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.

16 October 2020


Due to a shortfall in external funding, this blog and associated articles are on hold until the new year.

02 October 2020

academia: is Politics a pseudo subject?

Four years ago, scanning Oxford University Press's Politics blog prior to the US presidential election, I was astounded by the level of partisanship of the posts (written by various humanities professors). The intellectual niveau may have been higher than that found in the left-wing broadsheets, but the sneering and contempt for Donald Trump was comparable. Did the academic establishment not realise how this might come across, to anyone other than those sharing their prejudices? I didn't look at many of the posts after the 2016 election but let us hope, for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy, that the blog did not go on to complain about the evils of attempting to interfere in other countries' elections via the pumping out of digital propaganda.
   This time around, the blog seems more restrained. The tone is pious pontification rather than aggressive derision. However, the bias is still in evidence. In each of the recent posts that mention Donald Trump, the attitude to the incumbent president is clearly hostile. One post contrasts Trump's America unfavourably with the virtuous leftism currently prevailing in Portugal; a second endorses a description of Trump's immigration policies as "cruel"; while the third argues that Trump's resistance to face masks can be compared to sex scandals because both phenomena "reveal who is able to violate the social norms in a society with little consequence".
   The obvious failure to keep normative values out of what is supposed to be objective analysis illustrates either the impossibility in principle of Politics as an academic subject, or the fact that academic neutrality is bound to fail when the political tastes of the academic elite are as homogeneous as they currently are (and diverge significantly from those of electorates). Either way, the OUP blog reinforces the impression that the status of Politics is that of pseudo subject. In other words, a bit of a joke — and not a harmless one.

18 September 2020

coming soon

New article in progress. Expected to be published next month.

Meanwhile, enjoy Social Mobility ‘Research’ (part 1) if you haven't already read it.