29 November 2019

the second referendum

  Rightly or wrongly, the upcoming UK election looks like turning into the long-threatened second referendum. With Labour imploding, the Lib Dems are the obvious second choice and have effectively become the official anti-Brexit party. There is little doubt they would — if they could — deliver non-Brexit, and without being plagued by ambivalence. The Conservatives are in the role of pro-Brexit party but their level of wholeheartedness seems less clear-cut, though there is no doubting the determination of their leader.
   Three years is a long time. Are voters still clear enough on what the Brexit issues are? I know what my own position is, but that is based largely on the illiberality of the EU state, a topic that may not be of much interest to the majority. As far as economics goes, the net effect of EU membership is too difficult to quantify even to say whether it’s positive or negative. There is a lot more to EU policy than free trade, much of it market-distorting.
   Do the people who voted for Brexit in 2016 still care enough to vote for it again? Not much has happened to make the choice any easier. True, it has emerged that the pessimistic warnings of Project Fear were probably wrong. But we have also had plenty of anti-Brexit and anti-Brexiteer propaganda since the referendum. The Brexit movie painted Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings as a hero, but portrayed Leave voters as being of questionable intelligence (see Focus Group scene).
   Undemocratic it may be, to make people choose again, but that's to some extent what we are being presented with. The Conservatives may need to remind voters about the arguments for leaving, if they do not want to see major losses to the Lib Dems. That is, assuming they can sound convincing. If not, it's probably best to stay silent.

  Journalists regularly remind us that the UK is suffering from a housing crisis, but the interpretations offered tend to reveal confused thinking. If the population rises by half a million every year, the urbanisation process continues, and people increasingly live alone, a chronic housing shortfall is to be expected. Add foreign investment in properties left empty, and the problem becomes extreme. But this phenomenon gets muddled up with the separate issue of wealth inequality and the fact that property ownership has become more concentrated so that more people are having to rent. Attacking the wealth disparity isn't going to solve the housing shortage, but that doesn't stop commentators wanting to blame property owners — baby boomers, the bourgeoisie, etc.
   If the housing stock is too low and most people can only afford to rent, it follows that most new private properties will (at least initially, until the pressure has abated) need to be purchased by the well-off and rented out, in order to alleviate the problem. So perhaps it's the well-off who need to be induced to buy to let, if market demand for new property is to rise sufficiently to make builders want to build. This argument, however, conflicts with egalitarian morality.
   Rather than using carrots to encourage more letting, most commentators prefer the idea of sticks for beating second-home owners: e.g. threatening a higher rate of council tax, or strengthening tenants' rights. The Times's Libby Purves endorses the stick approach, justifying it by referring to

the morally reprehensible idea that in a time of shortage it is OK to treat dwellings as mere investments.
Ms Purves believes (among other things) that we need "better security for all tenants", an approach which seems as likely to exacerbate the shortage problem as to help. The perspective of property owners is airily waved off:
If that scares off amateur landlords, who cares? Let councils buy their assets, cheap.

  The Sun's Dan Wootton condemns Prince Andrew for seeming "aloof", contrasting HRH's BBC interview unfavourably with Princess Diana's:
[...] Princess Diana's Panorama interview proved without any doubt that she was one of us [...]
The 1995 Panorama programme, featuring Princess Diana's revelations about royal life, seems to have been stage-managed better than Prince Andrew's "car crash" interview. A woman with a sob story is of course an easier sell than a man denying a sex crime. It seems doubtful, however, that Princess Diana thought of herself as "one of us" (unless "us" means people who dislike the Royal Family), just as it seems doubtful that the average left-wing technocrat thinks of the people he supposedly wishes to help as being like himself.
   The belief that they don't think they are special, they realise they are just like us, and only want to help us — a fantasy rarely questioned by even the most cynical journalists — is surely one of the key reasons we have been ruled by leftist governments for the last thirty years. (More about the ideology of the pseudo-egalitarian elite can be found in George Walden's The New Elites, and in my own book The Ideology of the Elites.)
   Prince Andrew seems to have unwisely associated with a number of unsavoury characters over the years. Rather than being too aloof, he may not have been aloof enough.

  This blog will be back in 2020.

15 November 2019

Grenfell Tower

  According to the Phase 1 Report from the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, residents of the Tower were initially advised by the Fire Brigade not to evacuate the building. A few residents chose to ignore this advice. With hindsight, it seems it would have been better if they had all ignored it.

It appears the initial advice of the Fire Brigade would have been appropriate if the building had conformed to required building standards. However, the building did not conform to required standards, rendering it more flammable than expected.

It has been suggested that ignoring the Fire Brigade’s initial instructions might have had something to do with common sense. It is not clear that there are any conclusions of this kind to be drawn. Anyone, however risk-averse, might well have decided to follow official advice in a situation of this kind. If there are psychological implications, they seem more likely to be about a culture of faith in experts than about common sense.

We are constantly pressured to consult professionals, with regard to a wide range of everyday matters. To solve our relationship problems, we require relationship counsellors. To solve our psychological problems, we need to to consult the psychiatrically trained. Problems with children require parenting or child counsellors. We are pressured to get tested for possible diseases, and to receive professional advice about the results.

On the packaging of practically every over-the-counter remedy, there are exhortations to consult your doctor, either before use or in the event of an adverse reaction. Considered in aggregate, these exhortations are grossly unrealistic. Much of the time, the average GP would probably have little to contribute to such cases. If all the warnings given on packaging were rigorously followed, doctors would be even more overwhelmed than they already are.

The demand that we should believe in the power of expertise, and follow authorised opinion, has the effect of infantilising and disempowering us. We feel we must bow to the superior knowledge of the trained official. We cannot be allowed to think for ourselves, because there is always someone who knows better.

The cult of the expert is founded on various ideals that do not stand up to scrutiny. E.g. the theory that training necessarily turns someone into a person with superior powers of judgment. In relation to state services, it depends on the thesis that different parts of the bureaucratic machinery can each be relied on to do things in the agreed way, so that one part can safely assume that another part has behaved according to published standards.

In fact, the various parts of the state apparatus are subject to intense cost pressures, as well as human error. This is before we even consider the lack of economic incentive to operate to standards that go beyond the immediately obvious.

It is not just the public who are liable to become overconfident about the validity of assertions made by professionals. Professionals themselves are liable to place too much confidence in the assertions of other professionals. Particularly in crisis situations, they may be required to place excessive reliance on mechanical instructions provided by manuals and training courses, rather than on their own judgment.

  Electable government officials compete for power by offering voters benefits. For example, more social housing. At the same time, voters are reluctant to have their taxes increased to pay for these additional benefits. The result is pressure to achieve readily countable targets (e.g. number of new houses or apartments built) at minimum cost and hence with minimum attention to background safety and durability aspects. Deficits in background aspects will not necessarily be discovered until much later, if at all.

In the absence of obvious incentives not to cut corners, it falls to government officials to develop an internal culture in which safety is given more priority than is likely to be appreciated by voters in the short term. In this, they need to be supported by the media.

For example, in relation to the current election campaigns, parties might avoid offering to expand public services unless at the same time they give weight in their campaigns to (a) the effects of any such expansion on taxes and (b) the hidden costs of ensuring that services are provided to an adequate standard. The media might insist that these aspects of social welfare offerings be given adequate attention.

In particular, the question should be asked whether any expansion in UK social housing should be offered to voters, unless accompanied by a commitment to first investigating all existing social housing, with regard to fire and other risks — and rectifying any problems that are identified.

01 November 2019


From Oxford Forum’s Home Page:

In any society there are mechanisms to block ideas which deviate too far from the consensus. Yet such ideas are needed, when old models have been exhausted.

Many of the significant cultural advances of the past were made outside the established institutional framework.

In the contemporary world this tends to be forgotten. "Research" is presumed to be something carried out only under the aegis of institutions.

Private funding, which once supported exceptional individuals, is now used to bolster large corporate entities. Smaller organisations typically only receive funding if they first obtain approval from the establishment.

The effect has been a bias in favour of fashionable points of view.

In many areas, work is now carried out only if it is compatible with the dominant outlook. This generates reinforcement for that outlook, but does not produce required leaps in understanding.

In the humanities, the presence of such bias is particularly obvious.

In psychology, economics, philosophy and sociology there is a need for fresh perspectives on key issues, going beyond mere variations on existing themes.

Oxford Forum exists to meet this need.

Oxford Forum is an association of independent academics founded in 1998 by Dr Celia Green. It opposes intellectual and ideological bias in mainstream academia.

Those interested in becoming supporters can contact us via the following email address.
info “at” oxford-forum.org

Please note that Oxford Forum is not a corporate entity. Donations are normally made to Dr Celia Green.

18 October 2019

wicked individualism #1 — swimming pools

Via Arts & Letters Daily, I discover a review* of two books on swimming pools.

The following extract, referring to infinity pools, reminds me of the popular claim that we live in the "age of the selfie", allegedly a time of heightened "individualism" or "solipsism", usually meant pejoratively. The implication is that we used to live in a time of greater communitarian values — a nostalgia myth that has been around since at least the eighteenth century.

We now live in the age of the infinity pool. The bright curves, sugary tints and gay social melee of the 20th century have given way to darker, squarer tubs where the edge of the pool is designed (at least in theory) to vanish into the horizon.

The jolly bourgeois riot of collective public bathing has yielded to an immersive solipsism at once outward and inward: the infinity pool bather often looks away from others to snap a selfie showcasing the view behind them.

Kelly is one of the few humans to appear in Splash, photographed standing at the edge of a Balinese infinity pool, gazing out to sea, her back to the camera. Hers is a voyeuristic album of an invisible elite's sparkling private paradises, utopias whose very form disavows social context.

"Disavowing social context"? Sounds faintly immoral.

Technology changes, as do the goods and experiences that are available; human nature, not so much. Commentators on individualism like to focus on the areas where people seem to be doing things more by themselves than they used to, and tend to ignore other areas that have become more crowdified.

* James Delbourgo, 'From Here to Infinity', reviewing:
Splash: The Art of the Swimming Pool by Annie Kelly, and
The Swimming Pool in Photography by Francis Hodgson.

04 October 2019


Modern Conservatives use language in peculiar ways.

Apparently, it is "toxic" to draw attention to facts which the educational profession wishes to suppress or misrepresent.

On the other hand, it is apparently not toxic to suppress or misrepresent facts relating to Britain's possible departure from the EU.

According to the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh, former Chancellor George Osborne justified Project Fear by arguing that "all's fair in love and war".

It's remarkable that the Conservative government has had the gall to try and introduce legislation against supposed "disinformation" on the internet, if Conservatives are themselves guilty of attempts to manipulate voters by means of deliberate deception.

The internet has many negative as well as positive aspects, but it has been practically the only significant source of dissenting ideas over the past twenty years — because of its openness, and because it has not yet come under the control of the il-liberal elite.

If it wasn't for the internet, Britain would probably already be being run by politicians who uncritically accept the Marxism-inspired ideology served up to them by their college tutors. And we would no doubt have advanced even further along the road of outlawing any critique of the ideology.

As it is, we have had a small degree of pushback. Given the reaction of media, academia and the courts, one wonders how long even that can last.

22 September 2019

social mobility ‘research’

New article available on the website:

social mobility ‘research’ — on another planet

The "social science" establishment has for decades contributed to the suppression of the heritability of intelligence, by churning out papers about mobility and inequality that should have made reference to the phenomenon but did not.

This suppression amounts to a collusive cover-up, and a scandalous betrayal of academic values. Presumably its perpetrators justify it to themselves with the conceit that they are "doing good".

I have also written some afterthoughts to the article. See previous blog post.

social mobility ‘research’ — afterthoughts

In my article I attempted to take an objective approach to the topic of social mobility. In this blog post I give an opinion about what a reader might usefully do, if he or she wants to help talented children from an impoverished background.

Here are some things I do not recommend. I would not try to help by supporting a government policy supposedly aimed at improving things for such children, except perhaps if the policy involves removing existing intervention. I believe collective action is likely to make things worse for such individuals.

For the same reason, I would not try to help by supporting private organisations aimed specifically at helping talented children, though the damaging effects may be less bad than in the case of ‘help’ authorised by the state, and at least such organisations do not depend on the compulsory collection of funds from taxpayers.

I recommend individual-to-individual action. If you become aware of a talented child in a poor environment, consider giving money to the parents, or even directly to the child, or encourage another individual to do so. This might take the form of a capital payment or an annuity, made as a one-off irrevocable gift, perhaps anonymously. If there are associated ethical issues, no doubt ways of addressing them can be devised.

If this idea seems strange, I suggest it is because we have become overly used to philanthropy being collectivised, and overly used to the assumption that a problem is remedied if — and only if — there is a government programme ostensibly addressing the issue. There is also a tendency for the problems of individuals to become collectivised conceptually, i.e. to bias thinking in favour of issues that can be defined in terms of social groups. By focusing on groups and statistics, the specific problems of individuals that are not classifiable into neat categories are liable to be dismissed as relatively unimportant.

Of course, gifting money to an individual always risks that the individual will not spend it on what you intended. This is one of the supposed explanations for why the term redistribution in practice usually means providing recipients with free services (often of dubious value) rather than giving them money.

However, I believe the possibility of ‘mis-spending’ needs to be regarded as an unavoidable risk of giving aid. The danger with non-financial support is that it ends up consisting of what the provider wishes to provide, rather than what would actually help the recipient. This can turn out to be not only useless but harmful.

As far as politics goes, I recommend supporting the reduction or removal of capital taxes.

In a society which insists on compulsory education, the best way for a talented child to improve its chances may be private tutors, or other home schooling. State schools, especially non-selective state schools, should be given a wide berth.

For children not from ‘privileged’ backgrounds, avoiding state education depends on the possibility of preserving savings across generations, whether these be the savings of members of their own families, or the savings of third parties who may wish to support them.

PS: Politically well-informed readers may note that my suggestion is at odds with current Labour Party ideology, which seems to disapprove of exceptional individuals rising into a higher class:

Not one person doing better than the people they grew up with, but all of us working together to give everyone the chance to reach their full potential. [...] We won’t stand for a society in which only a lucky few succeed while inequality and poverty hold back millions. [Labour Party Press Release 7 June 2019]
Stripping off the veneer, this looks like an inversion: opposition to mobility, on the grounds that it means someone getting something that not everyone will get.

13 September 2019

the new hanging & flogging brigade

The il-liberal elite sure do make a lot of noise, when the ideology on which their position depends is threatened to even a small degree.

The hissing. The shrieking. The fainting fits.

The law in Britain — as in other jurisdictions — has been creeping for some time in the direction of trying to look at intention, rather than sticking to the letter of the law. (See for example trends in anti-avoidance legislation, under former Chancellor Philip Hammond and predecessors.)

Not a healthy development, in my opinion, and certainly not one to be welcomed by fans of the rule of law.

30 August 2019

coming soon

New article in progress.

For intended publication in September.

23 August 2019

Put not your trust in princes — or committees

Charles McCreery points out that princes, like committees, can be capricious, and that relying on them as sources of support can be hazardous, as Richard Wagner discovered.

One disadvantage of being financed by someone else’s money and not your own is that the patron may always decide to cut off his patronage. At one stage King Ludwig became impatient with the length of time Wagner was taking to complete The Ring and decided to stage the first, completed half in his own theatre in Munich. Wagner resisted this premature staging of his truncated work in every way he could, but the king had the last word. ‘These theatre people must learn to obey my orders, not Wagner’s whims,’ he said. ‘Pereat the whole lot of them.’ What is more to the point, he threatened to withhold Wagner’s allowance if he persisted in his opposition. Wagner, who had certainly not been saving out of his royal income, could only retire in dudgeon to his house in Zurich.

Needless to say, a committee is just as likely to change its mind about supporting someone as is an individual. In fact, to the extent that it is more susceptible to outside pressure (being accountable to some collective entity for its funds), it may be expected to be even more unreliable.

By contrast, Coleridge and Wordsworth both benefited from more enlightened patronage.
However, there is one form of patronage that is not open to the objection that it may be cut off at any time, and that is where the beneficiary is given capital rather than income. In 1798 two members of the Wedgwood family decided to give Coleridge an annuity of £150 a year so that he would not have to enter the Unitarian Ministry to obtain an income and could continue working at literature. The Wedgwoods had ideas about improving the human condition and decided that Coleridge was the man to help them do it, apparently because of his powers as a thinker rather than as a poet.

Wordsworth benefited from a similarly antisocial act of generosity, albeit on a rather more modest scale. When he was twenty-three he formed a friendship with a young man of private means called Raisley Calvert. Calvert suffered from consumption, and aware that he was gravely ill, determined to make a will bequeathing a legacy to Wordsworth sufficient to enable him to live without a profession. As Wordsworth put it, the purpose of the bequest was:

‘to secure me from want, if not to render me independent [and] to enable me to pursue my literary views or any other views with greater success [...]. I had had but little connection [with Calvert], and the act was done entirely from a confidence on his part that I had powers and attainments which might be of use to mankind.’

From The Abolition of Genius, available from Amazon.

09 August 2019

psychiatry, Christianity, Marxism — unholy trinity?

A review* of a book by Cass Sunstein (populariser of the Nudge idea) serves to remind us of the Left's suspicion of individual volition, and its liking of the notion that people can be compelled to realise their 'true' desires.

Commenting on Sunstein's idea that the government can help you achieve your goals, law professor Samuel Moyn accuses Sunstein of having a simplistic view of individual preferences.

For a long time, Western philosophy has rejected a blind trust in human desire. The Christian tradition asserts that sinful inclination lurks most where people claim to be making free choices, and many modern social theorists — notably, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud — have insisted that people's conscious desires can be ascribed to ideology and rationalization. [...]

The main problem in today's society is not, as Sunstein maintains, that the state tends to transgress its bounds and overregulate; instead, it is that in the state's absence, private coercion often holds sway, allowing powerful forces like the "free market" and structural injustice to reduce humankind to servitude [...]

Note the idea — implied but not stated — that a vanguard of community representatives (elected? unelected?) could, and would, help an individual to achieve what he really wants, rather than using their power to (say) move him even further away from his goals.

Curiously, scepticism about motives, here applied to private individuals, is rarely applied to agents of the collective. They are somehow endowed with a greater degree of rationality, greater ability to avoid being manipulated, etc; as well as being unusually benevolent or altruistic.

* via Arts & Letters Daily

26 July 2019

Mediocracy: the eBook

Mediocracy is now available as a revised edition eBook.
This is a fixed-format eBook (i.e. not reflowable). It is suitable for tablets, Kindle Fire etc, but may not be suitable for phones with small screens.

The book is priced at £4.99, but is available at a reduced price of £3.99 until 31 August. It is also available free to read with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

on Amazon UK
on Amazon USA

Libertarians should be pleased to have Boris Johnson as Premier. Apart from David Davis, Mr Johnson is the only senior Westminster politician I am aware of who appears to have a strong belief in the importance of liberty.
When Boris Johnson was my MP I wrote to him asking what he was doing to block the New Labour government's attacks on civil liberties. He sent me a polite reply, and a copy of a debate in which he had asked hard-hitting questions about the issue in Parliament. I was impressed by his questions, and by the effort he made to address a constituent's concerns.
Several things seem clear about Mr Johnson. He is polite. He is hardworking. Most notably, he has principles, one of them being a commitment to liberty. I suspect he may also be the most intelligent PM we have had for some time.

12 July 2019

The Expanse

New sci-fi series don't come along that often, so I felt obliged to check out Amazon's The Expanse and offer my two cents.

It's unremittingly gritty, rather like a zombie movie without zombies. Nevertheless it holds the attention — though it lacks the pizzazz of, say, early Star Trek or the Alien movies. There is a hint of vintage Doctor Who, except the special effects are of course several notches higher.

There are other knowing references. At the dazzling secret centre of the plot (when we finally get there) there's an echo of one of the Star Trek movies — to avoid a spoiler I won't say which one. For rock fans there is even a possible link to an old Rush song, Cygnus X-1, though perhaps the writers were referencing Don Quixote directly in naming the starring ship Rocinante.

Inevitably perhaps, it's the female characters who are the interesting ones, rather than the men. British actress Dominique Tipper provides solid watchability — and cuteness, once we're allowed to see past her character's tough shell.

But it's Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo who is the real revelation. Oozing charm and psychological depth, she lights up the screen, providing the glamour without which the series might easily have sunk under the weight of its tattoo-sporting blokeyness.

28 June 2019

feminism and the philosophy of Either/Or

Some people want to explore ideas, and debate issues, without being restricted by taboos. Others simply want to fight an ideological war — in which case they are likely to regard free speech as an unwanted distraction.

Unfortunately, many of the most vociferous of those who describe themselves as "feminists" seem to fall into the second category.

Feminism has become too broad a church for it to be possible simply to categorise oneself in terms of whether one believes in, or supports, "it". The same is true of equally vague concepts such as "liberalism" or "socialism".

There is a mild version of feminism, which goes something like this:
"Many women are more capable, and more keen, than the majority of men. Their gender should not act as a handicap to their career progression."
Most people would probably give their assent to this — which is not to say disagreement with it should be taboo.
There is also a strong version of feminism, which says:
"There are no statistical differences between men and women, at least none that ought to matter. Therefore any difference in average outcome reflects injustice, and society should do something about it."
Fewer people would endorse this version.

These are just two out of the many different positions that have been described as feminism.

But some feminists seem not to want such distinctions to be made. A person who indicates they may support the mild, but not the strong version, is liable to be accused of being anti-feminist (and possibly misogynist).

So e.g. Dominic Raab voicing a mixed attitude to the concept of feminism generates reactions like the following, from Harriet Hall in the Independent:

We have to acknowledge that rape is a misogynist crime; that the gender pay gap and all the complications surrounding it are a result of sexism; and that the bloody, inhumane act of FGM is purely to control women. The only people who benefit from a reluctance to utter the name of the one movement that seeks to protect women, are the men who oppose it.
Hall goes on to condemn Raab's opposition to positive discrimination, and asserts that feminism "can't be sugar-coated to soften the message and appease the patriarchy". She concludes: "Sorry, Dominic Raab, you have only two choices: you’re either a feminist or a sexist – there is no in between."

Whom does the refusal to explore in detail the meaning of "feminism" serve? Presumably, those who want to pursue a programme based on the strong version.

It has become disreputable to sound negative about feminism in any way. This can be more easily exploited by extreme feminists if there is no identification of different levels of feminism.

A resistance to allowing counterarguments to be aired is comprehensible — though not admirable — if people fear this would undermine a programme they believe is morally correct. Unfortunately, many important topics nowadays seem to be treated in this fashion, allowing politics to override data or analysis.

It's a question of priorities. Are you predominantly concerned that people should be able to think about a topic, or predominantly wanting people to come up with the answer you 'know' to be correct?