A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Political Fracture and the Consent of the Governed

It has been a commonplace of liberal, and in particular democratic, political rhetoric that government rests solely upon the consent of the governed. The logical conclusion of this principle, of course, is that every single individual ought to be able to determine the exact nature of the polity in which they choose to live. This is of course an utterly unachievable goal, but it is worth considering how far we can move in that direction - and whether such moves are likely to be desirable.

So far, the closest we have come to achieving this kind of choice is to allow for collective decision-making about how governance should take place. This is, however, a pale shadow of the ideal we are aiming for: collective choice may reflect the preferences of all in a group of four or five friends, but in a nation of thousands - let alone millions, or even hundreds of millions - the individual voice is a mere drop in the ocean.

Another possible way to move in the direction of individual consent is to institute a variety of polities, and allow free movement between these. There are still problems with this system (call it "Archipelago"), both in terms of individual choice and in terms of the practical problems it throws up, but it remains perhaps the closest to utopia we are ever likely to reach. I'm not going to defend it here, but section III of the linked article provides one person's attempts to expose and subsequently resolve the problems with it. As I see it, the principal differences between Archipelago and one inhabited by modern-day Europeans are few but highly significant. These differences can be bridged, but would require substantial, and highly controversial, changes to the current political set-up.

A first difference lies in the vast legal and logistical difficulties faced by anyone attempting to move from one polity to another. The EU has done a considerable amount to reduce the legal barriers, but there are nevertheless very considerable costs to moving. There are the large financial costs, the friends and family with whom you have considerably less contact, the difficulties of learning a new language (or reduced quality of life if you don't learn it), as well as all the frictional costs of adapting to a new set of cultural institutions. Some of these costs are unavoidable, but others could, I think, be much reduced.

The key step to be made here is the abolition of the nation-state. Or rather, the splitting of nations into several different states. The costs of moving from Aldershot to Bath are much smaller than the costs of moving from Austria to Belgium, and that would continue to be the case if Hampshire and Somerset were separate states. It is true that political differences can lead to cultural differences which magnify over time, but the fact remains that after more than 200 years of independence the USA remains the number-two destination for British emigrants - topped only by another former British colony, Australia. In terms of the existing stock of British expats, five of the top six destinations are Australia, the USA, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, and New Zealand. Splitting the UK into anywhere between a dozen and twenty smaller states would allow Brits a real choice of political entities in which to abide.

The second, and perhaps the biggest, difference between Archipelago and the real world is that real world states really aren't all that different from one another. There are differences, but you'll struggle to find a single first-world economy that has anything other than a welfare-state vaguely-capitalist mixed economy. Switzerland has genuine variation between its cantons, with some places such as Zug levying almost no taxes whereas Geneva will tax anything you can shake a stick at, but they are entirely the exception (and of course anyone wishing to move into Switzerland from the outside faces some of the strictest borders in Europe). Achieving Archipelago means being willing to see people recreate communism, fail, and ruin decades of their lives. It means being willing to see first-world countries where women are not allowed to vote and where homosexuals leave as soon as they can. Above all, it means trusting that there will be states like Estonia who try new, exciting and above all good ideas, who will lead the way for everyone else to follow.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Review: Sweeney Todd

Eso Theatricals is an English-language theatre company operating in Budapest, who this weekend put on a series of performances of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I had a passing knowledge of the musical from various sources, but this was my first time seeing it; the performance was in various ways sub-professional, but nevertheless well worth the 3000Ft ticket price and time.

We'll start with the good: Tamás Pál and Dóra Stróbel were fantastic in the lead roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. They both sang and acted well, bringing across the characters of an intelligent but haunted Sweeney and a Mrs. Lovett who is independently psycho but nevertheless driven into true depravity by her love for Sweeney. They bounced off each other magnificently, with "A Little Priest" being unsurprisingly a highlight of the show.

Similarly, Chris Hunter put on a stellar performance as Anthony, while Hans Peterson and Mario Cossu were convincing as the Judge and the Beadle respectively. The music was played well enough not to stand out, which is precisely what is wanted in musical theatre. The lighting was understated, and resisted the temptation to play up to the dramatics of the rest of the piece. (The play did in some parts feel too dramatic, but perhaps that is unavoidable when you're adapting a Victorian penny-dreadful).

The setting was well arranged. We entered to a ghostly organ piece, with various cast members standing in position around a darkened and smoky room with old-fashioned lanterns. The aesthetic of Dark Old London was well captured (though this aesthetic of course belies the fact that the London of the Victorian era was considerably safer than the London of today).

Moving on to the forgivable: the sound was in the early stages poorly balanced, but was corrected within the first ten minutes. Non of the accents even came close to cockney, but with the exception of one obnoxiously-American-accented extra this did not especially hurt the performance. Dóra Stróbel in particular came off as motherly and yet at the same time pragmatic largely as a result of her Hungarian way of speaking. Viktória Pászthy as Johanna was often difficult or even impossible to understand, but ultimately Johanna isn't really an independently interesting character so much as a Ms. McGuffin, so not understanding her hardly detracts from the rest of the play.

Overall I enjoyed the play, and would recommend going to see it were it not for this having been the last showing, and for this blog having o Hungarian readers.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Trolling Should Be Equal-Offender

A couple of weeks ago, Vox.com released an article entitled "Pokémon Go is everything that is wrong with late capitalism". The article argued that Pokémon Go will lead to greater inequality of income and wealth, even if in terms of people's quality of life it is a significant boost to many people and especially those on low incomes. The solution to this, the article continued was looser housing policy, demand management, and perhaps increased redistribution of income. The article took a fair bit of criticism at the time, including this by Rob Wiblin. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I'm going to add my own criticism of the piece.

Let's be clear: the article is highly tongue-in-cheek. The title alone should be enough to make it clear that they are comically exaggerating the importance of and the scale of their opposition to the Pokémon game. Indeed, I think that for this reason they can shrug off some of the other criticisms. My question is: why, if this is a light-spirited article, is its conclusion identical to those of Vox's serious pieces?

When you start a political argument with an absurdity, there should be no inherent tendency to reach any particular conclusion. (Perhaps there will be a greater tendency towards extreme conclusions, but that doesn't help Vox given that they're arguing for standard centre-left positions). If you consistently reach the same end-point regardless of your premises, then the suspicion has to be that you are starting with your political preferences and then working backwards to see how they might be justified by any particular set of circumstances. What you are showing when you argue, then, is not the strength of your political position but rather your ability to make arguments sound plausible.

This has a knock-on effect for your more serious arguments, too. If I know you can convince me that anything at all is evidence for X, regardless of whether it actually is, then I should not take your arguments for X as strong evidence for its truth - if I take them as evidence at all. Moving from the meta-level to the concrete, if Vox will argue convincingly that Pokémon Go is evidence for why we need to be more left-wing, then they will do that in any situation - and hence should not be trusted in any situation.

There's actually a real lesson to be learned here, which is that if you want to make both serious and joking arguments about the same topic, and you want your serious arguments to be taken in a serious manner, the conclusions of your joking arguments (and ideally your serious arguments too) should not always be for the same conclusion. If you're going to argue that libertarians should be taxed less than leftists, you should also talk about how the UK should invade other countries and take their wealth. If you're going to talk about how Trump should be assassinated, you should also argue that women should face longer prison sentences than men for the same crime.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Anything You Can Screw, I Can Screw Better

A party question for politically moderate Anglo-Saxons: which would be worse, Corbyn as Prime Minister with a substantial majority, or Trump as President?

I'm not going to answer that here. However, a couple of remarks:

(1) Prime Ministers are much more powerful than Presidents, due to the absence of checks and balances. Obama, a reasonable and essentially centrist President, has achieved virtually nothing since 2010 due to Republican majorities in Congress. Trump is a plain and simple fascist, so one would hope will face greater opposition.

(2) Trump is also known to have a very short attention span. The idea that he would have the endurance to push major law changes through is a dubious one.

(3) For that matter, Corbyn has proven consistently unable to even produce a policy platform. Imagine what he would be like if he not only had to think of policies, but put them into legalese and defend them against some former Oxford Union debating champion.

(4) Therefore, our fear of what Trump and Corbyn would be like should be rooted less in what we think either of them would do, but rather in what they wouldn't do. (e.g. defend the Baltic Republics/Falkland Islands).

(5) This fact, combined with Trump and Corbyn being the least qualified candidates for governing their respective countries since at least 1900 and 1983 respectively, ought to raise a few questions for libertarians.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Combating Socialistic Tendencies in Old Testament Interpretation

Having written a pro-Christianity post earlier in the month, and given the vast unlikelihood of Christianity being true, I'd better write a few trillion anti-Christianity posts to balance out the religious tone of my blog. To get started, let's just have a couple of brief riffs on a passage of text introducing the book of Isaiah:
[Isaiah] had to contend with many difficulties, for the moral and spiritual condition of the people was corrupt. The rich oppressed the poor, and revelled in wanton luxury; justice was shamelessly bought and sold.
First, I'll take note with the phrase "the rich oppressed the poor". Part of my complaint is that it is so generic: every moral and political programme that has ever existed has had a complaint of this kind (even Objectivism!), regardless of whether the poor were even literate enough to record their complaints for themselves. But more than that, it gives a misleading impression of the nature and cause of the oppression. It was definitely the case in hierarchical societies, such as that of Uzziah's monarchy in ancient Israel, that there tended to be significant oppression of the peasantry by the elite. It was also the case that the oppressors were in general much richer than the people they were oppressing. But the text I quoted gives the misleading impression that it was because of their riches that people were able to exercise oppression, rather than the oppression being the source of their wealth.

Secondly, it is complained that "justice was... bought and sold." Going all Brennan/Jaworsky: what, precisely is wrong with that? My suspicion is that the complaint refers to situations such as the following scenario: Aaron wrongs Bathsheba, so Bathsheba takes Aaron to court. However, the judge, Caleb, accepts a bribe from Aaron to pronounce wrongly, so that justice is not done.

But attributing the problem to "the buying and selling of justice" is misdiagnosing the problem. Rather, the issue is one of misallocation of rights. Let us suppose that Aaron's wrongdoing created a right of restitution, R. We would tend to assume that R is owned by Bathsheba. For Bathsheba to have the right to sell R is very useful: exercising the right may well require time or money that she does not have. Instead she might sell the case on to someone more able to pursue it, and take the proceeds of the sale as her restitution. The buying and selling of justice is not only morally acceptable, but serves a valuable purpose.

The problem, in our case, is that the right of restitution did not in practice reside with Bathsheba: it went to Caleb. Note that Aaron still ended up paying for his crime (though perhaps less than he otherwise would have had to): the problem lies less with a failure to punish Aaron than with a failure to make Bathsheba whole.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

On Terrorism Against the West

The recent rash of attacks in the West by terrorists, beginning in Nice and most recently occurring (dare I say ending?) in Saint-Éttiene-du-Rouvray, have injected a great deal of tension into political debates over multiculturalism, immigration policy, and domestic security. Some people have begun speaking of a "war" between Islamism and civilisation. These worries are not unfounded, but nor are they in proportion with those which a rational observer of the facts would entertain.

First, let's remark on the generally petty level of the violence involved. Today's attack killed one person and left another fighting for life. Sunday's bombing in Ansbach injured fifteen, but killed no-one. Nine people died in the shooting in Munich last Friday. The attack in Nice, of course, killed 81 innocents, but such attacks are rare, coming perhaps two or three times a year at their most frequent. These numbers perhaps sound bad in the abstract, but let's make some comparisons. Each year in the UK, which has the second safest roads in the world, more than 1700 people die in traffic accidents. (That itself is a massive improvement on the past: 2006 was the first year since records began, 80 years previously, that the figure was under 3000). If we can absorb 2000 deaths from traffic accidents every year, I think we can similarly absorb a couple of hundred deaths from terrorism.

Second, we could prevent most terrorist violence if we really wanted to. With the (admittedly large) exception of the Nice attack, every perpetrator of a notable terrorist attack in the West has been known to domestic intelligence (example). Why aren't the attacks stopped, then? Because doing so would mean arresting people based on suspicion that they might commit a crime, rather than evidence that they had already done so. We could stop most terrorist attacks, but this would come at a cost in civil liberties.

I don't want to say that such costs should never be paid. Going back to the traffic example, we don't ban people from driving in order to prevent traffic accidents - but we do require them to wear seatbelts. There may well be low-hanging fruit to be had: policies that will, with minimal expense or inconvenience, reduce the incidence of terrorism upon our societies (note: preventing thousands of people from entering the country they want to live in does not count as "minimal inconvenience").

At the same time, though, we should note the possibility that we have already gone too far down this route. Airport security, for example, incurs vast costs in time for gains in security which are small to non-existent, and of dubious necessity: air travel is in fact considerably safer than road travel.

Laying my cards on the table: I think we should basically just ignore terrorism. (In the first world, that is: in the Middle East it's actually a very serious problem, although what that means for our politics I don't know). It is genuinely possible that there exist low-hanging-fruit policies which we ought to implement - mandatory detention of people returning from ISIS is very plausibly one, along with state attempts to promote moderate Islam and perhaps even some censorship of violently Islamist views (although my liberal side is very worried by this last idea). But understand that there are no two ways about it: if this becomes a war, Islamism will get curb-stomped.

Friday, 22 July 2016

My Great-Grandfather: an Oral History

I never met my great-grandfather: he was born around 1898 whereas I was born in 1994. What follows, then, is a combination of 22 years worth of stories and one meal (along with several pints) that I had earlier this evening with my dad and uncle.

My dad's family came from Bradford, in Yorkshire. This was in the years before Bradford was a byword for immigration - and in particular Pakistani immigration - and my great-grandfather was very much a product of his time. He was fiercely patriotic: upon the outbreak of war in 1914, he immediately turned up to the local recruiting station. The recruiting officer looked at him somewhat skeptically and inquired as to whether he was indeed eighteen (this being the minimum age one had to be in order to sign up). My great-grandfather had to shake his head and Chief Eastleigh admit that he had not in fact achieved this age. Perhaps unfortunately  the sympathetic recruiting officer been suggested that he should go for a walk around the block and "By the time you're back you should be eighteen."

We know very little of the things he did and saw during the ensuing four years of trench warfare: the vast majority of them, he simply refused to talk about in later years. The one thing we do know about is that on one occasion he was in a trench while it was being (presumably unsuccessfully) stormed by the Germans. One particular German soldier leapt over the top of the trench brandishing his rifle, bayonet affixed, and would have landed directly upon my great grandfather; indeed would surely have killed him. Fortunately a fellow British soldier, who would go on to become one of my great-grandfather's firmest friends, was on hand to fatally stab the German in the groin.

After the war my great-grandfather became a builder: you can point to whole rows of houses in Bradford, each of them his handiwork. I don't know much about this period: my grandmother was born in 1933, my dad in 1963 period. The next story I know which directly involved him came shortly after the Second World War, and concerns how he made another long-lasting friend. This was an Irish immigrant who had been sacked from his previous job for fighting; my great-grandfather nevertheless employed him, reasoning that anyone who had fought for Britain in World War II could not be all that bad. The last we heard of this man, which came not long after the turn of the millennium, was that he had recently sold a patch of land to Leeds council for several hundred thousand pounds. This success he credited greatly to the start he had been given by my great grandfather.

In later years he suffered a number of health set backs: he broke his neck and survived at least two heart attacks. One of these heart attacks came on the building site, when he was working to a strict deadline imposed by his contract. What was he to do? The other men were mostly busy at their own jobs; my grandfather was at this point well into the Multiple Sclerosis which would eventually kill him aged 52; and my grandmother, entirely apart from the fact of her being a woman, was not at this point in the best mental health. Hence my dad, aged at this point only 10 years old, had to pile building supplies into a wheelbarrow, carry them upstairs, and finish the tiling of the bathroom. This my dad did, albeit to what he later realised was an abysmal standard. Still, my great-grandfather reflected, "it [was] a higher standard of building than some of those Paki builders."

(That is perhaps an unfair, or at least incomplete, picture though. While it is not the only racist joke I have heard him to have made, he owed these attitudes to ignorance rather than malice. When once asked to do some work for a Sikh gentleman, he was initially mistrust full but within 5 minutes was talking to this man as he would have any Brit.

In his spare time, my greta-grandfather enjoyed working on cars. It was in his garage that my dad learnt to maintain and restore cars, a passion which has continued to this day: more or less every car my parents have bought had previously been involved in a crash and my dad restored it (saving money: every Yorkshireman's favourite hobby), and he now restores classic motors.

My great-grandfather never truly retired. He stopped charging, to be sure, but when the young couple two Doors Down needed some help he offered to plaster their entire house, over a period of several weeks, for no compensation.

He was himself only semi-literate, but lived to see my Dad and Uncle go to university. Eventually, despite numerous unhealthy habits, he passed away at 85 - by the standards of the time and place a quite remarkable age.