Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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  • Jason Soon
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    Friday, June 06, 2003
    Kim "Billy Snedden" Beazley wants to ride again
    Liberals stick with a winner, Labor looks to a two-time loser and C-Files has the answer

    Australian politics this past week has been a tale of two leadership tussles. The Liberals were happy to stick with "Little Johhny" Howard, who is loooking to make it four election wins on the trot. No wonder the Liberals stampede each other to kiss the ground 'pon which he walks.

    Now Kim "two-time loser" Beazley wants to have another go at the leadership of the Federal ALP, claiming that he really beat Howard the last two times.
    I fought John Howard twice, and in the campaigns I beat him...We didn't win the elections but we won the campaigning

    Is it just me, or am I not alone in thinking that the point of campaigning was to win elections? Shades of Billy Snedden's ludicrous "we didn't win, but we didn't lose" spin on his lack lustre Opposition leader performance in the 1974 election.

    Opposition leader is the hardest job in Westminster politics. Short of political scandal or economic downturn they face an uphill battle against an entrenched-but-not-yet-stale government. The current Coalition government has added advantages:
    Despite all those advantages, the polls indicate that Howard would lose an election if he faced a contest against Crean. It may well be that the ALP's political handicaps in the civic security issue are outweighed by it's political advantages in the social equity issue.

    I have the solution to both the ALP's and the Lib's leadership dilemmas's. The ALP should select John Howard as the most electable parliamentary leader then Peter Costello can then step into John Howard's vacated shoes.

    Thursday, June 05, 2003
    Perhaps bad means can justify good ends

    I have copped a bit of flack around the blogosphere for my analysis of the Coalition's Janus-faced Middle Eastern agenda, which includes both:

    • an amoral prediction: that the Coaltion's overt WMD rationale was empirically phony

    • a moral justification: that the Coaltion's covert Balance of Power rationale was strategically valid

    To prevent me from being lynched as a naked-Emperor spotting boy and a closetted-Emperor spinning sophist let me say in self-defence that my power-political apologetics have always been woven on the proviso that:

    • the Middle East was politically re-formed, in favour of the Palestinians

    • Iraq was industrially re-built, in favour of it's civilians

    It seems that no significant WMDs will be found in Iraq, thereby scuttling the overt strategic rationale for the war. But some worthy strategic gains seem to have come from recent war-generated improvements in the "Zionist/Crusader" balance of power position. The Washington Post reports both sides offered major concessions:
    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged Wednesday to dismantle illegal settlements in Palestinian areas, while the new Palestinian leader renounced terrorism against Israel.

    This C-filer predicted that a sort of "Nixon to China" moment had arrived in the Middle East after Sharon had acknowledged the legitimacy of a Palestinian state and conceded the illegitimacy of Israel's West Bank settlements. Only the Jewish "Bulldozer" had the nationalist credibility within the Israeli Right, and the demonstrated militarist invinciblity against the Arab Left, to make the peace with the Palestinians.

    If these latest statements bring results on the ground (dismantled settlements, decommissioned terrorists) then much credit should go to that old war horse for putting down the Intifada II. Credit must also go to Bush for insisting that Arafat was discredited through his association with fundamentalist terrorism.

    It vindicates the machiavellian war-bloggers argument that Bush/Sharon's immediate war-war has created a greater likelihood for long term Arab-Israeli peace than Clinton/Barak's interminable jaw-jaw. This flatly contradicts the anti-war bloggers stance, best articulated by the esteemed Professor Quiggin, that a just peace for the Palestinians should have preceded a regime change for the Iraqis. Pr Q believes that the powers that be in the ME should not have tried to negotiate from a position of strength:
    if Bush was planning to do something serious about the Israel-Palestine problem, it would have been far more sensible to do it first, then deal with Saddam.

    In this blog, published at the beginning of the war, he bagged Bush for allowing Sharon to go into coalition with Israel's religious hard liners:
    Sharon has already rejected crucial elements of the roadmap including the ultimate goal of an independent Palestinian state.

    Pr Q added that he would be "very glad to be proved wrong" on the subject of timing. That is good because he was, as this move gave Sharon the strength to sucker puch the Judaic fundamentalists and reach out to the Palestinians.

    Finally Pr Q took a crack at unnamed defenders of Machiavellian principles:
    The saying that 'Success has a thousand parents and failure is an orphan' is nowhere more true than when rules are broken in the hope that the ends will justify the means.

    It is as well that someone has the nerve practice a little machiavellian rule-breaking, since observing traditional diplomatic rules in Palestine over the past decade has produced the present toxic political mess.

    Wednesday, June 04, 2003
    Godless on Palestine
    My friend Godless Capitalist makes a welcome return to blogging with a typically blunt post on the question of Palestine:

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be summed up like so: The Palestinians would wipe out the Israelis, but can't. The Israelis could wipe out the Palestinians, but won't.

    The fact of the matter is that whenever the Arabs/Muslims[1] thought they could destroy Israel, they tried to. 1948. 1967. 1973. They thought they were strong and Israel was weak, and they were not magnanimous. Does anyone believe that the Arabs/Muslims wouldn't nuke Israel if given the chance? At least one Iranian is on the record as saying exactly that ...
    Hell no, Johnny won't go
    All I am saying is give Pete a chance.

    Monday, June 02, 2003
    The paleo-libertarians are expanding their reach in the blogosphere - the Mises Institute has its own blog here as does Lew Rockwell (who also runs and writes for the Mises Institute).
    Blog twin?
    Not quite, but I just noticed on my referral logs that there's a new blog up called which is roughly of the same leaning as this blog. Another one to add to the links on the left when I get around to updating them. Catallarchy even has Catallaxy Files up on its list of favourite blogs - looks like I'll now have to make sure I maintain that status. In the meantime, go visit. There's a good discussion of patriotism vs nationalism.
    On consequentialism
    A debate has erupted in the comments facility of John Quiggin. John, as a fellow economist, is on the side of good sense in this debate, namely the consequentailist side. Without reprising everything there I'll plunge straight into responding to some questions by commentor Dave Ricardo:

    All right, consequentialists, especially you, Jason Soon, try this one out.

    Two people are trapped inside a burning house. You only have time to save one, and you must decide which one.

    One person is a scientist who, if she lives, will find a cure for cancer, end world hunger and bring about world peace.

    The other person is your mother.

    Who do you save? If you are a utlitarian, the answer is easy. You save the scientist, and you let your mother get barbequed.

    But what reasonable person would make this choice?

    ... utilitarianism as a basis for public policy assumes that no one has inviolable rights. Suppose society would unarguably be a better place by locking up without trial everyone called Quiggin. Should we do it? A stupid example, you might say. Suppose society would be a better place by not allowing Alan Jones on the air. What's one man's right to free speech set against the bnefits of cleaning the airwaves of his ignorant but influential tirades? Let's do it!

    I'll answer these questions ignoring the distinction between utilitarianism and consequentialism , though I'll note there is one. Both are equally defensible, one is just a subset of the other.
    1) Firstly as Quiggin notes, a good personal ethical philosophy to live by does not make a good public philosophy so in setting this example up, Dave is conflating the two issues. After all, how could a decent person give more weight to a total stranger than to his mother? But does that mean this is what a public philosophy should embody? By that logic then the most enlightened regime in the world was Saddam Hussein's regime which could be best described as Tikriti i.e. he gave privileges to his immediate family and to his relatives in Tikrit. And Suharto wasn't a bad sort either by this logic.

    2) Re the Alan Jones example I happen to be extremely pro free speech without being anti consequentialist. Am I cutting off my own legs in so doing? No, there are more than enough good consequentialist cases that taken together suggest that one should be very careful before restricting free speech - for instance the 'who guards the guardians?" argument, the 'slippery slope' argument, the 'politicisation' argument, the 'it is good to have our beliefs challenged' argument, the 'censorship only drives things underground' argument. Do all of these provide a foolproof argument against censoring Alan Jones or anyone else? No. But is that really what we want?

    Furthermore does such an argument even exist withour preaching to the converted? e.g. there may well be a minority of people who believe no exceptions can be made at all to restricting free speech. I am pretty hard core free speech - from a *rule* utilitarian perspective but even I don't fit into that category. To be non-consequentualist means to rule something out of a pragmatic weighting - perhaps there are some things we should be *reluctant* to apply a pragmatic weighting too but more often than not this is because it is *pragmatic* not to apply too calculative a procedure to e.g. becase it is 'the wisdom of the ages', because we don't have enough data anyway, etc. But the point is that this sort of consideration is still consequentialist. A non consequentialist one is foolish in not even wanting to pragmatically consider whether something should be pragmatically weighted and quite likely the absolutist weight given to the object - in this case free speech - quite possibly is not very compelling except to people who already accept the a priori premises.

    3) The broader objection to Dave's argument is that, as we learn in law school, tough cases don't make good law. 'Lifeboat ethics' type objections like the burning house with the scientist and the mother can be easily constructed for any normative system but is not by itself a good objection to the normative system. Especially when in the case of public philosophies, these normative systems are meant to deal with general everyday situations. If consequentialism is vulnerable to lifeboat ethics examples, then non consequentialism ethics are vulnerable to simply going against common sense - for instance the conscription case. As a general thing slavery is a bad thing and conscription is almost a form of State-enforced slavery yet would you as a matter of 'individual rights' oppose conscription if the Nazis were at the front door so to speak?

    Sunday, June 01, 2003
    Drunk on slaughter
    I’ve just finished reading Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism. Like Berman’s earlier book, A Tale of Two Utopias, it is an excellent synthesis of intellectual and political history. Better than anything else I’ve read since 11 September 2001, Berman’s book describes the totalitarian nature of Islamism, highlighting its links to and parallels with the two major twentieth century totalitarian movements, fascism and communism.

    Berman is also good on the Western response to Islamism, showing how many (mainly but not exclusively on the left) Westerners misunderstand Islam, as they misunderstood fascism and communism. On Berman’s account, this is partly because of a naïve belief that around the world people behave in more-or-less reasonable ways, that even where terrorism cannot be condoned it is an explicable response to actual or perceived injustices. In Berman’s words, it is unwillingness ‘to accept that, from time to time, political movements do get drunk on the idea of slaughter.’

    The response to this must partly be military, but Berman argues that, like the Cold War, ideological rivalry should play an important part. Afghanistan and Iraq provide opportunities to show that democracy can take root in formerly totalitarian Muslim countries. As a non-expert observer of this process (but who is expert in doing something that hasn’t been done before?) things don’t look overly promising, though not disastrous either. Berman’s book was written before the recent war, but as a lucid analysis of the general issues it deserves a wide readership.
    Geek test
    According to the Geek Test, I am only 26.2374% geek - a Total Geek, rather than a Uber Geek.




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