18 May 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism — part 2

I am finding Paul Collier's book The Future of Capitalism readable and thought-provoking. Unlike most other books in its subject area, it displays some sympathy for the opposition. But given that the book aims to be a blueprint for socialism, this sympathy is unlikely to run very deep. It behoves readers to remain on the alert for the standard assumptions and devices of anti-capitalist ideology.
   Readers also need to be aware that a socialist canny enough to highlight the flaws of other socialists is not necessarily going to avoid falling into the same traps. There is something irresistible about socialism for many intellectuals; the fact that Collier himself draws attention to some of the features of this phenomenon early on doesn't mean he is necessarily going to eschew the standard tropes further down the line. For example, he criticises use of victim-ideology, but is not immune himself to the temptation of representing people as the passive casualties of circumstance, desperately in need of help from the state. He talks of the less-well educated being in crisis, stigmatized as the white working class; of a collapse in the sense of a purposeful life among the American working class; and of redundant over-fifties drinking the dregs of despair.
   Crisis, incidentally, is a standard trope of socialist ideology. Well before the Great Depression, early twentieth-century socialist pioneers such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb were talking about the supposed crisis of capitalism, and the trope has remained in the intellectuals' top ten ever since — to a large extent regardless of rises and falls in economic fortunes.
   One of the standard devices of anti-capitalist ideology is to be vague about what the word 'capitalism' means, and to treat it as a bucket concept. Roughly speaking, the term refers (or ought to refer) to a society in which there is minimal state involvement beyond maintaining personal and property rights; in other words, a society where interactions between individuals depend predominantly on what those individuals agree between themselves. With advanced capitalism, the state may issue and enforce more complex rules that facilitate relatively sophisticated interactions, such as credit rules for banking, or the existence of corporate entities which are treated as legal individuals.
   We, by contrast, live in a world in which the state spends nearly half the national product. The state intervenes massively in employer-employee and consumer-vendor interactions. Most of education and medicine are provided via the state. In other words, we do not live under capitalism, but under a mixed system of 50:50 capitalism and socialism. This 50:50 condition has prevailed for many decades. Thus in talking about some supposed current problem of society, one ought to at least pause for thought before rushing to the conclusion that 'capitalism' is to blame. This, however, would complicate the narrative; hence most commentators on 'capitalism' — academic or otherwise — ignore the issue.
   It's easy to produce a knee-jerk reaction against capitalism — socialism is supposed to be about 'helping' (controlling?) other people, so it must be 'nicer' than capitalism; this reaction is readily exploited by authors who want to induce the standard head-shaking and breast-beating responses. Hence 'capitalism' becomes a bucket concept: it's the obvious villain when discussing social problems.
   This bias — that capitalism is automatically on trial, assumed to be guilty, and has to justify itself before 'we' (the elites) will allow it — already makes an appearance in the first chapter of TFOC. Collier argues that
capitalism's core credential of steadily rising living standards for all has been tarnished: it has continued to deliver for some, but has passed others by.
Having accused others of preaching ideology that deviates from normal people's values, Collier here appears to be doing the same thing. Surely only a socialist intellectual would demand that capitalism must deliver "steadily rising living standards for all" in order to avoid being ditched in favour of state control of the economy (probably involving management by socialist intellectuals).
   With further reading of chapter 1, the apparent underlying message of TFOC begins to emerge. The tone is patient, parental even. 'Dear voters, yes you have been right to resent the leftist elites, but their arrogance is not a failing of socialism per se. We need to give emphasis, not to the individual's supposed rights against the collective (such rights do not exist), but to the communitarian values that we had under the type of socialism that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s.' (my paraphrasing)
   The theme there is too much individualism, we must have more community — very popular among intellectuals of both Left and Right — appears to be another theme of TFOC. But what Collier means by 'community' may simply equate with collectivism — in the sense of control by the state, even if a state ostensibly endorsed by the majority. A nostalgia for community of the voluntary kind, perversely expressed by trying to impose 'community' from above, is another standard trope of socialist ideology. Collier seems not to understand the difference — or else he is being disingenuous. He approvingly describes the rise of cooperative societies in the nineteenth century.
Through recognizing that they had a common attachment to the place where they grew up, communities such as Sheffield's built co-operative organizations ... that reaped the benefits of reciprocity ... From its crucible in northern England, the co-operative movement rapidly spread across much of Europe.
From there the book jumps to state socialism as being similarly benign, one of those sleights-of-hand popular with political philosophers.
By banding together, these co-operatives became the foundation of the political parties of the centre-left: the parties of social democracy. The benefits of reciprocity within a community were scaled up as the community became the nation. Like the co-operatives, the new policy agenda was practical, rooted in the anxieties that beset the lives of ordinary families. In the post-war era, across Europe many of these social democrat parties came to power and used it to implement a range of pragmatic policies that effectively addressed these anxieties. Health care, pensions, education, unemployment insurance cascaded from legislation into changed lives.
There is a big difference between a genuinely cooperative movement, based on the consent of all its members, and 'cooperation' imposed by the state. Presumably some of the citizens actually want to cooperate in the way commanded from above, perhaps even the majority, but others will inevitably be coerced, giving the venture a very different character from the original voluntary communities.

13 April 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford. Browsing Amazon for books on capitalism, I came across his The Future of Capitalism. Unlike many books in this area, Collier's makes an effort to take on board the post-2010 backlash against the paternalist-interventionist approach that has been popular with intellectuals since the late 1800s. This makes the book relatively readable. We don't get the leftwing virulence of a Stiglitz tome, or the dogmatic fervour of the average American philosophy professor. The book is critical of Marxists who have failed to learn lessons from the collapse of Soviet communism.
   Left-leaning readers need not be alarmed however; Professor Collier remains firmly in the socialist camp. He hopes his book can become another socialist blueprint, along the lines of Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism.*
   TFOC is not of course an economics book. Like others in its subject area, it is little more than informed story-telling. Collier tries to extract meaning and morality from hard data, but this requires the weaving of a subjective narrative around the data that, by necessity, is highly sensitive to the worldview of its author. A completely different narrative is possible. The success of any one narrative tends to be judged by how well it is told, and how well it fits with the preconceptions of its readers. Collier's story certainly starts well, and his first chapter hits some of the right notes.
The newly successful are ... the well educated with new skills. They have ... developed a distinctive morality, elevating characteristics such as minority ethnicity and sexual orientation into group identities as victims. On the basis of their distinctive concern for victim groups, they claim moral superiority over the less-well educated [and have] forged themselves into a new ruling class ...
One of TFOC's targets for criticism is utilitarianism. It's an attitude I broadly have sympathy with, though some of Collier's detail seems a bit skew-whiff.
The intellectuals of the left were attracted by the ideas of a nineteenth-century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. His philosophy, Utilitarianism, detached morality from our instinctive values, deducing it from a single principle of reason: an action should be judged as moral according to whether it promoted 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Because people's instinctive values fell short of this saintly standard, society would need a vanguard of morally sound technocrats who would run the state.
Bentham and J.S. Mill are credited with building utilitarianism. (J.S. Mill's father James Mill, who along with Bentham was one of the earliest appliers of utilitarianism to practical policy, is left out of Collier's equation.) Their philosophy was implemented by a vanguard of social planners, confident of their moral rightness.
The emblematic illustration of this confident paternalism was post-war policy for cities. The growing number of cars needed flyovers and the growing number of people needed housing. In response, entire streets and neighbourhoods were bulldozed, to be replaced by modernist flyovers and high-rise towers ... Bulldozing communities made sense if all that mattered was to raise the material housing standards of poor individuals. But it jeopardized the communities that actually gave meaning to people's lives.
There are two major difficulties with Collier's analysis. First, he sees part of the problem stemming from the fact that Bentham and J.S. Mill "were not latter-day moral giants, equivalent to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; they were weirdly asocial individuals."
Bentham was so bizarre that he is now thought to have been autistic, and incapable of having a sense of community. Mill stood little chance of normality: deliberately kept away from other children, he was probably more familiar with ancient Greece that with his own society. Given such origins, it is unsurprising that the ethics of their followers are highly divergent from the rest of us.
It's always helpful for a story if you can identify one or two specific individuals on whom to hang the blame. But it's unlikely that the source of the problems Collier discusses were the personalities of Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or that things would necessarily have been very different if they had been more like Moses or Muhammad. Any philosophical idea is capable of being over-applied, and the drive for doing so came largely from the social tinkerers who came long after the initial philosophical input. Marx and Engels may have been less 'autistic' than Bentham or Mill; that didn't stop their followers from generating policies that were seriously at odds with the values of those on whom the policies were imposed.
   From a socialist point of view, Bentham should surely count as heroic rather than dodgy. He helped to reduce the barbarity of many aspects of British law, particularly with regard to sentencing and punishment.
   The second oddity is that Collier blames the excessive application of utilitarianism on economists. That doesn't chime with my understanding of the history of utilitarianist policy. It's hard to know what to make of this nostra culpa assertion. Should one respect Collier for being willing to criticise his own profession? Or is it a way of avoiding criticism of other professions such as sociology — which we know doesn't go down well within the academic community (the likely response would be: you're not qualified to comment).
The weird values of Bentham would not have had any impact had they not been incorporated into economics ... Economic man is utterly selfish and infinitely greedy, caring about nobody but himself. He became the bedrock of the economic theory of human behaviour. But for the purpose of evaluating public policy, economics needed a measure for aggregating the well-being, or 'utility', of each of these psychopathic individuals. Utilitarianism became the intellectual underpinning for this arithmetic ...
I think Professor Collier may have his history a bit askew here. It was part of nineteenth-century ideology, following on from the Enlightenment, to seek secular intellectual input into policy issues. It's how the whole -ism thing got going in Europe (ultimately culminating in disaster and disillusionment). The involvement of professional economists doesn't seem to have been an essential ingredient in this process. To give one illustration, in Uday Mehta's fascinating book Liberalism and Empire we read that James Mill was told in 1827 by the Governor-General of India:
"I am going to British India, but I shall not be Governor General. It is you that will be Governor General."
In other words, there was a definite plan to apply the utilitarian logic of philosophers to social policy in India. This suggests a British state that was already very open to input from intellectuals and their abstract systems, independently of any later detailed cost-benefit rules contributed by economists.

* Privately-educated Anthony Crosland is now best remembered as the 1960s education minister who said he was determined to destroy "every ****ing grammar school" in Britain — a quest at which he largely succeeded.

18 February 2022


An interesting article (subscription required) from champion stockpicker Quentin Lumsden, about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a new kind of digital asset class which — like Bitcoin — depends on blockchain technology. Last year Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sold the NFT of his first tweet to Malaysian billionaire Sina Estavi (via auction website Cent) for the princely sum of $2.9million. NFTs seem to be hot right now in the art world.
The pandemic has brought much of the doggedly analogue art world kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and NFTs are benefitting from that seismic shift. "Covid is definitely a big piece of this frenzy, people are sitting at their computers all day — they’re locked inside and have fewer options. If there was no Covid-19, I honestly don't think the space would have accelerated this fast," Winkelmann says. (Winkelmann is the real name of an artist known as Beeple, one of whose images sold at Christie's for $69m.) Another Beeple piece, Crossroad — a 10-second video NFT showing animated pedestrians walking past a giant, naked likeness of Donald Trump, collapsed on the ground and covered in graffiti — sold for $6.6m in Ether on Nifty Gateway. The seller was Miami-based art collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, who had bought the piece in October for about $67,000.
   The fact that it's considered possible to hold assets as intangible as a person's 'autographed' tweet, and that serious money is changing hands for NFTs, gives me more confidence that blockchain technology is reliable, which in turn makes me feel less suspicious of cryptocurrencies.
   (I've given a link to Simple Wikipedia's article on blockchain ... even that will probably be above most people's heads ... like the cloud, it's a concept that will gradually become comprehensible as people rely on it more.)

'recreation centres'
Britain used to have places called recreation centres. They were sites financed and run by local councils where individuals could engage in a range of leisure activities, from sports to adult education. I hadn't visited one for some time but recently happened to be passing one and thought I would look in. A couple of people were coming out, chatting in a relaxed way and casually dressed, which boded well. There were plenty of posters up near the doors, the most prominent of which warned visitors to wear face masks in the building. Like a good citizen I donned my face mask and entered as the two people were leaving. Having passed the first set of automatic doors, there was a second set which did not open. A red light was showing and there was a spycam, so I guessed one had to be visually vetted to enter. I realised then that the first set of doors was similarly secured and so found myself trapped between two sets of doors, waiting for the light to go green so I could go in. After about a minute, an officious-looking agent arrived and grimly advised me that the recreation centre was not open to the public. Fortunately she permitted me to leave the way I had come.
   Looking more closely at the posters near the door, I saw one that said the recreation centre was closed to the public for the foreseeable future. I was left wondering: if there are no actual leisure activities taking place at our recreation centres, what exactly is going on at these sites? Secret government research? I think we should be told.

music streaming
Is the music streaming business model starting to crack? Trialling Apple Music again a year after a previous trial, I was surprised to find a number of key recordings have disappeared from their catalogue, or have gone partial — you can listen to some of the tracks from an album but not all.
   Artists have been grumbling for some time about lower revenues in the digital economy, though not much in public, presumably for fear of sending the wrong signal. (It has been estimated that it takes about 200 streams of a whole album to generate the same revenue for an artist as the sale of a CD.) With far lower income from live performances under the COVID regime, the grumbling has become more audible.
   While the finger is being pointed at streaming providers and record companies, the main source of the problem is surely the internet ethos which has everyone used to the idea that content is, by default, available without charge.
   People have been illegally sharing MP3 files for decades, but the blatant copyright breaching tacitly endorsed by YouTube since 2005 seems to have established in people's minds that music is essentially free — though you may expect to pay to gain full control over what you listen to, or to have it free of ads.

time to push back
Tolerating intolerance is dangerous. (The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil etc.) And free speech needs to be supported whether you agree with what is being said or not. (I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death etc.) A culture of punishment has developed, in which anyone saying anything that might upset someone is an excuse for others to roll out intimidation tactics. This needs to be actively opposed or it will only get worse.
   I was appalled, for example, by the attempt to shut down British empire researcher Professor Nigel Biggar using bullying on social media, and I expressed my disapproval in an article which received significant attention. But obviously I cannot write an article every time this happens. For lesser transgressions, I've decided to start a blacklist (see sidebar). When I come across an organisation, or other group, that have tried to use their own supposed respectability to penalise an individual for saying something they don't like, or who otherwise try to boycott free speech, they will be added to the list. It's a small way of pushing back.
   What has triggered this was my coming across the story about the American Humanist Association stripping Richard Dawkins of his humanist-of-the-year award (granted in 1996). His supposed crime? Speculating about gender definitions on Twitter. This kind of action is not only unethical, it stifles any meaningful scientific discussion. (Note to celebrity intellectuals: J.K. Rowling returned her award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center after the Center's president criticised her views on gender. Why not go one better and preempt any withdrawal of rewards by not accepting them in the first place, at least not without some kind of 'pre-nup' clause preventing clawback.)
   I am also adding the Chicago Review of Books which in 2017 tried to use its influence to stop Simon & Schuster (and, by implication, other top publishers) from issuing books that are too rejecting of liberal ideology.
   Other miscreants will be added as and when I come across them. Removal from the list is simple: issue a public apology, and reverse any action as required — e.g. restore an award inappropriately withdrawn. (Actually there's an argument that an award or an honour should never be withdrawn. If you can't issue such a thing without it being conditional on future behaviour, or you're not sure you'll be able to stand up to external pressure for it to be rescinded years later, don't issue it in the first place.)

22 December 2021

COVID and the West:
how to destroy capitalism

Workers in the West are leaving the labour market, possibly permanently, a phenomenon that has been termed the great resignation. The reasons are unknown but there is of course plenty of theorising. Given the phenomenon roughly coincides with COVID, and with a massive increase in state intervention, it's worth considering workers' possible attitudes to what has been going on. As is often the case, however, the considering we get from our paid intellectuals (many of them remunerated, directly or indirectly, by the state) seems to have a pro-state bias. Theories include 'workers are dissatisfied with too little employer support for sickness', or 'workers are fed up with the political status quo' (in the Marxist sense), but not 'workers are fed up with a workplace that has become over-regimented in terms of state-imposed policies'.
   Microeconomics tells us that mass phenomena can be generated by changes at the margin. Workers choose to work because the benefits (money, work satisfaction) exceed the costs (negative aspects such as stress or regulations). Increase the negative effects for all employees, and the overall incentive to enter the workforce drops. Small changes, if universal, can have big effects, though inertia means it may take a crisis or other trigger to shift behaviour. Employers have to compete to attract workers, and so have to make some attempt to make things attractive for them, but they have little control over what the state forces them to do.
   It's not inconceivable that the gradual rise in state control over the workplace, including the increasing intrusion of ideology (e.g. sensitivity training, quotas, widening definition of 'harassment'), is part of what is turning people off formal employment. The threat of compulsory medical intervention, mediated via the workplace, may be functioning as the straw that breaks the camel's back. This explanation is as plausible as any other, but is unlikely to receive meaningful attention. It conflicts with the preferred worldview of humanities professors — who, as a rule, favour state intervention and are hostile to markets and capitalism.

The hospitality sector is in deep trouble. It's not clear how much longer the hotel and catering industries can endure the current restrictive environment, before they suffer a collapse that could take years if not decades to recover from. Markets generally work well even for things that require long-term investment, but that depends on a relatively unregulated and predictable environment. Technological business may be semi-instantaneous in some respects, meaning it can bounce back quickly after a hiatus. By contrast, businesses that facilitate communal leisure activities generally depend on expensive infrastructure, and on building up reputations and consumer habits, both of which require long time horizons. A prolonged disruption, with an uncertain terminus, can play havoc with the sophisticated mechanisms on which this process depends.
   The sector was already having to deal with above-average change and uncertainty before COVID hit, due to more rapidly varying social behaviour patterns, and a ballooning regulatory regime including smoking bans and dietary red tape such as trans-fat bans.
   Your local pub or bar may well be on its last legs.

Lockdowns, travel bans, mandatory vaccination. These measures seem severely short of democratic legitimacy. I am not just referring to parliamentary debate/voting, though there has been little enough of that. The Brexit issue revealed that a parliamentary democracy may easily exhibit major divergences between (A) majority wishes and (B) the preferences of elected representatives as expressed in parliament. Doubtless this phenomenon is not unique to the UK.
   In early 2020 when the COVID crisis first hit, there was some basis for proceeding undemocratically given that any action had to be taken quickly. Now that many countries have had nearly two years of quasi emergency powers, and we are used to COVID — new variants notwithstanding — the fast-reaction argument is no longer adequate to justify the mild authoritarianism that seems to have become the new normal. Government policy in the West (health policy, education policy, economic policy, tax policy) is in effect being driven by what medical professionals say is good for us. Perhaps a new political term is called for — medico-cracy?
   Science in itself cannot make policy, it can only inform it. Policy is a question of preferences and trade-offs. Someone has to make a decision about the relative priority of (say) saving lives using increased state powers, versus the civil rights of individuals. This decision can be made either by the majority or by a minority. If it's a minority, the fact that the minority is relatively knowledgeable doesn't prevent it being anti-democratic. 'Research shows that policy X is correct because it saves lives' is a fallacious type of assertion we have frequently heard over the last two years. Just because something saves lives doesn't mean it should be imposed on the citizenship by a technocratic elite, however well informed that elite may be.

The Trump era generated extraordinary levels of combative rhetoric among Western (especially American) intellectuals, much of it based on emotiveness rather than sound arguments. Supposedly, Trumpism was anti-democratic and authoritarian, though these accusations were supported by little evidence. Where are those vociferous defenders against anti-democracy and authoritarianism now, when there's a genuine call for them? Judging by a quick Google search they're invisible as far as COVID policy goes, or confined to the marginalised. More evidence for the thesis that what Western intellectuals disliked about Trump had little if anything to do with pro-democratic or anti-authoritarian convictions. They didn't like Trump because he cocked a snook at them, refusing to give them and their preferred ideology the level of respect which they'd got used to receiving from politicians, and which they clearly believe is their due.
   For many intellectuals, 'democracy' seems to mean what they want it to mean — in other words, whatever fits with their ideas of rationality, social justice etc. The question of popular mandate is regarded as of secondary importance. Similarly, 'authoritarianism' is used to mean whatever doesn't fit with their ideas.
   If anything among recent Western policies should be described as authoritarian it's compulsory vaccination. It isn't described as such, presumably because most intellectuals either approve of it or feel they ought to approve of it — it doesn't tick any of the inequality boxes, so it 'must be ok'.

If one leaves aside what intellectuals think people want, or what they think people ought to want, the question naturally arises of what people actually want, in relation to e.g. COVID policies or the changing nature of the workplace. It is clear that elected representatives don't necessarily deliver what the majority wants — or necessarily even care what it wants — but is there some other way of ascertaining people's preferences? Polls and surveys used to provide some information, but seem to have become subverted by the pressures of political correctness. There are now numerous positions deemed (by intellectuals) to be ideologically unacceptable. Both before and after the popular votes that produced Trump and Brexit, intellectuals were telling people that some choices were simply wrong. It's no surprise then if individuals are no longer willing to be open about their preferences to strangers, or prefer to massage what they say in directions they suspect are more likely to receive positive acknowledgment. The result is that, as with most other 'research' in the humanities, surveys have become subject to ideological bias and hence effectively useless.
   Anonymous voting is still the best we've got, but to function properly this needs genuine diversity among politicians and their ideologies, which in turn requires that intellectuals stop trying to impose their preferred values, ganging up to making dissenting positions unacceptable, or thinking it's their job to second-guess voters by putting a spin on results. It's clear, for example, that liberty is now a value to which the intellectual elites give zero weight. Their spin on the surprising 2016 US election result — after their initial reaction of simply dissing voters — has been to argue it represents a reaction against inequality. (Their preferred narrative having been restored, pseudo-intellectual debate could go back to normal. Hence the result has had minimal effect on elite thinking.)
   Even when citizens try to express their rejection of control by elites in the form of demonstrations or other direct action, the dominant narrative has sufficient inbuilt stabilisers to allow it to remain intact. (The phenomenon is similar to what happens under communism: any signs of popular dissatisfaction are taken as evidence that the evils of capitalism have not yet been sufficiently eradicated.) Thus the gilets jaunes, like the blue-collar workers who voted for Trump, were merely 'motivated by economic injustice'. And when Belgian or Austrian citizens protest against COVID authoritarianism, the elites' primary reaction is: 'perhaps we should consider the possibility that there may be a downside to coercion — it might discourage vaccine uptake!'

The UK government's stance on COVID may seem ambiguous and hence confusing to many, but this probably reflects the difficulty of trying to maintain a relatively non-interventionist approach in a world dominated by those with a strong desire to 'manage' the crisis. Boris Johnson's apparently preferred approach conflicts with that of other major Western states (the USA, Germany) and of other professionals (medics, journalists, academics). The 'sensible' option, globally, is evidently seen as being more interference rather than less. To maintain opposition to a global intellectual establishment is as precarious for the current Tories as it was for Thatcher's government. The result is mixed messages and a somewhat inconsistent policy, though overall (so far) Mr Johnson has managed to keep his crew reasonably together, and perhaps as much on the right side of the liberty-vs-statism spectrum as can be expected.
   The US's recent behaviour, incidentally, has reinforced the impression that the country has moved from the role of leader in pro-individualist thinking to that of being in the vanguard of statism and Marxist ideology. The relatively anti-state position implicit in Trumpism is thus more likely to have been an aberration than — as some politics professors were insisting a couple of years ago — an indication of a change in hegemony.

If a foreign power had wanted to use germs to accelerate the West's shift away from capitalism and towards statism, it could hardly have done a better job.

11 October 2021

double standards

Facebook has been criticised for not censoring content described as "divisive". I have not seen any of the material to which this refers; some it may well be unpleasant. But is the current attack on Facebook partly an excuse for attempting a more general suppression of the kind of material the il-liberal elite do not like — in other words, anything that deviates too much from their preferred philosophy?
   If censorship is to be applied against viewpoints that are divisive, perhaps we should start with the material disseminated by contemporary humanities departments. The social theories currently à la mode in academia encourage women to resent men, the poor to resent the rich, blacks to resent whites, blue-collar workers to resent the bourgeoisie, and so on. Inequality is said to be due to "oppression", and some of the theorists openly try to galvanise people from certain categories to feel angry and bitter.
   These theories have about as much empirical support as creationism, but are treated as akin to gospel truth, presumably because academics find them enormously appealing (for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious).
   We can see the consequences of this be-angry-because-inequality-is-oppression ideology for freedom of speech. People who dare to express the 'wrong' opinions are physically attacked, or subjected to cancel culture or other forms of psychological abuse.
   Unsurprisingly — considering how many students are exposed to them — the popularity of these theories has spread beyond academia into the media, the arts, and the teaching profession. Have relations between the sexes, classes or races improved as a result? It's doubtful.

If US legislators are considering applying regulatory restrictions to internet companies, let us hope they'll bear in mind that it's not only US citizens that are affected. In theory, an entrepreneur in another Western country could build a rival social media company, but we know that in practice the network effect, and the resulting global near-monopoly gained by Facebook, make that improbable. If another business were to gain significant market share from Facebook, that business would most likely be based in California.
   In other words, the 7.5 billion people on the planet who are not Americans may end up being passive recipients of the censorship decisions made by the USA’s political class.

No doubt the left-leaning staff of social media corporations already apply algorithms to de-emphasise views they regard as too stridently right-wing. Perhaps they could also develop algorithms to de-emphasise Marxist claptrap.

12 September 2021

coercive medical treatment is evil

I have nothing per se against any of the COVID vaccines currently being offered. Just so long as they go on being offered and freely taken up, rather than imposed.
   It is — or ought to be — a basic moral principle that no individual should be forced to submit to medical treatment.
   One can reasonably be prevented from doing something which has as a clear consequence the causing of harm to another individual. But no person should be penalised by the state (or by those acting under pressure from the state) because he fails to do something which might generate benefits, unless he has chosen a role which requires him to act in such a way (e.g. lifeguard).
   Even more obviously, no person should be forced to submit to an invasion of his body, simply because the invasion will allegedly benefit others. This would-be justification is on a par with other arguments that claim to legitimise the suffering of individuals by reference to the interests of society. Nazi government officials harassed and murdered Jews, or incited others to do so, on the grounds that doing so was in the interests of German society. Bureaucrats in Stalinist Russia helped to bring about the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, on the grounds that abolition of private farming was essential for the good of Soviet society. The idea that such measures could be regarded as being 'in the interests of society' now seems bizarre, but at the time the arguments proved compelling for many members of the elites.
   The supposed let-out in the case of COVID vaccination is that the vaccine will do no one any harm. But whether a medical intervention will have good or bad effects on a person ought ultimately to be for that person alone to judge.
   What does it mean to be coerced? Clearly if the law requires one to be vaccinated, as in Turkmenistan, that is coercion. If medical treatment is a condition of travel, there is an argument that we are dealing with a condition rather than coercion. If an employer, for reasons of their own, demands that an employee receive treatment and the power to do so was included in the contract the employee signed prior to employment, there is an argument that this is no more coercion than anything else required under the terms of a contract. (Note to trade unions: consider agitating against the use of employment contract clauses that provide this power.) However, if the employer is compelled by the state to require employees to receive treatment, as US President Joe Biden is proposing, then we are clearly dealing with state coercion, with the employer forced to act as agent of the state. People may in general be able to avoid travel without great hardship, but few can afford to give up their jobs.
   If our elites don't seem to give much weight to certain basic moral principles, or seem relatively uninhibited about displaying authoritarian tendencies, we should not be surprised. The elites are captivated by the belief that they only ever want the best for us and know what it is, a belief which just happens to fit with the expansion of their powers.
   Doctors and nurses who knowingly participate in coercive medical treatment ought to feel shame and guilt.

31 July 2021


A short new article is up on the website, on the subject of prejudice and policy responses.

29 March 2021

intellectual monopoly —> authoritarianism

For many people, doing 'research' in the humanities seems to mean: generating support for the answers they want to hear. The idea that research might be about truth, or providing a balanced picture, or at least maintaining a plurality of perspectives, has become passé.
   It is not clear whether unbiased, value-free humanities research is even possible. If it isn't, the ultimate answer may be for the state to stop supporting it. Why should taxpayers finance biased research? Especially when the direction of the bias is predictable: it is likely to reinforce the role of the state, and to favour increases in intervention.
   Until such time as the state gets out of the humanities, there is an ongoing need for alternative perspectives. Every year, billions of pounds/dollars/etc. are poured into the academic humanities, using money compulsorily collected from taxpayers. And the overall conclusions generated by all this 'research'? Subject to some minor internal variation, basically that:
- capitalism is bad,
- conservatism is bad,
- there needs to be more state intervention.
   By now, the academic humanities are, for all intents and purposes, an ideologically mono-cultured monopoly. Those who disagree with the ideology are derided, insulted and demonised. In one sense, this is not surprising. We know that monopoly power, once acquired, tends to be jealously guarded and not readily surrendered. Potential rivals can expect to be treated in a ruthless and underhand fashion.
   The humanities professors, facing no serious criticism from within their own ranks, and having authority on their side — after all, they are officially appointed representatives of authorised truth-institutions (universities) — can get away with intellectual authoritarianism. If you show signs of dissent, the professors are certain to call you out. That is now, it seems, their principal role: to monitor for ideological correctness, and to censure deviation.
   What about those who wish to present alternative viewpoints? They are forced to scurry around for private support outside the system (which is used by their critics as ammunition against them) or to rely on their own means. Private support for pluralist perspectives is in any case scarcely available. Billionaires have, it appears, have bought into the dominant ideology and don't see any need for a plurality of viewpoints; like everyone else, their priority has become virtue signalling. Any funding they contribute simply goes into reinforcing the monoculture.
   The dominance of Marxism and Marxist-style feminism in many areas of the humanities is a major contributor to the rot. Marxism doesn’t seek truth, it already 'knows' the truth; dissent is therefore wrong and to be discouraged. Culture must promote the right kind of social change — if it does not, it is sure to be what Marxists label as 'oppressive'. Anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy can therefore be presumed to be a moral villain, providing a convenient excuse for censorship.