In Part I I listed out my 1-6. Here’s the rest:
- Ascribing beliefs to entire groups. “Libertarians believe that there’s no such thing as society.” How does that feel? Annoying I should think. And should hope. But watch out for statements that go the other way e.g. “The left believe that there is a fixed quantity of wealth.” This is a sort of combination of the straw man and the personal attack. As a general rule one ought to identify the ideas accurately and then debate them.
- Pejorative terms. “Concreting over”, “Gas guzzler"… The use of any term that includes judgement is an attempt to curtail debate. And any attempt to curtail debate should get the alarm bells ringing. This is in effect the flip side of Point 6.
- Numbers. I am suspicious of any argument involving numbers e.g. the speed limit should be 70mph. Why not 71? Or 69? Because you have to draw the line somewhere? It makes me wonder if the line has to be drawn at all. Or, who should be drawing it.
- What would change your mind? Does the person express any doubt? If you asked him: what would change his mind, would he have an answer? And would it be a reasonable one? Because if the answer is “no” then he’s being dogmatic and eristic and these people are terrible bores and likely to be wrong.
- Confusing intentions, actions and outcomes. “When I say I want hard working families to benefit from prosperity [intention] you call me a socialist.” To which I suppose the response should be: “No, when you advocate socialist policies [action] that’s when I call you a socialist.”
- Distance. This is to do with facts. How much distance is there between you and the facts being used? I am not just talking about physical distance, more how hard it would be to verify? Because, if the answer is very hard then this should set the alarm bells ringing. That is why I prefer arguments that depend on reason and facts either that everyone agrees or are close at hand e.g. the local newsagent is really good but the roads are really bad.
- Subordinate clauses. At least, I think that’s what I am going to call it. Anyway, here’s an example: “Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their deaths...”
Doesn’t sound very good does it? Let’s try some substitution: “Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their deaths...”
Both statements are absolutely true and serve to reveal the author’s prejudices. An attempt is being made to steer the reader to a conclusion without having to go to the effort of making an argument. Not good.
I’ve been meaning to write this for some time. It started when, for the first time in many years, I was present at a predominantly left-wing gathering. It was, if nothing else, a rich vein of nonsense.
It got me thinking. Are there ways in which you can spot that an argument is nonsense or, at least, suspect? Are there types of argument that should set the alarm bells ringing? Would it be possible to look at an argument and say: “Well, that’s an X error and that’s a Y fallacy” etc? I suppose I had it in mind that if enough people were aware of how to separate intellectual wheat from intellectual chaff then, well - because libertarianism is clearly in the intellectual wheat category - they’d become libertarians without the need for any intervention from me or my ideological soulmates. How cool would that be?
Anyway, I didn’t get very far that time, but recently I started thinking about it again and started compiling a list.
And then I thought: “I wonder if anyone’s ever had a go at this before?” Hmm, it turns out they had. Of course, they had. See, for instance:
- Vague and shifting definitions. I hate these. Shifting definitions - words that are used to mean one thing in one place and another in another are the worst but any word or phrase that could mean more than one thing should get the alarm bells ringing. “Racist” is a good example. Do you mean gas-chamber racist or blacks-run-faster racist? Big difference.
- So what? Can often sound rude but it’s a devastating question. It’s a useful practice when someone makes a point to ask: “Well, so what?” For instance, and I’m not making this up, one criticism I’ve heard made of Austrian economics is that it hasn’t advanced since the 1920s. Well, so what? Good theories don’t have to “advance”.
- Do you understand it? OK, I don’t understand fluid dynamics but I appreciate that if fluid dynamicists hadn’t got their models right planes would fall out of the sky. But that does not apply to the average political debate. If you don’t understand the terms that are being used or the argument that is being made it’s probably nonsense. Brian Micklethwait holds that when it comes to technology if you don’t understand it that is their problem, not yours. Much the same applies to politics.
Actually, it gets worse. If you don’t understand it there’s a good chance they don’t either.
- Is this the most important thing? I once read an article criticising the career of Winston Churchill. Nothing wrong with that - there’s plenty to criticise. But at no point did the author address himself to Churchill’s actions in 1940. Which was a shame because if it hadn’t been for his actions at the time he wouldn’t have had a reputation worth criticizing.
- Changing the subject. God, I hate this. Why can’t people just say: “That’s a good point, I think you’re wrong but I can’t come up with a good counter argument right now.”?
- “Key", “strategic”, “essential”. Beware any arguments involving these words. How would you know if something was key, strategic or essential? There’s no test.
I found this in The Times of 13 March 1906, a time when MPs didn’t so much as receive a salary let alone expenses. A W.S.Lilly quotes J.S.Mill on the subject:
The occupation of a member of Parliament would thereupon become an occupation in itself, carried on, like other professions, with a view chiefly to its pecuniary returns, and under the demoralizing influences of an occupation essentially precarious. It would become an object of desire to adventurers of a low class, and 658 persons in possession with ten or twenty times as many in expectancy, would be incessantly bidding to attract or retain the suffrages of electors by promising all things, honest or dishonest, possible or impossible, and rivalling each other in pandering to the meanest feelings and most ignorant prejudices or the vulgarist part of the crowd.
Reading the reaction to John McCain’s acceptance speech - most of which was pretty lukewarm - I can’t help wondering if I’d been watching the same one.
I thought it was quite good:
He called for school vouchers. Now, I have my doubts about this as a policy3 but it does at least suggest some regard for markets. This will be useful as the Depression starts to bite.
He made clear his concerns over Russia.
He said: “I hate war.” Good1.
I found his obvious discomfort with the autocue rather endearing.
While I find most mentions of his Vietnam experiences vomit inducing I thought he handled it well. In essence he said he went out a vain, arrogant youth and came back a team player.
There was one passage I found particularly engaging. He mentioned that he’d been left to die and only received treatment (such as it was) when his captors found out that he was the son (or was it grandson?) of an admiral. I thought it was gutsy to mention that. It communicated two things. First, that he will tell the truth even if it doesn’t make him look that good. Second, he knows how lucky he was and hasn’t forgotten those who were less fortunate.
Talking of gutsy while McCain’s gutsy choice of Sarah Palin seems to be paying off I was none too impressed by her speech. Anodyne would be my summary2.
And what’s all this business about her fighting corruption? She’s only been governor for 20 months. Surely, corruption - even of the Alaskan variety - is made of sterner stuff?
1. Mind you the last statesman I know to have used those exact words was Sir Edward Grey. That was just before the outbreak of the First World War.
2. Mind you I have good, personal, reason to beware women making anodyne speeches. See Justine Greening MP
3. See the comments on Going Dutch?
I got a shock the other day. I was reading the online Telegraph when I came across this:
In case you find this a little confusing it is, in fact, a map of the United Kingdom in which every parliamentary constituency is represented by a hexagon.
And the occasion for the shock? Well, take a look at this:
Which is also a map of the United Kingdom in which every parliamentary constituency is represented by a hexagon. A map I drew up over 10 years ago just before the 1997 general election (that’s why there’s so much blue.) They even both have a hole in Ireland to represent Lough Neagh.
What’s even odder is that the Telegraph was the only paper I ever sent a copy to.
I wrote to the Telegraph pointing out the similarities between the two maps. They wrote a nice email back denying any connection - and to be fair, it’s far from implausible that the similarity is entirely coincidental - lots of people have come up with similar ideas over the years.
Having said that, it’s an odd, and not entirely pleasant experience, having one’s memory jogged like that. Drawing up that map hurt. The idea had been knocking around my head for years but I’d (and I know this sounds funny) never plucked up the courage to actually do it. When I did, I sweated blood but I am very proud of it.
The fact that years later the Telegraph has taken up my idea and done more or less all the things I wanted to but couldn’t is very flattering. Clearly, I was ahead of my time.
I’ll try to hold on to that thought next time I find myself wondering whether the Filing Cabinet is really worth it.
A week ago it all seemed so simple: we (or rather Brian) had a grand theory of Conservative Party ungovernability worked out. All we had to do was to watch while the Conservative Party put this grand theory into practice and then podcast about it on the Monday.
Well, that was the plan. All I can say is that a week really is a long time in politics and no plan survives contact with the Enemy Class.
So, our podcast was a bit of a ramble, starting with the Tories and ending up with Shakespeare via junior flunkeys fourth grade and Jim Callaghan.
At one point Brian mentions the growth of the state over the course of the 20th Century. This encouraged me to dig out this graph from here (warning: PDF) which illustrates the point.
Tax as a proportion of GDP
Oh, and to illustrate another point, here’s Theo Spark’s take.
Oddly enough, Peter Briffa’s been getting back onto the podcasting bandwagon too, saying more or less the same thing. I am sure it’s spite.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention. There’s a bit of swearing. On our podcast, not Peter’s who is far too prim and proper to stoop to that kind of thing.
Update Michael Jennings has just rung me up to point out that the podcast seems to end very abruptly and whether it is supposed to or not. To which the reply is that, yes, it does end abruptly and, yes, it is supposed to. We had actually run out of things to say. We had half an idea to come back to it but never did and then I cut out some of our deliberations at the end. This is one of those things we will get better at over time.
Brian has referred to Todd many times over the years but it was only recently that he dedicated a number of blog postings to Todd’s works.
At the time it seemed a good subject for a podcast but by the end we both agreed that we’d bitten off more than we could chew. The implications of Todd’s theories about ideology and literacy are as far-reaching as they are controversial and neither of us felt at the time we had come anywhere near to doing them justice.
As it happens, listening to it the whole way through, I was forced to revise that opinion. I thought it was actually quite good.
You can download it here.
I’ll come to Guido’s pre-record later. It was the panel discussion, with Jeremy Paxman in the chair and Michael White of the Guardian as guest, that did the damage. Guido’s attempts to conceal his identity have always been amusing. I think I managed to work out who he was in about five minutes. But to persist with it on the show when everyone knows who he is was ludicrous.
You have to imagine the scene. Guido is in shadow with the exception of his trademark flash of Dickie Davies-like grey hair.
“Why do you conceal your identity?”, asked Paxo.
“So that people can’t recognise me.” Or something like that. Yeah, that flash of grey is so common that I have to dredge out a TV personality from the 70s to illustrate who I am talking about.
Two minutes later White had spilled the beans anyway. Guido is Paul Staines. Golly, who would have thought it?
All along the Paxo/White tag team managed to make Guido look petty and inconsistent.
Now the pre-record was sort of OK but its central argument - that journalists are far too cozy with ministers - while true enough, was insipid. Here was his opportunity to go on national television and give the world the hardcore libertarian line - that politicians are a bunch of good-for-nothing parasites and the sooner that they find alternative employment sweeping streets the better - and he didn’t even attempt it.
But the real problem was always with the panel discussion. The golden rule with panel discussions - a rule that until yesterday Guido understood and does once again today - is don’t do them. They give the producers much too much power and allow them to claim balance while giving the debate a slant rarely seen since the final moments of the Titanic.
Ah, Guido agrees. Sort of.
Big contribution from Brian Micklethwait.
I see the Charles Clarke scandal is still rumbling on. Along with the Prescott thing it’s been a pretty bad week for the government.
All this puts me in mind of a pet theory of mine: you only get to hear of the scandals when the press is really pissed off.
Well, it was something I noticed in the dying days of the Conservative government. It was every week a new scandal - think: Archer, Aitken, Mellor, Yeo, Lamont’s basement - usually, though not always, a sex scandal. Actually, all this started more or less immediately after Black Wednesday and it never stopped. The point was that Black Wednesday had demonstrated in the clearest possible terms that the government was both dishonest (the ERM was not essential to our well being) and incompetent (they couldn’t keep us in it). My guess is that it was at that point that the scales fell from the eyes of the press and it was at then that they decided to publicise all the stories that they had long known about but hadn’t so far bothered to print as well as going after new ones.
But why don’t they print sleazy stories as soon as they get them?
Well, I think it’s a matter of timing. There have been plenty of sleazy stories flying about New Labour over the years - words and phrases like Powderject and the Queen Mother’s funeral spring to mind - but these have had little impact. Certainly not enough to force a resignation. My guess is that the reason is that there just hasn’t been the market for it. So long as the press and public are prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt these stories don’t go anywhere - but when things change, things change…
Ah, but hang about. There have been scandals before like Mandelson and Parkinson.
Obviously, if you do something completely outrageous you are in a lot of trouble but I think with Mandelson and Parkinson it was more that the press were just out to get them. I am not quite sure about Parkinson but my understanding is that Mandelson was universally loathed by journalists. They only tolerated him for as long as they did because they wanted a Labour victory. As soon as that was achieved old scores could be settled.
So, what is the present government’s Black Wednesday?
Obviously, there hasn’t been anything nearly as spectacular. It’s more of a drip-drip effect. The realisation that the government isn’t going to sort out the health service or education or anything else for that matter.
Update. Since drafting this I have noticed that Brian Micklethwait is saying more or less the same thing. But with better words and more swearing.
This evening, while with some of my libertarian friends the conversation turned to the upcoming general election and the expected low turnout.
This is an issue that seems to vex all sorts of people but it occurs to me that maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe what we are in fact seeing is the triumph of market research. In their efforts to garner as many votes as possible the parties have spent a lot of money on polling, focus groups and other forms of market research. Consequently, they have ended up with remarkably similar agendas. Choosing between them is a bit like choosing between Daz and Ariel and about as important. So, for most people it doesn’t much matter whether they vote or not.
So, they don’t.
It also occurs to me that what we have seen in recent years is the separation of the business of politics from the business of opinion forming. Not that long ago politicians believed they could shape the debate. Churchill, Thatcher, Powell, Benn all fell into that category. Try finding a politician who thinks that nowadays. They just don’t exist.
Andy Wood on voting:
Last time I voted Conservative because I wanted to shock my friends. (It worked too - one friend was so shocked he assaulted me.)
The government, having created a system ripe for fraud and abuse, has one of its former members suggest that it be dealt with [by] creating a system ripe for fraud and abuse.
on postal voting and ID cards.
Laban Tall throws a comment-grenade into my ”NuLab ideology” trench:
I think the guilt [over being British] bit comes from the total collapse of Christianity (see Rowan Williams for full details).
For 1400 years we acknowledged our human frailty. ‘My sin is ever before me’.
We’ve binned that in a couple of generations in exchange for the basically hippy notion that man is perfectible (hence Sure Start schemes and social workers). But it’s too deep in the psyche to eradicate, and emerges in the form of
‘We are all racists, sexists, homophobes, natural polluters etc’.
On some areas (eg the environment) we’ve even got the lost primeval Eden.
Which is fairly deep stuff. The implication being that we should all get back into church.
Even as an atheist I can see that Christianity shifts the goods and atheism doesn’t. I regard the Industrial Revolution as the greatest thing to happen in world history. And it happened in the West: the Christian West. On the other hand I regard Hitler, Stalin and Mao as the worst things to happen in world history and they were all atheists.
Even today, as Mark Steyn keeps on pointing out, it is the more Christian parts of the West eg. the Red States, that are making the running while the more secular parts eg. Europe and the Blue states that are starting to croak.
This is not to imply a causal connection - I don’t know if one exists or not. The real question is do I feel lucky? Do I feel so sure that Christianity is redundant and that atheism’s failures are just bad luck that I am prepared to see Christianity jettisoned? Anwer: no. Frankly, if comes down to a choice between listening to Ian Paisley and starvation it’s a fairly easy decision.
And it is for that reason that even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me is keen to preserve all that Christian stuff: bible study, oaths, Christmas and Easter and a whole bunch of other day-to-day stuff that is so familiar that you don’t even notice it. Just don’t expect me to believe it.
Ernest Benn writing (if memory serves) in the 1910s:
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.
Non-trivial Solutions has it in for New Labour:
Blairism is pragmatic, reactive government. It’s headline-hunting, poll-watching, focus-group-monitoring, ideology-free mush.
I hear this a lot and I think it’s highly dangerous. Not only is it wrong but it encourages people to underestimate the enemy which is always bad news.
I think, on the contrary, that New Labour is highly ideological. At it’s root is a coherent set of ideas which inspires many, if not most, of its actions.
This set of ideas does not (yet) have a name. The phrase “political correctness” is sometimes used but New Labour’s ideology goes way beyond that rather vague description. The fact that it’s ideology is nameless intrigues me. It may be intentional: a way of smuggling in change without anyone noticing.
By the way, when I say “coherent” I do not mean “sensible”.
So, what are these ideas? Here are a few:
1. Don’t fuck with the economy. Well, there’s a bit more to it than that - it’s more like “don’t fuck with those parts of the economy that we know produce wealth.”
2. We are all members of groups eg. women, gays, blacks. All groups, on average, are the same in all respects. Women are as strong as men. Whites are as good sprinters as blacks etc. Any difference in outcomes between these groups is the result of prejudice.
3. Britain is guilty. Big time, long term. Hence, tradition is to be despised.
4. While capitalism can shift the goods it cannot shift the safety/equality/niceness. Therefore, the state must intervene in the form of gun bans, minimum wages etc.
Funnily enough, I am not quite sure where schoolsnhospitals fit into all of this. I suspect they don’t. If they were already in the private sector there would be no great rush to nationalise them.
However, I think just about everything New Labour does can be seen through this prism. It gives its supporters a guiding light (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). It means that whenever a “problem” arises they can identify, more or less immediately and without being told, both the “cause” and the “solution”. This is particularly useful in the case of New Labour’s acolytes in the media and elsewhere.
So, ideologically-rich mush, then. And I really think it’s about time it had a name.
We even had a minor breakthrough in relations between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties this morning when we joined forces in arguing against the use of a semi-colon in the phrase You Are Your City; Clean and Safe…
I was going to write something on the Livingstone saga but (like rather a lot of people) I tied myself up in knots and, anyway, Boris Johnson does it much better. While doing a pretty good job of pointing out that Ken didn’t say anything anti-semitic and condemning the subsequent outbreak of apologitis, unfortunately, he ends up getting very confused. From what I can work out he is claiming that Blair wants Livingstone to apologise for Alistair Campbell’s (alleged) anti-semitism. Hmm…
“He was president when nothing much needed to be done and he had the good sense not to do it.”
P J O’Rourke on Calvin Coolidge. From Common Sense and Wonder.
Reason has an update on the Free State Project along with a history of other, similar attempts.
There surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror
Which, I am sure, is precisely how he and many others see it. But I don't. My problem is that I am deeply ambivalent about democracy.
Here are some gripes:
- It produces a class of people who seek to benefit from the democratic process. That's not quite right. We all seek to benefit. But for most of us there’s a swap involved. In return for paying our taxes we expect to receive something in return. In democracies there is a whole bunch of people who don't have to pay anything net. A whole bunch of people who have little short-term disincentive to voting for higher taxes.
- It depends on the "collective wisdom of the individually stupid" as Thomas Carlyle put it.
- As the franchise has expanded so liberty has retreated.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe has some more.
However, there is one big, inescapable plus: it wins its wars. Democracy took on all-comers in the 20th Century and won every single time.
But can we really put that down to democracy? Brian Micklethwait reckons that one of the West’s great strengths is its ability to debate. This is never more true than when it comes to warfare. Commanders argue like crazy about the plan but at least, as Brian says, "everybody knows what the plan is." I think there is another element to it. Because the debates are so furious there is a tendency to allow people to do their own thing. Some ideas succeed eg radar; others fail eg the bombing campaign. But the point is that that process of experimentation is allowed to take place. A quasi-market in warfare, perhaps?
It is just possible that the two world wars were fought at a time when the major democracies were still largely free and that democracy had not had long enough to really mess things up.
Of course, it also just possible that the rise of statism is an aberration brought about by the industrialisation (and therefore, centralisation) of the means of communication. In other words the medium really is the message. In much the same way the new decentralised communication technologies will bring forth a more decentralised and, therefore, freer world.
We have to hope.
Thought provoking piece by Charles Hanson for the ASI:
Democracy assumes that ordinary people are wise enough to elect a government. If so, surely they are more than capable of deciding how best to spend their own money. And yet in the western European democracies people regularly vote for governments that take between 40 and 50 per cent of their incomes in taxation. In so doing they are saying that fallible politicians know better than they do themselves how to provide the health, education and other services that they need.
Are they? I’m not so sure.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know Blunkett’s gone but the real question is did Andrew win his bet?
Who is Tubby Riefenstahl?
…I am asked everywhere to comment on my friend and colleague Tim Yeo’s proposal that cyclists should face fines and penalty points for using mobile phones while cycling. Since this is a Tory proposal, and since I am a Tory, I am honour bound to try to see the advantages of this suggestion.
Though I get the impression he didn’t try all that hard.