Archive for the ‘conservatives’ Category

The Grauniad Dabatlog has produced a rather fancy network visualisation of the sources cited in Anders Behring Breivik’s personal manifesto/horse-shit compendium. This is great as I now don’t need to worry that I perhaps should have made one. It’s very pretty and you can click on stuff, and see that some of the sources are thinktanks and some of them are newspapers, and well, it’s very pretty and you can click on stuff. It also comes with a piece by Andrew Brown reprising his “Don’t be beastly to the creationists!” shtick but with Melanie Phillips, for some reason.

Unfortunately it’s almost completely intransparent, and gives little indication of what data is being visualised or on what basis, and there is really no obvious conclusion to draw from it. But did I mention pretty and click? If forced to take a view, I would reckon that the underlying data is probably a matrix of which sources appear together with others and the layout algo is a force-directed graph (aka the default in pretty much any visualisation toolkit), probably weighted by appearance count. There’s some sort of proprietary metric called “linkfluence” which appears to be given by(indegree/outdegree)*len(neighbourhood) or words to that effect.

As a result, the only information I got from it was that he linked to Wikipedia, the BBC, and big news sites a lot. Well yes; Wikipedia, bbc.co.uk, etc, generate a hell of a lot of web pages and people read them a lot. Obviously, to say the least, you need to normalise the data with regard to sheer bulk, or you’d end up concluding that Google (or Bing or Yahoo) was his inspiration because he did a lot of web searches, or that he was a normal man twisted by SMTP because he used e-mail.

In fact, I thought they actually did that until I realised that RSS.org is about the other RSS, the Indian extreme-right movement, not the popular Internet syndication standard. Harrowell fail. Anyway, it does show up rather nicely that the groups “European nationalists”, “Counter-Jihad”, and “American Right-Wing” overlap. However, I feel there’s something missing in the characterisation of MEMRI and various other sites as just “Think Tanks” as if they were just like, say, IPPR.

Also, an emergent property of the data is that there is an Axis of Barking running vertically through it: the nearer you are to the top of the diagram, the more extreme and crazy. MEMRI, FrontPage, Gates of Vienna, Melanie Phillips are near the top; the Wikipedia article on the Russo-Turkish War of 1878 is at the bottom. And the MSM is somewhere in the middle. (Although I do wonder if they allocated the sources to groups before or after running the force-directed graph.)

It seems to be one of those command the exciting world of social media with just one click! things.

Anyway, upshot. I want to avoid Project Lobster producing a diagram like this one. It’s too impressionistic and fluffy and reliant on basically aesthetic reasoning. (I think we’ve had this point before.) Of course, that’s partly the difference between the underlying data sets; it was at least thinkable if unlikely that there would be no grouping in Breivik’s sources, while presumably political lobbying is nonrandom and subject to intelligent design.

Elsewhere, a reader passed this along which I need to actually watch (isn’t video time consuming?). There’s a shindig in Warsaw in late October. And I want this on a T-shirt.

China’s neo-con blogging fever-swamp, via (of course) Jamie K.

For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: “Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war.

A well-known music critic? Now that’s special. You don’t get detailed comment on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s seabasing capability from Martin Kettle when he’s in one of his SUCK ON MY CULTURE, PROLE moods, or indeed when he’s editorialising, do you? Does Brian Sewell take a view on whether the much delayed Maritime Afloat Replenishment Ship project should go down the Dutch/Canadian JSS route, perhaps building on licence from Schelde in the UK, or stick with specialised tanker and dry-replenishment hulls?

It’s a pity that this doesn’t mean their politics is any more pacific.

Now here’s a worthwhile Canadian initiative for you, from here. And he names the guilty men.

John “War Nerd” Dolan got a job, as a lecturer at the American University of Iraq. Hilarity ensued. You bet. It’s a tale of un-fantastic right-wing academics, a kind of glaring dullness, a total lack of character, and an endless supply of raw cash. It so happens that John needed that more than anything else, so good luck to him. Read the whole thing – what stands out is the vast gap between the neo-con obsession with The Western Canon! Classicism! Principle! Courage! and the petty, provincial, small-mindedness that people like Joshua “Not The Blogger” Marshall practice in their lives. It’s not even the incompetence. It’s the style that gives them away.

The other interesting thing in the piece is John Agresto’s role. Again and again, he turns up wondering why a string of horrible political thugs treated him with disrespect. Lynne Cheney, his old boss, seems to have been a really awful human being close up. Who knew? But somehow, it never crosses his mind to wonder why this keeps happening every time he associates with the Cheneys or Bill Bennett or some other horrific political gargoyle. It’s….full of bastards, just this particular astronaut isn’t going to get out of the ship.

I also loved the notion of a neo-conservative as someone who got mugged by reality and now never goes into town for fear of running into reality again. A lesser writer would say that he started carrying a gun in order to shoot reality. However, that would imply some kind of grand, tragic struggle against brute fate. You can’t have tragedy without dignity, and that’s one thing the administration of the American University of Iraq doesn’t have.

This reminded me of two things, or rather the other way around. If you want Mitt Romney to speak, you’ve got to take a bulk order for his booky wook. Hence the book is a bestseller (for whatever that means in today’s book trade). Similarly, ‘bagger Sharron Angle’s campaign raised $14m and paid $12m right back to the political consultants who organised the donation drive.

The other thing was this documentary series on YouTube about Americans and steroids. Two points come to mind – the enduring role of the quack, and a sort of grinding optimism. And this quote: “Everyone wants to be a monster.”

A critical point, though – I’m fairly sure the sheaf of documents one of the doctors waves while reading out a list of horrible side effects that turn out to relate to vitamin C is from an open-access “adverse event reporting system”, which basically gathers anything anyone anywhere feels inclined to report. They aren’t verified in any way. Anti-vaccine people often abuse this.

Fortunately, someone’s done the actual journalism and documented that the ties between multilevel marketing, quackery, and extreme-right politics aren’t just style, they’re organisational and financial. It goes back a while, too.

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.

OK, so we took the piss out of the Policy Exchange crowd for seeing reds under the seats on the bendy buses. The group rights agenda. But the interesting thing about the Borisbus is that in a sense, it bears Dean Godson and Andy Gilligan out – design and architecture are, of course, deeply political activities. We shape the things we build, and thereafter they shape us, as Winston Churchill said to RIBA (twice – he believed in making aphorisms earn their corn).

Essentially, the new bus – pics here and here- is a bog standard Wrightbus double decker with some fibreglass styling features, meant to evoke the look of the Routemaster; there’s a funny asymmetric front end, a staircase, and an open platform that isn’t actually open, because it is behind a door which will be locked while the bus is in motion. This stuff is pure ornament – it is utterly without function. Neither is there actually going to be a conductor; the existing revenue protection patrols will occasionally be on board, and that’s it.

Now, the thing about adding a lot of nonfunctional stuff for the sake of style is that it has costs. The Postmodernist architects were fascinated by the way Las Vegas casinos and the like were basically huge industrial sheds, covered with playful flourishes of style, plush carpets, neon signs; but the reason why they could get away with this is that a huge clear-span shed is a pretty efficient solution for housing a business process of some kind, whether it’s a semiconductor fabrication line, a giant distribution warehouse, a brewery, or a giant exercise in legalised fraud controlled by Lucky Luciano. The huge plaster likeness of Nefertiti draped in purple neon canted over the entrance at 27 degrees from the vertical isn’t getting in the way of anything.

But this doesn’t work in a setting of engineering rather than architecture. Changing the internal layout of a bus affects its primary function directly; one of the key limiting factors in the capacity of a bus route is how long it takes to load and unload the bus, which determines how long it waits at each stop and therefore how fast it travels. Making people climb the stairs to get in and out has real performance consequences. As pointed out here, when the rear door is shut, anyone trying to get off the bus will have to push past people getting on to use the middle door.

Also, carrying around a platform and a staircase takes up space that could otherwise be used for…well, that could otherwise be used rather than pissed away on content-free curlicues. As pointed out here, the new bus has fewer seats downstairs than a Routemaster despite being 3 metres longer. I thought we were trying to take up less space on the street and improve the turning circle?

Of course, the reason why giant motorway-side warehouses and casinos can be like they are is that they are usually built in places where land is cheap and there is lots of space…like central London, right?

So what does this tell us about the design politics involved? The first, and obvious, point is that design has consequences. As a result of the whole daft crusade, for years to come, bus users will be putting up with a worse quality of service. Frequencies will be lower, because dwell times will be higher. Alternatively, London will just have to buy more buses to maintain frequency, and fares will go up. Using the buses will be a more exasperating and unpleasant experience than it is now (and that’s saying something). Further, people who for whatever reason find the stairs difficult are going to be punished.

Second, it’s the victory of form over content. It’s not a Routemaster; it certainly hasn’t had the years of kaizen that went into the original design and specifically into the hard engineering of it, the engine and drivetrain and running gear. It doesn’t even look much like one, but the key stylistic tropes are there in order to pretend it does. I’m surprised they didn’t stitch a Lacoste croc on it. And, of course, the costs of this shameless fuckery will endure.

Third, the past must have been better. There is really no reason at all to try to make a modern bus look vaguely Routemasteresque other than kitsch and nostalgia, and it’s no better for being Gill Sans/Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch rather than the Laura Ashley version. You bet there’s going to be a lot of this crap in the next few years. (Fortunately, it also looks like the official aesthetic of David Cameron is going to be achingly unfashionable, like an official aesthetic damn well should be.) But if there is any reason to be nostalgic for Routemasters, it should surely be for the unrivalled engineering record of high reliability; being nostalgic for slower boarding times is like being nostalgic for the good old days of rickets. Come to think of it, Tories do that as well.

In conclusion, this is modern conservatism, implemented in hardware, with your taxes. The obsession with PR, spin, and guff in general? Check. The heel-grinding contempt for the poor? Check. The pride in technical and scientific ignorance? Doublecheck. The low, ugly, spiteful obsession with getting one over on political enemies? (It’s of a piece with behaviour like this.) Check.

Key quotes:
(via Boriswatch): “Never underestimate our masters’ obsession with outward form, as opposed to function and content.” That’s Gilligan, of course.

Via Adam Bienkov, “When there is no extra staff to mind them, the platforms will be closed with what Boris called a “shower curtain type jobby.”

There’s a point where his risible little village idiot act crosses over into a demonstration of overt contempt for the public, and this is it. I propose to refer to him as Shower Jobby from now on, and I would like to see this elsewhere.

I’m actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I’d happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP…). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I’m informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor’s idea of culture, and actual taxpayers’ money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it’s a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg – for it is he! – suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw’s pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn’t hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom’s BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn’t a big demo, but it was targeted – the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA’s steps.

This was crucial – as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.

The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn’t on the autocue! There’s more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment – what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn’t deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn’t insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously – yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed’s sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn’t say the Tories had a “right to govern”, which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.

Speaking of new Soviet men, The GOP Speaks continues to be a fantastic resource on authoritarian thinking. Short version – chap writes to every county- and state-level Republican chairman in the US and asks them to fill in a questionnaire. Blogs the results as they come in. Here’s number 26.

1) So long as it’s in the opposition, where should the Republican Party focus its energy?

Our first priority should be to stop his legislative agenda.

Second we should work to win as many seats as possible in2010.

Fair enough.

2) What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?

Without question the country has elected a marxist that hates capitalism and liberty

Something does not work with mai cortex, egad!
An interesting event happens between questions 1 and 2, doesn’t it? His response to question 1 is eminently rational, but the next one is objectively crazy. It doesn’t get any better as the questions go on, either.

One explanation here would be that he answered the question about tactics having thought about it, and then switched off. I don’t think so – the language in the following questions suggests someone getting more and more excited emotionally, more and more engaged.

In fact, I think he started thinking after question 1. As far as political tactics went, he was able to answer in the way we use physical skills – a set of gestures and rules that we internalise to the extent that we don’t think about them.

If you agree with the thesis of Max Blumenthal‘s Republican Gomorrah (and I agree that’ll be a grade one on WhoseKidAreYou) and others like Eric Altemeyer, the US rightwing can be seen as a network of group therapy institutions, repurposed for political ends.

The importance of conversion experiences suggests that they are consciously or unconsciously seeking people who need an external cause to stabilise their personalities; adhering to the cult of personality offers emotional relief, and being given a role to carry out offers validation. The tasks involved are essentially arbitrary, but in this case they are those of a political field operation. Blumenthal goes so far as to suggest that James Dobson’s notorious advice on parenting might even be intended to create more raw material.

That would also suggest that external causes of social insecurity are very important to the movement; no wonder the first item on his checklist was to oppose the legislative agenda. And I think I’ve said before that there’s a lot to be said for the tactics of no; with some money, not many activists, and a lot of no, the teabaggers managed to hold the media’s attention across the whole summer.

But once he completed his actions on encountering a question, code execution continued from the return value…

It is not about race it is about ideology Justice Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Condi Rice, Micheal Steele, Alberto Gonzales and many others on the right are ignored or destroyed by the left but never celebrated….No….It is viable. If you talk the talk walk the walk….Liberty is sacred if they can come for me soon enough they can come for you

Each section between ellipses is the answer to a question. As the excitement mounts, the punctuation disappears – perhaps a handy rough indicator of cognitive load.

Libertarianism, by which I mean yer bog standard comments thread North American subtype, is irrational. This struck me in the context of this post of Charlie Whitaker’s, which was of course criticised by the local libertarian in the usual terms. First of all, let’s define terms; the standard set-up of modern right-libertarian arguments is based on two layered arguments. The first is a weak-form argument, which derives from the Austrian tradition in economics and, therefore, eventually from classical liberalism. It goes a little something like this: As Hayek and von Mises pointed out, we can’t possibly know enough to manage the whole economy, and therefore, we should rely on market mechanisms as far as possible.

The notion that GOSPLAN wasn’t a triumph is hardly controversial, and for most of the political spectrum, the debate is really about how far we can rely on market mechanisms and what the alternatives to them should be. But the libertarian argument does a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith here; it extends this argument to claim that any nonmarket organisation will inevitably be less efficient than any market alternative, and that it will be so much less efficient that the costs, whatever they are, will always be worthwhile. We can characterise this as the argument from efficiency.

What’s worth pointing out here is the degree to which the volume has been turned up. All the points of doubt in the economic argument have been replaced by conviction. The argument against central planning is built on scepticism, drawing its strength from flexibility like a great bridge or the backbone of a ship; but suddenly, there’s a lot of massive but brittle certainty about. What may very well be very small efficiency gains, which may well come at great cost, are being used to legitimate a very strong normative claim indeed.

This is something libertarianism shares with conservatism; the belief that 1) the government will always be incompetent at allocating investment, but 2) it is perfectly competent to de-allocate it. Ministers and their officials cannot under any circumstances be trusted to choose projects to fund, but they have perfect knowledge of what to cut. Now, this isn’t actually as stupid as it may sound – as Daniel Davies says, it’s much easier to identify stupid proposals than it is to come up with intelligent ones. But economic decisions have a fundamental duality – the decision to buy X involves not buying Y, the decision not to buy Y involves going without Y. Cutting, privatising, deregulating – these are the same activities as spending, nationalising, or legislating.

Clearly, there is a need for a stronger philosophical foundation.

This we find in the doctrine of the illegitimacy of taxation. The ability of the state to collect tax depends on its monopoly of force, and therefore taxation is actually a form of theft. Again, a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith, and we arrive at the position that as all the activities of the state depend eventually on tax, therefore an NHS blood transfusion is as illegitimate as, say, being shot seven times in the head by a policeman. The immediate counter-argument is to knock the ball forward from Hobbes up to Locke, and to appeal to the social contract. It’s entirely possible to enter into a voluntary association to which you pay dues and in which you agree to accept its internal discipline; and here we come up against the rock. You didn’t choose to be born into a democratic society – and therefore the contract is invalid.

Of course, at this point most people will lose their temper with the obvious stupidity on display. The horrors – to be born into a democratic society rather than, say, Somalia or the eastern Congo! What an appalling imposition! But then, we parted company with empiricism way back when we decided that Railtrack was necessarily a better idea than any other way of organising the railways.

But there’s another, more fundamental point here. The doctrine of the total illegitimacy of the state is a huge, extraordinary claim. It is at least as extraordinary as the claim that a central planning commission with 1920s information technology could manage an advanced economy with better results, both in terms of equality and in terms of economic growth, than any alternative. (And, going back to the DRC for a brief holiday, it has arguably amassed a comparable pile of corpses.) Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but then, we’re dealing with libertarianism here.

Here is the point; if we’re being rational about this – and we better be, as it’s absolutely indispensable for any libertarian argument to work whatsoever – things should change as soon as we accept this claim. In fact, even deciding that such an extraordinary statement is worth considering, rather than noting that it is at least as crazy as Stalinism and passing it straight to /dev/null, should lead us to change our minds about other extraordinary statements. If we decide it’s worth bothering with, we must have changed the criteria we use to assess these things. We need to update our Bayesian priors.

If minarchy makes the cut, why doesn’t anarchy, an Islamic caliphate, libertarian Marxism, deep ecology, or the joke from The Onion about the political scientists who discover a new form of government which has features of both anarchy and fascism? Further, libertarianism is very excluding – it denounces everything, all the way across the centre ground and well over into conservatism. If you can find a place for it in your worldview, your priors have to be very odd indeed to exclude social democracy.

And therefore, it is, indeed, irrational; all the strength in it comes from the prior assumptions, and these assumptions have to take a very strange form indeed. Further, accepting a zone of political possibility large enough to hold libertarianism forces a rational person to accept a wide range of views as possible that libertarianism demands that you denounce and attack at every opportunity.

“Prior assumptions”, after all, is a polite way of saying “prejudices”, and irrational forms of politics inevitably become ways of expressing prejudice.

As a reward for putting up with this drivel:

This Crooked Timber points to a column in the Economist about interns on the Bush campaign carefully hand-writing a range of fake homemade signs, confiscating the ones their positively vetted audience had brought along, and issuing them to the crowd for the media to wow over their rural authenticity. Well, not surprising. And the Economist guy was clearly so shocked he almost said something.

At the moment, however, I can’t help but think of this touching scene in terms of signalling and secret communication. The problem is Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How criminals communicate, which recently attracted attention because of its section on the vital importance of mediocrity to some Italian academics. I’ll do a formal review of it later, either here or at AFOE, but before we do that, let’s try putting it in practice.

He argues that much behaviour among criminals is driven by the problems of communicating things like group membership, reputation, and availability of goods or services in an environment where it is both easy to fake it and impossible to signal openly. Therefore, members of the Mafia never use the word “mafia” or indeed any specific term to refer to the organisation – what could be harder than trying to convince your mark that you are part of a mighty criminal society whose name you don’t know? – and they operate a sort of web of trust, in which two mafiosi who don’t know each other can only meet if one who knows them both mutually vouches for their identity.

A crucial element is the creative use of biological signalling theories, which revolve around the insight that an identifying signal needs to be cheap for a real user to produce, but expensive for a faker, or at least, that a signal needs to represent a real commitment of resources to be credible. In this sense, I think I can see the purpose of those signs – we know, after all, that the canned crowd were willing to be relieved of their own signs and have others thrust into their hands. Would you put up with this treatment?

I suspect if you’re reading this, you would probably find both the reality of the censorship, and the aesthetic horror of the fakery, quite offensive. But then, you’re also unlikely to want to be part of a canned crowd for George W. Bush….unless you were trying to fake it for some reason. Clearly, one of the effects of this procedure was a form of cost-discriminating signalling – the organisers demanded that their activists signal certain things that fakers would find difficult to mimic. You had to demonstrate that you were willing to abandon your stated opinions and wave ones they gave you instead.

As far as I can see, the qualities this process selected for would be obedience to authority and tolerance of ugly kitsch. Does anyone doubt that these would indeed qualify you to wave a sign behind the former president? This is an example of using costly signalling to communicate with people who score highly on the indices of social authoritarianism; as well as the political implications, it’s probably true that staging a preplanned media photocall with a crowd of people selected for their obedience to authority is just easier.

This is something which comes up occasionally in Gambetta; it’s possible for communication to evolve independently of intention. Even if our man the Bush ’04 intern was trying to stop the rent-a-mob turning up with 666 – TAKE A CLOSER LOOK!!! or OSAMA BIN KERRY signs, the way he did it had the secondary or unconscious effect of selecting the kind of person who would appreciate them most.

Over time, such effects could come to determine the culture of an entire political movement. Obviously, people who go to rallies are likely to be the same people who take part in all the other forms of campaigning, so if this (and other practices with similar effects) are common, it would likely tend to help boil down the base to its stinking, bitter, toxic, sticky residue.

O.K. Enough beating about the Bush. A practical example with David Cameron. The thing to grasp here is that whatever he’s apparently saying, or not saying, may be better understood as a way of identifying and communicating with like-minded people on a secure side-channel. Here, he’s saying that we don’t need to do anything, plus a whole lot of implied ideological justification. The obvious corrolary of not needing to do anything is to suggest that nothing is wrong. But what is the cost investment here?





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