What I’m reading and more

I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian and was struck by an episode in Post Captain . The hero, Jack Aubrey has been given command of a ship but is being pursued by his creditors and faces indefinite imprisonment for debt if they catch him. Reaching Portsmouth and his crew, he turns on the bailiffs who have been pursuing him and routs them. Several are knocked down and, in a marvellous twist, Aubrey presses them into service on his ship.

It struck me on reading O’Brian that this kind of thing would happen routinely in a libertarian Nozickian utopia. On the one hand, bankruptcy and limited liability, the first great pieces of government interference with freedom of contract would be abolished, and imprisonment for debt presumably reintroduced. On the other hand, since Nozick envisages a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence, reliance on conscription would be almost inevitable. From Nozick’s viewpoint, any form of taxation constitutes slavery, and fairness is not a proper concern of policy, so there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.

Also, at the weekend, I went to watch the final day of the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships. Apart from a brief stint in Sydney, I’ve never lived close enough to a surf beach to watch this archetypally Australian sport. Very exciting, though you need a big screen to see what’s happening in the middle stages of the race, particularly in the swim legs.

Update 26/3Libertarians come in many different flavours, and quite a few have objected to the characterization above. To my mind, the combination of “libertarian’ and “utopia” leads irresistibly to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. For clarity, therefore, I’ve referred specifically to Nozick rather than to libertarians in general.

What I'm reading and more

I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian and was struck by an episode in Post Captain . The hero, Jack Aubrey has been given command of a ship but is being pursued by his creditors and faces indefinite imprisonment for debt if they catch him. Reaching Portsmouth and his crew, he turns on the bailiffs who have been pursuing him and routs them. Several are knocked down and, in a marvellous twist, Aubrey presses them into service on his ship.

It struck me on reading O’Brian that this kind of thing would happen routinely in a libertarian Nozickian utopia. On the one hand, bankruptcy and limited liability, the first great pieces of government interference with freedom of contract would be abolished, and imprisonment for debt presumably reintroduced. On the other hand, since Nozick envisages a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence, reliance on conscription would be almost inevitable. From Nozick’s viewpoint, any form of taxation constitutes slavery, and fairness is not a proper concern of policy, so there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.

Also, at the weekend, I went to watch the final day of the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships. Apart from a brief stint in Sydney, I’ve never lived close enough to a surf beach to watch this archetypally Australian sport. Very exciting, though you need a big screen to see what’s happening in the middle stages of the race, particularly in the swim legs.

Update 26/3Libertarians come in many different flavours, and quite a few have objected to the characterization above. To my mind, the combination of “libertarian’ and “utopia” leads irresistibly to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. For clarity, therefore, I’ve referred specifically to Nozick rather than to libertarians in general.

A regular repost

This piece has already been posted a couple of times since I started blogging, but the issue of GM food keeps coming up, this time in the comments thread to a recent post. This is what I had to say about GM food and ‘golden’ rice a year or so ago.

On this issue, I’m a big believer in the principle of subsidiarity, that is, letting the people directly affected make the decisions. Speaking for myself, I’m convinced by the scientific evidence that GM food is as safe as the ordinary sort, that is, not perfectly, but safe enough that I have plenty of bigger things to worry about. On the other hand, the idea of tomatoes with fish genes makes me a bit queasy, and I think I and others should have a choice about whether or not to eat them. Hence, I’m in favor of labelling and I think the producers of GM foods, as the innovators, should bear the cost of this.

Taking it a level higher, I think that this is an issue that is within the competence of individual countries to decide. If Australians, contrary to my preference, decide to ban GM foods altogether, then that is our decision to make and we should not be subject to punishment by bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. To paraphrase our beloved leader, we will decide what foods we eat and under what circumstances. Similarly I think the Americans are showing some chutzpah in taking Europe to the WTO. The Bush steel tariffs are a far more fundamental breach of free-trade principles than food-safety laws which, whatever their scientific basis or lack of it, have no obvious discriminatory impact. Obviously the same freedom should apply to poor countries that want to take advantage of GM foods – they should not be subject to bullying from anti-GM Europeans.

My only dispute with the pro-GM side on the latter point is that I haven’t seen much evidence of GM foods that are actually useful in feeding the poor. Rice with added Vitamin A sounds nice, but it’s scarcely the next instalment of the Green Revolution. Most of the effort seems to have gone into making crops like soybeans “Roundup Ready’, which is not much use in poor countries. I have a bit more to say in this 1999 article entitled, The pros and cons of labelling are food for thought

The Fin on blogging

The weekend Fin has an “introduction to blogging” piece by Trevor Cook. Quite a good, example of the genre, I thought, with evidence of reasonably extensive reading of blogs. Perhaps picking up on the BlogGeist , Cook devotes several paras to a head-to-head comparison between this blog and Tim Blair’s (I assume the piece would have been written before our recent falling-out)

Blair and Quiggin represent two strands of commentary blogging. Blair is tabloid and provocative, something more akin to a blogging shock jock, while Quiggin, though not dull, tends to stick more strictly to his academic and policy orientations.

Blair’s audience is much larger than Quiggin’s. Audiences online, like those for traditional media, are attracted in greater numbers to provocative, even outlandish, viewpoints.

In addition to this one, he Australian blogs listed for Economics and Business included those of Stephen Kirchner and Peter Gallagher, then a number of overseas blogs. Australian blogs listed for politics and commentary were the two Tims, Gary Sauer-Thompson’s Public Opinion and Graeme Young’s Online Opinion (an online journal rather than a blog, but this distinction is being eroded pretty quickly).

(Post updated 22/3 to correct minor errors and omissions).

Against equality of outcome?

Since I’ve argued previously that there’s a lot of confusion in discussions about equality of opportunities and of outcomes, I was interested by this story that UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has hired as special advisor on race someone named Matt Cavanagh, most notable for writing a book called Against Equality of Opportunity which says that employers should be permitted to engage in racial discrimination.

This interview with Cavanagh in The Guardian does not seem very promising – he comes across as the worst kind of contrarian[1] – but is not really enough to go on. So I was hoping someone with a subscription to the London Review of Books might send me a copy of Jeremy Waldron’s apparently favorable review. In case you’re worried about the sanctity of intellectual property, I am a subscriber but I’ve never registered with the website and don’t have the required address slip to hand.

Meanwhile, I’m confident that lots of readers will be well ahead of me, so I’d welcome comments, particularly setting me straight if I have misunderstood Cavanagh (or Waldron).

fn1. That is, one who makes great play with contradictions in the conventional wisdom, does not put forward a coherent alternative, but nonetheless makes authoritative-sounding pronouncements on public policy.

Elections and the general will

Looking back at the debate over the Spanish election outcome, it struck me that many of the contributions to this debate suffered from a confusion between electoral outcomes and notions akin to Rousseau’s “general will”. My own contributions weren’t entirely free of this fallacious reasoning.

To clarify my point, suppose purely hypothetically it could be shown beyond doubt that, in the absence of the terrorist attacks, the PP would have won, and that those who changed their votes did so in the hope that this would appease terrorists and induce them to direct their attacks elsewhere. Much of the debate has taken it as self-evident that, if this were true, then it could justly be said that the Spanish people had displayed cowardice, given in to Al Qaeda and so on. But even in this hypothetical case,k this would not be true. It would only be true that the 5 per cent or so who changed their votes had done this.

To take a marginally less controversial example, one way of interpreting the results of the most recent presidential election in the US is that the voters couldn’t make up their minds between Gore and Bush and decided, instead, to leave the choice up to the Supreme Court. Stated baldly, the claim seems evidently silly, at least to me, but when I checked, it wasn’t hard to find exactly this analysis being offered by Time Magazine
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