Monday, 26 November 2018
Sunday, 11 November 2018
Saturday, 27 October 2018
(With minor updates - 28 Oct 2018)
Is all we're told a fake?
Are all the so-called “experts” merely liars?
They have their tricks and clever arguments,
And one man in his time learns many arts.
His thoughts move in six stages. First, the newbie,
His gaze, his ear, his mind glued to the screen,
Believing all he’s told. And then the troll,
Crying “fake news,” and “bull,” and “balderdash,”
Annoying and insulting all in range,
Until no-one will listen. Then the follower,
Searching for wisdom in the godless depths
Of someone else’s arcane religion,
While parroting its credos. Then the warrior,
Shouting his narrative at top of voice,
Augmenting it with copious references
To sources just as biased as himself,
Using his subtle tricks and clever ruses
To seek to sow the seeds of doubt and guilt,
And rarely giving ground to others’ views;
But never once considering the thought
That it might be him, not his opponent,
Who has it wrong. The fifth stage shifts
To the truth seeker, doing what he can
To find the facts, and piece together truths,
And spread these truths to those willing and able
To listen to them. Sixth comes the free man.
Able to govern self, to live and let live;
Free from all need for politics or laws,
Free from all wish for violence or aggression,
Free from desire to lie, insult or slur,
Reciprocating others’ tolerance,
And judging people, not by who they are,
But what they do.
Way back in Shakespeare’s time
There was a seventh stage, of slow decline;
But as I look out, it’s a sunny day,
And so, I think, that’s all I have to say.
Wednesday, 24 October 2018
I thought it worth putting on the record my views on the matter; what I deny, and what I do not deny. I do this in the hope that those minded to call me “denier” may come to understand better my disagreements with the alarmist line. Perhaps, even, some may feel able to provide specific, objective evidence that I am wrong in one or more of my statements.
What I Do Not Deny
- I do not deny that there is such a thing as climate. I am not a “climate denier.”
- I do not deny that historically the Earth’s climate has changed, or that it is still changing. I am not a “climate change denier.”
- I do not deny that, according to historical temperature records, there has been a general tendency towards warming over the last 400 years or so. I am not a “global warming denier.”
- I do not deny that human activities affect the Earth’s climate to some extent; if only through urban heat islands.
- I do not deny that there is a plausible scientific hypothesis, according to which emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases by human civilization might lead to some amount of warming, which would not have happened otherwise. I am not a “science denier.”
- I do not deny that the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has, very probably, increased over the last 200 or so years.
- I do not deny that some, or perhaps much, of that increase in carbon dioxide has been due to human activities.
- I do not deny that, should the consequences of such a warming be proven beyond reasonable doubt to be a nett disbenefit to humankind, there is a case to be made for action to reduce or mitigate the disbenefit. Provided, of course, that the costs of the action are no greater than the disbenefit it is supposed to cure.
- I do not deny that I have a responsibility to compensate those to whom I cause significant and unjust harm through environmental or other side effects of my freely willed, uncoerced actions. Provided, of course, that they accept their responsibility to do the same for me.
- I do not deny that I can sometimes be wrong.
- I deny that the allegation that human activities are causing, or will in the foreseeable future cause, substantial global warming with catastrophic consequences (for example, through coastal flooding or more and stronger hurricanes) has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
- I deny that the hypothesis, that a small temperature rise caused by human activities would lead to a much larger or even a runaway rise due to climate system feedbacks, is consistent with what is known about the Earth’s climate history.
- I deny that there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that any global temperature rise caused by human activities would be significantly greater than the likely effects of non-human-caused climate variations over a similar time period.
- I deny that, even if human activities were to cause a moderate amount (a few degrees C) of global warming, there is objective evidence that the nett effect on the planet and on human civilization would be negative. Indeed, human civilization has tended to thrive in past warm periods, such as the Minoan and the Roman.
- I deny that, even if human activities did cause some global warming and that warming did have some nett negative effects, the costs of the schemes currently implemented or proposed to reduce or mitigate these effects would be any less than the benefits from the mitigation. Very probably, the costs will be (indeed, they already are) hugely greater than any “benefits.”
- I deny that any reasonable interpretation of the precautionary principle can require any such mitigation action to be taken without first making an honest, objective and accurate comparison of the costs and benefits of the action.
- I deny that any reasonable interpretation of the precautionary principle can require any political action to be taken on a matter unless and until the science on that matter is good enough to do an objective and accurate cost-benefit analysis.
- I deny that any reasonable interpretation of the precautionary principle can shift the burden of proof in any matter away from those that seek political action towards those who would be negatively affected by such action, or can negate the general presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.”
- I deny that in situations where facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high or decisions are claimed to be urgent, there should be any lessening of the rigour with which risk analysis should be done. Indeed, such situations increase the need for risks to be assessed objectively and accurately.
- I deny that there is something called “the environment” that has “rights” that override the rights of human beings to live and act according to our nature.
- I deny that I am obliged to feel any kind of communal guilt over unproven negative effects on the planet that may be, might be, or might in the future be, caused by human civilization.
- I deny that those driving the “global warming” and other environmental scares truly have any concern for Western civilization or for the people in it.
- I deny that the conduct of the “science” on matters such as global warming and pollution has been always honest and in accord with the scientific method.
- I deny that the general standard of reporting on these matters by alarmist organizations, the academic establishment or the mainstream media has been truthful, unbiased and honest.
- I deny that, in these matters, governments have been open and honest, and have acted in good faith towards the people they are supposed to “represent.”
- I deny that any amount of hype, posturing or repetition from politicians, academics, media or anyone else can make a falsehood into a truth.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
Which is stronger, money or power?
Money can give you a lifetime of honey,
But power allows you to steal others’ money.
Today, I’ll look at money, political power, and the relations between them.
How the economy should be
I’ll begin with a re-cap on how the world economy ought to work for all peaceful, honest, convivial human beings.
At the root of all economic activity is the creation of well-being. As I’ve said before, there is no nobler human activity than delivering what others are voluntarily willing to pay for. To get our own needs and desires satisfied, we trade with others the well-being we create. Thus, each of us creates a flow of wealth to those we trade with, and receives in return a corresponding flow of wealth. And if we are convivial people, we will always act with honesty and good faith, and strive to fulfil the promises we have voluntarily made.
There are many ways in which individuals can create wealth. For example, they can be direct producers, applying their labour and their skills to delivering products or services. They can be entrepreneurs or managers, organizing themselves and others to produce. They can be seekers of objective knowledge. They can be advancers of human capability; for example, teachers, engineers, technologists and other innovators. They can provide support to others, so making them more effective at their own wealth creation. In all these areas, in their own different ways, people co-operate with others, and compete to make themselves as effective as possible.
If any economy is to fulfil its potential, it needs several supports. One of these is sound money. Money is, in essence, an IOU backed by the wealth of the issuer. As long as the issuer remains solvent and honest, it can be used as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account, or as a store of value. A second support is property rights. These rights must ensure that money, land, goods and other wealth, which have been justly earned and have not been traded or given away, remain under the control of those who earned them, and are not unjustly taken by others. A third support is a system of objective justice, to hold to account those that cause damage to others, or subject them to unreasonable risks, or try to cheat them, or fail to deliver their side of the bargain.
The fourth support for a well functioning economy is the free market. In a truly free market, no-one is prevented from justly acquiring, or justly using, wealth. There are no arbitrary barriers or obstacles to the provision of goods or services. There are no arbitrary restrictions on what, or with whom, individuals may trade – or, indeed, not trade if they so choose. There are no tariffs on goods or services crossing arbitrary boundaries. And there are no taxes beyond what is strictly necessary to support the framework of property rights and justice, which underlies the free market. Further, there must be no political agendas that suppress the economy, or that favour some groups or individuals over others. And, in particular, there must be no policies that favour political actors, or their cronies, over others.
Franz Oppenheimer’s insight
That’s how the economy should be – isn’t it? But the economic system, under which we suffer today, isn’t even remotely like that. A clue as to why has been given us by the German Jewish sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer. In his 1908 book The State, he writes: “There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others.”
Oppenheimer gave the name the economic means to “the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others.” In contrast, the political means is “the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others.” And he made his view of the state very clear, writing: “The state is an organization of the political means.” Otherwise said, the state is a professional robber.
Oppenheimer’s assessment is spot on. For the 16th-century monarchist Frenchman Jean Bodin, in his Six Books of the Commonwealth, created the blueprint for the “Westphalian” system of nation states, under which we still suffer. And he listed, among the rights of a monarch: “taxing, or granting privileges of exemption to all subjects” and “appreciating or depreciating the value and weight of the coinage.”
Links between money and power
At one level, money is power; the power to do what you want. It gives you the power to make choices. To decide where you will go on holiday, or what form of transport you will take, for example. On the other hand, lack of money leads to lack of power. If you can’t afford a holiday, there is no point searching the brochures. If you can’t afford to drive a car, you will have to take the bus, or even walk. You have lost your power of choice.
Money can be used in good ways, or in bad. When used in good ways – for example, as the medium of exchange in a voluntary transaction – it benefits all parties to the transaction. You get to enjoy your holiday; and the people who provided it to you can enjoy in return something they want. But money can also be misused. It can be used to pay for propaganda, or to lobby for the imposition of political agendas or the realization of pet projects. It can be used to seek political power; or to buy favours from those that have such power. It can be used to fuel schemes that take away others’ money, or otherwise violate their rights.
In the reverse direction, power – political power – can be used, either directly or indirectly, to get money. Most obviously, when corrupt political actors seek maximum money for themselves with zero or minimum effort. But power also allows the actor to set “policies,” to court favourites, and to victimize those he disfavours. He can advantage the state – as through very low interest rates – and he can bring about enrichment of some groups of people at the expense of others. He can favour his supporters, lavishly reward his cronies, and impoverish those he doesn’t like.
In this way, there grows a symbiosis between money and political power – some call it “the revolving door.” Power begets money for the powerful; and the rich and politically connected use their money to increase their power. But for the rest of us, just as lack of money leads to lack of power, lack of power leads to lack of money. Sham democracy notwithstanding, our lack of political power puts us all into danger of being dragged down into a poverty we do not deserve.
Some, especially those with a religious agenda, like to vilify money. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” they say. Now, the unjust acquisition of money – and in particular, the use of Oppenheimer’s political means – is an evil. But to use money according to the economic means, in which transactions are voluntary and to the benefit of all parties, is no evil. Indeed, the root of all evil is not the love of money, but the love of power. Power over others. Political power.
Bodin’s prescriptions for revenues
Next, I’ll try to show how this symbiosis of money and power is baked in to the Westphalian system. Bodin gave much advice to his monarchical friends on how to maximize their incomes. He identified seven sources of revenues. First, leasing the king’s lands in exchange for rents. Second, the profits of foreign conquests. Third, gifts from friends. Fourth, the protection racket; payments received in exchange for military “protection” in time of war. Fifth, engaging in commerce. Sixth, customs duties – “charging the merchants who import and export commodities.” Seventh and last, taxing the subject.
As to this last, Bodin wrote: “Do not levy taxes or impositions on your subjects, unless urgent and evident necessity forces you to it, and for some just cause, but not arbitrarily.” He suggested raising taxes on “luxuries and ornaments of all sorts, perfumes, cloth of gold and silver, silk, lace, fine tissues, gold and silver enamel, unnecessary articles of clothing, and scarlet, crimson and cochineal dyes and so forth.” And he exhorted: “It is better to make such things so expensive by heavy taxes that only the very rich and indulgent can afford them...”
Let’s see how well Bodin’s prescriptions have survived the test of time, shall we? Leasing land? Still a factor, though perhaps not as important as formerly. Foreign conquests? Well, yes. If you wonder why states with powerful militaries, such as the USA and formerly Britain, seem to have a burning desire for foreign wars at the slightest excuse, look no further than Bodin’s ideas. Follow the money! Gifts? These have been transmuted into the buying of favours, which I mentioned earlier.
The protection racket? This one has grown in size; it now extends to the “subjects” of the realm too. We are all expected to pay through the nose for a monopolistic “protection” service that is often of low quality, and may at any time be turned against us and used to oppress us. Engaging in commerce? Well, sort of; for example, in areas like education and health care. But the state doesn’t compete fairly in a free market. Instead, it seeks monopoly or near monopoly. What you get from this is what you see; bureaucratic, politicized and often failing. Customs? Tariffs and the like are still a big deal. And taxing the subject? Don’t make me sick.
Even Jean Bodin, could he but see what today’s political classes have done with the system he devised, might feel a pang of discomfort. Franz Oppenheimer, surely, would tear his hair out. Particularly since, at the time he wrote his book in 1908, the income tax – the biggest single imposition by the state on our economic lives – was still a gleam in the eyes of money-hungry statists. And when, just a few years later, they manufactured an excuse to impose an income tax, what did they do with the proceeds? They made a big war, in which 20 million people died. And things have only gone downhill from there.
How many different taxes do we suffer today? Even within a single nation, it must be in the hundreds. There are taxes on incomes. There are taxes on employment. There are taxes on transactions, for example value added taxes. There are taxes on company profits. There are taxes on capital gains. There are taxes on property. There are taxes on goods passing across arbitrary borders – and on people, too. There are inheritance taxes. There are commodity taxes – and not just on luxuries, either. There are “sin” taxes on things like alcohol and tobacco. There are local taxes and city taxes. There are climate levies, carbon “trading” schemes and many other green taxes. There are punitive and extortionate taxes on car drivers. And just about every week, you hear about new taxes – on soda pop or plastic bags, for example.
There is also the hidden tax of inflation. This goes back to Roman times, when emperors used to reduce the real value of their coins by putting into them less and less precious metal. More recently, as nation states have abandoned the gold standard, politicians have been able to issue “fiat money.” (Fiat is Latin for “let it be.”) Such money is cheap to print, and today it’s even easier to create just by modifying figures in a central bank’s computer. The first to get the new money – and most of all, the state – benefit from this Ponzi scheme, at the expense of those further down the chain. The result? In 50 years, the values of most currencies have fallen by a factor of more than 10. And prices have gone up to match. This is, in effect, a huge stealth tax on us, and most of all on the prudent people who have saved for their futures.
These are all instances of the use, by the state, of Franz Oppenheimer’s political means. That is, “the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others.” The oft heard argument that the state uses the money to do good things for the people, so you will eventually get back what you put in, is hokum. Surely, you might get a few worthwhile things, like some roads and a bit of health care. But at what cost? Once what you were forced to pay has been around the political and financial whirlpool a few times, it will be worth only a tiny fraction of its original value.
All these machinations, ultimately, are a big drain on you. Not just on your money, but also on your power; your power of choice. What taxation does, ultimately, is re-distribute wealth and power from the politically poor to the politically rich. From us to them.
Is taxation theft? No, it’s murder!
Some of my friends say “taxation is theft.” But they understate their case. Franz Oppenheimer’s word “robbery,” I think, better describes the violence and threats of violence, which underlie most of the state’s conduct. But I myself prefer a stronger word yet: murder.
Consider: your earned property and money represent part of your life. They represent the time and energy, which you used up in order to earn that property or money. Thus for the state to take away your money, without offering something of value to you in return – and that is what “unrequited” means – is to kill part of your life. It is clearly, too, a pre-meditated act; and a malicious one. And pre-meditated, malicious killing is murder. Thus: Taxation is murder.
To sum up
Our human economic system should be based on wealth creation and trade; the “economic means” as identified by Franz Oppenheimer. It must be backed up by sound money, property rights and an objective system of justice.
In contrast, the state uses the “political means.” Through taxation and currency inflation, it takes money from us, and offers little or nothing of value to us in return. And this amounts to murder – murder of the parts of our lives, which we used up in order to earn that money.
Saturday, 22 September 2018
I knew already that I was a third rate mathematician. Surely, I could have made a living at the game – I’m good at making complicated things understandable, to those who want to learn. But I knew I didn’t have what it took advance the frontiers of mathematics. So, I needed to clear my head, and work out what I really wanted to do.
My parents had, in their wisdom, saved a small nest-egg for me, to be paid out when I reached the age of 21. It came to about £750. In today’s money, I estimate that would be around £10,000. It bought me two things. My grand tour of Europe on a bicycle; with an account of which, I will regale you today. And later, my first car.
Prelude completed. So: on the 7th of August 1974, at about 10 am, I stood before the Great Gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, about to embark on my journey. My bicycle was a Raleigh 3-speed, which had been mine for 2 years already. I had used it on two significant trips with a friend. One in Wales – in January! And the second in France in April; we had cycled from Dieppe to Clermont-Ferrand, via Paris, in ten days.
Now, this was before credit cards, and in the days of the “£300 limit.” You were not allowed to take out of the UK more than £300 on any visit. And in those days, I was terribly naïve. I had no idea that any “law” made by politicians could ever be ethically wrong. I had never even thought about breaking any such “law”; and still less about risk analysis, whether breaking a bad “law” would be likely to yield a positive or negative result for me. So, I had just £280 in travellers’ cheques when I left the Port of Dover.
I planned to stay in youth hostels, but I took a tent “just in case.” I kept a diary of the journey, the “little blue book,” which has unfortunately been lost. But one figure I kept in my memory was the total distance I cycled: 4,742 kilometres. (2,947 miles).
As in all endeavours worth the name, things went wrong. The first came when the youth hostel at Dunkerque was unexpectedly closed. That meant I had to camp in the pouring rain. I am no handyman, even at the best of times; and it was already dark when I found a field in which I could try to erect the tent. The result? My tent sagged and became an over-blanket. I actually slept quite well that night!
I went on to the French and Belgian Ardennes (an area I still love), then to Luxembourg. A pleasant, expensive and very hilly city. Then I cut through Germany into Alsace, where I enjoyed – among many other experiences - the funfair in Phalsbourg. Back into Germany, where I pedalled through the heart of the Black Forest. I passed through Rottweil; fortunately, I didn’t meet any of the local dogs! I spent a night in Lindau, where I heard an oom-pah band for the first time. It was only a few months later that I started to play a brass instrument myself.
Then through a corner of Austria into Liechtenstein (the rain pissed down the whole 2 hours I was there). I remember that the hills started as soon as I got into Switzerland. And then I cycled through Davos, and walked up most of my first Alpine pass, the Flüela. Later the same day, I went over the Ofenpass (Pass dal Fuorn).
On the way down from the Ofenpass, I hit a major problem. Not just one puncture, but two. Both inner tubes gone, and I only had one spare with me! No chance of reaching the youth hostel I was aiming for, so another night camping in the rain. It took me a few days to sort the problem out. I took bus and train to the nearest big town, St.Moritz. Only to find that all the cycle shops were closed, because it was Monday. Eventually, I found the tubes I needed at a place called Fuldera-Daint, just a few kilometres up the valley.
Two notes to self: (1) Plan, as far as is cost effective, for the worst. (2) Understand the local culture, and when shops will be open and closed, before you go.
Then to Italy. Where, I confess, I felt more at home than in the German speaking parts of Europe. I laughed at the sign outside the Renault car factory in Treviso: “Fattoria Automobilistica Renault Treviso. F.A.R.T.” Then I stayed a day in beautiful Venice. Not the easiest place in the world for the cyclist or walker. But the wine was good!
In sweltering heat, I pedal(l)ed on to Bologna. I passed, in the middle of the day, through many small, almost deserted villages. I had thought that only the Spanish took the siesta? But I got my reward when I arrived in Bologna. I’ve never been a pasta fan, but even so, the food there was exemplary.
Then towards Firenze. I picked a route that was a bit too ambitious; perhaps a bridge too far, or a mountain too high. Another night’s uncomfortable camping was followed by a scary moment, when on the descent towards Ponte Cucchaiola the outer tube of the front tyre split. It was probably the second closest I’ve yet been to death.
It was Saturday afternoon, and I called at a café in the village and told them, in my awful Italian, of my plight. I don’t think I have ever in my life been treated better than by those lovely people in that nondescript village in Italy. They summoned the local cycle repairer, who fixed my bike cheaply and expertly. And when he asked me “why don’t you ride a moped?” my reply was instinctive: “É troppo caro!”
I visited Firenze, and found it a bit overwhelming. I’m not a churchy person. Then to Perugia and Assisi. On the way I put a wheel down into the track at a level crossing. I came off – fortunately, no injury – but it buckled the wheel. I wobbled to Assisi – a beautiful and very hilly town – and discovered that there was no cycle shop in Assisi! St. Francis, whatever else he might have been, obviously wasn’t a cyclist.
In Foligno, the next town, I found a cycle shop; and a youth hostel. And I found that “domani” in Italian means “I’ll do it tomorrow,” not at all the same as “mañana” in Spanish. The new wheel, and fitting it, cost £2.
Next, to Rome. Again, I chose a mountain route. Spectacular, and hard work. Beautiful walled towns on the route. I stayed at a youth hostel 1,800 metres above sea level. Then, down again. I spent almost a week in Rome. It was a frenetic place, even then; but I enjoyed it. And in the hostel I re-met my best friend from ten years before.
Rome to Naples, Naples to Sorrento. And then to a place called Paestum. It had a railway station, a café, a youth hostel, a Greek temple and a beach; no more. I met there, for the third time, a Dutchman I’d met in Perugia and again in Sorrento. I hung out with him and his friends for a day or so, then decided I’d reached the end of my bungee.
There were, of course, tribulations on the homeward way.The chase by a dog pack along the beach road in Salerno. The night I had to spend in the broom cupboard of a hostel I didn’t know had closed for the season (yes, the one 1,800 metres high). More ructions due to unexpectedly closed hostels. Being stopped by the cops near Imola; I think they thought I was carrying drugs. The youth hostel in Genoa, by far the worst I stayed at. Being knocked off my bike by a right-turning lorry. Taking an afternoon nap on an easy day, and waking up in a thunderstorm. Trying to pedal northwards out of Marseille against the Mistral.
That last problem signalled the end of the trip. I took the train and ferry home from Marseille. Here’s what I wrote about that journey, a few years afterwards:
"Due to a lack of early morning buses, get a later train than I intended. Share a compartment with a load of Marseillais farmers – didn’t understand one word they said from beginning to end! On reaching Paris, pick up the bike, and … SNCF have banged it up. Quick running repairs, but it isn’t rideable. Have to push it across Paris to the Gare du Nord! This took 2 hours, and… I just saw the London train leave. Isn’t it wonderful to be in Paris, having missed the night train to London, with a banged-up bicycle and no money in your pocket? Another night roaming the streets…”
But despite the troubles on my trip, I took from it far more enjoyment than pain. And I learned much. After a decade and a half of schooling, I got some experience at last.
1974 was the year I grew up.
Friday, 14 September 2018
To be sung to the hymn tune “Aurelia”
I once was in Chicago,
Some way out to the west,
And I was travelling solo;
That’s how I travel best.
I stumbled on a tavern,
Right by the highway side;
And there I met a maven
Upon a Burghal hide.
We fell to conversation,
And then they brought us beer.
And our deliberation
Took us into top gear.
We solved the issues daily
That plague both rich and poor;
But those around us, gaily,
Did our ideas ignore.
He took his smokes and Jameson’s,
I took my beer and wine;
Betwixt the plums and damsons
We treaded a fine line.
“What is this place?” I queried,
“The Wolf’s Head,” he replied,
“The best place for a beerhead
In all the South West Side.”
Time passed, and I felt weary;
I called a taxi ride.
My friend was also leery
Of cops politicized.
And so we parted, vowing
To meet before the end
Of time. And, deeply bowing,
I left my new found friend.
Thursday, 30 August 2018
Yet when I follow that link, I get a message that says:
Now I’m no admirer of the United Nations, but Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
A couple of questions from this (maybe) naïve observer:
- Is this not a clear breach of my (and their) human rights under Article 19?
- Why have EU directives and regulations like this not been rejected, or at the very least suspended, by the UK government since the Brexit vote?
Monday, 9 July 2018
Neil’s Note: On another forum I frequent, those of us east of the pond often get lip from those who think we’re against American culture. To cure y’all of the notion, the Darn-Poor Rhymer has written this pome on the subject dearest to Yankee hearts at this time of year: baseball.
A major baseball team did hire
A player young and green;
But when at center field he stood,
He was so speedy, that he could
Catch anything, and clean!
His name was Simpson, and he had
A father English born;
Who in the USA did seek
A woman, and he found a Greek
American. One dawn,
They conjugated, then declined;
They both enjoyed the fun!
And nine months later, there emerged
Along with other matter splurged,
Jay Simpson, new young one.
He grew in body and in mind,
He grew in strength and pace.
He was intelligent and tall,
And fast; but he thought, most of all,
“It’s baseball that’s my place.”
And so, at age eighteen, he was
Contracted to the Eries,
A Canuck team out in the sticks,
Who thought they might be in the mix,
But never the World Series.
As hitter, Jay was accurate,
But didn’t have much clout.
But he met cricket playing friends,
Who gave him help to make amends
By hitting inside out.
The season was beyond belief!
Alert at every play,
Young Jay was always on his game,
“No Errors Jay” became his name;
His team went all the way!
The California Superstars
Were next up for the Eries.
Four games of seven must be won,
And they’d be hard games, every one;
The Superstars weren’t fairies.
It came down to the final game,
And then to the ninth inning;
The scoreless game had been no fun,
But if the Eries scored a run,
They would be title winning!
Strike one, strike two, strike three, and gone!
The lefty pitcher smiled.
Then two on base, and one more out,
Who would come in for the final clout?
Jay Simpson, meek and mild.
The first pitch, he ignored. But it
Was just inside the zone.
The second, he did swing at. But
The pundits said, “Wrong choice! Tut tut!”
Strike two; he felt alone.
The third pitch came in low and fast,
And Jay knew how and why
To hit the off-drive right between
The first and second basemen mean,
To gain his RBI.
But that’s not all. For then a wasp
Stung the right fielder’s stoma,
The center fielder pulled up lame,
And all the people at the game
Said: “That’s an infield homer!”
As young Jay ran from base to base,
He cried with joy, “Home, Eries!”
And “Homer” Simpson he became,
And we still call him by that name,
For he won the World Series.
Saturday, 30 June 2018
June 2018 was a good month for those of us on the side of truth and common sense in environmental matters. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has written of the decline of media interest in the mantra of “saving the planet.” In the Wall Street Journal, Steven F. Hayward has gone further. He tells us of “the descent of climate change into the abyss of social-justice identity politics,” and says “climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue.” Meanwhile, a so-called wind drought has caused the UK media to wake up at last to the fact that wind power is useless for generating the base load energy that is vital to our civilization. And even the government are talking of bringing nuclear power back into the mix.
But in at least one other area the greens’ assault on our lifestyles and freedoms is still growing. I refer, specifically, to their attacks on cars and car drivers. Not only is the mayor of London already making it impossibly expensive for all but the very rich to drive their cars in London. Not only is he seeking to widen further the range of his plundering schemes. But the anti-car lobby in the UK are seeking to restrict, and eventually to ban, car use on a national scale. And in this effort they are using a particular kind of pollution, called PM2.5, as their poster child.
The anti-car movement
There has been an anti-car movement in the UK since at least the 1970s. But it was in about 1993 that the anti-car propaganda machine really got going. Our TV screens showed staged pictures of rural roads chock-a-block with cars. Of traffic jams in foggy weather, complete with smoking exhaust pipes. Of the aftermaths of accidents. It was hard, even back then, to avoid thinking that we drivers were being set up. Moreover, organizations that should have defended us, like the Automobile Association, looked the other way, or even added their voices to the witch-hunt. Since then, we have suffered creeping speed limits, chicanes, speed bumps, bus and cycle lanes, new housing without adequate parking, ever rising fuel taxes, and extortionate schemes like the London congestion charge and ultra-low emissions zone.
Why have we car drivers been treated like witches, scapegoats or milch cows? I think much of it is because the car is a strong and visible symbol of individuality and independence. Those that hate the human individual – be they socialists, closet fascists, greens or supporters of other bad political ideologies – find car drivers an irresistible target. And this is all tied up with an agenda of control over and micro-managing of every aspect of our lives, that green activists and others like them have being pushing for decades. One recent study in Scotland, for example, advocated “a combined strategy of radical change in travel patterns, mode and vehicle choice, vehicle occupancy and on-road driving behaviour with high electrification and phasing out of conventional petrol and diesel road vehicles.” That’s typical of what we’re up against.
So, what is the accusation being levelled against us over PM2.5? Here’s how the Guardian put it in an article last October: “Every person in the capital is breathing air that exceeds global guidelines for one of the most dangerous toxic particles... Every area in the capital exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) limits for a damaging type of particle known as PM2.5... Nearly 95% of the capital’s population live in areas that exceed the limit by 50% or more. In central London the average annual levels are almost double the WHO limit of 10 µg/m3 [micrograms per cubic metre].” And the article quotes clean air campaigners saying things like, “Toxic air is poisoning our children,” and calling on the mayor of London to “take more urgent, immediate action in light of the scale of the crisis.”
Sounds like a real and serious problem, eh? But this is typical Grauniad reporting. Facts are presented to support only the alarmist side, and tweaked to show it in the best possible light. And as usual with such reporting, what they don’t say matters far more than what they do say.
The WHO and the UN
First, about the World Health Organization. The WHO is a United Nations agency. And the UN is the primary force pushing the world-wide green agenda, which has been a cause of so much pain to all of us over the last 30 years and more.
All this is a matter of public record. You can trace UN involvement right back to the first Earth Day in 1970. You can learn about the UN’s 1982 World Charter for Nature resolution. You can read the 1987 UN report Our Common Future, which set the scene for the 1992 Rio summit and everything that has followed from it. You can read the WHO’s fact sheet on outdoor air quality and health, which promotes policies like “prioritizing rapid urban transit, walking and cycling networks in cities as well as rail interurban freight and passenger travel.”
You can read about Maurice Strong, first director of the UN Environment Programme, with his scandal-ridden business career as well as his many UN projects and his deep green activism. You will probably be horrified by Strong’s 1997 quote: “Frankly, we may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse.” On environmental matters, you may well conclude, the UN and its agency the WHO are extremist organizations, enemies of our civilization, and not to be trusted in any way.
Next, what exactly is PM2.5? PM stands for “particulate matter.” That is, small particles in the air we breathe. The “2.5” means particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. These are considered the most toxic kind of particulate matter, because they are small enough to get through the body’s defences into the lungs. They can also carry chemical poisons, like salts of nickel or arsenic.
And PM2.5 has characteristics, that make it a perfect weapon for globalist control freaks to use to further their goal of a totalitarian world government. For the small particles, which make up PM2.5, tend to remain in the air for quite a long time. And so, PM2.5 pollution can travel far from its source, even across national borders. This helps the UN and the European Union in their claims for international control over these emissions. (Never mind that the worst PM2.5 episodes in London and south-east England usually occur in calm weather with winds from the south-east; and in these conditions, a lot of the pollution comes from the European continent!)
To add to all this, PM2.5 is very hard to measure with any confidence. A 2012 report from the Air Quality Expert Group says: “the metric does not correspond to a definite physical or chemical component of the air but is in effect defined by the measurement method itself.” And this is a consequence of “the metric featuring in legislation before a good scientific understanding of airborne particles was available.” In other words, it was politicians that got us into this mess.
Concentrations versus emissions
To understand air pollution issues, it’s important to distinguish between concentrations and emissions. The concentration of something is how much of it there is in a given volume. It’s measured in mass per volume of air. For PM2.5, this is usually given in micrograms per cubic metre. Emissions, on the other hand – that is, air pollution that is attributable to human civilization – are measured in units like thousands of tons per year. Absent sinks or other sources of the same pollution, emissions of a pollutant by human activities will cause a proportionate increase in its concentration. But in the real world the relation is, to say the least, indirect.
The long term health effects of pollution – whatever they might or might not be – depend on concentrations, not emissions. Therefore, initially the focus on PM2.5 was on concentrations. An EU directive issued in 2008 set targets and limits on these concentrations. The EU set a maximum for PM2.5, averaged over a year, of 25 micrograms per cubic metre; for brevity, I’ll call this 25 units. This started off in 2010 as a “target,” which is defined as “to be attained by taking all necessary, cost-effective measures.” In 2015, it was hardened into a “limit,” any breach of which is likely to result in prosecution by the EU.
On the other hand, back in 2005 the WHO issued its “guideline” figure for PM2.5 of only 10 units. This is an amazing difference; the WHO’s number is just two-fifths of the EU limit! And it’s actually worse than that. For there’s a background level of PM2.5 in the air, which would be there even if there was no human industrial civilization. I’ve heard this stated, by a UK expert, to be 7 units. (Though I think it might actually be less, because both Australia and New Zealand report average PM2.5 lower than 6 units). But if we accept this expert’s view, then compared to the EU limit, to meet the WHO guideline would require humans to reduce our contribution to PM2.5 levels from 18 to 3 units, a factor of 6. That isn’t going to happen without the breakdown of civilization as we know it; which, I suspect, was Maurice Strong’s aim all along.
Now, where are we today in terms of actual, measured concentrations in the UK? The average in London is about 14 units. A few sites in central London are above 20; but as of 2015, there was no place in London at which the EU limit was broken. And the averages in urban areas and at roadside sites throughout the UK in 2017 were 9.6 and 9.9 units – very close both to each other and to the WHO guideline.
So, what are the main sources of PM2.5 emissions? Diesel engines are one. (Petrol engines emit very little PM2.5). However, emissions from diesel car engines have been cut by an order of magnitude in the last two decades. Diesel cars built since 2010 emit only a tenth as much PM2.5 as those built in 2001 or before.
Note that this is a different issue from nitrogen oxide pollution from diesels, which has become a problem in the UK for two reasons. First, Blair and Brown’s 2001 decision – aided and abetted by their scientific advisor, David King – to encourage people to buy, and manufacturers to make, diesels ahead of petrol cars. Second, the manufacturers’ failure to make diesel engines that keep, under real world driving conditions, to the standards they can meet in the laboratory.
To return to PM2.5. There are claims that cars cause significant emissions of PM2.5 in other ways, too: tyre wear, brake wear and road surface abrasion. Extremists are using these claims to argue for eventual bans on petrol cars and even electric cars, as well as diesels. However, it isn’t at all clear how significant these PM2.5 emissions actually are. DEFRA, the UK government agency tasked with providing statistics on pollution, seem to think that most of the emissions of PM from these causes are probably particles larger than, and so less toxic than, PM2.5.
There is, however, one source of PM2.5 in the UK air, which has become very significant over the last four years or so. That is, the burning of wood. It’s estimated that this source produces more than twice as much PM2.5 as all road traffic put together. And yet, the government are actively encouraging and even subsidizing people to burn wood! Madness.
And there’s more madness yet. Efforts to control PM2.5 pollution, up to the early 2000s, had been quite successful. By 2002, emissions had been cut almost to a quarter of their 1970 level. Yet, in 1999, Blair’s government went further, and signed the Gothenburg Protocol. They agreed to set, for the first time, strict controls on emissions of a number of pollutants, including PM2.5. Then in 2012, Cameron and the Coalition agreed to extend this protocol. This extension not only set specific limits on PM2.5 emissions, but also committed to further reductions in the future. This led to the 2016 EU “National Emission Ceilings” directive, which required the UK to cut PM2.5 emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, and no less than 54 per cent below by 2030.
But by 2005, all the low hanging fruit – all the emissions reductions which could be achieved without causing a lot of pain to millions of people – had been picked. Since then, PM2.5 emissions in the UK have been going down only slightly, and today they are pretty much static from year to year. 2020 is now fast approaching, and there isn’t a hope in hell of meeting the 30 per cent reduction Cameron and co agreed to in 2012. That’s why this is a hot issue today.
The case for the car
There is no doubt that cars are a blessing to those who drive them and ride in them. The car is comfortable, smooth, quiet and private. It keeps you warm and dry. It goes when and where you want it to. It is good at carrying loads – including children. And for most UK journeys outside city centres, it is faster than the alternatives.
Contrast the other means of transport, which the car-haters tell us we should be using rather than our cars. Walking is far too slow for all but the shortest journeys. Public transport, on the other hand, is often slow, indirect, uncomfortable and crowded. It goes according to a schedule which probably doesn’t suit you; and it may not be practical, or even available at all, for your journey. Or it may fail to turn up on time. Moreover, you have to wait for it out in the cold and wet. As to the bicycle, it’s a fine means of transport in its place. I know this, because I once bicycled 4,500 miles from Nova Scotia to California! But now I’m 65, live at the top of a hill, suffer from gout and play the tuba, cycling simply isn’t a practical way for me to get around.
Can we quantify how much benefit cars provide to their drivers and passengers? In 2017, the Daily Express calculated the lifetime cost of running a car in the UK as £169,000. Over 50 years, that’s almost £3,400 per year. That doesn’t include the capital costs of buying the car in the first place – for a £12,000 car which lasts 8 years, that’s another £1,500 per year. Thus, the more than 25 million car owners in the UK are each shelling out every year around £5,000 on average. So, their perception of the benefit from their cars must be at least that large! Anyone that wants to take away that benefit, or even to restrict it, has to put forward a very strong case. Don’t they?
So, how does the cost of the pollution that cars emit, or otherwise cause, compare with the huge benefit they provide? Last year, I wrote a paper called “The Social Costs of Air Pollution from Cars in the UK.” That paper is available on the Internet; but it’s very long, and quite technical. One of the things I did was calculate the social cost – that is, the total cost to all those affected – of PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars, in pounds per car per year. I used figures from government reports produced in 2009 and 2010, based on data from 2008. And the social cost I calculated was £183 per car per year.
Now £183 per car per year is significant, even if it is way less than the £5,000+ benefit per year to the driver. But since 2008, PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars have been cut by an order of magnitude. For diesel cars built since 2010, I calculated the social cost of PM2.5 emissions as just £21 per car per year. In comparison to the benefit, that is peanuts; and for petrol cars, the cost is zero! Even if we throw in an allowance for PM2.5 emissions from brakes and tyres – an estimate I’ve seen is that these may be around two-thirds of the emissions from engines – we are looking at a social cost for PM2.5 of only £14 per car per year for petrol cars and £35 for diesels. In a world of common sense, that would offer no justification at all for any restrictions.
There is a principle called “polluter pays,” which is widely accepted and has been incorporated into environmental law in many countries. This is an application of the common sense principle that each individual bears responsibility for the effects on others of his or her own voluntary actions. In the case of air pollution, which arises as a side effect of other human activities such as driving cars, it implies that polluters should pay according to the amount and the toxicity of the pollution they cause.
To apply the “polluter pays” principle rightly, therefore, the social cost of the pollution must first be quantified, objectively and accurately. Then polluters should each be made to pay their own share of that cost, according to the fraction of the pollution for which they are responsible. In a common sense world, that payment should then be routed as compensation to the people who suffer the negative effects of that pollution – for example, those who live close to main roads.
In schemes like the London ultra low emissions zone, however, the charges bear no relation at all to social cost. For example, new diesel cars are not charged at all, although they have a higher social cost than petrol cars, even 15 year old ones. But diesels built between 2010 and 2015 (like mine), which emit no more PM2.5 than a brand new diesel car and only slightly more nitrogen oxides, are charged full whack! Moreover, the scheme doesn’t give anything to the people impacted by the pollution. It is merely a rip-off, through which the mayor of London seeks to rake in vast sums of money to use on his pet projects.
As if all this wasn’t enough, there are very great uncertainties in the government figures I used to calculate the social costs per car. And there’s a backstory, too. Those familiar with the backstory on global warming will, I’m sure, recognize a lot of similarities between the two.
In the early 1990s, two major studies were carried out on the association between PM2.5 and death rates in the USA. One was the Harvard “Six Cities” study of 1993, the other was the American Cancer Society’s “Cancer Prevention Study II,” published in 1995. Both were based on data collected in the 1980s, and both concluded that there was a strong correlation between PM2.5 concentrations and mortality rates.
However, the raw data used in these studies was not made publicly available. In 2013, the US House of Representatives issued a subpoena to the Environmental Protection Agency for the data; but it was not complied with. Only recently, with the change of administration, have some other scientists been allowed access to versions of this data.
There were enough criticisms of these studies, that in 2000 a team from the Health Effects Institute were allowed special access to the data in order to do a re-analysis of the work. They declared: “Overall, the reanalyses assured the quality of the original data, replicated the original results, and tested those results against alternative risk models and analytic approaches without substantively altering the original findings of an association between indicators of particulate matter air pollution and mortality.” But the review did say: “No single epidemiologic study can be the basis for determining a causal relation between air pollution and mortality.”
The 1995 ACS study, updated in 2002, was used by the UK government when, in 2009, they tried to work out how big a problem PM2.5 was in the UK. They accepted the “risk coefficient” (6 per cent) from this study as being applicable to the UK also; though it isn’t clear on what scientific basis they did this. And they tried a novel way of estimating the uncertainty, which amounted in essence to seven experts each waving a wet finger in the air, and pooling the results. The result was a factor of 12 between their upper and lower bounds!
In a follow-up report in 2010, they concluded that in 2008 PM2.5 had caused nearly 29,000 deaths in the UK, with an average loss of life for the individuals affected of 11.7 years. My sanity checker finds this figure rather implausible; it means that more than 5 per cent of all deaths of people aged over 30 in the UK in 2008 were caused by PM2.5! However, it’s the best figure I have, so it’s the one on which I based my own calculations.
According to their “75% plausibility interval,” though, the actual number of deaths could have been anywhere between 4,700 and 51,000. So my figure of £21 per diesel car per year for the social cost of PM2.5 emissions could have been anywhere from £37 down to £3.40. For anyone to suggest yet more heavy taxes on cars, or restricting or even banning them, for the sake of such a tiny impact and in the presence of such huge uncertainties, is lunacy, if not also bad faith.
Just as with global warming, there have been scientists who don’t follow the “consensus” narrative. And just as with global warming, these scientists have been victimized and treated as pariahs by the establishment. Prominent among them is James Enstrom, an epidemiologist from Los Angeles. Enstrom used to work on ACS projects; but they terminated his funding in 1994. In 2006, the ACS accused Enstrom of (in the words of Wikipedia) “misrepresenting scientific evidence to deny that passive smoking was harmful.” And in 2010 his university, UCLA, tried to fire him, and he had to take the case to court.
Enstrom’s view on PM2.5, as far as I can make it out, is as follows. First, the correlation between PM2.5 and mortality in the ACS study was far too high. Indeed, he accuses the study’s authors of making “selective use” of the data. Second, a non-smoker (like me) only inhales about 5 grams of PM2.5 in a lifetime. That’s a calculation I checked myself; my result was 4.6 grams in the expected lifetime of an average Londoner. Third, to be sure that PM2.5 is as toxic as is claimed, we need a good understanding of how, chemically and biologically, it causes its toxic effects – as we do indeed have for other highly toxic substances, like arsenic. But what, exactly, are these mechanisms for PM2.5? And fourth, other studies, notably in California, have shown no evidence even of correlation between PM2.5 and mortality, let alone causation.
The precautionary principle
There’s one more detail I must cover; the perversion of the precautionary principle. I have written in depth about the subject elsewhere, so this will be only a summary. In its original form the principle, whose name translates literally from the German as “fore-care principle,” can be put as “Look before you leap.” It can also be thought of as “First, do no harm.”
But environmentalists have cleverly re-interpreted and perverted it. One step in that direction was article 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
This makes no sense. For you need a very high degree of scientific certainty indeed, in order to be able to estimate costs and benefits accurately enough to decide whether a proposed action will be cost-effective or not. A factor of 12 between upper and lower bounds is no good! You need something more like plus or minus 10 per cent. And even that won’t be good enough if the margin between costs and benefits is close.
But it’s worse than that. For in 2002, the UK government perverted the principle even further. “The purpose of the precautionary principle,” they wrote, “is to create an impetus to take a decision notwithstanding scientific uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risk.” This says, in effect, that you must make a decision to “do something,” even if the data you have isn’t good enough to make any decision at all! It gives their take on the precautionary principle almost exactly the opposite effect to its true meaning.
Some common sense
It’s time, at last, to apply some good, old-fashioned common sense to this issue.
For governments, the precautionary principle, in its true form, says that you must not take any action – and most of all, any action which harms or may harm innocent people – until you’re confident the benefits will be greater than the costs. After all, isn’t government supposed to be for the benefit of the governed? All the governed? And doesn’t that mean that governments should never, ever make a commitment on behalf of the governed, unless it’s absolutely clear that it can be met without causing pain to the people they are supposed to be serving?
And yet, on this issue the UK government has, again and again, put their own green virtue signalling ahead of the interests of the people. Major and co, if they had rightly applied the precautionary principle, should never have signed up to Rio. Blair and co were anti-car right from the start; one of the very first things they did was the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997! They signed up to Gothenburg. They encouraged diesel engines rather than petrol, thereby causing huge amounts of PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide pollution which need not have happened. And they aided and abetted the perversion of the precautionary principle.
Cameron and co, when they got power, compounded the felony. They signed up to the 2012 extension of Gothenburg, when it should have been damn obvious that the commitments they were making on PM2.5 would be impossible to meet. And they subsidized the burning of wood – yet more government-caused pollution which need never have happened.
Now, what of the business case for and against the car? The benefits of cars, to all those who use them, are orders of magnitude greater than the social costs caused by pollution from those cars. And that’s using the government’s own figures. For control freaks to try to use PM2.5 as an excuse to impose an anti-car agenda is not only deranged, but also extremely dishonest. Besides which, our freedom to choose the mode of travel which best suits us is more important than opportunities for selfish politicians to flaunt their green credentials. And all this is exactly the kind of crap that so many of us voted for Brexit in order to get away from!
Further: The science on the toxicity of PM2.5 is dubious. The original data, on which that science was based, has been kept hidden for decades. The uncertainties are huge. The social costs of pollution from cars may turn out, when examined objectively and without political bias, to be lower yet than the figures I gave here. And even if the claimed PM2.5 problem was a real one, how can you regulate something that you can’t even measure with confidence or accuracy?
Earlier, I referenced the “polluter pays” principle. And I agreed with it – provided individuals are required to pay only for the social cost of the pollution they cause, and no more. I wonder if, perhaps, we should make a companion principle, which I’ll call “politicker pays?” Should we not hold politicians and others, that have promoted or supported bad policies like the green agenda, individually responsible for their share of the damage done to us by those policies? Wouldn’t everyone in politics or government (or even science!) then be forced to use, in everything they do on our behalf, the precautionary principle? In its true form: “First, do no harm?”
Saturday, 23 June 2018
The Green Religion
1) God: Gaia
a) Her representatives on Earth: green activists
b) Her son: the United Nations
c) Her cardinals: green politicians
d) Her bishops: “scientists” that support the green agenda
e) Her apostles: the mainstream media
f) Her dogma: do as I say, not as I do
g) Her faithful: collectivists, those that profit from the religion, the idiot believers
2) The devil: Enlightenment (a.k.a. “Lucifer”)
a) His representatives on Earth: Every human being who doesn’t buy the green agenda without objective proof. Including individualists, libertarians, real scientists, many conservatives, and objective thinkers of all political and religious stripes
b) His three sons: Truth, Ethics and Justice
c) His cardinals, bishops and priests: He has no permanent positions available
d) His dogma: You have your religion, and I’ll have mine
e) His apostles: All of us “heretics” who dispute the conventional wisdom when we think it’s wrong
f) His faithful: Every human being worth the name
Monday, 7 May 2018
In the morning at half past five?
Did you hear wasps a-flying,
As they came, one by one, from their hive?
Did you hear ducks a-quacking,
That one more duckling is born?
Did you hear choral backing,
That sang of a warm festive morn?
And yet, the BBC portray
The “hottest evah” seventh of May.
Did you meet people walking,
In the sunshine along the canal?
Did you meet for some talking,
As their dog did something banal?
Did you see girls parading,
In dresses skimpy and tight?
Did you see boys abrading
Their trousers at such a sight?
And yet, the BBC do tell,
That cold is heaven, warm is hell.
Did you feel quietly happy,
As you soaked in the warmth of the day?
Was your step a tad snappy
As you walked on your homeward way?
Sod the BBC! This I’ll say:
It’s been a beautiful seventh of May.
Monday, 30 April 2018
The free market
According to Webster’s, a free market is “an economic market operating by free competition.” Even in the definition, there’s a seed of confusion. For most people do not talk of or think of “a” free market, but of “the free market.” But if there’s such a thing as the free market among human beings, then there can be only one such. And it would inevitably become world-wide; even if there might be cost barriers, or cultural or logistical difficulties, that tend to hinder some longer-distance trades.
But there’s no free market in existence today on our planet. For political governments make screeds of often capricious legislation, restricting what goods or services people may buy or sell, or denying access to a market for certain people. Moreover, tariff barriers or even sanctions hinder trade across the arbitrary boundaries of political states. Even where so called “free trade areas” exist, trade is hardly free. Usually, such “free trade” means merely that governments have agreed not to impose certain tariffs on each other’s products or services. And there’s often a price to be paid by traders – for example, compliance with EU standards.
So, how would the free market look – if it existed? Plainly, in such a set up, individuals, companies and other societies are able to trade freely with each other. For the benefit of all honest parties, such trade should take place within a framework of just governance. Such a framework can make sane and sensible rules to help keep the market free. It can prohibit activities that provably do, or are intended to do, significant harm to others. And it can judge disputes, assess compensation, and impose just penalties on those that deserve them.
But in the free market, there are no political obstacles placed in the way of provision of goods or services. Nor are there any political restrictions on what people may seek to trade for, or on whom individuals and societies may seek to trade with. Nor are there any tariffs or taxes beyond what is necessary to support the framework of governance.
The free market allows people to trade with whom they wish. By the same token, it must also allow people to choose not to trade with those they do not want to. Thus all individuals and societies must have the right to discriminate, if they wish, among those with whom they trade. A Christian baker, for example, isn’t required to bake a cake for a gay wedding if he doesn’t want to. Nor are company bosses to be required to hire women, Irish people, Muslims or convicted criminals if they don’t want to.
On the other hand, if a trader chooses to discriminate on such grounds, it’s only reasonable that potential clients or suppliers must know about it in advance. Not only will this avoid unnecessary effort and embarrassment for those who would be refused. But it also enables those of us, who disapprove of particular forms of discrimination such as racism, to choose to shun those that use those forms. Thus, these discriminators may find their own weapons being turned back on them.
Furthermore, collusion to exclude particular people or groups from the market, or to render the market less free, is a violation of the rights of the victims, and should be punishable. And most of all when it is done, as today, by organizations like corporations and political governments.
On to the vexed subject of capitalism. At one level, capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, and by investments that are determined by private decision.” At that level, it is often contrasted with socialism, which in the restricted sense is “collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods.” On these definitions, I can’t see why anyone other than a statist or a doctrinaire socialist could possibly object to capitalism. And the case against this idea of socialism is particularly strong for those of us, for whom our means of production are our minds.
But my own definition of capitalism is a wider one. I see it as the condition, in which no-one is prevented from justly acquiring or justly using wealth. For me, capitalism thus includes, and goes beyond, the free market. It allows individuals and groups not only to trade freely, but also to enjoy the fruits of what they earn through that trade. And is it not fair and just, that those who create more wealth than others should enjoy more wealth in return?
Politics and “capitalism”
And yet, the political system we suffer under today is nowhere near capitalism, in the sense in which I just described it. First, and most obviously, there is taxation. I will have much to say about taxation later; so, for now, I will make just one point. The heavy, progressive taxation on incomes, that is favoured by virtually all political governments today, is a socially conservative force. It prevents those who have little or no capital, but who can earn good incomes, from accumulating enough capital to be able to do more. Thus it makes it hard for people, who are not already rich, to get their economic careers off the ground; and unnecessarily hard for people to lift themselves out of poverty. In contrast, it favours those who already have capital. And particularly those who have so much capital that they don’t need to earn much income.
Then there are political agendas, that adversely affect the world economy, and thus move the market away from freedom and true capitalism. For example, the agenda that seeks to force replacement of cheap, reliable energy sources such as coal, oil and gas by expensive, unreliable “renewables” like solar and wind; as well as to slow or to prevent the use of nuclear power. Not only do such policies make just about everything more expensive than it need be. But they also depress the economy by pushing some, or even many, activities over the line from potentially profitable to not worth doing.
Another such agenda is the artificially low interest rates, which have been the norm in much of the world for a decade or more. Low interest rates help those in debt (and, in particular, help governments) at the expense of those who want to save, invest and build up a reserve for the future. They make it impossible for investors to keep pace with inflation, without taking risks.
Cronyism and corporatism
Then there’s cronyism. There have long been companies – for example, arms manufacturers – that have been in cahoots with governments. But in recent decades big businesses, both national and international, have more and more been going cap in hand to political governments. They may do this to get subsidies or other advantages for themselves, or to harm their competitors, or to get regulations made that keep new entrants out of the market. The effects of these activities are to unjustly enrich those that do them, and to restrict opportunities for the victims of the resulting bad laws. The establishment and their media like to present all this as if it was a failure of capitalism. When, in reality, these activities have nothing to do with capitalism at all.
Then there’s corporatism. This goes further than cronyism, and seeks to use money and financial manipulations to influence, and to seek to control, political parties and their policies. Or even to de-stablilize national currencies for selfish ends. And the usual suspects like to make out – falsely, of course – that this, too, is the fault of private ownership of the means of production.
Poor treatment of workers
One of the sharpest criticisms of capitalism is of the shoddy way in which it acts towards working people. No doubt, there is truth in this. I myself have seen company managers treat their staff, not as thinking and feeling human beings, but as resources to be used, exploited and (metaphorically, if not actually) shat upon. And certainly there have been many capitalists that have made themselves rich, while paying their workers far less than they would be worth in a truly free market.
In recent decades, recessions and political pressures have made many companies concentrate on this year’s “bottom line” at the expense of almost all else. And growing cronyism and corporatism tend to make large companies, in particular, treat their people (and their small suppliers) badly. But all that said, these problems are not the fault of capitalism per se. They are the fault of particular individuals or groups, that have let their own selfishness override justice, and the rights of those who work for them.
Externalities and Risk
Another criticism levied against capitalism is that, as a by-product of economic activity, bad things happen. Economists call these unintended, damaging effects “externalities.” Pollution and noise are two examples. But these problems, again, have nothing to do with capitalism. In fact, the real problem is that governments too often allow those, who cause damage to others in these ways, to get away with it. In a sane, objective system of governance, those that cause such externalities – including government itself – would be made to compensate the individuals and groups affected by the damage they caused, each in proportion to the amount of harm they suffer.
Then there is the much touted idea that capitalism causes scarcity; for example, by using up natural resources like coal or oil. That isn’t consistent with the facts, at least from the Industrial Revolution up to the present. The trend has always been that, absent political interference, the resources we need have tended to become more abundant, and cheaper in real terms. For, if a natural resource starts to become scarce, its price goes up. That in turn will spur capitalists to seek better ways of finding or extracting it, or to develop better alternatives to replace it.
Then there’s the troublesome matter of risk. All activities have risks, both to those who do them and to others. And economic activities are no exception. Those with agendas of control like to make out that capitalism causes serious and unnecessary risks to health, safety and the like. But as with externalities, this is not a failure of capitalism, but of government. In a sane system, those who want to engage in activities which cause risk to others would be held accountable. They would not be allowed to take risks which are objectively unreasonable. As to more reasonable risks, they would be required to have sufficient resources available (for example, through insurance) to be able to compensate those harmed, if damage did result from the risk.
There is also risk that is inherent in the financial system itself. Capitalism often gets blamed for the boom-bust cycle that has been characteristic of the world economy, particularly over the last 50 years or so. But the real culprit is not capitalism, but irresponsibility and dishonesty. Many bankers and others in the financial sector have increasingly become gamblers. Perhaps they feel that they are “too big to fail,” and will be bailed out by their government friends if things go wrong. This is compounded by the stock market, which – while indispensable in its role of matching those with money to invest with those deserving of investment – often seems like little more than a glorified gambling game.
The problem here is not so much that every so often, gamblers fail; for if they didn’t want to take that risk, they shouldn’t have gambled in the first place. The real problem is that the knock-on effect of a financial gamble that fails can affect everyone in very negative ways, such as losing their deposits in banks. And it can ruin even those, who have never taken a financial gamble in their lives. In reality, the problem is the failure of governments to hold those in the financial sector accountable for the risks they impose on others.
Lastly, there’s a meme doing the rounds today that economic growth is not a good thing, but a bad one; and that everyone should abandon the idea of growth. As so often, this meme is being peddled by the usual establishment and media suspects. And it’s clear that those promoting it do not have the interests of productive, honest people at heart. Nor do they have any concern for the people in poor countries, for whom growth of world trade is a lifeline, which can help them to lift themselves out of poverty. This meme, I think, is merely another side-swipe by those that hate capitalism, and the earned prosperity it brings to those who use it well.
Individuals, if they wish, may of course choose not to take part in what they see as an economic “rat race.” If they prefer more leisure time or a less stressful life, and in return they are happy to accept a reduced standard of living, that is their choice. What is wrong, though, is if they have power to deny other people the right to make their own choices on this issue. Or to lay a claim on those, who have chosen to be productive and to suffer the penalties that implies, to help them if their own choice turns out to have been a bad one.
To sum up
The free market is the environment, in which honest, productive people can interact to maximum effect in order to create prosperity. But it doesn’t exist today. And true capitalism, the condition in which no-one is prevented from justly acquiring or justly using wealth, would be an immense benefit to all good people. If, that is, it was allowed to flourish.
The criticisms, that are commonly made of capitalism, are mostly wrong. Some are about failings of individuals and groups, that have chosen to follow private ownership of the means of production. These do not invalidate capitalism as a system. The rest merely either pander to agendas, or highlight bad actions by political governments and their corporate cronies.