April 18, 2017

In WW1, the United States “was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal.”

Filed under: History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Reason‘s Glenn Garvin reviews two new documentaries, including one called American Experience: The Great War (no relation to the YouTube channel I regularly reblog).

World War I, as American Experience: The Great War paraphrases a conclusion already reached by the cast of Friends many years ago, is probably the biggest event in U.S. history of which Americans know next to nothing. In some ways, that will still be true even if they watch The Great War, which views the events strictly through the lens of how Americans were affected. The welter of royal bloodlines and backdoor treaties that turned a seemingly isolated event — the assassination of an Austrian nobleman by a Serbian teenager — into a worldwide conflagration involving Russia, France, England, Italy, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Japan, and the United States is barely explored [*]. Nor are many of the war’s geopolitical shockwaves. Even the implosion of Russia’s czarist government, which would eventually result in a Cold War that for nearly five decades threatened to turn apocalyptically hot, only gets a minute or two.

What The Great War does do, in truly spectacular fashion, is limn the voracious expansion of the American government midwifed by World War I. When Woodrow Wilson’s uncertain attempts at neutrality floundered and he called for a declaration of war in 1917 because “the world must be made safe for democracy,” it made the United States unique among the combatants, notes a historian in The Great War: “It was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal.”

But as The Great War documents in horrifying detail, that ideal was the creation of a Leviathan state with unprecedented power: to draft young men and send them to a foreign war. To set price controls on food and impose dietary restrictions. To arrest and even deport political dissidents. To create a powerful government propaganda organ aimed not at enemy nations but the American people. (It expanded from one employee to about 100,000 in a couple of months.) To send goon squads known as Liberty Loan Committees roaming neighborhoods offering deals on war bonds that couldn’t be refused.

Wilson’s actions did not go without dissent (signs at a protest march in New York City: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?) and dissent did not go without punishment. Wilson demanded, and got, a new Espionage Act that made it a crime to collect, record and disseminate information “harmful to the war effort,” and he wielded it like an axe against the anti-war movement. By the fall of 1917, the federal government opened prison camps in Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina to house all the “security threats” Wilson’s Justice Department had detected.

Wilson’s security mania spread out into the population, too, where it unleashed what The Great War calls the “wholesale destruction of German culture in the United States. There were moves to ban German music, plays, and even the spoken language. Some of the xenophobic spasms, like beer-stein-smashing contests, were loony enough to be funny; others, like the slaughter of German dog breeds in Ohio, were almost too ugly for words. Though Wilson’s supporters managed to utter some. When an Illinois coal miner of German heritage was lynched by coworkers who thought he might be a spy, the Washington Post labeled it a nothing more than a slightly over-exuberant sign of “a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country.”

* Should you want to know more about the non-American aspects of how World War 1 began, you could read my Origins of WW1 series of posts, starting here (there are 12 posts in the series, and even so, I could be accused of omitting a lot of detail).

April 13, 2017

QotD: Soviet statistics

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Being a correspondent in Moscow, I found, was, in itself, easy enough. The Soviet press was the only source of news; nothing happened or was said until it was reported in the newspapers. So all I had to do was go through the papers, pick out any item that might be interesting to readers of the Guardian, dish it up in a suitable form, get it passed by the censor at the Press Department, and hand it in at the telegraph office for dispatch. One might, if in a conscientious mood, embellish the item a little … sow in a little local colour, blow it up a little, or render it down a little according to the exigencies of the new situation. The original item itself was almost certainly untrue or grotesquely distorted. One’s own deviations, therefore, seemed to matter little, only amounting to further falsifying what was already false.

This bizarre fantasy was very costly and elaborate and earnestly promoted. Something gets published in Pravda; say, that the Soviet Union has a bumper wheat harvest – so many poods per hectare. There is no means of checking; the Press Department men don’t know, and anyone who does is far, far removed from the attentions of foreign journalists. Soviet statistics have always been almost entirely fanciful, though not the less seriously regarded fro that. When the Germans occupied Kiev in the 1939-45 war they got hold of a master Five Year Plan, showing what had really been produced and where. Needless to say, it was quite different from the published figures. This in no way affected credulity about such figures subsequently, as put out in Russia, or even in China.

Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, 2006.

April 8, 2017

The “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse”

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren takes a well-deserved kick at Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and (especially) Woodrow Wilson:

A century has now passed since President Wilson disowned President Washington’s advice to his successors — to stay out of European conflicts — and war was declared by the United States on Germany. A moral preener, Wilson justified himself by declaring an even more extravagant mission to go with it:

“The world must be made safe for democracy.”

However large, a war is just a war. It should have a beginning and an end. As my old Indian girlfriend explained, “Too much war only leads to peace. Too much peace only leads to war.” As most people prefer peace, most of the time, it is well that war is not a permanent condition. But a war to some idealistic purpose can get very large, and go on for a long time, and morph into conditions which resemble peace, but are not peace. We’ve been making the world safe for democracy for at least a century. By now we have far too much.


In my view, that Great War, that Totaler Krieg, hasn’t ended yet. The old etiquette, that war was for soldiers — that non-combatants should be non-involved — became a thing of nostalgia. Vast conscript armies had been summoned, and would never be fully demobilized. The men I call the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse” — Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau — clinched at Versailles this new normal. It was not simply the punitive terms that were imposed on the war’s losers, but a more fundamental reorganization of all national and international affairs: “statecraft” became “policy.”

For Wilson was also the pioneer of progressive schemes to change the American way of life. He was, in some sense, a second Washington, consolidating a second American Revolution that had begun more modestly with Lincoln and the Union victory in the Civil War. America would be recreated, along bureaucratic lines, in a tireless campaign for full secularization, under centralized government control. The general mobilization of the First World War, now in America as well as Europe, created a new opportunity, by accustoming men to following orders; by the propaganda that made them identify with huge abstractions.

This is of course an inexhaustible topic, at which I pick away, in my attempts to explain if only to myself what makes our world so different from all preceding. It embraces more than any single force or event. We must also go back to the Prussian invention of the welfare state, and for that matter to the Gatling gun. Post-modernity is an invention of modernity, as modernity was an invention of the Middle Ages. The contemporary revolution has antecedents that may be found in the Enlightenment and in the Reformation. (What will post-modernity beget?)

March 30, 2017

QotD: “Scientific” forestry

Filed under: Environment, Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Seeing Like a State”, Slate Star Codex, 2017-03-16.

February 15, 2017

QotD: Authoritarian politicians and “the little Hitlers of the corporation”

Filed under: Business, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Conventional politicians and commentators are stranded because they were wholly unprepared for the new breed of leader who lies as a matter of policy as well as a matter of course. They are flailing around, and inventing phrases like “fake news” and “post-truth politics” to capture a state of affairs they think is entirely novel. Instead of saying that we are seeing something new, it is better to accept that something old and malignant has returned like foul water bubbling up from a drain.

Comparisons with 20th-century totalitarianism are not wholly exaggerated. With Trump, the lies are a dictatorial assertion of his will to power. “I am in control,” he says, in effect, as he conjures imaginary crowds at his inauguration or invents millions of illegal voters so he can pretend he won the popular vote. “You may know I am lying. But if you contradict me, I will make you pay.”

No one in the west has seen Trump’s kind of triumph in politics since the age of the dictators. But look around your workplace and perhaps you won’t be so surprised by their victories. If you are unlucky, you will see an authoritarian standing over you. The radical economist Chris Dillow once wrote that, while the fall of communism discredited the centrally planned economy, the centrally planned corporation, with the autocratic leader who tolerated no dissent, not only survived 1989, but blossomed.

Dillow is not alone in worrying about the harm the little Hitlers of the corporation might bring. Since the crash, economists have looked as a matter of urgency at how hierarchies encourage petty tyrants to brag their way to the top. They exhibit all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder: a desire to dominate, overconfidence, a sense of entitlement, an inability to listen to others or allow others to speak and a passion for glory. […]

Narcissists in business are more likely to seek macho takeovers and less likely to engage in the hard work of innovating and creating profitable firms, the researchers found. They are more likely to cook the books to feed their cults of the personality and make, if not America, then themselves look great again. Academics from the University of California have asked the obvious question: why would rational companies let the fascism of the firm survive? Surely they ought to be protecting their businesses, as free market theory dictates, rather than allow dangerous and grasping men and women to risk their destruction.

Nick Cohen, “Trump’s lies are not the problem. It’s the millions who swallow them who really matter”, The Guardian, 2017-02-04.

January 17, 2017

QotD: The role of free markets

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, generated a great deal of mirth on Tuesday when he wondered aloud how it is that a society with 23 kinds of deodorant and 18 kinds of sneakers has hungry children. Setting aside the fact that we must have hundreds of kinds of deodorant and thousands of choices of sneakers, Senator Sanders here communicates a double falsehood: The first falsehood is that the proliferation of choices in consumer goods is correlated with poverty, among children or anybody else, which is flatly at odds with practically all modern human experience. The reality is precisely the opposite: Poverty is worst where consumers have the fewest choices, e.g., in North Korea, the old Soviet Union, the socialist paradise that is modern Venezuela, etc. The second falsehood is that choice in consumer goods represents the loss of resources that might have gone to some other end — that if we had only one kind of sneaker, then there would be more food available for hungry children.

Lest you suspect that I am distorting the senator’s words, here they are:

    You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.

This is a very old and thoroughly discredited idea, one that dates back to Karl Marx and to the anti-capitalists who preceded him. It is a facet of the belief that free markets are irrational, and that if reason could be imposed on markets — which is to say, if reason could be imposed on free human beings — then enlightened planners could ensure that resources are directed toward their best use. This line of thinking historically has led to concentration camps, gulags, firing squads, purges, and the like, for a few reasons: The first is that free markets are not irrational; they are a reflection of what people actually value at a particular time relative to the other things that they might also value. Real people simply want things that are different from what the planners want them to want, a predicament that can be solved only through violence and the threat of violence. That is the first reason that this sort of planning leads to gulags. The second is that there are no enlightened planners; men such as Senator Sanders imagine themselves to be candidates for enlightened leadership, but put a whip in his hand and the gentleman from Vermont will turn out to be another thug in the long line of thugs who have cleaved to his faith. The third reason that this sort of planning always works out poorly is that nobody knows what the best use of resources actually is; all that the would-be masters know is that they do not approve of the current deployment of resources.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Bernie Sanders’s Dark Age Economics”, National Review, 2015-05-27.

October 18, 2016

QotD: “Smart Growth” regulations hurt the poor

Filed under: Economics, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the 1970s, municipalities enacted new rules that were designed to protect farmland and to preserve green space surrounding rapidly growing cities by forbidding private development in those areas. By the late 1990s, this practice evolved into a land-use strategy called “smart growth.” (Here’s a video I did about smart growth.) While some of these initiatives may have preserved green space that can be seen, what is harder to see is the resulting supply restriction and higher cost of housing.

Again, the lower the supply of housing, other things equal, the higher real-estate prices will be. Those who now can’t afford to buy will often rent smaller apartments in less-desirable areas, which typically have less influence on the political process. Locally elected officials tend to be more responsive to the interests of current residents who own property, vote, and pay taxes, and less responsive to renters, who are more likely to be transients and nonvoters. That, in turn, makes it easier to implement policies that use regulation to discriminate against people living on low incomes.

Sandy Ikeda, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor”, The Freeman, 2015-02-05.

August 21, 2016

QotD: Price controls and other forms of rationing

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Of the numerous and occasionally contradictory techniques used to ration demand and supply [when monetary prices are not used], perhaps the most common is past behavior: persons already in apartments are given preference under rent control, or past acreage determines current allotments under agricultural price support programs. Another common technique is queuing or first come – first served: taxicabs, theater tickets, medical services, and many other goods and services are rationed in this way when their prices are controlled. Of course, discrimination and nepotism are also widely used; the best way to get a rent-controlled apartment is to have a (friendly) relative own a controlled building. Other criteria are productivity – the least productive workers are made unemployed by minimum wage laws;…. collateral – borrowers with little collateral cannot receive legal loans when effective ceilings are placed on interest rates.

Each rationing technique benefits certain groups at the expense of other groups relative to their situation in a free market. Price controls are almost always rationalized, at least in part, as a desire to help the poor, yet it is remarkable how frequently they harm the poor.

Gary Becker, Economic Theory, 1971.

March 25, 2016

QotD: The infrastructure problem in America

[David Cay] Johnston’s piece is titled America should be more like Disneyland but instead of thinking seriously about what this means he fumbles on the 20 yard line and concludes that what makes Disneyland different is… happy thoughts. If only we were more like W.D., he says, “we could make America into a happy place.”

No, what makes Disney invest in infrastructure is not happy thoughts. Johnston is in fact clear about this:

    The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money.

The problem with America is that our public infrastructure has been turned over to a fickle political process that is not governed by a rational calculation of cost and benefit, market test and experimentation but by a pursuit of power, glory and advantage that only rarely coincides with the public interest.

America should be more like Disneyland and to do that we need to develop institutions that allow more infrastructure to built by the private sector. Most ambitiously we need more cities as hotels, more proprietary cities. As Rajagopolan and I wrote in our study of India (in Cities and Private Planning):

    The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

Alex Tabarrok “How to make America more like Disneyland”, Marginal Revolution, 2014-12-17.

December 22, 2015

Monty’s thumbnail sketch of the economics of scarcity

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Okay, it’s perhaps a bit more than just a thumbnail sketch, but it’s still a good introduction:

A basic definition of “economics” is given by Thomas Sowell (PBUH, may he live a thousand years), which I paraphrase here: “Economics is a system of allocating scarce resources which have alternate uses.” The key word I want to focus on here is scarce. It is not abundance but scarcity that lies at the heart of economics. Scarcity of resources is what makes economics a fundamental property of nature. Scarcity is an inherent, inseparable, eternal property of reality. It is not a problem that can be solved — it is bound up in the laws of physics that govern the cosmos.

The necessities of life — water, food, clothing, shelter — are drawn from scarce resources which have alternate uses and thus require a method of allocation. We generally think of systems like “capitalism” or “communism” when we think of economic systems, and there are others (feudalism, for example). But let’s boil down the allocation method to two basic kinds: market-based, where scarce resources are allocated according to supply-and-demand dynamics; and command-based, where a central authority divvies up resources according to some set of (usually arbitrary) rules.

Nearly every variant of market-based and command-based economies has been tried over the centuries, and the market-driven economy has emerged as the best solution we have found so far. It turns out that market-based economies work far better than command-based economies for one simple reason: because of what F. A. Hayek called “the knowledge problem”. Hayek’s insight was that allocating scarce resources is a very complex business in anything other than a trivially small economy, and there’s no way that a centrally-managed economy can hope to understand all the decisions and variables that go into making the production of goods and services possible. There is no way for a centralized body to determine how to allocate scarce resources efficiently across the hugely-complex landscape of a functioning economy. Mis-allocation of resources is almost always the near-term result, with the middle-to-long-term result being economic collapse.

Market-based economies use competition and pricing to guide the allocation of scarce resources. Supply and demand fluctuate, and the marketplace uses pricing of goods and services as a signaling device for both buyers and sellers. If supply is high but demand is low, prices drop and the resources that go into the low-demand item are diverted to a good or service where demand (thus price) is higher. If demand is high but supply is low, prices will rise and prompt competitors to enter the market at a lower price or (if the resource is inherently limited, as with beach-front property) drive more intense competition among buyers.

All of this is Economics 101, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a red diaper baby Communist or an Ayn-Randian hyper-capitalist, you have no choice but to work under these constraints. You live in a reality constrained by scarce resources that have alternate uses; there is no magical elixir or scientific discovery that will exempt you from it.

December 17, 2015

QotD: American exceptionalism

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Tom Tancredo is a five-term former U.S. congressman from Colorado. In some ways, he’s the right wing’s answer to former Democratic governor Dick Lamm, offering swift, unconventional, unexpected, solutions to socio-economic, and political problems. Following 9/11, he proposed threatening the Muslem world — should there ever be another such attack — to reduce Mecca to a sheet of glass.

Like all conservatives, his notions are often what libertarians would consider unethical, but they are often thought-provoking, as well. Tancredo’s latest idea seems reasonable, at first, but it has some serious problems that he either doesn’t foresee or doesn’t care about.

His suggestion, reported in the December 4th edition of Breitbart online, is to organize “citizen militias” across the country, trained and armed against events like those that just happened in Paris and San Bernardino. What could possibly be wrong with that? Isn’t it what the Constitution’s Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment was written to encourage?

Well, yes it is, if the British Army (or any other army) were coming at us over the hill. The fact is, Islamic terrorism (or any other terrorism) is not an army coming at us over the hill kind of problem. On the contrary, it is a W.A.S.P. kind of problem, and you can find out exactly what that means by reading Eric Frank Russell’s prophetic novel about asymmetrical warfare of the same name. If you haven’t read it, until you do, allow me to explain that terrorism is a diffuse threat, a tactical will-o-the-wisp, that flits off when you bat at it with a big, heavy, rolled-up army. The government is unable to deal with it, because it’s like exterminating mosquitos with hand grenades.

The way to counter a diffuse threat is with a diffuse defense. We all know (at least we do if you’re reading this) that central planning is an utter failure in the marketplace; mistakes get magnified, bad guesses punish millions, People end up homeless, naked, and starving. That, despite what Republicans and Democrats claim to the contrary, is why the Soviets collapsed and why Vlad Putin won’t be able to restore them.

And yet, if each of us just pays attention to his own little part of the market, free of any interference from others, especially government, the vast, destructive waves of central planning settle into millions of tiny, survivable ripples. Society becomes peaceful, prosperous, and productive. That’s the great, “mysterious” secret of American wealth and success, of “American exceptionalism”, and to the extent it becomes compromised, people and civilization will suffer accordingly.

L. Neil Smith, “Remember Who Was First”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2015-11-06.

October 23, 2015

QotD: “Ever wonder why on earth anyone thought socialism would work?”

Filed under: Economics, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

No, seriously: Ever wonder why? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds very fine, but by the time socialism rolled around, this idea had been tried, and fallen apart, in multiple communes. Moreover, sponging, shirking relatives had been observed in families from the dawn of history. The universal desire to work less than needed had long been countered by some variant on the biblical rule that “he who does not work, does not eat.” Why, then, did people want to throw out the profit motive and have the government run everything?

Conservatives and libertarians who ask themselves this question generally assume that socialists must have been naïve pointy-heads who didn’t understand that socialism would run into incentive problems. And of course, as in any sizeable movement, there were just such naïve pointy-heads. Even if I’m no expert on the history of socialist thought, the reading I have done suggests that the movement itself was not actually this naïve; there were people who understood that, as economists like to say, “incentives matter.” They thought that socialist economies would perform better despite the incentive problem because of various efficiencies: streamlining overhead, creating massive economies of scale, eliminating “wasteful competition,” and the many-splendored production enhancements possible through “scientific planning.”

In hindsight, this sounds ridiculous, because we know that socialized economies failed on a massive, almost unprecedented scale. Scientific planning proved inferior to the invisible hand of the market, scale turned out to have diseconomies as well as economies, and administrative overhead was not, to put it lightly, reduced. But before socialism was tried, this all seemed plausible.

Megan McArdle, “Will Ebola Be Good for the CDC?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-20.

October 22, 2015

QotD: The historical triumph of public health

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… the great public health achievements between roughly 1850 and 1960. Doctors and public health experts were given extraordinarily broad powers by the government, and they used them to eliminate the scourges that had made cities into pestholes from time immemorial. They built gleaming sewers and water treatment plants to wipe out virulent water-borne pathogens that used to regularly claim thousands of lives. Contact-tracing and quarantine of airborne and sexually transmitted diseases turned former plagues like smallpox and syphilis into tragic but sporadic outbreaks. Changes in building codes helped beat back mass killers like tuberculosis. Poison control cut down on both accidental and deliberate deaths. The Pure Food and Drug Act, and similar ordinances in other countries, reduced foodborne illness, and also, the casual acquisition of opiate or cocaine addictions through patent medicines. Malarial swamps were drained. Environmental toxins were identified and banned. Then they went and invented antibiotics and vaccines and vaccination laws, and suddenly surgery was as safe as a long-haul flight, TB was curable, and childhood illnesses that used to kill hundreds of people every year were a quaint footnote in your 10th-grade history textbook.

Having seen public experts work these miracles through the heavy hand of the state, people understandably concluded we could use miracles in other areas. They had a metaphor, so to speak. The metaphor wasn’t very good, as is often the case, but it took a while to find out that you couldn’t solve a problem in your steel supply chain with the same system that was so good at tracing cholera outbreaks to tainted pumps.


This is an overreaction to a terrible failure, for two reasons. First, big bureaucracies fail all the time, especially in the face of novel threats. A large institution is like a battleship: hard to sink, but also hard to turn. Public health experts of earlier eras made grave mistakes, like dumping London’s untreated sewage into the Thames; public health experts of the future will too. The more important question is whether they correct themselves, as it seems to me the CDC is now doing.

The second is that this is not your grandfather’s public health system. Public health experts were, in a way, too successful; they beat back our infectious disease load to the point where most of us have never had anything more serious than Human papillomavirus or a bad case of the flu. This left them without that much to do. So they reinvented themselves as the overseers of everything that might make us unhealthy, from French Fries to work stress.

As with the steel mills, these problems are not necessarily amenable to the organizational tools used to tackle tuberculosis. The more the public and private health system are focused on these problems, the less optimized they will be for fighting the war against infectious disease. It is less surprising to find that they didn’t know how to respond to a novel infectious disease than it would have been to discover that they botched a new campaign against texting and driving.

Megan McArdle, “Will Ebola Be Good for the CDC?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-20.

October 1, 2015

“Siege economics”

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Paul T. Horgan explains why socialist politicians love “siege economics”:

Labour loves siege economies, really adores them. It allows full throated socialism to operate, enabling properly-selected and correctly-motivated state officials to mediate on every commercial transaction between individuals and entities, all in the name of necessity. This is Pitt’s ‘creed of slaves’, using controls to dictate how much can be sold to whom and if it can be sold at all.

Socialists love these economic dictatorships where the function of money as a storage of value and provider of price information is destroyed, where maximum wages and profits are imposed through penal taxation. State ownership of commerce is a given.

Socialists swoon at the thought of regulating demand by rationing supplies to all but a favoured few; it means there is no need for an economic strategy. No need for an interest rate policy if no amount of borrowed money can buy anything. Official inflation is perpetually low when prices are under statutory regulation, despite the inevitable shortages and consequent rise of the black market and the crime of hoarding newly-scarce everyday goods, which requires more Peoples’ Commissars to detect and punish.

Ordinary people who are forced to commit economic crimes just for everyday survival are easier to dominate as their guilt promotes a constant fear of the State and denunciation by their neighbours and friends. Control a person’s economics and you control the person, and socialism is all about the control. And Labour loves to run people’s lives by occupying the commanding heights of the economy to maximise dependency and promote clientelism in the electorate.

This explains why Labour were in their element when Churchill left Atlee, Morrison and Bevin to run the civilian economy while Britain’s greatest warlord used all his energies to create and focus a a domestic military machine and a global coalition to destroy fascism. It is ironic, given modern socialist rhetoric, that the greatest anti-fascist in human history was a Conservative. Perhaps leftists still feel guilt over their fellow travellers’ 1930s pacifism.

September 30, 2015

QotD: Self-government and the scale problem

Filed under: Europe, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.

Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.

This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.


According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.

Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.

What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.

David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.

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