Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT



  • Jason Soon
  • Heath Gibson
  • Jack Strocchi
  • Andrew Norton
  • Sarah Strasser
  • Teresa Fels


Intellectual heroes



  • Centrist
  • Leftish
  • Statist quo/flaming pink
  • Sui generis
    Saturday, November 16, 2002
    Erotica for the week
    How better to follow up a post on religion than with one on sex? As the song goes, it's my blog and I'll poetise if I want to. Since some bloggers found the last scribbling from my 'bottom drawer' that I posted 'entertaining' I am encouraged to post another one. This one too is from my uni days and one could in fact think of it as a sequel to 'The Cunning Linguist'. It was published under the pseudonym of Charles Bawdy-Lair many years ago.

    The Gardener

    My shirt off, I'm crawling on my hands and knees.
    My face is buried in your fragrant bush,
    Where a little bonsai would not go amiss

    To clear a path, I oh so gently push
    Aside your foliage, my hands caress
    The pink petal folds of an exposed flower,
    Its fringe like the edges of a torn dress.

    Quivering, it lets fall a dew shower.
    Double standards
    There has been a brouhaha brewing at my alma mater, Sydney University, over a full page ad taken out by senior academics from major faculties professing their faith in Christianity just days before the first anniversary of the S11 attack. It's been roundly condemned as 'irresponsible', 'crossing the line' and a 'call to arms' by some students.

    Now, readers of this blog will know that I'm a militant secularist who regards religion as basically metaphysical bs which may have a little bit of social utility by keeping the masses from engaging in rapine or encouraging them to have charitable thoughts, work hard and save - as long it doesn't go too far. Aside from that I tend to endorse (in spirit) Denis Diderot's line that 'Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest'.

    However I think it's a strong case of chutzpah to be condemning academics for signing petitions. Hello? Would it surprise anyone if the people doing this condemning would be the first ones to defend the right of the same academics to sign anti-war and anti-WTO or pro-Kyoto petitions. The most consistent position on statements of religious belief is that it should be treated as any other statement of belief or opinion. If anything, because religious discourse really isn't open to the same sort of rational argument as discourse over Kyoto or the WTO it should have an even more feeble effect on the minds of readers - a bit like signing a petition which says 'I like chocolate ice cream'.

    So what's the fuss about? By the same token, neither should religious beliefs be exempt from criticism, even strong and robust criticism. If it is perfectly alright to excorciate 'capitalism' or 'neo-liberalism' or 'communism' it should be perfectly alright to mete out the same treatment to Christianity or Islam - no claims about any especially great psychic disutility from having your creeds criticised, please. Those who profess secular creeds have as much invested in them as people who profess religious ones so no special treatment. Aside from that academics are as entitled to profess their faith in Jesus Christ as they are in the Kyoto Protocol.
    The smiling bomber
    A reader who has lived in Indonesia for 5 years writes:

    Public humiliation is feared greatly by Javanese. They can't cope very well and smiling is a pathetic reaction to the pressure. It doesn't pardon the smiling bomber, but any Aussie who has worked in and had local employees in Indonesia will back me up - the "grinning miscreant" is common

    The 'clash of cultures' line does have some truth to it and is also discussed in this article. Nonetheless.... it was a severe PR cock-up and insensitive in the extreme. Australia constantly gets hectored about how we don't understand 'Asian values' and are culturally insensitive to our neighbour for much more trifling behaviour than the sort exhibited by the merry policy chief in the interrogation room. We're entitled to hector back.

    Thursday, November 14, 2002
    Feel the Speed

    Nothing serious in this blog entry. It’s too late and I’m too tired. Just –posting to say I finally got a broadband Internet connection (ADSL) and loving it. With online gaming suddenly a whole lot more enjoyable – I wonder if my blogging will become even more sporadic.

    Oh – and this ‘smiling bomber’ fiasco. What the hell is going on there! The guy blows up hundreds of people and he gets treated like a TV star! Siitting there getting his photo taken with a smiling police chief whilst cracking jokes and laughing about killing so many people. With this kind of absurdity, how does Indonesia expect the rest of the world to take it seriously when it says the country is safe for tourists to return and that it is cleaning out the terrorists.
    What an idiot:


    At 9.00 pm last night I was informed by the State Director that Dr Robert Dean had failed to enrol as a person eligible to vote at the forthcoming election.

    That advice has been confirmed this morning in writing by the Electoral Commissioner.

    Consequently Dr Dean is unable to stand as a candidate for the Liberal Party in the electorate of Gembrook.

    As a result, I have immediately terminated Dr Dean's appointment as Shadow Treasurer. I have also asked for, and received, his resignation from the Parliamentary Liberal Party.
    The laughing bomber
    If Indonesia is going to make a hue and cry over our admittedly unpleasant but probably necessary steps to detain suspects who happen to be Muslim then we should be making a hue and cry about this. Indonesia can F*** off for all I care until their happy little police chief is disciplined. And a big F*** off to anyone who says we're being 'anti-Asian'.

    Wednesday, November 13, 2002
    Taking sides
    Blogging from me will be limited in next few days as I attempt to meet a deadline. Then I'm going away and it may be non-existent for a week. Hopefully the rest of my team will fill in for me (hint).

    Anyway I couldn't resist having a say on the new movie Taking Sides since James Russell has put in his two cents on it. Firstly I thought it was a thoroughly compelling movie with a great soundtrack (of course). Secondly however I agree with James that Harvey Keitel's character came across as a bit of a philistine dickhead in the movie and my sympathies were completely with Wilhelm Furtwängler. So for reasons partly of ego and partly perhaps of genuine love for his homeland he didn't want to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power, and he conducted for them and so on. And maybe the idealistic bullshit he threw around about how he thought he could at least ennoble his country by making good music and reminding it of when it was civilised was a rationalisation of his actions, but one can't help but feel he was partly sincere too (after all, most rationalisations are). The movie makes it quite clear though that Furtwangler was no monster or Nazi, he tried to save Jews and he tried to reduce the extent of even his symbolic collaboration with the Nazis. So he was self-serving, so he stayed in Germany and then refused to sacrifice his life or standing. If that's a crime then most of us are doomed to hell. I remain a Furtwangler fan. Art isn't more important than human decency but it is more important than politics (some of us wouldn't be libertarians if we didn't think so) and Furtwangler's level human decency was no worse than others who remained unprosecuted.
    Unhealthy spending?

    Gittins writes another inconsistent column today. He has spent years urging Australian governments to spend more on education: bringing our expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP up to the highest levels in the world is a GOOD THING – even if it is spent on extra bureaucracy, lower teacher workloads, higher pay for ineffective teachers or used to finance adverse curriculum and assessment changes.

    The calls for more expenditure do not involve a reasoned argument that a particular programme or expenditure has benefits that exceed costs. Instead the focus is on total spending rather than marginal returns. It is argued that total spending is too low, and so more should be spent. No evidence that past spending has been productive is presented, and the costs of the taxes needed to finance the spending are not mentioned. How to reform current spending to better achieve objectives is not considered.

    But according to today’s column, spending more on health care is a BAD THING. He points out that total health spending has grown by 15% over the past two years and asks ‘do you feel 15% healthier?’ (Did he ask whether the X% increase in school spending made us X% smarter?). Actually, when Isabel next door paid substantial sums out of her own pocket to have her hip replacement done sooner in a private hospital, she thought it was well worth it.

    Perhaps we can explain Gittins by observing that it is unfair to say the left argue that any expenditure on education is good. They only argue for more spending on government institutions and oppose more government spending on private institutions (even when targeted at low income families) or students contributing extra resources through fees (for example, fees in government tertiary institutions or parental contributions to government schools should be banned and preferably replaced with government expenditure). Likewise, student debt, which represents contributions from future wages to education, is treated as a problem rather than a source of resources for education. Despite calls for more expenditure, vouchers are rejected as being too expensive. Four legs good, two legs bad.

    Gittins opposes the extra health care expenditure because it is private. He asserts the extra spending represents moral hazard. He does not consider whether a market arrangement or a politicized government monopoly is the best way to arrange health insurance and deal with moral hazard. Do Medicare and the PBS control moral hazard well – or are decisions distorted by the political power of producer interest groups? What private insurance company would offer to pay the full cost of every visit to the GP? That is like insuring your car for the cost of services. Are waiting lists really the best way to control moral hazard?

    It seems to me that we have it pretty well right in dentistry. There is free care for the truly poor. Everyone else can choose to pay themselves or take out insurance – which has deductibles and caps to deal with moral hazard problems. And I am not concerned with how much people choose to spend on their teeth.
    Stand down
    One has to do what one can in these interesting times. I endorse this blog.

    Tuesday, November 12, 2002
    Who said this?
    The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.

    Noam Chomsky? Howard Zinn? Gore Vidal? ....

    HL Mencken

    My friend Charles Richardson has joined the list of occasional contributors to Catallaxy Files. Charles is an actual Philosophy PhD so he is a change from the predominantly Economics and Law backgrounds of current contributors. Like Teresa and Andrew, Charles is also a Melbournian.
    A libertarian by any other name; or Donning the right whig
    So I'm a bit behind with what what's going on in the blogosphere but it's worth noting that Brink Lindsey has sparked off a new debate with his posting entitled Am I a libertarian? Already, poor Brink has been accused of being a 'collectivist' and an 'altruism driven semi-libertarian' by some Randians and hardcore libertarians because he has written that:

    there are questions about the proper extent of redistribution -- of income and wealth. Safety-net policies represent partial amendments of taxpayers' property rights -- amendments which I believe can be appropriate if the policies are properly structured and modest in scope. In developing countries contending with a legacy of feudal-style plantation agriculture, land redistribution can be a necessary step toward a healthy and dynamic market order.

    Never mind that Brink has written a good book that skillfully argues the case for economic liberalisation and tries to engage the general public and non-libertarians in ideas that are generally conducive towards greater individual freedom whereas most Objectivists spend most of their time preaching to the converted.

    I've thought about the question of labels a lot myself, being even more vulnerable than Brink Lindsey to charges of heresy. I fear that if I was in America I'd probably be taken for a Clinton Democrat who happens to appreciate Law and Economics and Public Choice theory rather than a libertarian. Not surprising given that I am an ex-social democrat who, before making the full leap, liked to classify myself as a 'market oriented social democrat' (a bit of a mouthful).

    I've become increasingly uneasy with the label of libertarian and my uneasiness is reinforced by the sort of frothing at the mouth by some purists at Brink's thought provoking posting. A vast majority of libertarian rights-based thinking is foundationless and arbitrary so it's not as if the frothing at the mouth is based on any great intellectual rigour. The idea of a 'night watchman state' wherein some functions of the State like defence and law are supposed to be more legitimate than others such as welfare because the former is not 'redistributivist' doesn't really work if you can identify one person in the community who refuses to pay taxes or some instance of unequal benefits being granted. With even one lone anarchist in a community, even the night watchman state that is the ideal of minarchist libertarians will involve some infringement of rights, which is supposed to be completely proscribed (i.e. no 'initiation of force') by the principles of minarchist libertarianism - unless one defines away the problem by assuming that 'taxes' are paid voluntarily, in which case they are no longer taxes and this sort of minarchist libertarianism really collapses into anarchism.

    Essentially some of this is just a restatement of Roy Childs' critique of objectivism but it also works against any libertarianism that purports to be based on rights defined a certain way in order to proscribe particular forms of government intervention. The strategy just doesn't work unless one becomes a full fledged anarchist or else argues along a 'calculus of rights' basis - in which case the whole coherency of the rights argument is degraded. This leaves only two intellectual consistent positions for the advocate of less government - free market anarchism a la Murray Rothbard or David Friedman; or the sort of 'wishy washy at the edges' consequentialism that is condemned as not pure enough. I opt for the latter and this is also essentially the position taken by Brink Lindsey.

    So where does that leave me label wise? Classical liberal is a bit, well, antiquated but it properly captures my views better than the now rather baggage-laden term of libertarian. Liberal constitutionalist probably works even better though there is a risk of misunderstanding because the 'constitution' doesn't necessarily have to be a written one. Will Wilkinson who is an Objectivist of sorts but an open minded one, has an even better idea which I think I could endorse:

    As my researches into the self-deceptive grounds of ideological commitment continues, I find ideological identification less and less appealing. The thing about "isms" is that while they may accurately account for most of one's views, avowed identification with an "ism" communicates an emotive commitment to an intellectual/political identity, and not simply agreement with a set of propositions. This is distasteful if your first allegience is to the truth, and you would be willing to give up any proposition whatsoever (and any identity based on its truth) in the face of countervailing evidence. That's why I want to call myself a "whig," since it captures the core of my political views, but does not convey solidarity with a living political/intellectual lifestyle, as "libertarian" might.

    Below is something I posted to the Hayek mailing list a few years ago. It's unedited and may be of only marginal interest to anyone except libertarians but is relevant to my criticisms of minarchist rights-based libertarianism. Incidentally I make Hayek sound a bit like a post-modernist (and I sound a bit like a post-modernist too) - whjich is probably not just coincidental. There are affinities between my epistemic defence of liberalism, Hayek's critical rationalism and some post-modernism.
    Hayek's thought is fundamentally one of Humean scepticism, applying Reason consistently to Reason to examine its limitations, while Rand was scornful of Hume and her rationalism was in proportions which would seem hubristic to some Hayekians.

    The irony is that while Rand was a militant atheist and Hayek an agnostic who saw social value in religion, I would argue that Hayek's epistemology and metaphysics, based on the consistent application of evolutionist thinking to law, politics and morals are more secularistic while there is an almost Thomist tone in Rand's characterisation of the human capacity to reason from which she derives her case for freedom (no surprise Rothbard, who was a Randian in early years later came to see parallels between his system and natural law thinking).

    The great strength of the Hayekian case for freedom is that it is open-ended - there is no conception of Reason that can stand outside experience, and an important stock of human knowledge is not reducible to blueprints but can only be demonstrated in human action (Hayek and Oakeshott have many parallels in that regard).

    One implication is that there is an analogy between arguments for the utility of scientific procedures which are concerned with facilitating the transmission and testing of hypotheses until tentative agreements about the usefulness of particular propositions about physical‘reality’ are reached and arguments for the utility of an analogous procedure operating in the world of human action (disposal of property rights, freedom of contract, federalism and localism, etc) operating to facilitate continuous testing of tacit hypotheses about social ‘reality’ (e.g. hypotheses about the value of particular fashions or products to others in a community or hypotheses about the congruence between particular ways of life and social aspirations).

    Another implication is that what we call 'rights' are social understandings which have evolved through the course of time through decentralised processes, not concepts which can be fabricated as if they were concrete objects. As to how we evaluate which of these understandings are better if there are different understandings of rights, that would have to do with the processes underlying the evolutionary systems - the Hayekian preference being to ensure those processes are left as amenable to change, learning and feedback effects as possible while still satisfying the requirement of compossibility of interests or social order - the common law was such a system.

    It would follow as well that all pronouncements on how rights should be defined are based on the same intellectual fallacy as central planning - in fact they are a form of central planning. That is why from a Hayekian perspective it would be fallacious to argue that antitrust law violates 'rights' and therefore should be repealed - which is not to say that a critique of antitrust law in terms of how underlying socially valuable processes are blocked is not possible. A lot of libertarian nostrums seem simplistic in light of Hayekian thought.

    Monday, November 11, 2002
    The end times?
    Maybe I've just been having a few bad days but I'm starting to feel the world is rapidly hurling itself into shit creek territory and the crocs ate the paddles a long time ago. Let's take a look shall we?

    1) US-British warplanes strike Iraqi anti-aircraft missile sites
    2) The world anxiously awaits Saddam's decision on UN resolutions
    3) Rich addle-brained brat and incoherent nincompoop Dubya is itching for war and wins a mandate in US elections
    4) Netan-Yahoo gets closer to regaining power in Israel
    5) Islamists win elections in Turkey and get warned by generals
    6) Islamists also gaining ground in Pakistan

    Can things get any worse than this?
    Update: Oh, yes, I forgot to mention - there's now been a white powder alert at the Australian senate.
    Another blow to the 'root causes' theory
    Al Qaeda planned to assassinate the Pope ... unless the Pope has been soft on the 'Palestine question' and the Vatican has secret army bases in Saudi Arabia

    Sunday, November 10, 2002
    'Nationalist' follies
    The AIJAC Review has a very interesting piece on the two main players on the far-right-radical nationalist-neoNazi (call it what you will) front in Australia - Jack van Tongeren who was recently released from prison after committing a number of firebombings of Asian businesses in Perth and James Saleam who was convicted of planning an attack on the ANC representative in Sydney. I should disclose that after I had blogged on the links between these groups and the anti-globo Lunar Left not too long ago, James Saleam wrote me a very polite email taking issue with my characterisation of his group as neo-Nazi, my reporting of his conviction and my speculations on his ancestry, referring me to his own writings on his conviction. Needless to say I am not inclined to accept his personal testimonies against that of a well-functioning judicial system but will acknowledge that input.

    Anyway, back to the story - here are some rather revealing highlights of the AIJAC article which reveal the schisms within these groups:

    Van Tongeren was initially a leading light in the Sydney based National Action (NA) neo-Nazi group in the early eighties. As with every almost other member that NA has ever had, Jack quit and went off to form his own organisation, believing NA were being soft on Jews, and not Nazi enough to lead the rebirth of the supreme Aryan being. Despite what followed, some in National Action, those with "radical" beliefs, felt in turn that Van Tongeren had been a little soft on the Asian question. Jack’s parents had previously disowned him, not surprisingly as it turned out, given his Asian ancestry ...

    Jack’s biggest nemesis throughout the eighties, and the ANM continues to bait him today, is James Saleam, former leader and founder of National Action. For constantly and casually reminding everyone of Van Tongeren’s Asian heritage, Saleam is labelled a "Sand Nigger" by the ANM, due to his own, some-say Turkish, some-say Lebanese, background. Certainly the two could not stand further apart in the political wilderness. While Van Tongeren saw a future for Australian neo-Nazism in building a broad-base with the Conservative right, Saleam has continued to waste his political life dreaming of Eureka style insurrection, inspired by Maoist and other obscure revolutionary thinkers.

    The pathological psychology behind these extremist movements is all quite fascinating. Incidentally the Asian ancestry of Van Tongeren, advocate of a 'whiter, brighter' Australia is, as far as I know, not something made up but is confirmed in other writings on the Net and in the mainstream media - see this for instance, which refers to his half-Indonesian father. Obviously a case of pathological self-hatred.

    Just as interesting are the links being forged between the 'radical nationalists' and the Lunar Left which I blogged about before:

    The Federal Labor party’s setback at the hands of the Greens, in the recent Cunningham by-election, will have further increased the sense of urgency felt by Saleam and others attempting to forge a "new" right. Saleam recently joined other hopefuls’ including the NSW treasurer of One Nation and the ANM’s Wayne Van Blitterswyk, in a discussion forum attended by Dr Saad Al Samarai, the Iraqi Charge D’Affaires to Australia. Along with the fringe left, many at the conference perceive the war on terror as part of a conspiracy by the New World Order. The September conference swapped the "oil" conspiracy for "Zionist (Jewish)" conspiracies, attracting the full range of gun-nuts and conspiracy theorists, as well as a former executive member of Germany’s hardline NPD. The German NPD even attempted to send shaven-headed mercenaries to Iraq in 1990 to fight against the "ZOG controlled" allied forces during the Gulf War. How serious a push this is and how strong an alliance between the odd-ball mixture can be maintained is debatable in the wake of the Bali bombing




    < Home  |  Archives