism of dividing the strong against each other, a situation where the strong enslave the weak much less effectively. The point of democracy is to provide ineffective government, which is a good thing.

So if the debate is about what the government should do to better serve the people, then I am a libertarian (indeed now a Libertarian), and will bore my victims to death talking about lower taxes and more flexible markets and civil liberties and the rest of it. But the policies I complain about are usually not imperfections in our servant, the government. They are the reality of our master, the government, sticking out through the bars of the cage in which it is restrained.

How to get better?

April 25, 2008


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At Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce has asked another of the fundamental questions. By what route do we get from where we are to a better situation for the country?

The problem is that even attempting to carry out such a programme entails playing the political game. And a key part of the political game is feeding the movement by handing out patronage. If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing the game, you’re just posturing.

How did Thatcher manage to fight the overgrown state for three terms, with two landslide majorities, and yet leave it as large as she found it? Because every victory had to be paid for by buying support somewhere else.

So slimming the state through the system is out of the question. Fighting the system would not leave enough afterwards to help, even assuming (delusionally) that we had anything like the support to make it possible. There is the ASI approach of working through those in power, attempting to change their minds directly. The gains are marginal, but real. The necessity to a politician of defending statism so as to be able to reward supporters leads to a situation where the powerful believe their own propaganda beyond what is actually useful to them; that is why good argument can have some effect but never achieve real change.

Another opportunity for marginal change is direct action. The point of this is not to overthrow the system, but to change the incentives of those in power. Therefore aim not at the top, but at lower levels where the real damage is done by those making unseen decisions week by week and year by year.

In defence of lying scumbags

April 19, 2008


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Apparently (via Mr Eugenides) The EU’s new Unfair Commercial Practices directive will mean that psychics will have to prove they do not mislead their customers.

Now I’m more sure that psychics do mislead their customers than I am of almost anything, and we would all be better off if they stopped. They might not all be lying scumbags: possibly some of them are just nuts.

But I’m not sure that making every failed prophecy into a legal action will be an improvement. The problem in dealing with psychics, as with homeopaths, Christians, dowsers, mediums and the rest, is not that they are not obviously wrong (they are), but that many of the “legitimate” alternatives aren’t provably better. If we start demanding proofs, we’ll take out the pychics alright, but what about the equity research analysts? Homeopathy is crap, but how much respectable medicine has not been proved to be better? You can argue that we would be better without all these questionable experts and advisers, but I’d rather make up my own mind than have the choices regulated by the law.

Actually, the two examples I chose: equity research and medicine, are very regulated. Perhaps there are better examples. But even these aren’t actually required to be accurate. Equity researchers have to show they’re not being bribed to make particular recommendations, and doctors have to show that they’re consistent with other doctors, but neither actually have to show that their predictions come true. The required standard for astrologers might turn out to be similar, but if the result of all this legislation is that they just have to put a line of small print at the bottom saying the mystical power of the stars can go down as well as up, I don’t think it’s really worth while.

Expanded blog reading

April 19, 2008


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I’ve added one or two new feeds to my regular reading, as a result of the meet at the ASI on Wednesday.

There were talks from Tim Worstall, “Guido Fawkes” and Perry de Havilland, which served mostly to underscore how good blogging is as a medium, compared with, er, sitting listening to people giving speeches.

Some people really have it, though, and a few minutes listening to Chris Mounsey holding forth in general conversation were enough to persuade me that I should (a) be reading everything he writes, which for some reason I haven’t been doing up until now, and (b) be in the Libertarian Party. Devil’s Kitchen needs no introduction from me, but Mounsey’s vision of a positive libertarian platform that can be put to the general public was an eye-opener.

I may doubt the general proposition that we need a Libertarian Party, but if it is the way to get Mr Mounsey’s energy and vision to a wider audience, then we need this Libertarian Party. Since I let my UKIP membership lapse (for the second time) a few years ago, there’s no reason for me not to be a member.

I also have added Question That, a newish blogger who was there on Wednesday (another Libertarian Party person), and, as a side effect of paying more attention to British political blogs, have added The Remittance Man, Mark Wadsworth, and Iain Murray’s new outing, though as far as I am aware they weren’t there.

Libertarianism and Welfare

April 18, 2008


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Johnathan Pearce at Samizdata kicks off a discussion:

“A barrier to people accepting libertarianism is the notion that we’d let people starve in the streets.”

I think this is true. And while the notion is fundamentally unjustified, there is a grain of truth in it.

For one thing, to the extent that there are people who believe that the poor should be left to starve in the streets, they are likely to be found among our allies and supporters.

For another, while most libertarians would say, like Johnathan, that the unfortunate would be looked after by private charity, and might well end up better off than is the case today, most would also say that there should be some stigma to being a recipient of charity; that the deserving poor (as judged by donors) should be better off than the undeserving poor, in order to provide useful incentives.

Similarly, people should be encouraged to look after their families, meaning the poor with families to look after them will be better off than those without, and that misfortune falling on one person would also impact their families.

There is a separate problem which results in a bad impression of libertarianism: there are things (like redistribution) which we can see are wrong as a matter of principle. Pretty much by definition, we agree that the state should not redistribute income. There are other issues which do not so easily resolve to matters of principle – like whether the state should invade Iraq. We do not all agree about that, and therefore we do not take such a strong position. So while I, personally, might see the war as a vast waste of lives and resources, I would be cautious in arguing it, because people I respect disagree for reasons which eventually come down to matters of judgement. On the other hand — state funding for opera! That is just wrong, and anyone who disagrees cannot be “one of us”.

The result is that it looks as if I care passionately about withdrawing state funding of opera (or cutting benefit for the disabled, or whatever), but am indifferent to the bombing of civilians. That is not the case. Whatever the right answers, the Iraq war issue is much more important than the arts funding question. If we, as libertarians, give the opposite impression, it’s because we see arts funding as an easy question and the right response to terrorism as a difficult question. For the pedantic mind, which characterises many of us, it is tempting to dwell on the easy but minor point rather than on the difficult but major one.

To improve the image of libertarianism, we should perhaps express more of a sense of proportion regarding things that could be done better, but, on the overall scale of things, aren’t all that big a deal.

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