Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Sui generis
    Saturday, April 12, 2003
    Questions worth asking
    Sui generis blogger Steve Sailer who has more substance in a single sentence of his writings than certain pop-con pom pom boys and girls have in entire paragraphs asks:

    Are we setting the wrong precedent by showing we are too sensitive to put down disorder? ...

    Are we giving Arabs all over the Middle East the impression that "democracy" is a synonym for "anarchy"?

    Are we alienating the middle class property owners by not protecting their property?

    Will the vigilante committees now forming give up power later without a fight?
    Rational economics and rational environmentalism
    Good to see not all environmentalists are kneejerk economic populists:

    Sydney's two electricity retailers are seeking big price rises and penalty fees for households that use excessive power in a bid to curtail Sydney's love affair with energy-guzzling air-conditioners and pools.

    Presenting their bids for price rises for the next five years to the Independent Pricing and Regulation Tribunal, Energy Australia and Integral Energy outlined plans to lift electricity charges sharply in 2004-05, after five years of falling prices.

    But the most novel part of their submissions are plans to introduce measures to cut consumption.

    They include block pricing, so the biggest electricity users would pay more once they crossed a threshold. There would also be higher prices in summer, and new meters which could charge different tariffs at different times of the day.

    Energy Australia's chief executive, Paul Broad, said his company urgently needed to "empower consumers with the right signals".

    Environmental groups welcomed the move to introduce price signals to moderate power use.

    "The environmental cost of electricity is presently not reflected in prices," the director of the Total Environment Centre, Jeff Angel said.

    "However, people must have an easily accessible ways of conserving electricity via electricity retailer programs, so that when they save electricity their actual power bills don't increase much or at all."

    Mr Broad said Energy Australia planned a " significant trial" of energy-saving devices in Sydney suburbs.
    Reviving the Whig label
    Readers who are wondering about the terminology I have used to revamp my blog roll might be interested in this excellent summary of the career of Whig historian and polician Thomas Macaulay (incidentally though the article refers to 'extreme Tories' I don't imply from my classification system that any of the bloggers I've labelled as Tories hold views similar to 'extreme Tories' as described in the article - but I do think their general outlooks on politics and culture and progress are different from those I've labelled Whigs despite their holding near identical policy positions). Incidentally you'll find many similarities between the political debates in Macaulay's day and those today. For instance:

    Not infrequently, in their heyday, classical liberals found themselves ranged against a practical alliance between the extreme Tories to their one side and the Jacobins on the other. The campaign for free trade, for example, brought forth noisy counter-demonstrations both from reactionary nationalists and from mobs disrupting public meetings in the name of the working class, prompting this riposte from the historian: "Whenever I hear bigots who are opposed to all reform, and anarchists who are bent on universal destruction, join in the same cry, I feel certain that it is an absurd and mischievous cry; and surely never was there a cry so absurd and mischievous as this cry against cheap loaves." To update the case from the streets of Edinburgh to those of Seattle, it is merely necessary to substitute for the phrase "cheap loaves," "cheap clothes."

    Perhaps his favorite target were the individual figures--"Red Tories"--who combined left- and right-wing themes in their loathing of capitalism. Poet laureate Robert Southey, hapless victim of one of Macaulay's most enjoyable polemics, managed to follow a trajectory from far left to far right without spending a moment in actual sympathy with the bourgeois society rising around him. Having cultivated the radical side when it was most in the wrong, he proceeded to do likewise with the reactionaries. Wrote Macaulay: "He has passed from one extreme of political opinion to another, as Satan in Milton went round the globe, contriving constantly to `ride with darkness.'"

    By the time he wrote his Colloquies, Southey had homed in on perhaps the most durable critique of capitalism, the aesthetic. Anyone could see its ravages, he said, by standing on a hill and comparing the ivy-clad cottage of the traditional farm laborer with the ugly, uniform brick dwellings of the industrial workers. (His successors today buy newspaper ads that treat it as a rebuke to globalization that there are now cloverleaf interchanges in Cairo and fast-food strips in Bangkok.) Macaulay's response was to pull out rows of vital statistics to demonstrate that the burden of supporting the poor was lowest in the counties where the new manufacturing economy had penetrated furthest, while the death rate had also fallen fastest in those counties.

    Here is Macaulay's wonderfully penetrating critique of Southey - with appropriate substitution, one could adopt this to critique the Naderite-Buchananites and the isolationist and luddite Australian Greens.
    F***wit of the day
    "Howard, in his own way, is every bit the despot Saddam was, the real difference being Australians elected him - and three times, to prove it."
    ~ Alan Ramsey
    Origins of Australian Aborigines
    According to this, research recently published in the European Journal of Human Genetics suggests that Australian Aborigines are a blend of Negrito’, east Asian and Indian sources. It says Indian influence on Australia may be recent (ie 5000 years) thus much later than (and therefore independent from) the early migration that would have followed the southern route 60 000 years ago.

    Wednesday, April 09, 2003
    Yup, the Yanks aren't going to be welcome if they stay too long ...

    (Link courtesy of Libertarian Samizdata)

    Quadrant and creationism and other things
    John Quiggin seems to make an awfully big deal about the Cato Institute's name change of their social security project - not sure exactly why, they've always been in favour of the idea and in the scheme of things it's not terribly radical anyway, a variant of Cato's idea was essentially introduced by the Keating Labor Government. However he also notes that Quadrant has recently published a horrid attack on Darwinism by Teichmann (Teichmann argues it only has cachet value because it promotes atheism). I saw that article too which is why I declined to buy the last issue of Quadrant. In fairness to Paddy I believe he published Teichman because there is a market for her stuff among the right (which is what is lamentable) not as part of some retouch or realignment of Quadrant. After all he has also published transhumanist-technophile Russell Blackford. I read Quadrant under Manne and Teichmann was around then as well.

    As I also note on Quiggin's comments facility, the unholy alliance between creationism and the intellectually respectable right is in some respects worse in the US. The worst of the lot are the secular neocon set at Commentary - the likes of Irving Kristol and the Straussians. This lot think that it's alright for the intellectual elite not to believe in God but if the masses catch on to Darwinism they will run amok and think that everything is permissible. Therefore it is the job of secular right wing intellectuals to promote religious obscurantism though of course they are far too chic to believe in any of that stuff themselves. Give me a sincerely deluded Biblical literalist anyday - the secular religionists promote hypocrisy as a virtue, which is far worse.

    Incidentally the worst piece ever published by Quadrant was a piece by fantasy novelist** Sophie Masson which was essentially an apologia for Le Pen, preceded of course by an attack on the French Revolution (possibly one of the few things the French got right)

    **I am ready for someone to disabuse me of the notion but as a 'proper sci-fi' enthusiast myself I have noticed that fantasy writers tend to be political reactionaries, religious obscurantists or nostalgists while writers of proper sci fi (e.g. Greg Benford, Greg Bear, David Brin) tend to be libertarian-oriented. Disclosure - I could not get through even 5 pages of Lord of the Rings and never set my eyes on a fantasy novel since. Another tangent - the brilliant Australian hard sci-fi novelist Greg Egan has his own website.
    Agricultural subsidies and pride
    Read Antony de Jasay on how farmers' pride is holding up the best way of reducing the damaging effects of agricultural subsidies in Europe. One good reason why market oriented liberals should do what Hayek did and junk the whole meritocratic myth by which many advocates of capitalism (especially conservatives) still like to make their case (i.e. I am intrinsically worth what I make and my effort has some Platonic objective value outside the process of subjective valuation):

    Merely by shifting the farm subsidies from a pro rata to a lump sum basis, perhaps 100 billion euros of wasted inputs could be saved. Admittedly, realising the saving would require adjustments in the pattern of industrial output and in foreign trade, with an increase in both industrial exports and food imports, but such adjustment would be perfectly feasible.

    Or rather, it would be feasible if farmers had no pride and politicians had no incentives to excite their pride to fever pitch. Farmers, notably in France, Spain and Ireland now swear that the switch from production subsidies to lump sum payments will take place over their dead bodies—and the dead bodies of many riot policemen ...

    The force of the farmers' argument, and the driver of their present fury, is that they find the CAP reform proposals humiliating. From producers, they feel they would be reduced to national pensioners, recipients of alms, with only a lame face-saving function as keepers of the countryside. Much of that function, they shrewdly foresee, would be sheer make-believe.

    Much of their concern is understandable. It is doubtful, though, whether it weighs enough to justify the extravagant cost of dressing up their subventions as rewards for much-needed production. The saddest aspect of this whole inglorious dilemma is that public opinion is almost completely oblivious of the hidden cost that must be paid to comfort the farmers' pride.

    Tuesday, April 08, 2003
    2 cheers for the tabloid mentality: It is an obvious point but one that needs to be made: the world's most prominent Fascist state, China, has a lot to answer for in the current SARS health scare - and arguably things would not now be such a mess in terms of checking the spread of the disease if Fascist China was a liberal democracy. The Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued long ago in a famous article that should be required reading for China's bumbling, bloodthirsty Commissars that all other things being equal, famines were less likely to develop in liberal democracies because of the checks and balances of accountable government, press freedom and a generally encouraged muckraking atmosphere (the flipside of which is the 'tabloid mentality' usually derided in comfortable liberal democracies which take such things for granted but which deserves to be tolerated because of its benefits). These checks and balances ensures the swiftest possible information flows on stuff-ups.

    The same principle applies to public health crises. It's not that governments in liberal democracies don't try to cover things up - it's that they are ultimately less successful at doing so and can keep things out of sight for a lot less longer - thanks in part to the muckrakers, cranks and activists which thrive better in liberal democracies. Another implication of this analysis is that countries which are not liberal democracies will ultimately impose greater externalities on the rest of us than other liberal democracies, irrespective of whether they engage in military aggression. They are inherently less stable and less well-governed despite appearances to the contrary. They are more likely to inflict all sorts of public health and environmental disasters on their neighbours (witness also Chernobyl). As long as the Fukuyama thesis isn't yet a reality the future of the human race will not be very secure.

    Update See also This piece in the Financial Times. An excerpt:

    The inherently secretive nature of an authoritarian regime is further compounded by a perverted system of accountability. Government officials, appointed often on the basis of patronage, are accountable only to their superiors, not to voters. As a result, they keep their jobs and perks by feeding their bosses a steady diet of manufactured good news. Besides encouraging subterfuge, this system fosters extreme risk aversion.

    As a result, the system generates a vicious, self-reinforcing dynamic in a crisis. Initial deception by lower-level officials leads higher authorities to misjudge the situation. Without independent sources of information, senior officials are ill-placed to rise to a crisis, especially when the political pressure to maintain a façade of regime unity outweighs the need to adopt an effective response. Consequently, an official policy based on bad information becomes the party line. As a rule, the severity of the crisis is played down and blame for the problem is assigned elsewhere. In many cases, even the very existence of a crisis is vigorously denied. Afterwards, keeping the official story straight becomes the overriding goal, subverting the urgency of containing the situation. This, indeed, is what happened when the HIV/Aids epidemic first hit China. Tragically, the Sars crisis shows Beijing failed to learn from that episode ...

    For members of the international business community, China's Sars crisis should be a wake-up call. It is a timely reminder that doing business in a society ruled by autocratic bureaucrats with little regard for public interests can be extremely hazardous to one's health.




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