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Saturday, 21 December 2013

Thought Experiment

Pythagorus and his lot worked by thought experiments alone. That’s what mathematicians do. What they tell us is true. That’s how Austrian economists work.

Here’s a thought experiment. It should help you to discriminate between policies.

Imagine an island. Fish and fruit keep the population alive. The population grows. It becomes harder to feed everyone. An island-wide conversation takes place. There are two parties: One group is desperate to ensure that fish and fruit should be divided equally; the other group has ideas about how to catch more fish and how to grow more fruit. Which group will you join? Are you insane?

We are insane. Our political parties vie with each other about how best to divide stuff. On the sidelines are people saying, “Division isn’t the issue! Production is the issue!”

They are shouted down.

One group wants division to be “equitable”; the other wants greater production. Which group will you join? Are you sane?

Just in case you are not, be aware that “free markets” give us vastly greater productivity than statist “equitable” distribution.

Since 1970 the number of people living in abject poverty (who do not know where their next meal is coming from, who expect a substantial proportion of their children to die before the age of five) has fallen by 80%. Eighty percent! Free markets have done this – including “free markets” in China, Vietnam and much else of Asia.

Opposing free markets is wicked.

Let’s distribute our production equally. Absolutely not! Let’s free the creativity of mankind to increase production.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Wouldn’t it be Nice if...?

 I confess that this phrase comes to me all too frequently – and yet I now think that it is the beginning of Wisdom.

Imagine yourself in conversation with an intelligent child, not only intelligent but filled with good will towards mankind. He or she perceives that the world is far from perfect. Some people have lots of good things; others don’t. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody had enough?” he opines. Of course it would. The innocent child supposes that a benevolent government could pass a law which mandated a sufficiency for everybody. We are now into questions of policy. As the conversation proceeds the policy hardens into the idea that the government should take some good things from those who have lots and give some to those who don’t. This immediately introduces the concept of Justice. Taking things away from people against their will is known as theft. So a benevolent impulse has led you, in a very few steps, to advocating stealing.

How well did it use to be said that anyone under the age of thirty who was not a socialist had no heart, whereas anyone over the age of thirty who was a socialist had no head.

This is a tricky world, in which benevolent impulses lead to pernicious results. And if you doubt the perniciousness of socialism, count the corpses of those deliberately murdered in the name of socialism in the 20th century (about 81 million) add to this number the count of those who died because of the incompetence of socialist planners. You will get a very big number indeed.

In spite of this, socialists have claimed the high moral ground and have denigrated capitalism as being based on greed. This is a lie.

What is a capitalist?

A capitalist is someone who either by saving (deferring gratification) or by borrowing (demonstrating his credit-worthiness) creates an enterprise with a view to satisfying his own needs. Satisfying our own needs is not wicked and greedy. Indeed, we do so every time we eat a nourishing meal, having washed our hands before doing so. Some entrepreneurs merely scrape by. Some are highly successful. A shopkeeper may employ only himself in his enterprise; an industrialist may employ thousands, agreeing (in effect) with each employee a payment which is mutually advantageous. No evil has been committed. Indeed, much good is often the result: worthwhile products for consumers and worthwhile employment for the workers.

This is extraordinary paradox which Adam Smith delineated: the “invisible hand” which creates wealth out of the desire for our own wellbeing.

So, instead of sighing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if...?”, we should rejoice: “Even in this fallen world good can come of self-regard.”

Are some entrepreneurs greedy? Of course! All burglars and muggers are! The essence of entrepreneurship is risk taking and hard work.

It is a tragedy that in our far from free market system many succeed not by thrift, hard work and honest dealings but by gaming the system, by using political means to rig markets. This is not “market failure”; it is simple corruption.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Another Economic Moralist

Deirdre McCloskey is a fascinating person. She used to be a Marxist. Now she is not. She used to be a man. Now she is not. She is outstandingly well informed on matters economic and matters historical. She also teaches English Literature. She’s an Anglican; but nobody is perfect.

Below is a clip from a lecture by her. I was interested to spot, in the audience, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and Peter Atkins. I guess this means that she is pretty well respected by many who do not agree with her.

Charles Murray - Again

Charles Murray is no theologian. He is a brilliant and perceptive social scientist. And, as such, he has examined a colossal amount of data and come to some very challenging conclusions. He observes relationships between behaviours and outcomes and can back them up with very impressive statistics.

He observes that “successful” people – not necessarily rich people, but people who perceive themselves to be living worthwhile lives – abide by conventional, conservative, traditional behaviours.

He wishes that they would preach what they practise. They invest in Faith, Family, Community and Work.

Arthur C Brooks is an economist and a Catholic. He has a lot to say about Free Markets and Morality. They both work for The American Enterprise Institute. ACB is the president.

The USA is hugely blessed with organisations like AEI: The Mises Institute, The Cato Institute, The Acton Institute, all standing up for free markets and stressing the role of morality in political and economic affairs. Check them out. To be fair to us Brits, we have The Adam Smith Institute and a few others – more later perhaps.

Here is a clip featuring wise words from Charles Murray.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Virtue - 2

 I blogged recently about thrift, hard work and honesty – very important virtues, the ones which contribute most to wealth creation. If you care about poor people, you should care about wealth creation; just as, if you care about sick people, you should care about promoting healthy behaviour. Sanitation has contributed more to health than antibiotics, than transplants.

The most unpopular virtue is Chastity. It is not the virtue upon which the Church places the most importance; they are Faith, Hope and Charity. But, sex being the powerful urge it is, we dislike Chastity more than any other; and the enemies of the Church are frank about it.

The Church teaches that all sex outside monogamous marriage is sinful. In today’s society there are many opportunities for sex outside marriage. We are to eschew all these opportunities, whether heterosexual or homosexual. That makes the Church just mean.


I have come to believe that Chastity is like Thrift. Thrift is a virtue. Yes, but who is the primary beneficiary? – the thrifty one. The chaste one benefits from Chastity before anyone else. I speak from bitter experience; and it’s easy, I know, for me to speak. One of the few benefits of being in my seventh decade is the decline in the urgency of the sexual instinct. Just as an ex-addict rejoices in having broken the shackles of addiction while regretting the wasted years, so the erstwhile libertine regrets his self-indulgence. I know what unchastity has cost me. Mea culpa. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013


Some of my heroes are historians; some are economists. All of them are moralists. What hope is there for us until we are all moralists? It will not be a better world until we are better men and women. Leftists have a fantasy about “new men”, a new breed of humans which will come into being when society is remade in according to their notions. We conservatives have a melancholy understanding that men are “fallen”. Good men make a good society not vice versa.

Melancholy does not mean pessimistic. We believe that although all men are fallen, each man can be improved. All men can desire that all men should be better than they are.

Moral philosophy is far more important than economics. Moral philosophy is about generosity vs greed, kindness vs cruelty, honesty vs deception. Our tradition teaches us about a range of virtues, some of them very practical, practical in the sense that they make our lives better and that they make us better, sometimes simultaneously. I want to make the case for three traditional virtues: Thrift, Honesty and Hard Work. A moment’s introspection will show that a society in which these virtues are prevalent is superior to one in which they are not. You and your neighbours will be better off if you and they are thrifty, honest and hard working.

Politics? Practical morality. The conservative view is that whatever encourages these virtues will benefit us all. Therefore policies which reward thrift, honesty and hard work are good, those which discourage them are bad.

Let’s have a look at each in turn.

Thrift. Our ancestors understood that to indulge every material whim would imperil your future. The “rainy day” was very likely to come about. So, deferment of gratification was good for you and your family. On a societal scale, if you saved and invested you would do well for yourself and your family; but you would then also be in a position to provide work for those outside your family. As an entrepreneur, one of my greatest gratifications was to contribute to economies outside of my own family. In truth, an individual can hardly do more good than by giving work to his neighbours.

The Marxist idea that the entrepreneur exploits his employees is absurd. They exploit him by being paid before they have ever contributed to his profits.

Honesty. It is impossible to eliminate dishonesty. But every dishonest act encourages distrust. Distrust hurts the distrusted. Who will do business with someone who has cheated them?

Hard Work. It is very easy to spot slacking. When you do you are indignant. Often you perceive that the slacker is, in effect, gaining an undeserved benefit from your effort. This is true whether you are a customer or a co-worker.

Free markets reward thrift, honesty and hard work. Socialism does not; it takes from those who have and gives to those who have not. Socialism is the opposite of Justice, the idea of deserts – virtue deserves its reward.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

It’s Ideas That Matter – Not Cultures

I have been watching a debate which featured Ibn Warraq, a brave and intelligent man, the author of Why I am not a Muslim.

He was proposing the motion that Western Culture or Civilisation is superior to the competition, a view with which I had considerable sympathy. However, musing upon the debate I began to feel that the motion was not well formed. I decided that what are important are ideas not cultures. Any human being can claim any idea or belief, no matter where he lives or when.

Let me say immediately that I am not a relativist. I am firmly of the opinion that some ideas and beliefs are benign whereas others are the opposite. I believe that there exists an absolute standard of Truth, although it often extremely difficult to determine which beliefs and ideas are true and which are not. Only in Mathematics do absolute proofs exist. All the same, I am as sure that gratuitous cruelty is bad as I am that 2+2=4. No culture can claim to own either of these truths.

I am increasingly of the opinion that debates as to whether one culture is superior to another are likely to be unproductive at best. I think it can be very productive to debate, for example, free markets vs command economies; and in this case I am sure that free markets win hands down – Logic and History are on my side. The contrary view depends on the “wouldn’t it be nice if...” argument, which isn’t an argument. It wears nappies.

In the debate I was watching Ibn Warraq and his supporters listed a number of merits of western culture: respect for individuals, the rule of law, the scientific method and many others. They claimed that these virtues were characteristic of “The West” – and it may be that a majority of westerners are supportive of them. Needless to say, the opposition immediately reposted with examples of western behaviour that flouted these virtues. Marxism and Nazism were invented in the west. The crusades were a bad thing.

I found myself in the uncomfortable position, as a champion of the west, of having to admit that the opposition’s points were well made. So I have resigned. I still maintain my right to prefer living in the UK to living in Iran or North Korea but I am no longer going to wear the western uniform. Picture me in dungarees covered with badges: Free Markets Rock, I Love the Catholic Church, Abortion Sucks, Social Justice is a Stupid Idea, Taxation is Theft, Democracy is Dangerous, Death to Tyrants, Up with the Scientific Method, Down with Materialism, Slavery is Wicked, Freedom of Speech, Jesus Saves.

I feel lightheaded with freedom. But it is a burdensome position. It requires me to know as much as I can about Economics, History and Moral Philosophy. All the same, I would rather bear the burden than vote the “Western” Ticket.

If this were a book, there would have to be a chapter on Good Economics and one on Bad Economics; one on Wars (Just and Unjust). Each chapter would have to be awash with History. Who first had this brilliant idea? Where did that ghastly notion come from? Every good and every bad idea is like a baton in a relay race.

Who knows how many times the wheel was invented? – possibly only once; it never made it to the New World before the Europeans got there. It was a very good idea; no one culture can claim it.

Phonemic analysis was a very clever idea, namely that all the words in a spoken language are made up of a small number of sounds (in English about 40). One, only one, very clever Phoenician realised that to write any sentence in any language all you needed was approximately one symbol for each sound. Voila, the alphabet! Reading and writing became fantastically easy. All alphabets are related. The Chinese did not adopt the idea. Reading and writing Chinese is phenomenally difficult. Now it would be absurd for any culture to claim the idea of an alphabet. The inventor has been dead for thousands of years; his invention was the ancestor of thousands of alphabets.

A symbol for zero made arithmetical calculations spectacularly easier than they were for Pythagoras, genius though he was. Some anonymous Indian invented zero. Arab muslims adopted the idea and we got it from them. Zero belongs to the world.

It may be that monotheism was an Egyptian insight. The Hebrews took it on. Polytheism is now as incoherent to theists as it is to atheists. The Jewish idea that God is not part of the world any more than Jane Austen is a character in Pride and Prejudice is very profound. Think about it!

Regrettably, bad ideas get taken up, just like good ones. Marxism (invented in the west) spread around the world like smallpox. Millions upon millions died as a result. Global warming hysteria (invented in the west) has not killed as many; but preventing the spread of industrialisation to our brothers and sisters in the Third World is culpable stupidity. DDT hysteria (invented in the west) has been responsible for millions of deaths. Islam (invented in Arabia) is a powerful religio-political system; but it doesn’t seem to work, at least in the sense of helping people to live together in liberty. Muslims kill other muslims in alarming numbers – and not just other muslims.

Cultures are not homogeneous. They are so far from being so that perhaps the term is practically meaningless. In the state where I reside abortion is, to all intents and purposes, a form of birth control. Millions of innocents have been done to death for being inconvenient. Millions of citizens of that state regard this situation as being iniquitous. In what sense do I belong to any “culture” which permits this?

I am fascinated by the fact that many ideas seem to belong in families. For example, someone who is a Global Warming sceptic is quite likely to be a free marketeer. Someone who is dissatisfied with Darwinian Theory is quite unlikely to be a socialist.

Unhappily, modern states largely monopolise the schools in the territories they control, and thus are in a position to exercise undue influence over the pupils in those schools. Ruthless governments impose thought control, which increases homogeneity. Perhaps North Korea does have a single culture. God help them! Political Correctness has a similar effect in many countries.

Do you like Islamic “Culture”? Do you like Western “Culture”? No!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Culpable Ignorance/Stupidity

 A theological question which must be faced by Catholics is: What is the status of people ignorant of Christ’s sacrifice: damned, saved or limbo? The consensus, I dare to assert is: God’s Grace and Mercy are limitless – God loves all of his creation and wishes to share himself with every part of it. Their ignorance is not culpable.

A medical question which I, for one, believe has been answered is: is bleeding, appropriate for lots and lots of conditions? The consensus is “No!” Do we therefore condemn all who have ever recommended it? No. Their ignorance was not culpable.

An economic question, the answer to which History has revealed the answer is: do free markets or state control increase prosperity (particularly for the poor)? It is manifestly the former. Should we therefore condemn statists? I think so. Particularly when we observe that statists in power are characteristically forced to resort to violence and murder on a huge scale in order to maintain the Nazi/Socialist state. I think too that their apologists are culpable.

This goes somewhat against the formulation that Leftists think Rightists are evil; whereas Rightists think Leftists are stupid. My view is that, in view of the evidence, Leftist/Statist apologetics are culpably stupid.

You know,
At least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so...

Miserable, grinding poverty has been the lot of humanity (except for a tiny minority of powerful people) since forever. A horrible proportion of children died in infancy. Bad harvests and wars meant that the next meal was in doubt – and bad harvests and wars had always been on the horizon for most of human history. Even in good times disease killed thousands. Our ancestors for thousands of years suffered poverty which for most of us now in developed countries seems intolerable.

It is inconceivable that an eleventh century peasant would have even dreamt of “an end to poverty”. He knew that poverty was the lot of most of humanity.

Astonishingly, though, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western Europe and North America began to “develop”. Sophisticated financial institutions made possible sophisticated means of production. Over a short period of time the poverty of our ancestors was replaced by societal wealth previously undreamed of. No, I would not like to work in a nineteenth century factory; but my ancestors chose to leave the land and move to the cities – because they believed that they and their children would live better. It turned out that their children lived much better and their grandchildren much much better. Specialisation, trade and industrialisation increased production. More production meant more wealth in society. More wealth meant a higher standard of living for nearly everybody. Child mortality began to fall. Societies imbued with better understanding of the causes of disease were able to provide ever cleaner air, ever cleaner water and ever more effective waste disposal.

During the early period of the industrial revolution government monopolies declined and craft guilds withered away. The entrepreneurs who succeeded made themselves rich, their products better and cheaper and their fellow citizens better off – the ones who failed simply failed.

Some entrepreneurs became extraordinarily rich. Some of them chose to found schools and hospitals.

The eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the period in which the poor became less poor, in which luxuries previously enjoyed only by the rich became the birthright of ordinary people. In centuries gone by even the aristocracy did not enjoy the benefits ordinary people now began to expect. For most of history a very very small proportion of people rode in coaches and the poor walked. Since the mid-twentieth century the rich drive luxury cars and a poor man is someone who can only afford a second-hand Toyota.

State interference in, and control of, the economy have been conclusively demonstrated to produce stagnation and shortages. Which is the country you would least like to live in? North Korea? Yes, North Korea! The poorest people in South Korea would be envied by practically everyone in North Korea – except of course North Korea’s ruling elite. Socialist North Korea is probably the most extreme example of statism now in existence. And yet, there are millions of people in the West who proudly call themselves socialists. Millionaire filmmakers praise the tyranny and poverty of Cuba.

How is this to be explained? Statists, in spite of the evidence, cling to their wishful thinking fantasy of a man-made blueprint for heaven on earth. Maximum personal liberty within the rule of law comes much closer.
Anyone who cares at all about the welfare of the least advantaged should face the facts. Truly it has been said, “There’s none so blind as he that will not see!”

Culpable stupidity!

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sister Wendy

 I am a Catholic. I would very much like everyone to be a Catholic. My enchanting daughter-in-law is not a Catholic; but, of course, I would like her to be. I have refrained from bombarding her with links to my Catholic heroes: Fr Robert Barron and Peter Kreeft, to name but two outstanding examples. It’s not that their writings and speeches are too densely theological, but rather, that, being highly subjective myself, I can’t imagine that I would have been wrestled to the floor by these titans and captured for Catholicism. My route to the Church of Rome was not three theological falls or a submission. I sought these guys out, having already become a Catholic; and I am very glad I did.

So, my contribution to Catholic evangelisation has been feeble (at best) or non-existent (at worst). I like theology! But, I should have thought more about being a saint. Barron and Kreeft, I am sure, would agree. Saints, it turns out, are mightier warriors for the Faith than theologians, important though theologians are. The categories are not mutually exclusive.

It was atheistic Geoff who first drew my attention to Sister Wendy. He is a big fan. I was aware of her work (hat-tip to Newman and Baddiel). But she is an art critic and she has buck teeth (may I be forgiven)! It turns out that she is much much more.

I was astonished to receive an e-mail message from the daughter-in-law expressing her profound admiration and “enchantment” with Sr Wendy. I am sure that wise words on the subject of Art contributed to her admiration but I have every reason to believe that Sr Wendy’s manifest “goodness” was the source of the enchantment.

I am very grateful to Geoff and Carrie for having introduced me to a new heroine.