January 5, 2015

The role of price controls in the decline of the Roman empire

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:58

The latest issue of Libertarian Enterprise included this selection from Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action on how government restrictions on prices and trade contributed to the downfall of the western empire:

Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.

It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.

What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.

The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing. The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand. The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses — the villae — the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord’s estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.

The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government’s interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit [deserted the cities, preferring to live in the country]. The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities’ supply of agricultural products.

The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.

From: Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) [1996], Chapter 30. Online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1895#lf3843-03_head_036, the Online Library of Liberty, A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets.

December 11, 2014

David Friedman on the historical uses of torture in legal situations

Filed under: History, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:50

David Friedman discusses a few of the legal systems under which torture was not only possible, but omnipresent:

The use of torture to extract information is not a new idea. Under both Athenian and Roman law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture. Presumably the theory was that slaves were interrogated in order to get evidence against their owners, the owner had ways of putting pressure on the slave, so torture was needed to get the slave to tell the truth. In Imperial Chinese law, not only the defendant but also witnesses could be tortured. In that system, and I think also in some legal systems of medieval and renaissance Europe, a defendant could only be convicted by his own confession. Torture was one way of getting it.

The argument against torture, that the victim will say whatever he thinks will end it whether true or false, is also old — people in the past were not stupid. Our main source of information on Athenian law consists of orations written by professional orators to be memorized by a party to a law suit in a legal system where there were no lawyers and each party had to represent himself. There is one oration which claims that slave testimony under torture is perfectly reliable, that there has never been a case where it turned out to be false. There is another making the obvious argument on the other side, that such testimony is worthless since the slave will say whatever the torturer wants him to say.

They were both written by the same orator.

People in other legal systems that used torture were also aware of the problem. There is a collection of Chinese cases compiled in the 13th century for the use of magistrates. Many of them are cases where a clever judge realizes that an innocent person has been forced to confess under torture and figures out who is really guilty.

That raises an obvious question — if they saw the problem with torture, why did they continue to employ it? One answer is that extracting information might only have been an excuse, that the real purpose was to punish someone without having first to convict him. That is a possible explanation in some contexts, including the current case of torture by the CIA. But it does not explain contexts where the person being tortured was not the suspect but a potential witness.

A second possible explanation is the belief that a competent interrogator could distinguish a real confession from a fake one. That strikes me as the most likely explanation in the Roman and Athenian cases, where it was the defendant’s slave, not the defendant, who was being interrogated.

A third explanation is that torture might produce information that could be checked. That is the situation in the hypothetical cases sometimes offered in defense of the use of torture — the suspect is being forced to say where the kidnap victim, or the terrorist time bomb, is concealed. More plausibly, to say where the loot is hidden.

November 24, 2014

India’s slavery problem

Filed under: India — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In The Diplomat, Ankit Panda talks about the prevalence of modern slavery in India:

The 2014 Global Slavery Report, conducted by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates that India has the highest number of individuals living in slavery out of any country worldwide. The report finds that out of an estimated 35.8 million men, women and children around the world living under conditions of modern slavery, 14 million are in India (followed by 3 million in China and 2 million in Pakistan). India ranked first in terms of absolute numbers of people in modern slavery, and fifth overall in terms of percentage of its total population (1.14 percent) living in modern slavery (Mauritania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, and Qatar ranked above India, in that order). The total number of slaves in India is 20 percent higher than the 2013 report because of a change in methodology.

Modern slaves are defined as individuals subject to forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, forced sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. This is a considerably broader understanding of slavery that addresses issues of human and labor rights beyond the conventional understanding of the term as human property. This is in part why the 2014 report estimates 35.8 million modern slaves worldwide while the International Labor Organization (ILO) counts 21 million worldwide — the ILO estimate focuses on forced labor primarily. According to the Walk Free Foundation, evidence of modern slavery in one form or another was found in all 167 countries surveyed for the 2014 report.


Given the continued de facto importance of caste in Indian society, social factors play a role in poor labor and human security outcomes for certain sections of Indian society. The report in particular highlights the vulnerable position of India’s Dalit caste, noting that they have the “least social protections and are highly vulnerable to severe forms of exploitation and modern slavery.” It also notes the relatively poor state of women’s rights in the country, leading to “significant discrimination and high rates of sexual violence” against women and girls in India.

October 24, 2014

A new biography of Lincoln

Filed under: History, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Myron Magnet is quite enthusiastic about Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Richard Brookhiser:

Unlike those mega-biographies that bury their subject’s chief accomplishments under 900 pages of undigested detail, Richard Brookhiser’s compact, profound, and utterly absorbing new life of Abraham Lincoln, Founders’ Son, leaps straight to the heart of the matter. With searchlight intensity, it dazzlingly illuminates the great president’s evolving views of slavery and the extraordinary speeches in which he unfolded that vision, molding the American mind on the central conflict in American history and resolving, at heroic and tragic cost to the nation and himself, the contradiction that the Founding Fathers themselves could not resolve.


Lincoln did not start out an abolitionist. As early as 1837, he showed ambivalence on the subject. When the Illinois legislature voted to condemn abolition societies as unnecessarily provocative that year, legislator Lincoln and a colleague voted yes but entered a protest, declaring for the record “that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” Even so, as a campaigner for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840, Lincoln, in a debate with Martin Van Buren supporter Stephen Douglas, “was not above slyly trafficking in prejudice,” Brookhiser notes, attacking Van Buren for supporting voting rights for New York State’s free blacks. But as his congressional term drew to an end in 1849, he proposed (unsuccessfully) a plan for ending slavery in the District of Columbia, and the next year, when the three-decade-long era of trying to find a compromise on the issue of slavery came to a climax with the Compromise of 1850, Lincoln knew that the choice between slavery and abolition was inevitable for the nation—and he knew that he would stand against slavery. “When the time comes my mind is made up,” he told a friend, “for I believe the slavery question can never be successfully compromised.”

The time came soon enough, with the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In effect, the act repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which, in admitting Missouri as a slave state, had barred slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Territory lying north of the 36° 30’ parallel. By the terms of the new act, however, settlers pouring into the vast, hitherto empty territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which mostly lay north of the 1820 line, could choose whether to admit or bar slavery by “popular sovereignty,” the term used by Democratic senate leader Stephen Douglas, who boasted of having “passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. . . . I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the whole controversy.”

Though what we call the Lincoln-Douglas debates occurred in their Illinois senatorial contest of 1858, the “six years from 1854 to 1860 were one long Lincoln-Douglas debate,” writes Brookhiser, as Douglas went around the state defending the act and an indignant Lincoln pursued him, rebutting his emollient arguments in a string of immortal speeches. In Peoria in October 1854, Lincoln condemned Douglas for reopening an already scabbed-over wound. “Every inch of territory we owned already had a definite settlement of the slavery question,” he observed; but thanks to Douglas, “here we are in the midst of a new slavery agitation.” Douglas wants the people of the territories to decide? Fine. But who the people are “depends on whether a Negro is not or is a man.” If he is, then isn’t it “a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?” When a white man “governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism.”

Lincoln appealed to the authority of his beloved Founding Fathers — a subject Brookhiser, biographer of several of them, knows better than most. These great men found slavery already existing in the colonies, and to forge a new nation that the slave states would agree to join, they had to accept the evil out of necessity, not principle. They clearly knew that it was wrong, as is evident in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, by which the Continental Congress strove to prevent slavery’s spread to unsettled territories; in the Declaration of Independence—“the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” said Lincoln, “that teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’” including blacks, who are emphatically men; and in the Constitution itself, which accepted slavery so reluctantly that it wouldn’t even name it, Lincoln noted, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” So let’s not go beyond where the Founders felt themselves forced to go. Let’s not metastasize slavery further.

October 2, 2014

The Aral Sea, Uzbek cotton, forced labour, and the clothing industry

Filed under: Asia, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:07

As reported the other day, what was once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea, has almost completely dried up due to Soviet water diversion projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s:

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the east, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton.

This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

The Soviet government made a deliberate choice to sacrifice the Aral Sea to create a vast new cotton-growing region in Uzbekistan. It was clearly quite successful, depending on how you choose to measure success.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”

The drying-out of the Aral was not just bad news for the fishermen of the region: it was a full-blown environmental disaster, as the former lake bottom was heavily polluted:

The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. The child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.

"Waterfront" of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

“Waterfront” of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

So, tragic as all this is, what does it have to do with the clothing industry? The Guardian‘s Tansy Hoskins points out that due to the murky supply chains, it’s almost impossible to find out where the cotton used by many international clothing firms actually originates, and the Uzbek cotton fields are worked by forced labour:

The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now — it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.

Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.

Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.

“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.

One major problem that Sobik points out is that much of the Uzbek cotton crop now ends up in Bangladesh and China — key suppliers for European brands. “Whilst it is very hard to trace the cotton back to where it comes from because the supply chain is so subcontracted and deregulated, brands have a responsibility to ensure that slave picked cotton is not polluting their own supply chain.”

July 15, 2014

Reason.tv – Maggie McNeill on Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution

Filed under: Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:43

Published on 14 Jul 2014

“There is a very common form of rhetoric that’s used against us … that sex work isn’t work. That it’s a dodge. That it’s a scam. That it’s a form of exploitation,” says Maggie McNeill, a former sex worker turned activist who blogs at The Honest Courtesan.

“We still pretend that there’s a magical mumbo jumbo taboo energy about sex that makes it different from all other human activities.”

McNeill sat down with Reason TV‘s Thaddeus Russell for a wide-ranging interview where she responds to the feminist critique of sex work, explains why research on trafficking may not be reliable, and says why prostitution should be decriminalized.

“The problem is that there are already laws for these things,” states McNeill. “We have a name for sex being inflicted on a woman against her will. We call it rape. We have a name for taking someone and holding them prisoner somewhere. We call that abduction. … Why do we need [prostitution] to be laid on top of all these other things that already are crimes?”

June 17, 2014

Somaly Mam’s Icarus turn

Filed under: Asia, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:31

In Taki’s Magazine, Kathy Shaidle describes the rise and fall of Somaly Mam, who is the most recent fantasist to dupe Westerners about conditions in her home country:

One of the last thrills still permitted us normal folks (for now) is getting to watch one of these self-appointed activists and advocates endure an Icarian tumble. Take that recent Newsweek exposé of secular saint and “sex work” abolitionist Somaly Mam.

No, I’d never heard of her before, either. I didn’t realize how far removed I was from what the authorities have deemed reality until I read that, among other things, this woman had been feted by the White House and the State Department, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, made the “TIME 100” list, and declared one of Glamour’s “Women of the Year.” Plus she’d been named one of the “Women Who Shake the World” by, er, Newsweek.

Cambodian-born Somaly Mam began making claims she’d been sold into sexual slavery as a youngster. After a daring escape, she dedicated her life to rescuing other girls from the same fate, leading armed raids on brothels, then providing shelter, education, and vocational training to the former captives—with the help of Western donors, many of them celebrities.

Aaaaaaannnnnddddd … ? Oh, come on. Guess.

Simon Marks has been investigating Mam for The Cambodia Daily (“All the News Without Fear or Favor”) for years. When Newsweek ran his findings in that cover story last month, the rest of the world found out what actual Cambodians and NGO-types have been trying to tell us all this time:

Mam’s “origin story” is mostly bollocks on stilts.

Her “rescues” are more like kidnappings, and her statistics about Cambodia’s trafficking rates, exaggerated. She coached non-ex-prostitutes to tell hair-raising tales of rape, torture, and even eye-gouging when pale-faced documentarians came calling. “[I]nstead of a brothel or a massage parlour,” Mam’s “rescued slaves” ended up “working for poverty-level wages in unsafe and exploitative conditions in sweatshops.”

May 25, 2014

The case for reparations

Filed under: Economics, History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:34

Another discussion that seems to have taken centre stage recently (at least in some US publications) is the argument that reparations are owed to the descendents of African American slaves:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent essay about the historical treatment of African Americans over the centuries, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all that. And more specifically he addresses the problem of what African Americans have had stolen from them over that period of time. All of which leads various economist types to try to put a value on the theft of that labour. Tyler Cowen thinks that non-slaves have lost as much (or, given their greater number, cumulatively) or more thus there is no amount of reparations possible. For slavery itself means that current society is poorer than it would have been without slavery. If we leave that argument aside there’s another way of calculating what reparations might or should be. And it has been done rather cleverly here. However, I think we still end up in roughly the same sort of place. Which is that even if reparations for slavery are logically or morally due, the actual amount is still going to end up being pretty much nothing.


Thus today’s value of what was stolen from the slaves is that $1.75 trillion. Which is, when you look at it, a formidable sum of money. Except, actually, it isn’t. The net wealth of the entire country is around $80 trillion or so. So it’s a trivial percentage of the national wealth. Or we could look at it another way. There’s 42 million or so African Americans (defined as having some possibly slave and black antebellum ancestry) so the capital sum would be some $40,000 for each of them. Which, while a nice enough sum to receive isn’t the sort of life changing sum some might think might be due in reparations.

And we can also break it down another way. Think of that as the capital sum and then apply that 4% return to it. That would be an extra $1,600 in income per year to each and every descendant of slaves. Or, in total, something like $70 billion a year. Which, in the context of a $15 trillion economy is pretty much next to nothing. About, in fact, the size of the food stamp or SNAP program.

Even if slavery reparations are righteously due they would amount to around and about the current cost of food stamps. Which is, as I say, around and about nothing given the size of the entire economy. And, I would also wager, not an amount that anyone at all thinks is going to fix the problems that beset parts of American society today.

May 18, 2014

When #hashtags don’t deter modern-day barbarians

Filed under: Africa, Asia, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:53

Victor Davis Hanson on the limitations of #hashtag activism to combat real-world evil:

Nigeria’s homegrown, al-Qaeda linked militant group, Boko Haram, brags openly that it recently kidnapped about 300 young Nigerian girls. It boasts that it will sell them into sexual slavery.

Those terrorists have a long and unapologetic history of murdering kids who dare to enroll in school, and Christians in general. For years, Western aid groups have pleaded with the State Department to at least put Boko Haram on the official list of terrorist groups. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team was reluctant to come down so harshly, in apparent worry that some might interpret such condemnation as potentially offensive to Islamic sensitivities.

Instead, Western elites now flood Facebook and Twitter with angry postings about Boko Haram — either in vain hopes that public outrage might deter the terrorists, or simply to feel better by loudly condemning the perpetrators.


But if we are postmodern and sensitive, what do we say or do about premodern racists with nuclear weapons, like the North Koreans?

A recent article from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency suggested that President Obama “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being … It would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators.”

How does the West deal with a mentality like that, originating from a country armed with nuclear weapons? Pyongyang owns no television show that we can boycott, no sports team that we can root against.

What do we do in the face of 19th-century evil that is unapologetic, has lethal weapons at its disposal, and uses savage rhetoric to goad us? Tweet it to death?

What about the sultan of Brunei, who just enacted sharia law that orders stoning for women found “guilty” of adultery or for homosexuals engaged in sex acts? That is a different sort of war on women than that invoked by Sandra Fluke, who lamented that she did not have free birth control from the government.

May 4, 2014

This is why the 220 girls in Nigeria are not big news in the West

Filed under: Africa, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:03

In the Guardian, Nick Cohen says that the girls have not been “abducted” — they’ve been enslaved:

Terrorists from a religious cult so reactionary you don’t have to stretch the language too far to describe it as fascistic attack a school. The assault on a civilian target, filled with non-combatant children, has a grotesque logic behind it. They call themselves “Boko Haram”, which translates as “western education is forbidden”. The sect regards learning as oppression. They will stop all teaching that conflicts with a holy book from the 7th century and accounts of doubtful provenance on the life and sayings of their prophet written hundreds of years after he died.

A desire for sexual supremacy accompanies their loathing of knowledge. They take 220 schoolgirls as slaves and force them to convert to their version of Islam. They either rape them or sell them on for £10 or so to new masters. The girls are the victims of slavery, child abuse and forced marriage. Their captors are by extension slavers and rapists.

As you can see, English does not lack plain words to describe the foulness of the crimes in Nigeria, and no doubt they would be used in the highly improbable event of western soldiers seizing and selling women.

Yet read parts of the press and you enter a world of euphemism. They have not been enslaved but “abducted” or “kidnapped”, as if they will be released unharmed when the parties have negotiated a mutually acceptable ransom. Writers are typing with one eye over their shoulder: watching their backs to make sure that no one can accuse them of “demonising the other”.

Turn from today’s papers to the theoretical pages of leftwing journals and you find that the grounds for understanding Boko Haram more and condemning it less were prepared last year.

Without fully endorsing Boko Haram, of course, socialists explained that it finds “resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed” people, who are revolted by “the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites”. Islamism is recast as a rational reaction to local corruption and the global oppression of “neoliberalism”, one of those conveniently vague labels that can mean just about anything.

March 4, 2014

Britain’s prostitution law reforms are driven by moral panic

Filed under: Britain, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:35

An editorial from last weekend’s Independent:

What the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution broadly proposes is Nordic-style reform, which is what the European Parliament also backed last week. This would shift the burden of prosecution from mostly women sellers to mostly male buyers and pimps. MPs are right to say that one of the root problems with Britain’s laws on the sex trade is that they send conflicting messages about who is in the wrong. If trafficked women, especially, are to be helped, they must be assured that the law is on their side. It is why the MPs want the mass of current legislation consolidated into a single Act, which makes it clear that only those who purchase sex will feel the rigours of the law.

Change along these lines will bitterly disappoint libertarians who want to see the sex trade fully legalised on Dutch or German lines. There is also an argument that it is illogical – another mixed message – to penalise the purchase of sex but not the sale. But, a counter-argument, which the authorities in Sweden, Norway and Iceland deploy with some justification, is that “redistributing guilt” over the sale of sex undoubtedly benefits women who have felt trapped into prostitution and makes life much harder for pimps and traffickers.

The underlying idea is that because many people (especially politicians) dislike the idea that women sell their bodies, it should be made illegal. The troubling reality that a lot of prostitutes are voluntarily in the business requires the would-be banners to come up with a justification that somehow invalidates the individual decisions of those women. The ongoing moral panic over human trafficking is the current choice of vehicle for that. Tim Worstall:

The only possible claim that can be made in favour of the banning of prostitution, or even of the declaration that it is something wrong that we would like to minimise, is that it represents some form of slavery in which people are forced to do things they do not agree to doing voluntarily.

And that is indeed the claim that is being made, see that reference to “trafficking” in the Independent. However, the one thing that we do in fact know about the “slavery” in prostitution is that it doesn’t, in this country at least, actually exist. For we had a plan whereby every single police force in the country went out looking for people who were indeed sex slaves. People who were being forced, against their will, into prostitution (ie, repeatedly raped, a vile crime). And when they had a look through all of the brothels, working flats, saunas and street walkers they could find not one single police force was able to come up with sufficient evidence to charge anyone at all with the crime of holding someone in such sex slavery. Operation Pentameter it was called and it’s the biggest refutation of the hysterical case about trafficking that could possibly have been devised.

The vision some have of people being forced onto the game is simply untrue. What we do in fact have is consenting adults deciding to offer such services as they wish to offer for the cash being proferred to them. And this isn’t something that requires customers to be made into criminals: nor is it something that requires suppliers to be made into criminals either. It’s just not something that requires anyone at all to be made into a criminal. It’s consenting adults deciding what to do with their own bodies.

Update: The Canadian government is conducting a survey on what to do in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that struck down key parts of Canada’s prostitution laws last year. You can participate in the survey here. The public consultation period lasts until March 17.

On December 20, 2013, in the case of Bedford v. Attorney General of Canada 1, the Supreme Court of Canada found three Criminal Code prostitution offences to be unconstitutional and of no force or effect. This decision gives Parliament one year to respond before the judgment takes effect. Input received through this consultation will inform the Government’s response to the Bedford decision.

You will find some specific questions on this issue at the end of this document. To put them in context, here is a brief overview of the current criminal laws addressing prostitution, the Bedford decision, and existing international approaches to prostitution.

1. http://scc-csc.lexum.com/decisia-scc-csc/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/13389/index.do?r=AAAAAQAHYmVkZm9yZAAAAAAB

H/T to Maggie McNeil for the link.

December 9, 2013

The “epidemic of slavery” in Britain is an urban legend

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:53

In sp!ked, Frank Furedi talks about the much-talked-about but almost certainly mythical “epidemic of slavery” in Britain:

A London detective inspector, Kevin Hyland, informed the world that ‘we have never seen anything of this magnitude before’. The UK home secretary, Theresa May, echoed his sentiments and said she would make tackling modern-day slavery her top priority. She said there was ‘one positive’ to the case of the south London slave house: the public had finally become aware of the issue of slavery, which, according to May, continues to have a ‘shocking presence in modern Britain’. By this time, claims that thousands of people in Britain were being held in conditions of ‘slavery’ were circulating in the media.

Detective inspector Hyland may not have seen ‘anything of this magnitude’ before — but the fact is that what he saw, or imagined he saw, was a fantasy of slavery rather than the grim reality of forced servitude. Indeed, the story of the south London slaves rapidly unravelled. Early reports hinted at a heroic rescue mission involving detailed planning and up to 40 police operatives. But within a few days it became evident that the three ‘slaves’ were not slaves as we have traditionally understood that term. Certainly they were not physically held against their will. Contrary to early media reports, which suggested the three women had been imprisoned in a house for 30 years, later accounts revealed that they went outdoors to run errands and had access to telephones and a television.

As the initial story of forced imprisonment became difficult to sustain, the narrative of scaremongering shifted — now focusing on the psychological and emotional horrors the women allegedly suffered. Suddenly, the image of the iron collar and chains used by slave-owners gave way to talk of ‘invisible handcuffs’. From this point on, the promoters of this urban legend about modern-day slavery argued that what is really significant about this hitherto unrecognised crime is not what can be seen by the naked eye but rather the often ‘invisible’ problem of mental enslavement. These are slaves who are not physically chained into a life of servitude, but rather are wrapped up in ‘emotional chains’ by their psychologically manipulative captors. ‘Brainwashed’ became the term most commonly used by campaigners spreading myths about an epidemic of ‘slavery’.

November 27, 2013

Some awkward questions about the Brixton “slaves”

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:29

Brendan O’Neill goes through the “half-truths and wild claims” of the recent modern slavery story in Britain:

It was presented to us as another Fritzl-like horror, involving three ‘enslaved women’, at least one of whom had ‘spent her whole life in captivity’ and had ‘never seen the outside world’. Or it was Britain’s own version of the recent Cleveland, Ohio case, in which Ariel Castro kidnapped three women from the streets and shackled them to immoveable objects in his house where he abused them for 10 years. In fact, it was worse than Cleveland, suggested the Mirror, because where those American women only suffered for a decade, these British-based women went through a ‘30-year nightmare of captivity, servitude and unimaginable brutality’. It was, in a nutshell, the worst-ever case of hidden human enslavement, the papers told us. ‘No known victims have spent so long in captivity being brainwashed, beaten, manipulated and terrorised’, one said.

We now know that these claims about the so-called ‘Brixton slaves’ are, to use the only term that will suffice, bullshit. Everything that has subsequently come to light, everything that has unfolded in the six days since these ‘slaves’ were ‘rescued’ from some kind of one-time Maoist commune, has called into question the initial claims made by the police, the highly dramatised narrative imposed on these events by the media, and the hyperbolic descriptions of the case by politicians desperate to appear as modern-day William Wilberforces combatting the evils of ‘slavery’. Indeed, the key question that must now be asked is not ‘How did three women end up in a grim commune?’ (let’s leave that to the police), but rather: ‘Why did the entire British media and the political class, along with campaigners and the Twitterati, so willingly and gullibly buy a horror story that was not true?’


So almost everything we were told about the Brixton case has turned out either to be untrue or to have been wildly exaggerated or dramatised. These were not slaves. They were not held captive. They were not denied contact with the outside world. Rather, what we seem to be dealing with is, quite simply, a very, very eccentric household, in which various people came together, did and believed very strange things, developed an obsession with Mao and conspiracy theories about the British ‘fascist state’, and then ended up regretting it all — well, three of women seem to have regretted it. And so they left. Voluntarily. Without a struggle. It sounds like it was all very unpleasant; it seems clear emotional manipulation was involved and possibly physical force too (but let’s allow the courts to decide that). But slavery? Fritzl-style abuse? Hell, horror, unimaginable brutality? There is nothing remotely resembling evidence to show that anything like that occurred.

So why did the media, politicians, feminists and campaigners lap up this half-cooked, shrill, mostly baseless fantasy about slaves stuck in suburban jails in London? Because it spoke to their already existing prejudices; because it seemed to confirm the darker thoughts that lurk in their heads, about wicked men, vulnerable women, and the unspeakable things that happen in ‘ordinary houses on ordinary streets’; because it allowed them to feel, temporarily, like history-making moral crusaders against evil, and to hell with anything so pesky as a fact. Aneeta Prem, head of the Freedom Charity that assisted the women and drove much of the dramatic talk about ‘domestic servitude’ and ‘rescue’, yesterday said there was too much media frenzy around the case and ‘the more information there is that comes into the public domain, the more it will hamper [the women’s] recovery’. So there’s a problem with having too much information about this case? Why? Might it be because the information so dramatically contradicts the fantasy put about by Prem and others about a group of slaves having been held captive in London for three decades?

November 26, 2013

Never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste department – the modern slavery bill

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:11

Tim Worstall explains why the rush to legislate based on the public outrage over the most recent case of slavery is a bad idea that will have worse results:

I know that I shouldn’t giggle over such things but the revelation that the three “slaves” recently found were in fact the remnants of a Maoist commune well known to social services (indeed, housed by the local council) does provide a certain amusement as we see various leftish types suddenly running away from the story. However, now onto something a great deal more important. Theresa May and various campaigners are going to use this to try and pass an extremely bad law about modern slavery. And it’s worth our all complaining very loudly about this now, as the bill is being drawn up, not later when it is too late.

The problem is that there are two distinct meanings being conflated together for the convenience of the legislators, police, and media: I) sex slavery (which most people recognize as a terrible crime that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law) and II) illegal immigration (which is not the same thing at all). By lumping the much larger number of type II cases in with the tiny number of type I, you get a big headline-friendly number to shock and energize the population who think you’re really talking only about type I cases.

As Operation Pentameter found out, after every police force in the country tried to search out and find sex slaves they found not one single case in the entire country that they were able to prosecute for the crime.

That is, the police went looking for slavery, type I definition of trafficking, while this foundation is using the type II definition of illegal immigration (or, to get to that 50% number, simply of immigration, legal or not).

Oh, and Eaves is involved. They were the people behind the Poppy Project. Which, laughably, claimed that evidence of foreign born women working in brothels in London was evidence of trafficking. Guess all those foreigners working in The City are slaves then, eh?

Just to make this entirely clear here. These campaigners (and that includes May here) are going to use our revulsion of the type I trafficking to pass extraordinarly severe laws against the type II stuff. Up to and including life imprisonment and confiscation of all financial assets. Yet it is only type I that is in fact slavery. Type II is more normally defined as the employment of an illegal immigrant.

Anyone really want life imprisonment for employment of an illegal immigrant? Someone who, entirely of their own volition, tried to make their lives better by breaking the law to come to this country is now going to be defined as a slave?

November 7, 2013

Astounding historical ignorance … or is he just trolling?

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

You’d have to go a long way to match the degree of ignorance that the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen admits to in this article:

I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.

Steve McQueen’s stunning movie 12 Years a Slave is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.

No modern American — working in the media — could possibly be so ignorant, so he must be trolling. H/T to Julian Sanchez for the link.

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