Thursday, 19 November 2015

Quotation of the Day

Is from Robert Higgs 1987 volume 'Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government':
"[W]e do know something - at least abstractly - about the future.  We know that other great crises will come.  Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurances.  Yet in one form of another, great crises will surely come again... When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs... For those who cherish individual liberty and a free society, the prospect is deeply disheartening."

Hat tip to Bryan Caplan.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Quotation of the Day

From The History of England from the Ascension of James II by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Vol. 1, Chapter 1 (Kindle Edition):
"As we cannot, without the risk of evils from which the imagination recoils, employ physical force as a check on misgovernment, it is evidently our wisdom to keep all the constitutional checks on misgovernment in the highest state of efficiency, to watch with jealousy the first beginnings of encroachment, and never to suffer irregularities, even when harmless in themselves, to pass unchallenged, lest they acquire the force of precedents."

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Quotation of the Day

From The History of England from the Ascension of James II by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Vol. 1, Chapter 1 (Kindle Edition):
"Everywhere there is a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient, and who, even when convinced by overpowering reasons that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings. We find also everywhere another class of men, sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward, quick to discern the imperfections of whatever exists, disposed to think lightly of the risks and inconveniences which attend improvements and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement. In the sentiments of both classes there is something to approve. But of both the best specimens will be found not far from the common frontier. The extreme section of one class consists of bigoted dotards: the extreme section of the other consists of shallow and reckless empirics."

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Quotation of the Day

Is from Adam Smith's 'Theory of Moral Sentiments', Part III, Chapter 3: Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience:

"It is needless to observe, I presume, that both rebels and heretics are those unlucky persons, who, when things have come to a certain degree of violence, have the misfortune to be of the weaker party. In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue."

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Quotation of the Day

Something to keep in mind if you're heading to the polls tomorrow:
"For between the state, which is hugely generous with impossible promises, and the general public, which has conceived unattainable hopes, have come two classes of men, those with ambition and those with utopian dreams.  Their role is clearly laid out by the situation.  It is enough for these courtiers of popularity to shout into the people’s ears: “The authorities are misleading you; if we were in their place, we would shower you with benefits and relieve you of taxes.”
And the people believe this, and the people hope…."
That is from page 100 of of Volume 2 (The Law,” “The State,” and Other Political Writings, 2012) of Liberty Fund’s The Collected Works of Frederic Bastiat; specifically, it’s a passage from Bastiat’s September 1848 essay “The State”.
Hat tip to Don Boudreaux.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Taxes & Laffer Curves

I would like to expand slightly on my last post, with the following observation:

The purpose of taxes and tax policy should not be to "raise as much revenue as possible", i.e. to transfer as much money as possible from private individuals to the government.  Rather, the aim of tax policy should be to raise only the amount of tax necessary to fund the services which we collectively wish the government to supply.

This comes with additional caveats, such as publicly funded projects should be required to meet certain minimum criteria for funding, such as passing cost-benefit analyses.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Chris Dillow on Laffer Curves

Chris Dillow blogs on Laffer Curves over at Stumbling and Mumbling.

A slice:
"8. There are two contrary but tenable positions here.  One is "the revenue-maximizing tax rate might be high, but high taxes are undesirable because they infringe freedom."  The other is "The revenue-maximizing tax rate could be low, but high taxes are justified to reduce the adverse effects of inequality."  Both of these positions are rare - which makes me suspect that there's quite a lot of motivated reasoning on both sides."
My position is something akin to the former, i.e. "the revenue-maximizing tax rate might be high, but high taxes are undesirable because they infringe freedom."

Worthwhile reading the whole thing, it is short and contains a lot of clear insight.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Tyler Cowen's Three Laws

He posts them here.

The more I learn on any topic the more law #1 rings true:
"1. Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it)."

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Cheryl must be a politician as she can't answer a straight question

There's a little logic puzzle that's been doing the rounds on the internet for the past few days, that probably everyone has already seen by now.  Seemingly it's come from some Singaporean schoolchildren's homework.  It is a rather fiendish puzzle and seems to having been given a lot of adults difficulty.

Here is the question:

"Albert and Bernard just become friends with Cheryl, and they want to know when her birthday is.  Cheryl gives them a list of 10 possible dates.
May 15, May 16, May 19, June 17, June 18, July 14, July 16, August 14, August 15, August 17
Cheryl then tells Albert and Bernard separately the month and the day of her birthday respectively.
Albert: I don't know when Cheryl's birthday is, but I know that Bernard does not know too.
Bernard: At first I don't know when Cheryl's birthday is, but I know now.
Albert: Then I also know when Cheryl's birthday is.
So when is Cheryl's birthday?"
If you want to have a go at figuring this out for yourself and don't want to know the solution stop reading now.

There are loads of solutions to this problem posted all over the internet and in various news outlets now, but having seen a few of them and worked through the problem myself, none of the explanations I've seen seem particularly clear or well explained - the best one I've seen so far has been on the NY Times website.

Here is my attempt to explain the solution:

After giving her list of ten possible dates, Cheryl tells Albert the month and Bernard the day of her birthday.

Albert and Bernard both have more information than we have.  The key to figuring this out is to keep this in mind and to pay very close attention to the statements made by Albert and Bernard and the information that they (inadvertently) reveal.

Albert states that he doesn't know the exact date of Cheryl's birthday, but he knows that Bernard doesn't know it either.  However, Bernard could have known the exact date if it had been May 19 or June 18, as in our range of dates these are the sole occurrences of these specific days (18 & 19), therefore if it had been either of these dates Bernard would have known the exact date right away.  The fact that Albert is so confident that Bernard doesn't know the exact date of Cheryl’s birthday reveals (to us and to Bernard) that Albert knows the month isn't May or June (and therefore must be either July or August).

This leaves us with the following possibilities:
July 14, July 16
August 14, August 15, August 17

Bernard then declares that at first he didn't know, but now (following Albert’s first statement) he’s figured it out.  So, Cheryl’s birthday can’t be on the 14th of the month, otherwise Bernard wouldn't have been able to narrow down whether it was in July or August.

This leaves 3 possibilities:
July 16
August 15, August 17

Albert then claims to have figured it out as well, which means that it can’t be either of the dates in August, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to narrow down the day.  This leaves July 16 as the only possible date of Cheryl’s birthday.

Meanwhile, in Norway...

Bastøy Prison in Norway is home to some 115 criminals, including the the country’s most dangerous, convicted of crimes such as murder, rape and drug dealing.  However, this is not your conventional prison:
"There are no barbed-wire-topped walls or electrified fences circle the island, nor do armed guards and attack dogs patrol the grounds. Prisoners live in brightly painted small wooden cottages, and tend to farm animals, grow crops and chop wood. For recreation, there's a beach where prisoners sunbathe in the summer, plenty of good fishing spots, horses for riding, a sauna and tennis courts."

They seem to be doing something right:
"Only 16% of prisoners who come out of Bastøy reoffend within two years of being released, compared to Norway's national average of 20 percent, and the European average of 70%."
"Arne Kvernvik Nilsen quotes several inmates saying “The time I have spent here has made me to realize that I’m not such a bad guy. And I have decided that I will change my way of living”.  "This is not something that we can punish them into discovering,” said Nilsen."

Monday, 16 March 2015

Open Borders Manifesto

"Freedom of movement is a basic liberty that governments should respect and protect unless justified by extenuating circumstances. This extends to movement across international boundaries. 
International law and many domestic laws already recognise the right of any individual to leave his or her country. This right may only be circumscribed in extreme circumstances, where threats to public safety or order are imminent. 
We believe international and domestic law should similarly extend such protections to individuals seeking to enter another country. Although there may be times when governments should treat foreign nationals differently from domestic citizens, freedom of movement and residence are fundamental rights that should only be circumscribed when the situation absolutely warrants. 
The border enforcement status quo is both morally unconscionable and economically destructive. Border controls predominantly restrict the movement of people who bear no ill intentions. Most of the people legally barred from moving across international borders today are fleeing persecution or poverty, desire a better job or home, or simply want to see the city lights. 
The border status quo bars ordinary people from pursuing the life and opportunity they desire, not because they lack merit or because they pose a danger to others. Billions of people are legally barred from realising their full potential and ambitions purely on the basis of an accident of birth: where they were born. This is both a drain on the economic and innovative potential of human societies across the world, and indefensible in any order that recognises the moral worth and dignity of every human being.  
We seek legal and policy reforms that will reduce and eventually remove these bars to movement for billions of ordinary people around the world. The economic toll of the modern restrictive border regime is vast, the human toll incalculable. To end this, we do not need a philosopher’s utopia or a world government. As citizens and human beings, we only demand accountability from our own governments for the senseless immigration laws that they enact in our name. Border controls should be minimised to only the extent required to protect public health and security. International borders should be open for all to cross, in both directions." 
That is from
Happy Open Borders Day!  Spread the word.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Sentences I Could Have Written

"Those people who make their living by devising and offering better mousetraps to willing buyers are too often portrayed as villains, while those other people who promise to forcibly take the fruits of the mousetrap factories from their creators and ‘re-distribute’ those fruits to the masses are portrayed as heroes."
That is from Don Boudreaux commenting on an 1883 essay by William Graham Sumner.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Alex Salmond doesn't understand the legitimate role of government or the point of a constitution

In the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum Alex Salmond was interviewed on Reporting Scotland on the 13th August 2014, where he stated that he desires to protect the NHS and maintain health services "free" at the point of use.  Whilst I don't necessarily agree with that (which I realise is a very uncommon and unpopular point of view in the UK) it is a position that many reasonable people hold.  I fully understand that where people sit on this issue, and others like it, is largely the result of subjective value judgements.  However...

Salmond then went on to state his desire for a written constitution (fine - this is a goal that I can completely get on board with) and that he would work to ensure that in an independent Scotland "health services free at the point of use" were constitutionally protected as a right.

I have to be very careful here, because I don't want to understate the significance of this:


Regardless of your subjective values and your opinion on whether or not you think healthcare should be provided by the state, or by private providers, or some combination of the two, the notion to protect this as a "right" is a total nonsense.

You cannot have a "right" to healthcare that's free at the point of delivery just as you cannot have a "right" to housing or watermelons or education or yachts or mortgage advice or courier services that are free at the point of delivery.  What all of these things have in common is that they cost money to provide - in order to receive them they first must by produced (at some cost) by someone else.  You can't have a "right" to them because that would put an obligation on someone else to provide them at their own cost.

A "right" to free healthcare for you is an obligation to provide free healthcare on your Doctor.  You don't expect to go to work and get paid nothing for your labour so why should your Doctor?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Russell Brand on Stephen Fry on Religion

A friend linked to this video of Russell Brand responding to some comments made by Stephen Fry in a recent interview on the topic of religion.

Brand describes Stephen Fry as “aggressively” not believing in God.  This attempts to immediately set-up a narrative in which Fry is the “aggressor” or oppressor and therefore by arguing against him, Brand is attempting to portray himself as a defender of the oppressed.  Fry certainly doesn't come across as “aggressive” to me in the clips shown in this video.  To be fair to Brand, I haven’t watched all of the Stephen Fry interview, so maybe there are moments when he does get more “aggressive”, although this would seem quite out of character for Fry.  How many people do you know who would be likely to describe Stephen Fry as “aggressive”?  I find such tactics underhand, manipulative and odious.

Stephen Fry’s response to the question of what he’d say to God if he exists was a statement about the problem of evil, which I am yet to see a convincing refutation to.  Brand’s response to this is to ignore it, instead preferring to talk a load of nonsense about “literalism” then segue into quoting from Robert Lanza’s book ‘Biocentrism’ regarding supposed “flaws” in received physics.  These “flaws” consisting of the fact that if any of 200 physical parameters, laws or forces in our universe (e.g. the strong nuclear force, gravity, etc.) were slightly different the universe as we know it, or at the very least the Earth and/or life would not be able exist and that it therefore  “strains credulity” that they are random.

Note that Brand hasn't presented any sort of an argument here one way or another re: the existence of God or the problem of evil.  He has completely ignored Stephen Fry’s point (why on Earth did he bother showing the first clip if he was going to talk about something completely different anyway?!), then presented an argument from incredulity (read: logical fallacy) re: the existence of the universe / life as we know it.

In response to the second and third clips, he rambles about a “connected consciousness” and an “unknown force” behind everything in the universe.  He doesn't present any evidence for such wild assertions.

I could go on, but this post is already long enough; besides it hardly seems fair to pick on Russell Brand intellectually - it’s like having a boxing match with a 5 year old and the 5 year old has his hands tied behind his back - it’s just not fair.  Brand would do well to stop his mouth for a few moments and engage his brain instead of spouting off this sophistry.  The man is a charlatan and an ignoramus.  He’s almost like the anti-Stephen Fry.

I baulk at the notion of giving Brand more publicity and traffic to his YouTube channel (not that he needs it) where he spreads his ridiculous views. Although, given how little traffic this blog gets, I don't think it's something I need worry much about.

On the plus side, I have developed a new heuristic: If Russell Brand says something, the opposite is highly likely to be true.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Democratic Crisis? Really?

Oh, and I'd just like to add the following in addition to my post on Wednesday regarding compulsory voting:

Describing this as a "democratic crisis" is extremely melodramatic.  It is nothing of the sort.  A democratic crisis would be an accurate description only if there had been a coup and we were now being governed by a military junta or something of that magnitude.  Do these people have no sense of perspective and proportion?

Just look at the "balance" given by the BBC:
"Historically Britain has a tradition of resistance to radical reforms to the constitution. But campaigners say dramatic solutions may be required to tackle what is often described as a democratic crisis. 
Critics question whether changes to mechanics of the voting system will address this crisis."
It's just taken as given that both proponents and opponents of this proposal view this as a "crisis".  I suspect the reality is that the vast majority people, including politicians and the media, understand fine well that it's nothing of the sort.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Questions from the BBC which we can answer

"Should voting (or actively abstaining) be compulsory?"

To extend that answer:

No, voting* should not be compulsory in a modern liberal democracy.  Contrary to what David Winnick may believe, voting is not a "civic duty".  It is more important that people have the option to vote and the free choice whether or not to exercise that option.  It is more important also that the people who do choose to exercise that option to vote, do so in the most measured, best informed and fairest manner possible.  In short, there is no civic duty to vote, but if you do vote there is a civic duty to vote well.**

Fining people for not voting* is not necessarily conducive to anything positive in terms of "democracy", "political engagement", "civic participation" or indeed getting the most out of the political process.  Indeed, it seems likely to be counter-productive in some regards - what advantage is there in forcing people, who otherwise would not bother to vote to do so?  If 16 million people either do not care enough or actively do not want to vote, what benefit is there in forcing these people to vote?  Do you think that the majority of these 16 million people are likely to be particularly well informed on politics?  Do you think they'd be able to tell you the difference between the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats?  Could they tell apart David and Ed Miliband, or Ed Miliband and Ed Balls?  Could they name the current Home Secretary?  If not, then what is there to suggest that these people would all vote in a fair, measured and informed manner?  I fail to see how introducing to the process an additional 16 million ill-informed votes improves our democratic process.

As briefly noted in the BBC article, a high turnout does not indicate a politically engaged electorate when it is mandatory to turnout to vote or face a fine or worse.  Surely no-one is fooled by this, which is as transparent as the fact that sticking "Democratic People's Republic of" in front of your country's name does not make said country either democratic or a republic.  Ultimately what is being proposed here is government mandated violence against those who refuse to vote.  Some readers may think that "violence" is being a bit melodramatic, it's only a fine after all, but if you don't pay that fine you will be taken to court and probably lumped with an even bigger fine, which if you continue to leave unpaid will lead to you eventually being imprisoned, and if you resist being imprisoned, well then things can get really nasty.  This is not a road that any modern liberal democracy should be in any rush to go down.

* or actively abstaining

** When I say people have a duty to vote "well" I emphatically do not mean that they should necessarily all vote for the same candidate or political party, in particular I do not mean that everyone should vote the same way as I do (people interpret things differently and even when furnished with all of the same facts there is still ample room for differences of opinion on the relative importance of various issues and there are always differences in different persons value judgements).  All I mean to suggest is that prior to voting, citizens seek to ensure that, within the circumstances, they are as well informed as possible on the key issues, politicians, parties, etc. such that they are able to make a reasoned decision.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Check out these Retro-style Travel Posters from NASA

NASA have released these three stunning, high-quality travel posters to celebrate the exiting discoveries of the Kepler telescope.  Since its launch in 2009, NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered more 1,000 alien worlds.

The posters are reminiscent of travel billboards of the 1920s, 30s and 40s and depict three of the exoplanets previously discovered by the Kepler telescope.  Al are available for download as high-resolution images from JPL's website and are the work of the space agency's visual strategists Joby Harris, David Delgado and Dan Goods.

[Hat tip to Amusing Planet for the link]