Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

‘States rights’ comes to Europe — Crooked Timber

Looking at the Sarkozy government’s attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Roma, The Economist’s Charlemagne had the following observation about

the vociferous protest from the European Parliament. On September 9th it passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing discrimination against the Roma, and singled out the commission for its “late and limited response”. The row thus brings out the contradictions of European democracy: an elected national government finds that its resort to populism is confronted by the European Commission, an appointed body, and by the European Parliament, a distant chamber elected by a minority of voters.

It struck me that you could replace “national” with ” Southern state”, “European Commission” with “US Supreme Court” and “European Parliament” with “US Federal government”, and the analogy with Brown vs Board of Education would be just about perfect (except that it’s the Parliament driving the Commission and not vice versa). Then I noticed that Chris had proposed an almost identical substitution in relation to economic policy here.

This is the first time I can recall the European Parliament playing a key role in a conflict between the central institutions of the EU, such as the Commission and a member state. If the Parliament and Commission prevail, as they should, it seems to me that this will change the effective political structure of the EU, in the direction of a federal democracy. I’d be interested in the thoughts of those closer to the action.

Links to a parallel universe

A few stories about what theorists of postmodernism call “the social construction of reality” on the political right

* The Irish science minister, who planned to launch a book denouncing evolution as a hoax, has pulled out after a lot of criticism and some embarrassing revelations about the author

* Newt Gingrich is touting a new version of birtherism, developed by Dinesh D’Souza, formerly one of the bright young things at the Hoover Institute

* The standard ploy among anti-science amateurs has been to compare themselves to Galileo. But now Robert Sungenis and Robert Bennett have taken the War on Science to its next logical stopping place, with a work in favor of geocentrism, entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right

* The tobacco industry is secretly funding a “grassroots” campaign against plain packaging for cigarettes. This is obviously close to home, but tobacco money spreads far and wide, supporting anyone willing to tell lies about health and environmental science. Among their many targets was Rachel Carson.

* On the global warming front, Lord Monckton is still at it. Here (via Tim Lambert) is a demolition of his latest nonsense, from Alden Griffiths.

A particularly interesting feature of all this is what might be called “cafeteria craziness”. I’m referring to the kind of person, common on the Australian right, who takes the anti-science line on climate change, DDT and so on, but is indignant about being associated with the (virtually identical) arguments of creationists and geocentrists. Or, even pickier, those who are embarrassed by Monckton’s claims of a plot to establish a communist world government, but still want to cite him as a scientific authority

How the Americans stole the Ugg boot

Felix Salmon has a great piece responding to a WSJ puff piece on the American trademark troll company that has stolen the name “Ugg boot” then used “intellectual property” laws to impose the absurd claim that the only genuine Uggs are those made in China.

The world would be a lot better off without intellectual property, or at least with a return to the more reasonable rules of the 19th century (14 years copyright, limited patents restricted to actual inventions, trademarks to identify products rather than to stifle competition) and the attempts of the US government to defend IP monopoly rights are one of the many reasons American “soft power” is such a perishable commodity.

The Oz feeling the heat

As many bloggers know, The Australian is hypersensitive to criticism, which is unfortunate, since so much of what is printed in its pages calls out for correction. The most consistent example is its War on Science (particularly climate science). Tim Lambert’s series on the topic is now up to 50 entries.

Until now, the usual MO has been to make the attack without identifying the target, though in such a way that anyone actually involved knows who is intended. For example, I got a whole editorial to myself, in which I was described only as “an opinion writer in a financial tabloid” and as a “green activist” with a “totalitarian mindset”. I’ve finally got around to adding the latter bouquet to my sidebar, along with various other compliments.

But, as the Oz has become more and more openly partisan and dishonest, the criticism has come not only from bloggers and occasional columnists but from leading lights of the journalistic establishment, who can’t be ignored in this way. Laura Tingle had an excellent piece in the Fin (paywalled) and the Oz today identifies Barrie Cassidy and Fran Kelly as fellow-critics. The Oz takes offence at a description by Fran Kelly of “front-page editorialising”, but that’s too generous. Party-line propaganda masquerading as news can be found on every page of the Oz.

And what’s true of the Oz is true of the entire Murdoch empire, from Fox News to the Times of London. The former paper of record[1] was recently forced to print a humiliating retraction of the lies it told about the spurious “Climategate” scandal[2], something which the Oz has (I think) failed to do.

Obviously, Murdoch is not incurring any short-run costs from abandoning the truth. His readers and viewers have demonstrated, over and over, that they prefer comfortable lies to inconvenient truths, on everything from the Iraq war to climate change to birtherism. But sooner or later, the political right in the English-speaking world will pay a heavy price for its collective decision to disregard reality.

fn1. To be absolutely specific, it was the Sunday Times – I’m not sure of its exact relationship to the weekday edition.
fn2. Of course, the real scandal was the theft of private emails, and the use of distorted extracts for defamation, a crime in which almost everyone in the anti-science movement was complicit to some extent or another. Their standards of morality are even lower than their standards of reasoning.

Fresh sand

The sandpit seems to be going well, so I’m starting a new one. Please continue any ongoing discussion in the old sandpit. Meanwhile, this is the place for new side-debates, matters arising, Strocchi-length theoretical expositions and so on.

Status quo ante bellum — Crooked Timber

Nine years after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, we’ve all had plenty of time to think about war and its justifications. My own views have moved me steadily towards the viewpoint that war is hardly ever justified either morally or in terms of the rational self-interest of those involved. The obvious problem is that, if no one else is willing to fight, an aggressor could benefit by making demands backed by force. It seems to me, however, that this problem can be overcome by admitting that self-defense (including collective self-defense) is justified only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante bellum. That is, having defeated an aggressor, a country is not justified in seizing territory, unilaterally exacting reparations or imposing a new government on its opponent. Conversely, and regardless of the alleged starting point, countries not directly involved should never recognise a forcibly imposed transfer of territory or similar attempt to achieve advantages through war.

This isn’t a novel idea by any means, but I haven’t found an adequate discussion, and the discourse of International Relations theory seems to me worse than useless, being dominated by unrealities like ‘international realism’ , opposed to the strawman of ‘idealism’. Just war theory seems a bit more satisfactory, but I haven’t found it helpful in relation to the hard cases. [1]

Following up on the discussions we’ve had here recently, the status quo ante bellum position can be defended in game-theoretic terms, with no need to invoke unrealistic assumptions about international idealism.

The status quo ante bellum is, in game-theoretic terms, a salient point that provides a natural focus for a coalition, particularly for third countries with no direct stake. An interest in preserving international order provides third countries with a motive not to recognise gains secured by others through military force. While the gainer may be able to secure recognition from close allies, the absence of general recognition renders such gains costly and uncertain to hold, no matter how long they endure.

This isn’t merely a theoretical claim. International practice since 1945 has typically been to deny recognition to territorial gains secured by force, regardless of “facts on the ground”, no matter how long-lasting. Examples include the Indonesian annexation of East Timor (shamefully, Australia was one of the few countries to recognise this claim), the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, the various ‘frozen conflict’ mini-states created under Russian patronage after 1991 and of course the Israeli occupation of the West Bank[2].

But there’s still, it seems to me, a widespread presumption that having gone to war in self-defense (as judged by themselves), countries are entitled to set whatever objectives they see as reasonable. The point of proposing status quo ante bellum as the only legitimate goal is to close off this capacity for self-defense to turn into aggression.

Of course, none of this would matter if the strategic use of military force reliably or even commonly yielded net benefits, as is assumed by ‘realists’ and, until relatively recently, by most holders of, and seekers after, political power. The experience of the 20th century shows the opposite – many cases of wars ending disastrously for those who launched them, and hardly any that produced clear and sustained net benefits.

I don’t intend merely the limited, and obvious point that, taken as a whole, the people of a country that goes to war are worse off as a result. Looking at the evidence, the same is typically true of the ruling classes, and of the individual rulers who make decisions to take their people to war. Of course, there are beneficiaries in the armaments industry and the military hierarchy, but almost any policy, no matter how disastrous, benefits someone.

I haven’t so far discussed the case for humanitarian intervention, punishment of war crimes and so on. The Iraq war showed that if individual governments (or coalitions) are allowed to set themselves up as judges in their own cases, disaster will ensue. The only legitimate basis for such action is a decision of the international community as a whole. At present, the best, admittedly imperfect, bodies for making such decisions are the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court. The cumbersome nature of their processes mean that many wrongs will go unrighted, and many crimes unpunished. But that is true of all legal systems. And even if such interventions are justified, that does not mean they will be feasible or, if undertaken, assured of success.

Finally, most of what I’ve said about war applies to revolution and other forms of political violence. The fact that the existing order of things is unjust and not amenable to change is not sufficient justification for the certain suffering and far from certain benefits of revolutionary violence. Most revolutions, like most wars fail, and, as with wars, initial success is rarely enduring.

fn1. I’m aware that I’m an amateur dismissing the efforts of the professionals, and therefore likely to have got a lot of things wrong. But, as an economist, I’ve often been on the other end of this kind of criticism, and I think it’s useful to face it.

fn2. I mention this example because it would be silly to omit it, but I absolutely do not want to derail discussion into another rehash of this issue. Any comment referring in any way to the Israel/Palestine conflict will be deleted with prejudice.

My thoughts on 11 September, 2010

Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.