January 17, 2014

The Nanny State ethos – you’re too thick, so we’ll do the thinking for you

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall talks about the way regulatory agencies approach problems:

It’s claimed as one of the great victories for enlightened (sorry) regulation, the way that the EU and US have both banned the incandescent light bulb through bureaucratic action. The ban came about by raising the efficiency standards required: this meant that the traditional bulb could no longer be sold.

The argument in favour of doing things this way was, in public at least, that everyone’s too stupid (or, in a more polite manner, subject to hyperbolic discounting) to realise that the new bulbs will actually save them money in the long term by consuming less electricity. There are also the more cynical in the industry who insist that it’s actually a case of regulatory capture. The light bulb manufacturing companies managing to get us all away from using cheap as spit bulbs and onto something with a decent margin on it.


This has a number of implications in the larger world as well: for example, it means that bureaucratic regulation on car mileages (like CAFE in the US) is contra-indicated. A simple tax on petrol will drive up average mpg because we’re not all as thick as bricks. Assuming that climate change really is a problem that must be dealt with then a carbon tax is going to do the job. For we’re not all so dim that we cannot work out the utility of using fossil fuels or not given the change in prices.

That is, we don’t need to be regulated into behaviour, we can be influenced into it through the price system. Something that really shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise to us market liberals: for we’re the people who already insist that people do indeed respond to price incentives in markets.

January 9, 2014

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, “a revolution in law-making, creating an unprecedented form of blank-cheque state power”

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:30

Josie Appleton on the amazingly restrictive bill wending its way through the UK parliamentary process:

The bill includes Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs), which can be issued against anybody whose conduct — or threatened conduct — is capable — on the balance of probabilities — of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person.

Few things in the public space are incapable of at least annoying someone. Some people can be annoyed by busking, ball games, skateboarding, street preaching, protests, and all the rest of it. As the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald QC judged: ‘It is difficult to imagine a broader concept than causing “nuisance” or “annoyance”. The phrase is apt to catch a vast range of everyday behaviours to an extent that may have serious implications for the rule of law.’


However, the problems don’t stop with clause 1. Other clauses in the bill include Public Space Protection Orders (clause 55), which allow local authorities to ban any activity which has a ‘negative effect on the quality of life’ of the area. This ban can be applied to particular groups or individuals, and can also impose conditions with which such groups must comply. This is drafted so broadly it could target anything from sleeping rough, collecting for charity, public drinking, begging, feeding pigeons, or smoking in parks. Indeed, the lead civil servant agrees that the law could be used against groups ‘if there is a localised issue’, such as a ‘group of Goths’ or ‘twentysomethings listening to music in a park’.

At base, this bill represents a revolution in law-making, creating an unprecedented form of blank-cheque state power. The aim is explicit: rather than create specific powers, it seeks to remove limitations to local authorities’ actions. The civil servant says: ‘We don’t want to put too many constraints in the legislation.’ Well, there is no danger of that.

The bill completes the transformation of the role of the British local authority, from a limited body concerned with public provision to a summary law-maker and public-order power.

December 31, 2013

2013 in review

Filed under: Humour, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:09

I nearly ran Steve Chapman‘s wonderful little squib as a QotD entry: “The course of freedom and democracy in the world is an evolutionary process, though sometimes it proceeds in the wrong direction. Wines have good years and bad years. If 2013 were a wine, you’d use it to kill weeds.”

Looking ahead to 2014, Radley Balko has some Dire Civil Liberties Predictions to ring in the new year:

As we come to the end of a year that saw revelations about massive government spying programs, horrifying stories of police abuse, and brazen violations of the Fourth Amendment, I thought I might offer my own grim predictions about where civil liberties are headed in the coming year. Sure, some of these may seem outlandish. But to borrow from H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the grade and lubriciousness of the slippery slope.

On a less-depressing note, Nick Mediati rounds up the “top” memes of 2013, including the latest attempt to de-grammaticize the internet:

Doge meme of 2013

After years and years of cats dominating the Internet, dog lovers were finally thrown a bone in 2013 with the emergence of the Doge meme. The meme typically features photos of Shiba Inu dogs with internal thoughts overlaid in brightly colored Comic Sans. And it’s frickin’ awesome. You might find yourself spontaneously speaking in doge. Such language. So words. Very thought. Wow.

November 21, 2013

QotD: Michael Bloomberg wants you to pick a fight this Thanksgiving

Filed under: Humour, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:54

I don’t know what holiday dinners are like at Michael Bloomberg’s house, but I suspect there’s an awful lot of picking at food while the windbag at the head of the table lectures the assembled guests about why he’s right and they’re all idiots. That’s the message I get from his pet Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, which wants its loyal minions, if there are any, to sit down to their Thanksgiving feasts and immediately start fights with relatives they haven’t seen in a year about gun control. All you need is a handy list of tendentious talking points — and a shitload of patience from Cousin Bob, who rebuilds old pistols for fun and just wrapped himself around half a bottle of Jack Daniels.

J.D. Tuccille, “Bloomberg Group Wants You To Start Fights About Gun Control at Thanksgiving”, Hit and Run, 2013-11-21

“The food police have a gargantuan appetite for ordering other people around”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

In Reason, A. Barton Hinkle explains why the Food and Drug Administration’s latest regulatory move may cost more than a billion dollars, require millions of hours of work … and provide no measurable benefits whatsoever:

In comments shortly after the menu labeling rules were proposed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest — they are the folks forever hectoring the public about the dangers of Chinese food, Italian food, movie theater popcorn, etc. — insisted that “if a restaurant has both an inside and drive-thru menu board, both must list calories.” And: “The calories should be at least as large and prominent as the name or price of the item.” And: “Calories should be posted for each size beverage available.” And: “The color, font size, font type, contrasting background, and other characteristics should all be comparable to the name and price of the item.”

What’s more: “Deli items or prepared foods that are dished up into standard containers should have signs posted next to each item with calorie counts for each container size available. For example, potato salad that is typically dished up into half-pint, pint and quart containers should list calories for one half-pint of potato salad, one pint of potato salad and a quart of potato salad.”

Rules such as these, the CSPI says, should apply not just to restaurants and supermarket delis but also to “salad bars, buffet lines, cafeteria lines, and self-serve, fountain soft drinks.” Moreover, “Calories must be posted for each pizza topping, sandwich component, omelet selection, sundae topping, or salad ingredient or dressing.”

The object of such Byzantine busybody-ness is plain enough: to “nudge” (former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein’s favorite word) people to ingest fewer calories.

Just one small problem: It doesn’t work.

“Restaurant menu labels don’t work, study shows,” reported Today back in July: “No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the food they like, not what’s supposed to be healthier, researchers from Carnegie Mellon reported Thursday. … ‘Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behavior at all,’ says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.”

November 13, 2013

The end of the ASBO … and the start of something worse

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:09

In sp!ked, Patrick Hayes talks about the new social control mechanism being introduced to replace the notorious ASBO, the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance:

It sounds like a joke, but IPNAs — introduced in Clause 1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords last week — really do seem quite easy to enforce. Indeed, they make their predecessors, New Labour’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), seem like a level-headed intervention into community life in comparison.

The bill says that in order for an IPNA to be granted, a court needs to be satisfied ‘on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. Once satisfied, the court can issue an IPNA in order ‘to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing the respondent from engaging in anti-social behaviour’.

It seems that for the Lib-Con coalition government, the problem with ASBOs was not that they circumvented the normal exercise of law by dishing out behaviour-controlling orders to people who hadn’t actually committed any crime, but rather that they only covered behaviour that might cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. So it has introduced IPNAs, which cover everyday nuisance and annoying behaviour, too. In fact, you don’t actually have to be annoying to get an IPNA — even the threat of behaving annoyingly can earn you one of these orders that do not require criminal-law standards of proof and can instead be handed out, to anyone over 10, at a court’s convenience. If you flout an IPNA, you face up to three months in prison.

November 10, 2013

Latest federal initiative shows “patronising contempt, arrogant presumption and impressive stupidity”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:39

The federal government is launching a program to help “ordinary Canadians” become better at managing their finances. Richard Anderson points out the amusing aspect of this:

I sometimes wonder if the hacks who put out these releases aren’t giggling to themselves the whole time, amazed at what they’re getting away with. You work for a Conservative government that wades through a sea of red ink every year. This same government has no credible plan to deal with the entitlement crisis, except point out how we’re less screwed than the Yanks. So naturally you go about lecturing the common folk on how to balance their chequebooks. This is like the morbidly obese diet coach of legend.

We see here a unique combination of patronising contempt and arrogant presumption that does not, so far as we have been able to determine, exist outside of Ottawa. Even the Soviets assumed that an ordinary adult could balance their personal budgets without being lectured to by a full time commissar. Then again they were communists, not nannies. Herein lies the great difference between the totalitarian projects of the last century and the petty authoritarianism of this one, the end result. The communist, fascists and Nazis envision a new man who would change the world. Note the underlying assumption: Man.

At some point, after rigorous indoctrination, the boy would become a man. The modern nanny state assumes that the boy never becomes a man, he’s always a boy needing to be hectored to and monitored. As the press release notes: “…brushing up on the basics of money management at any age and will include events for Canadians of all ages.” No matter how old you get, the federal government will be there to tell you how to manage your affairs. That generations of Canadians did this quite well without government involvement never comes up.

October 28, 2013

Nanny gets bigger – mission creep in “public health”

Filed under: Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

In sp!ked, Christopher Snowdon starts off by listing a few “public health” proposals that have been suggested recently:

An abridged list of policies that have been proposed in the name of ‘public health’ in recent months includes: minimum pricing for alcohol, plain packaging for tobacco, a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks, a fat tax, a sugar tax, a fine for not being a member of a gym, graphic warnings on bottles of alcohol, a tax on some foods, subsidies on other foods, a ban on the sale of hot food to children before 5pm, a ban on anyone born after the year 2000 ever buying tobacco, a ban on multi-bag packs of crisps, a ban on packed lunches, a complete ban on alcohol advertising, a ban on electronic cigarettes, a ban on menthol cigarettes, a ban on large servings of fizzy drinks, a ban on parents taking their kids to school by car, and a ban on advertising any product whatsoever to children.

Doubtless many of the proponents of these policies identify themselves as ‘liberals’. We must hope they never lurch towards authoritarianism. [...]

As the definition of ‘health’ has been changed, so too has the meaning of ‘public health’. It once meant vaccinations, sanitation and education. It was ‘public’ only in the sense that it protected people from contagious diseases carried by others. Today, it means protecting people from themselves. The word ‘epidemic’ has also been divorced from its meaning — an outbreak of infectious disease — and is instead used to describe endemic behaviour such as drinking, or non-contagious diseases such as cancer, or physical conditions such as obesity which are neither diseases nor activities. This switch from literal meanings to poetic metaphors helps to maintain the conceit that governments have the same rights and responsibility to police the habits of its citizens as they do to ensure that drinking water is uncontaminated. It masks the hard reality that ‘public health’ is increasingly concerned with regulating private behaviour on private property.

The anti-smoking campaign is where the severe new public-health crusade began, but it is not where it ends. Libertarians warned that the campaign against tobacco would morph into an anti-booze and anti-fat campaign of similar intensity. They were derided; ridiculed for making fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments. In retrospect, their greatest failing was not that they were too hysterical in their warnings but that they lacked the imagination to foresee policies as absurd as plain packaging or bans on large servings of lemonade, even as satire.

October 27, 2013

Good news – we’re not in 1984; Bad news – we’re in Brave New World instead

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

I’ve already quoted from this week’s edition of Jonah Goldberg’s The Goldberg File email, but I quite liked this passage as well:

The bad news is that we don’t feel that way — anymore — about softer, more diffuse and bureaucratic forms of tyranny. Every American is taught from grade school up that they should fear living in the world of Orwell’s 1984. Few Americans can tell you why we shouldn’t live in Huxley’s Brave New World. We’ve got the dogmatic muscle and rhetorical sinew to repel militarism, but we’re intellectually flabby when it comes to rejecting statist maternalism. We hate hearing “Because I said so!” But we’re increasingly powerless against, “It’s for your own good!”

(Sadly, the surest route to the 1984-ification of America is to embrace Brave New Worldism. Once you’ve created a society of men without chests — in C. S. Lewis’s phrase — you’ve created a society ripe for a father-figure to make all of the decisions).

For instance, when the national-security types intrude on our privacy or civil liberties, even theoretically, all of the “responsible” voices in the media and academia wig out. But when Obamacare poses a vastly more intrusive and real threat to our privacy, the same people yawn and roll their eyes at anyone who complains. If the District of Columbia justified its omnipresent traffic cameras as an attempt to keep tabs on dissidents, they’d be torn down in a heartbeat by mobs of civil libertarians. But when justified on the grounds of public safety (or revenue for social services or as a way to make driving cars more difficult), well, that’s different.

And it is different. Motives matter. But at the same time, I do wish we looked a bit more like the America Edmund Burke once described:

    In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [In America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

October 21, 2013

The nudge notion rebranded as a “human-centred” approach

Filed under: Government, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:26

In sp!ked, James Heartfield discusses a new book by David Chandler:

In his new book, Freedom vs Necessity in International Relations, David Chandler, professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, offers a masterful summation of the latest trends in policy internationally and domestically. The book lays bare the claims of governments to put people and their decision-making at the centre of policy. What Chandler shows to great effect is that the latest claims of policymakers and theorists to a human-centred approach result in something like its opposite. In a wide range of cases — from the United Nations’ Human Development Report to the Cabinet Office’s prioritisation of the ‘choice environment’ — Chandler explains how ‘human-centred’ policy is, in fact, very far from human-centred. The real aim is for people to align their behaviour and choices to the outcomes chosen by those in power, rather than deciding such outcomes for themselves. ‘Human-centred’ policy turns out to have as much to do with people deciding for themselves as the Ministry of Peace had to do with Peace, or the Ministry of Plenty to do with Plenty in Orwell’s novel.

Chandler draws attention to the irony of a worldview that imagines a much greater role for human action ending up making the case for greater restraints on freedom. As he explains, one of the marked prejudices of our times is that people have a far greater impact on the external world — for example, with the question of pollution — where mankind’s industrial output is held to threaten the very existence of life on the planet. Similarly, he observes, we have an exaggerated view of the way that our own health is shaped by the choices that we make. Political loyalties, too, are now widely seen as a great destructive force, limiting more positive outcomes.


But as Chandler explains, Sen’s own approach, enshrined in the UN Development Report, is less respectful of people’s own choices than you might expect. According to Sen ‘the outcome one wants is a reasoned assessment’ but ‘the underlying question’ is ‘whether the person has had an adequate opportunity to reason about what she really wants’. Building capacity turns out to mean building capacity to make the right choices — in other words, the choices that development economists think are the right choices. ‘Reducing risk-taking among youth requires that they have the information and the capacity to make and act on decisions’, explains the World Bank’s Development Report.

You’ll be free to make choices, as long as you’re careful to only make the approved choices. A very restrictive kind of “freedom” indeed.

Update: Also in sp!ked, Sean Collins talks about the introduction of so-called “libertarian paternalism” aka the nudge:

When Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness was published in 2008, it seemed like it might be a fad bestseller, like Freakonomics or one of those Malcolm Gladwell books.

Nudge authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both American academics, proposed that government and employers should more consciously direct people to make ‘better’ choices in health, personal finance and other areas, in order to improve their lives. They gave the example of a cafeteria that lays out food in a way that encourages people to select carrot sticks over French fries or dessert. The authors label their approach ‘libertarian paternalism’: ‘paternalism’ because they want to steer people in a certain direction, and ‘libertarian’ because they would still offer people an array of choices (if you really want the chocolate mousse, you can reach under the counter at the back).

Although a new idea at the time, nudge was hardly a Big Idea. And yet governments around the world picked it up and ran with it, giving the concept more substance and longevity than might have been expected. As Sunstein has noted, the findings from his and others’ behavioural research have informed US regulations concerning ‘retirement savings, fuel economy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, healthcare, and obesity’. Sunstein himself implemented many of these measures in his role of Regulatory Czar in the Obama administration (described in his recently published book, Simpler: The Future of Government). In the UK, prime minister David Cameron set up a Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘nudge unit’, in 2010. This has led to a variety of new policies and schemes directed at anything from obesity and teenage pregnancy to organ donations and the environment.

September 17, 2013

The flaw in “nudging”

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:18

Coyote Blog looks at the flourishing “nudge” sector of government activity and points out one of the biggest flaws:

The theory behind the idea that government should nudge (or coerce, as the case may be) us into “better” behavior is based on the idea that many people are bad at delay discounting. In other words, we tend to apply huge discount rates to pain in the future, such that we will sometimes make decisions to avoid small costs today even if that causes us to incur huge costs in the future (e.g. we refuse to walk away from the McDonalds french fries today which may cause us to die of obesity later).

There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that many decisions that may appear to be based on bad delay discounting are actually based on logical and rational premises that outsiders are unaware of.

But the most obvious problem is that people in government, who will supposedly save us from this poor decision-making, are human beings as well and should therefore have the exact same cognitive weaknesses. No one has ever managed to suggest a plausible theory as to how our methods of choosing politicians or staffing government jobs somehow selects for people who have better decision-making abilities.

September 11, 2013

L.Neil Smith responds to Allison Benedikt’s “manifesto”

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:03

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, L. Neil Smith calls for “Public schools delenda est” in response to Benedikt’s paean to the glories of government-run schools:

Which brings us to the subject of today’s diatribe, an article I was directed to (hat-tip to Tatiana Covington) on Slate.com, awkwardly entitled, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person — A Manifesto”. This unintelligent but very revealing piece, posted Thursday, August 29, 2013, was written by somebody called Allison Benedikt, who slings a keyboard like some breathless high school cheerleader, but is apparently a movie critic for the Chicago Tribune.

As Joe-Bob would say, check it out.

What this little death-dealer proposes — “demands” would be more accurate — is that all private schools be outlawed (whoops there go the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments) and everybody forced to send their children to, and participate in the public school system. (Later in the essay she denies wanting to outlaw private schools, but, as we all know, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.)

This is, given the unignorable temper and tendency of our times, exactly like seeing the private structure of the Internet demolished, and then being compelled at bayonet-point (Why is it that liberals never seem to remember that the law, no matter how noble it may sound or high-minded its intentions, consists of nothing but brute force: guns, clubs, noxious sprays, and tasers?) to go back to the United States Postal System or the good old mercantilist Bell Telephone monopoly.

“Progressives”? I call them regressives.

What’s more, she issues this bizarre edict — which she labels a “manifesto” — not for the sake of your children, nor even for their children down the road. In words straight from an Ayn Rand villain’s mouth (what critic says real people don’t talk like this?), she says this: “Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”

Yes, she openly admits that your progeny will probably suffer, educationally (and no doubt otherwise — look at the extracurricular activities she admits to), as a result of being forced back into the public system as it exists and operates today. she waxes positively lyrical over the egalitarian ecstasy of attending school with individuals more likely to knife somebody for a pair of shoes than she is.

She keeps congratulating herself on how well she turned out, even as she almost brags at how badly educated she is — and demonstrates it with her writing. Would she brag if she knew she’s an enabler of democide?

July 23, 2013

The maple-flavoured Leviathan

Filed under: Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:22

Richard Anderson on the PM’s latest cabinet shuffle and the media’s focus on the personalities rather than their actual performance:

Perhaps if we looked too closely we might start asking questions. Like why a nation of 34 million needs 39 cabinet ministers? Abraham Lincoln was able to free the slaves, save the Union and encourage the settlement of the American West with a mere eight cabinet ministers. And this with a government run without computers, telephones or even typewriters. Just paper, ink and a few thousand miles of telegraph wires. The population of the whole of the United States in 1860, both North and South, was 31.4 million.

But in those days governments were confined to hum-drum matters, such as winning immensely bloody wars and subsidizing the occasional transcontinental railroad. Today the remit of the state is far more ambitious. Beyond maintaining public order and some key bits of infrastructure, the modern state takes it upon itself to educate, scold, monitor and regulate virtually every facet of modern life. Thus, in a sense, we need 39 wise men and women to govern over us. We would likely need 39,000 and there would still be work left undone.

Except such a feat is impossible. You cannot plan an economy, much less something even more complex such as a whole society, from a few office buildings in Ottawa. When those in charge are non-experts rotated in and out based on political expediency, the result is what Mises called planned chaos. Actual experts might even do worse. No one is really in charge of the Leviathan state. No matter how powerful Stephen Harper seems, he cannot fight against the full weight of bureaucratic inertia. He might, if he felt ambitious, give a few hard kicks.


Ask any halfway educated Canadian, say the typical university graduate, why exactly Canada needs a Minister of State for Sport and you will get no clear answer, not even a half decent guess. Apply the same question to a professor of political science and you will get no better response. Ask a senior bureaucrat you will get not response at all, except a stream platitudes each less discernible than the last. Yet all will swear that Canada needs a Minister of State for Sport. I mean, what have you got against Sport? Or Multiculturalism? Or Western Economic Diversification?

Since no decent consensus fearing Canadian objects to these things in and of themselves, they do not object to them being supervised, managed, regulated or subsidized by the government. Modern Canada’s true and unquestioned stamp of approval on any facet of everyday life is government authorization. No action or thought is truly noble unless a government department has been consecrated in its name.

Blessed is the name of the Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification.

July 2, 2013

Reason.tv – Up in My Grill: 4th of July Rap (featuring Remy)

Filed under: Government, Humour, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:18

Ain’t no party like a nanny state party.

Song written and performed by Remy. Video produced by Meredith Bragg. About 1:20 minutes.

May 31, 2013

The congenital defect of politics

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:56

Jonah Goldberg talks about a new book from Kevin Williamson:

Kevin Williamson’s new book is quite possibly the best indictment of the State since Our Enemy, the State appeared some eight decades ago. It is a lovely, brilliant, humane, and remarkably entertaining work.

Though he sometimes sounds like a reasonable anarchist, Williamson is not in fact opposed to all government. But he is everywhere opposed to anything that smacks of the State. There’s an old line about how to carve an elephant: Take a block of marble and then remove everything that isn’t an elephant. Williamson looks at everything we call the State or the government and wants to remove everything that shouldn’t be there, which is quite a lot. In what may be my favorite part of the book, he demolishes, with Godzilla-versus-Bambi ease, the notion that only government can provide public goods. In fact, most of what government provides are nonpublic goods (transfer payments, subsidies, etc.), and a great deal of what the market provides — from Google and Wikipedia to Starbucks rest­rooms — are indisputably public goods.

[. . .]

Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to bio­logical evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.

Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”

The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.

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