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


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    Friday, January 24, 2003
    Blog Stalking, Boom! Boom! and a Litany of Accusations
    Thanks to Professor Quiggin for his gracious ovation to my maiden post in the blogosphere. Just to show that no good deed goes unpunished I am going to spend the better part of this post bagging him and all who sail under the flag of his peace-now ship. Take it as a compliment, since I don't find it intellectually satisfying to spike his loose-cannons. (It also resolves the antimony he posits between being a Quigginite commentator and a Catallactic blogger as sour grapes over my imminent loss of our bet over Iraq has neuroticly compelled me to become his blog stalker).
    Of course, all bets are on if the US heeds Charles Krauthammers advice about "no turing back".
    But first, a little indulgence in scientific-literary pretention.
    Drawing physical analogies with social process is a literary technique fraught with folly, especially when one is, like me, a novice at physics.
    This temptation to have just a little intellectual wank is irresistible.
    What happens when an Irresistible Force meets and Immovable Object?
    Boom! Boom!
    We have the ingredients for an international political system explosion brewing in the Gulf crisis:

    • Irresistible Force - the US administration driven by pre-preemptive unilateralist hawks

    • Immovable Object - the UNSC steered by France and driven by multilateralist Western public opinion

    If the IF succeeds and invades Iraq then the UNSC will be discredited and disabled, perhaps permanently, and France's dreams of global eminence will be exposed as one of it's perennial post-Napoleonic delusions.
    If the IO succeeds and blocks the Iraq invasion then the US administration and it's brand spanking new strategic doctrine will be discredited, the Allied military machine will have to creep home with it's tail between it's legs and the issueless Republicans will probably lose in 2004.
    (FTR I am not against multilateral institutions, so long as they toe a reasonable US line. The reasons the EU, UN and Arabs have given for resistance to US preemption srike me as unworthy.)
    Once Blix's reccomendations are in, what ever happens, one sides gain will be the others loss - no circles to be squared, middles to be included or lions to lie with lambs.
    Current reports indicate that Pr Q's estimation of the diplomatic and democratic balance of forces is correct.
    We have heard many Cassandric cries about how a US invasion will cause regional instability, terrorist reprisals and cost a fortune in admin costs.
    Now it is time for the peace bloggers to start doing their sums. If the US caves in, I issue this challenge to the most competent advocate in the peace camp: what will the long term consequence for international order be when the US is forced to backdown and relinquish global threat neutralisation responsibilty to the impotent and inept UN and the unwilling EU? Here are some implications for his side to consider:
    A US admin backdown on Iraq-attack will, for the forseeable future, undermine US deterrence accross the globe. The last time that happened (post 1975) there was an irruption of fundamentalist revolution and an expansion of communist military power.
    As Krauthammer puts it:
    "You cannot march up this hill and then march back down empty-handed without undermining American deterrence everywhere."
    (And retorting that "it's the US admin.'s fault for bringing the crisis to a head" ignores the fact that "Things have Changed" whilst the UN has not.)
    History shows that global security is enhanced when the international system is controlled by an effective hegemon, not vice-versa. Will the peace camp feel safer when they wake up on the morrow of the French Resolution knowing that they have drawn the teeth of their only reliable guard dog?

    You say hello, and I say goodbye: a defect notice

    I am defecting to the blog. I have been short of time for blogging these past few months – and the situation is likely to get worse in the next few weeks. Still, I have put a few posts up there these past few days - if I have any readers (there is little evidence of that – apart from occasional ad hominen attacks from the left, such as John Quiggin and Ken Parish).

    I’d like to thank Jason for generously allowing me to blog on Catallaxy. Jason didn’t know me from a bar of soap and yet took it upon himself to ring me and invite me to blog and free-ride on his efforts in building up a reputation and readership (something he probably regretted). I would have never taken up blogging off my own bat. A real gentleman and a scholar. Often I would come across an attack on one of my posts in other blogs (usually long after it was made) and there would be an eloquent defence of me in the comments box by Jason (better than I could have written). I’ll certainly keep Catallaxy on my daily must read blogs.

    John Quiggin seems to believe that every member of a group blog agrees with anything posted on it unless they immediately post an attack.

    I don’t agree, but if that is a common view, perhaps I’d better leave. Jason is in favour of affirmative action, confiscating guns, appeasement of homicidal dictators, having the State confiscate all your wealth when you die and now considers his natural home the Democratic Party in the US.

    Thursday, January 23, 2003
    Christianity and liberalism
    The polymathic Razib over at Gene Expression has commenced what he promises will be a multipart series on the relationship between liberalism and various world cultures with a long outstanding post on Christianity and liberalism.
    Libertarians at war
    The debut of the new Australian Libertarian Society blog where I am a guest blogger has been unfortunately marred by the understandable furore over the tasteless remarks of one of the main contributors, Strawman regarding the Canberra bushfires which seem like a Canberra-bashing joke taken too far. This is unfortunate because there's lots of good stuff there. The inevitable topic of the war is, for instance, revealing clear divisions within Oz libertarian ranks between those in favour of pointless military adventurism and those against (alright so I'm not the most objective commentator). My post on 'The Warblogger Jacobins', reproduced on that blog, was followed by a pro-war piece by Strawman which was in turn followed by a piece titled 'Bush burns with war fever' by the enigmatic 24601.
    Estate taxes: Reviving the debate
    Bill Gates Senior (!) has co-written an article in The Nation arguing in favour of estate taxes. He also has some critical commentary about the recent US tax cuts.

    I don't completely agree with his article. There are sound economic reasons for dividend tax reform and the mere fact that a tax cut may deliver disproportionate benefits to the well-off isn't a decisive argument for rejecting it. I also don't buy the argument that we should be concerned about concentrated wealth because it may allow the wealthy to lobby government in their own interests. Rather, we should be concerned about the opportunities for the wealthy to lobby government in their own interests that are created by an overextended regulatory state. It seems like a self-defeating option to give government carte-blanche to 'socially engineer' distribution because of concerns that people might use their wealth to take control of the social engineering tools - the best solution to this dilemma is limited government, including phasing out inducements to lobbyists by root and branch phasing out of corporate welfare, the reform of regulatory approaches which give too much discretion to governments, checks on the power of eminent domain, simple and flat taxes which are relatively more difficult to lobby holes and exemptions into, and so on.

    Having said that, I generally agree with his view that an estate tax does little harm (no more than other taxes), is no more a threat to the idea of limited government than other revenue-raising devices and is a good way of raising revenue without the typical deadweight losses one gets from taxes on income.

    Wednesday, January 22, 2003
    Hullo www surfers.
    My name is Jack Strocchi. I was trained, and practised, as an economist whilst working for the Australian Public Service.
    My economics career was brief and inglorious, ending with a single policy recommendation: to abolish my own job.
    These days I am interested in more elevated concerns: the interface between biology and technology and it's human evolutionary implications for the extension of longevity and the enhancement of mentality.
    I am currently constructing a monster web site on this subject and I hope to enlist your support in this vital endeavour.
    Jason Soon has been kind enough to issue me with an invitation to blog on his site.
    Thanks Jason.
    The site goes by the name of Catallaxy Files. The term Catallaxy was revived by our mutual intellectual idol, Fritz von Hayek, and refers to the tendency of trade to turn an enemy into a friend.
    This is apt as Jason (in our first correspondence, posted on John Quiggin's blog comments thread) in the midst of an acrimonious discussion on social stratification, suggested that:
    "Strocchi pull his head out of psychobabbling arse, read more books and get out more before he applies his stupid theories indiscriminately to everyone. And no, Soon is not a WASP surname, ignoramus."
    I responded by describing Jason as a "lickspittle of the Thatcherite bourgeoisie".
    Professor Quiggin was called into referee and relations between Jason and I have moved along nicely ever since.
    Thanks Pr. Q.
    My chief interests are:

    • political: analysing the current US attempt at world domination

    • professional: the interface between biology and technology

    • personal: extending my life far into the distant future

    I will try to keep my posts short and sweet.

    Quote of the day
    Gene Healy on John Derbyshire:

    It's almost as if a team of genetic scientists took a mouth-breathing, beer-swilling, Pak-bashing specimen of pure Cockney trash and raised his IQ by 100 points. How can he fail to be interesting?

    Tuesday, January 21, 2003
    The warblogger Jacobins
    More evidence that Tim Blair, Professor Bunyip et al, sound as they are in most matters have found new mates among the 'castles in the air' Left - take this piece by ALP member Jim Nolan in today's Australian:

    WHY won't Labor and the Australian Left call for the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on human rights grounds alone? After all, the party and its ideological soul mates in the community have had a proud and noble record in championing the democratic cause of the oppressed and condemning the evil ways of their aggressors.

    Well, there are in fact many warbloggers who are backing intervention on 'human rights grounds alone', so the well-intentioned Nolan is not alone. And why stop at Saddam? Today Iraq, tomorrow North Korea, Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe, China, Cuba .... You get the picture.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of killing 2 birds with one stone - Afghanistan was a case in point. The main reason for the Afghan campaign was to blow up Al Qaeda bases and gather evidence and intelligence. If along the way we got rid of the despicable Taliban, so much the better. And the stakes in terms of creating a new mess in Afghanistan weren't that high as Afghanistan was in such a mess anyway. Not so with Iraq. External regime change probably will mean civil war in Iraq, instability among the lesser evil secular Arab dictatorships in Syria, Egypt, etc; Saddam using the nuke option on Israel and one country or the other being decimated which means more instability and reprisal; Kurds rising up in Turkey, and Iran consolidating its power. Come on, do you really trust the Bushies to do a proper nation building job? It's not even a matter of intentions, it's a matter of capability. The spirit is willing but the flesh will probably be weak.

    Speaking of Afghanistan, Joan Didion has a stark reminder

    In the early 1980s I happened to attend, at a Conservative Political Action conference in Washington, a session called "Rolling Back the Soviet Empire." One of the speakers that day was a kind of adventurer-slash-ideologue named Jack Wheeler, who was very much of the moment because he had always just come back from spending time with our freedom fighters in Afghanistan, also known as the Mujahideen. I recall that he received a standing ovation after urging that copies of the Koran be smuggled into the Soviet Union to "stimulate an Islamic revival" and the subsequent "death of a thousand cuts." We all saw that idea come home.

    Does this remind you of anything?

    Monday, January 20, 2003
    Posner and more on IP
    Paid a visit to the official website of one of my living intellectual heroes, Posner and according to the Publications section of his site he's got 2 more new books coming out this year - The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law and Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy. This guy is churning out more books than I'm able to keep track of., buy and read. He also has a link to a recent paper he co-wrote with William Landes called Indefinitely renewable copyright -fairly timely given that that's exactly what the US Supreme Court has handed to Congress on a silver platter. I haven't read it in full yet but apparently the paper tries to rebut the conventional wisdom that copyright protection needs to be limited in duration to be efficient. However it's significant that the only major 'new' benefit the paper finds from a system of indefinite renewal of copyright terms is a reduction in rent-seeking costs from lobbying Congress for term extensions!

    A new paper with a completely different spin on things can be found on the excellent AEI-Brookings Joint Centre for Reg. Studies website. The paper, by Mark Nadel, argues that there is little economic justification for laws against unauthorised copying because the higher revenues this generates for popular creations, are in 'winner take all' entertainment markets, generally used for promotional efforts and that such efforts crowds out many borderline creations. Interesting argument but it's debatable whether he's found a 'killer argument' against copyright rather than identified an additional cost of the IP system peculiar to markets for particular works.

    Sunday, January 19, 2003
    Wilsonian idealist Bushie fools
    For the record I believe that the Australian public's scepticism about the need for war with Iraq as evinced by recent polls is evidence of strong good sense on their part. Notwithstanding my reference to GWB being a 'military industrial complex puppet' I don't buy any elaborate conspiracy theories about oil but do believe he is quite sincere in his projection of a battle against evil where evil is this undifferentiated mass lumping together totally unrelated entities (Saddam and Al Qaeda) - bugger the consequences. His childish, Messianic sincerity about these oppositions is indeed the most frightening aspect of this whole business. Give me a mass copulator in the White House any day. This is not even a genuinely conservative perspective and much as I dislike generic conservative stances on domestic issues it is in the Hobbesian world of international relations that they make most sense - the most essential conservative concept in this sense being that of the 'necessary evil'. This summary by Ian Buruma (who spoke at an AEI conference on the impending war) captures the concepts quite well:

    ... on the merits of the war itself, there could be no question. That was settled. Scepticism on this score was met with the kind of eye-rolling impatience with which committed Marxists treat people who still fail to understand the laws of history. In the course of this eye-rolling, I learned a new expression for the word "aesthetic", as in: "Oh, you're only against the war for aesthetic reasons."

    The assumption here is that one is a namby-pamby European wimp, too squeamish for the necessary task at hand. Sure, a few tens of thousands may die, but what is that compared to the glories of democratic revolution? This goes beyond anti-European prejudices. It is where the neo-conservative ideologues reveal the now distant, but still unmistakably Trotskyist antecedents of their dogmatism. One cannot afford to be sentimental if one is to change the world. To a true believer the means to an essential end are indeed a matter of aesthetics.

    This is quite different from the more cynical attitudes of traditional conservatives, whose interests are in every respect more businesslike. Order and stability are the aim. If our man is a brute, at least he is ours. And if that means violent oppression, well, as that great bourgeois character, Mr Peachum, says in Brecht's Three-penny Opera, "that is the way things are in the world.

    I linked to this article in an earlier post but now feel I should have given it more attention, especially in light of the discovery of the chemical warheads. This level headed piece argues that containment without war is possible even if Iraq had the full armoury of nuclear and chemical weapons. This wasn't written by any 'hippie' or peacenik mind you but it was written by International Relations experts with impeccable establishment credentials. Here is their summary:

    Both logic and historical evidence suggest a policy of vigilant containment would work, both now and in the event Iraq acquires a nuclear arsenal. Why? Because the United States and its regional allies are far stronger than Iraq. And because it does not take a genius to figure out what would happen if Iraq tried to use WMD to blackmail its neighbors, expand its territory, or attack another state directly. It only takes a leader who wants to stay alive and who wants to remain in power. Throughout his lengthy and brutal career, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly shown that these two goals are absolutely paramount. That is why deterrence and containment would work.

    If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent. This war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have to fight. Even if such a war goes well and has positive long-range consequences, it will still have been unnecessary. And if it goes badly—whether in the form of high U.S. casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the United States in the Arab and Islamic world—then its architects will have even more to answer for.




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