Friday 30 November 2007

Made to be broken

So, what have we learned about human nature recently?
  • It was against the rules to put sensitive information on disc and then post it out, but someone did it.
  • It was against the rules to accept third-party donations, but someone did it.
  • It was against the rules to withdraw arrest warrants for no-show defendants, but someone did it.
We're rule-breakers. It's hardly surprising. Rules exist to stop us doing what we want to do: of course we're disposed to break them. And in other contexts, of course, we reward rule-breakers mavericks. If breaking the rules pays off for you, you're a visionary, someone who gets the job done and lets the bean-counters worry about the fine print, dammit.

So when things go wrong, we can always find a rule-breaker to pin things on. (And we'll be right, of course). But if we want to stop things going wrong, how can we make breaking the rules a less attractive option?

Enforcement is an obvious answer. Check up on people constantly, and operate a zero-tolerance policy for errors. You need to pay for your auditing staff. You'll probably pay a cost in employee morale as well, especially if you end up firing people for honest mistakes, but if you're sufficiently rigorous you'll have fewer transgressions. However, the risk is that obeying the rules becomes nothing more than a pain in the neck; something done to keep others happy that gets in the way of the "real" job. This, of course, is an incentive to break the rules.

The alternative is to make the rules matter: to make it as much a part of the job as hitting revenue targets, or saving money, or being efficient. This means "changing the culture" which is something people talk about a lot, without saying exactly how you do it. Training would be a part of it; rewarding "rules-obedience" even when it came at a cost (and punishing mavericks even when they "won") would be another; I think the biggest part would be removing the reasons people break rules: stress, pressure, ignorance, contempt, hassle. You pay for this too of course: if you're going to give people the training, support and resources they need to do their job properly then you're going to have to undo a lot of "efficiency" savings.

Monday 26 November 2007


One day I will write a post that neatly communicates what I want to say in a few succinct words. That day was not today.

Choices, choices

The "Devil" has replied to my post below. You should go and read his reply, partly because it's interesting, partly because little of what follows will make sense otherwise, but mainly because there's a very interesting discussion in the comments on exactly what it means to "own one's life".

In the interests of clarity, because it was definitely missed by some commenters both on here and at DK (and I think by the "Devil" as well): if I reject the premise that I own my life, it does not mean accepting that someone else owns it. What I am rejecting, in fact, is the underlying assumption that the concept of "ownership" can meaningfully be applied to the concept of "life". For example, we can all agree that I do not own "the philosophy of liberty". But that I don't doesn't mean that DK does, or Hayek does, or the US Libertarian Party do. "The philosophy of liberty" is not something which can be owned. In that way, and no other, it's a lot like life.

(This is why, to answer ph's question in the comments here, I object to slavery: because it treats life, or human beings, as nothing more than property. To argue that we own ourselves technically outwits the slave-owner, but only by accepting his basic principle while claiming an exception. Far better to reject his philosophy entirely.)

DK too sees some questions arising from my position:

"Are you denying that you should be able to make your own informed decisions about how you want to live your life?"

Let's clear this up: no. I am overwhelmingly in favour of being able to make my own choices. And I'm no-one special, so other people should be too. Great. But this is so much "Motherhood and Apple Pie" - the devil, if you will pardon the expression, is in the detail. Later on, DK refines his position (and admits that getting a precise definition is tricky, so this is tentative, not categorical):

"You own the right, when faced with your life choices, freely to make your own decisions"

Now, I don't see why we specify "own the right" as opposed to "have the right", but I suspect you already knew that. As suggested in the comments thread at DK, there are other difficulties, some more tediously obvious than others:
  • I can't choose to see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed, or commit any other physical impossibilities
  • I can't draw a four-sided triangle, or otherwise engage in logical impossibilities
  • I can't go out and buy a Ferrari - it's generally possible, but not in my specific instance
  • I can't hit you just because you're in my way
  • I can't play loud music if my neighbour wants to sleep
  • I can't stop my neighbour playing music in his own house
  • I can't be forced to file down the bunions of my boss's lecherous great-aunt
  • I can't renege on a contract I freely entered into: even if it specifies that I have to file down the bunions of my boss's lecherous great-aunt
It's the last two pairs of limitations that I want to look at now, because they highlight two issues that bear directly on the other major (linked) criticisms that DK and other commenters had on my original piece: "collectivisation" and the existence, or not, of the social contract.

1) People's choices interact and contradict: it is not always straightforward to see whose choice should prevail.

We can all agree that in these circumstances, there should be some means of resolving dispute that isn't "might makes right". Theoretically it's possible that the parties could at all times negotiate a solution between themselves, but even if that weren't flying the face of everything we know about human nature it also seems to me to be shifting the goalposts. If your right to get to sleep in your own home can only be secured by bunging your neighbour £50 to shut up, then it was never much of a right, was it? But in most cases, even in ludicrously simple disputes like this one, there will be appeal to some independent arbitration. It might be based on the gods writing in the entrails of the sacred chickens; it might be based on the judgement of appointed wise men; it might even, scarily, be based on rules created by representatives of the community as a whole. In whatever case, the system can only work if both parties agree to be bound by the decision. This brings us to the second point:

2) People can freely choose to limit their future ability to make free choices

Paradoxically, there are times when I improve my lot in life by limiting my own freedom of action. For example, by simply agreeing to be in the office during working hours, as opposed to sitting at home playing Civ IV, I can improve my economic outlook immeasurably. The tenant who commits to a year-long contract does so because this induces her landlord to offer more favourable rent. (The landlord, meanwhile, eschews his freedom to instantly evict her for more valuable tenants in return for guaranteed income.) When I speak of "submitting to the collective will" it is precisely this voluntary limitation of personal freedom of choice that I mean. In return for the benefits of living in a democratic society, I choose to let my freedom of choice be limited in certain ways by the will of the electorate. This choice holds even if the will of the electorate is not what I myself would choose. That, in fact, is the whole point.

In this context, then, I submit that it is nonsense to speak of taxation as theft. In any kind of society, my choices simply cannot be the sole governor of my behaviour, my circumstances or my life. Accordingly, I choose to live in a system where I can exercise choice, but limit others' power over me by voluntarily limiting my power over them. If, in certain limited areas, others impose their will on me for their own ends it is no more than I have freely chosen to allow.

Finally some commentators have, to paraphrase very slightly, asked when they signed the social contract. Personally, I suspect it was around the time you accepted the services offered by the other party: police, NHS-trained doctors, political stability, freedom of speech, women's rights, that kind of thing. Don't pretend you didn't know the deal, or aren't able to shop around. And if thousands of years of human social development have failed to produce a political settlement that matches your exacting requirements, I suppose that's just another example of your free choice being curtailed, isn't it?

Sunday 25 November 2007

The sophistry of liberty

Over at the Devil's Kitchen, where nuance fears to tread, we are presented with nothing less than the philosophy of liberty [hat-tip] - in a Flash animation at that. (What a shame it is that, limited by the technology and cultural expectations of the day, Mill and Locke had to express their thoughts in full sentences, even paragraphs. What could they have achieved with access to Java?) The animation is as tedious and painful as all Flash animations, albeit a little trippier than most. Happily, however, our guide to this most subtle of political philosophies has been grafted into plain text, to ease the path of understanding.

The whole thing starts with one of the most astonishing assumptions ever taken as an axiom:

"You own your life"

The great thing about axioms of course, is that technically you don't have to do anything as boring as support them with evidence. However, anyone who might question this bizarre assertion is immediately warned of the perils with which they flirt:

"To deny this is to imply that someone else has a higher claim on your life than you do."

Dash it all, I was all set to argue the point, but now I realise I might as well just fetter myself and be done. What nonsense. To deny this axiom is simply to reject the absurd conflation of ownership with existence. I live my life. I am my life. But to claim that I "own" my life, presumably in similar fashion to the way I own this PC (which I bought), or my copy of Luther Bisset's "Q" (which was a gift) is meaningless. These things I can buy or sell, lend or rent, donate to charity or just leave in the street. There is no meaningful way in which I can do any of the above with my life. (We might talk, for example, of the hero of some last-ditch stand "selling his life dearly" but this is simply a metaphor meaning "He killed quite a lot of people before he died."). My life and I are inseparable concepts and to reduce what is not only my existence but my essence to the status of a tradeable trinket is to make a category error. Birth certificates are emphatically not title deeds.

So why start with such a debatable axiom? Because the goal here is to frame the entire conversation in terms of property rights. Now, property rights are without doubt an important facet of any society but making them the sole underpinning of your understanding of human relations leads to some very odd contortions and conclusions. To take a limited sample:

To lose your liberty is to lose your present

What? If I get kidnapped I cease to exist in the here and now? But maintain, presumably, a future in which (if never released) I will never have a present? It would make for some interesting thriller dialogue: "If you don't pay the ransom, you'll never see him again - unless you have an inter-dimensional wormhole handy." "No, to be honest, while I know you need a proof of life, a photo with today's paper is going to be rather tricky".

Two people who exchange property voluntarily are both better off, or they wouldn't do it.

Only they may rightfully make that decision for themselves.

Here are least we move away from arrant nonsense into the realm of the poorly thought through. Two stupid people who exchange property voluntarily can easily end up worse off. Or one intelligent person could convince an idiot to make a bad decision. Not by doing anything as crude as lying (or "initiating fraud" to use the technical term); just using the wide range of persuasive techniques that we as a society have honed over the centuries to part fools from their money. To paraphrase Lister, even intelligent people buy cinema hot-dogs for a second time. But it's the second assertion which really highlights a lack of serious thought: there are whole classes of people capabable of exchanging property voluntarily who must not be allowed to do so. Let's just pick one: minors. The kiddies, bless their little hearts.

Now ordinarily, we wouldn't have much to talk about in terms of kids exchanging property - they haven't got any worth speaking of, and if they want to blow their pocket-money on cheap tat, who cares? But remember, these kids own their lives. Can they consent to medical treatment, or refuse it? Remember again, the "product of their liberty and life is their property". So can they agree to go work down t'pit? Basically, they can't consent to anything. Which is fine in my worldview, but in the "philosophy of liberty" to lose control of one's life is nothing short of slavery. That's right: all parents are slaveowners. You suspected it when you were 14, and now you know. Either that, or this "philosophy" is a load of old tosh.

Tentatively accepting the latter hypothesis, what's the point? Well, we come to that in the next set of "conclusions" - or to be more accurate, non-sequiturs. Here's fun! See how many of these statements you can relate to the axiom "You own your life" and how many to the attitude "Taxes suck and I hate poor people".

The initiation of force or fraud to take property is theft.

It is the same whether these things are done by one person acting alone, by the many acting against the few, or even by officials in fine hats.

Thus you have no right to designate some other person to initiate force against others on your behalf.

Regardless of the imaginative labels for their behaviour, or the number of people encouraging them, officials have no right to murder, to enslave or to steal.

Success and failure are both the necessary incentives to learn and grow.

Evil does not arise solely from evil people, but also from good people who tolerate the initiation of force as a means to their own ends.

You see? You thought you lived in a democratic society, which had collectively decided to a) submit to the will of the electorate and b) empower the government to collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people , but no! You have empowered fine-hatted governmental officials to deprive others of their justly earned property; you have tolerated the initiation of force for your own ends . Sure, you might have termed this "not letting the children of the poor starve" but that is just an imaginative label for theft. In doing so, you have allowed evil to arise. (You didn't even chant in a graveyard at midnight, either.) What is perhaps worse: you have deprived the poor of their glorious failure, from which they could learn and grow. (The poverty of others is always a noble and inspiring thing, isn't it?) Now, rather than becoming hedge-fund managers, the poor are going to merely feed their children and stagnate.

This is not a philosophy. It is a collection of category errors, vacuous truisms, non-sequiturs and unjustified assumptions intended to dress up as lamb the same old stale right-wing mutton.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Telling the world how it's going to be

Pop Quiz: you're running for your party's nomination for Presidential candidate, but you're down in the polls and can't catch a break. What are you going to do?

If you said, "Rethink my policies and find a way to connect with the concerns of the American people" - you were wrong.

If you said, "Unleash the power of kung-fu" - you were right.

There's a fine line between genius and insanity, and this ad straddles it mightily.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Security breach

There are squirrels in my attic. Or hopefully, just one squirrel - but now is the mating season. My humble yet respectable home has been turned into a den of iniquity, rafters throbbing to the rhythms of jungle woodland love. It hurts, a little, to think that some bushy-tailed roué (having carefully scented his territory) is now enticing in naive lady squirrels with promises of all the cardboard boxes they can chew and new loft-insulation to bed down in. Compounding this catastrophe are the discoveries that a) extermination is best left to the professionals and b) professionals are dashed expensive.

Understandably, questions have been asked:

Am I not responsible for everything that happens under my roof?
Surely the squirrel invasion is a reflection of my own personal incompetence? I mean, why wasn't I up there personally manning the defences with a claw hammer? Surely that's my job, isn't it? Oh, I could blame the builders who assured me that the flooring I paid for would be squirrel-proof, but those would be weasel words. Why can't I just man up and admit that I am personally and directly responsible for every event that happens under my roof, whether or not I'm present at the time?

Of course, this is just the latest in a long line of disasters which can be laid at my door. The clutch failing on the car; the "very bad cold" epidemic; the boiler failing. To say that I am responsible for sorting these messes out is to admit that they are entirely my fault, just as much as if I'd strewn nuts across the back garden and up my stairs.

The only problem I have is that, although I ask, none of my critics can explain what they would have done differently.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Via normblog:

Bush had phoned Blair two days earlier to tell him that Britain could stand aside if it meant saving Blair's premiership. "I said rather than lose your Government," Bush told me, "be passive, you know we'll go without you if need be." Blair refused. I asked him why. His answer was impassioned. "Because I think this is the most fundamental struggle of our time and there is only one place to be which is in the thick of it and trying to sort it out."
A striking quote, which for all the Guardian's smug dismissal of "lack of candour" rings very true. Given that there were clear political costs to Blair for following his policy on Iraq, it's no surprise to find that a) he knew about them and b) he was convinced he had to continue nonetheless. And in essence, it is an admirable position: if you believe that there is a critical, epoch-defining struggle about to take place, then of course you should be in the thick of it. When the British learn about epoch-defining struggles they learn of Churchill and Chamberlain, after all. It's easy enough to decide which side of that line you want to be.

But then (via Freemania) we have this, from David Milliband, concerning how the EU can change the world:
We can use the power of the EU – the size of our single market, our ability to set global standards, the negotiating clout of 27 members, the attractions of membership, the hard power of sanctions and troops, the power of Europe as an idea and a model – not to substitute for nation states but to do those things to provide security and prosperity for the next generation.
and this, from Gordon Brown, on the response of international bodies to failed states:
With the systematic use of earlier Security Council action, proper funding of peacekeepers, targeted sanctions - and their ratcheting up to include the real threat of international criminal court actions - we must now set in place the first internationally agreed procedures to prevent breakdowns of states and societies.
But where breakdowns occur, the UN - and regional bodies such as the EU and African Union - must now also agree to systematically combine traditional emergency aid and peacekeeping with stabilisation, reconstruction and development.
These comments (which we can only imagine must be informed by events since the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan) suggest a different approach from the straightforward "get into the thick of it and try and sort it out". Milliband highlights the use of both soft and hard power, not least "our ability to set global standards" and "the power of Europe as an idea and a model" as well as military power and sanctions, the two more obvious levers of power. Both speeches highlight the need for concerted action among regional or global groups. And Brown, with probably the most obvious sense of lessons learned, emphasises the importance of a long-term investment following intervention.

All this is fine, and to be honest nowadays seems like a truism. Of course toppling the tyrant and the apparatus of despotism is the beginning, not the end, of intervention. Of course it requires international co-operation and commitment. And of course the set of values, aspirations and cultural norms which we cluster under the misleading umbrella term "democracy" can't be crudely transplanted by means of foreign institutions. My problem is, I don't see this ever happening. It seems that the Bush White House wasn't particularly concerned about UN support, but it's unclear whether that could have been achieved. Afghanistan did win wider support - at least in speeches. Actual commitment in terms of troop numbers, aid, nation-builders etc. seems to be in shorter supply. And Darfur and Burma have highlighted China's reluctance to act against its own economic interests. In any case, it's all too easy to overestimate our power to effect change.

I believe in interventionism. When states fail their people, the nations of the world have a moral obligation to act, rather than watch on sorrowfully. To provide security, stability, a political settlement and basic civil liberties. And to ensure that these basics will not soon be overturned (by, to pick a popular boogeyman as an example, the election of Islamists vowed to impose one-party rule.) What I don't believe is that this can happen. I think the tragedy of the commons will encourage nations to water down their commitments, or stymie the whole enterprise. Consequently, those nations who do commit will pay a high cost, and ultimately fail for lack of resource. And failure may, in fact, lead to a worse situation than non-intervention. Ultimately, I don't think that world politics, as it is currently constituted, can support any more than one major intervention and have any hope of success. Even with one, I suspect we're more likely to fail than succeed. And while we're fixing that one country, the rest of the world's oppressed will have to wait their turn.

That's pretty depressing. But I believe that for most of history, most people have had hard, miserable oppressed lives. In the West, we're lucky, and we cherish the belief that what we enjoy is somehow the default state; that deviations from the secure, free, peaceful pattern of our civilizations are both anomalous and corrigible. I suspect this is an illusion. But it's a valuable illusion, and there's still a part of me believes that it's an illusion that could also be true. Which is why the sentiment "there is only one place to be which is in the thick of it and trying to sort it out" is so seductive.

Re-reading this, it's apparent that I don't have a conclusion. Sorry about that. But if you have one, please share it.

Monday 12 November 2007

From the mouth of babes

Mr Eugenides presents us with yet another example of someone abandoning simple common sense in his haste to push his own agenda. Honestly, you think people would have the wit to check their facts first, wouldn't you? "[...]the entire Western Antarctica is now floating", forsooth. Good thing we have Mr E to point out that: "I could have told you that when I was in primary school."

Except, of course, he couldn't. Geography mavens will be aware that Antarctica is a continent; it is land. The majority of Antarctic ice is land-bound. The Western Ice Sheet was in 2006 resting on the sea-bed. Towards the edges of the continent, to which it inexorably slides under its own weight, the ice-sheet forms tongues which reach into the sea. These do indeed float, and occasionally calve icebergs or, recently and spectacularly, break off altogether. Astonishingly enough, this is a bad thing. The glaciers' march to the sea is restrained by the large belts of ice around the continent, but less so when it breaks away from the land altogether. The quicker the land-bound glaciers are reaching the sea, the faster sea-levels are going to rise. (Antarctica gets ice back, you'll be glad to hear, through snowfall - but not enough to replace it all, so up go the seas.) When Mr Eugenides was in primary school (unless he's very precocious) there was a nice safe belt round the Antarctic. Nowadays, not so much. For those of you keeping score:

Guy who visited research station and spoke to leading experts currently studying the phenomenon in question: 1

Guy who sat at home and cried "Bollocks" based on nothing more than something he learnt while wearing shorts: 0

This shouldn't be a surprise. This is a very complex subject. It may have seemed obvious to Mr E (so obvious he tagged it "Dept of the Fucking Obvious", in fact) but that was not because he is a man of such remarkable perspicacity that observations made in the happy innocence of childhood have given the him the wherewithal to instantly see the flaw in those poor deluded boffins' thinking. It's because he knows nothing. He knows nothing about Antarctic ice formation and yet he is being asked to have an opinion on it. Ban Ki Moon didn't fly to Antarctica just for a chat. He wanted to draw attention to problem of rapidly melting ice shelves, partly in order to persuade Mr E to do something about it. To change his lifestyle, and possibly even to change his vote.

Now that's a lot to ask of any of us. And if we're responsible, we won't just go along blindly. We'll try to question this claim, and test it against what we do know. Good for us. But there are some issues where we struggle. We don't know which questions to ask. We don't have the time, any of us, to take a quick degree in climatology and find out for ourselves why ice shelves melt. But luckily, other people already have. And maybe, just maybe, when they speak on their subject we should at least be prepared to consider that they might be right.

(The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet has a volume of approx. 2.2 million cubic kilometres. In true popular science style: if you carved it into ice-cubes, the current population of the UK could have a nicely cooled G&T every second of every day for the next 3 million years. It honestly is a lot of ice.)

Thursday 8 November 2007

I'm way ahead of you, Bremner...

via (again) LBS

Guardian diary:
As for Gordon, he was out and about again at the Liberty Benefit at the Hackney Empire on Monday night, this time in the guise of Rory Bremner. He condemned President Musharaff for locking people up without trial, detaining them for long periods of time without charge and delaying elections, but then he reflected. Musharaff's actions were only sensible, he said. And then something about pots and kettles.

(See previous post for my take.)

Wednesday 7 November 2007

The horror

Tom at Let's Be Sensible draws attention to the Conservatives oh-so-topical Hallowe'en/"cancelled election" poster campaign. For those of you can't imagine the full horror, however, Recess Monkey has kindly provided video evidence. (Those of you of sensitive disposition, or who find sniggering an unattractive personal trait, may consider yourselves duly warned.)

Oh and for the record:
The election wasn't bleedin' cancelled. Brown considered calling one, but didn't. See recent events in Pakistan for the distinction.

Lastly, if - as suggested in the video - there are people who get angry when there's not an election, they need to be assessed by psychiatrists. Elections are both rare and short-lived events. People who get angry at their absence must spend their days crippled with frustration and rage. (Insert Young Conservatives gag here, satire fans.)

Questions and Answers

I meant to get back here sooner, but I've been away. Then ill. Oh, like you're on top of all the projects in your life.

Norm Geras has been asking some questions regarding Britz, the recent two-part drama about "homegrown" terrorism. I should admit now that I didn't watch it. In the ordinary course of things, that would preclude me from having an opinion, but as some of Norm's questions seem to me to be about whether such a drama should have been made, rather than if it was any good, I'm going to have a crack at answering the first two.

Why shouldn't the next film have been about the effects on the victims, those killed, maimed and bereaved?

We all had questions after the London bombings. "What must the victims be going through?" was one, and "How could anybody do this?" was another. Speaking for myself, the second question is harder to answer. Being an ordinary human being, with the average capacity for empathy, I can faintly begin to imagine how terrible that day and its aftermath were for the victims and their families. I cannot, of course, come close to the reality and selfishly I hope I never do. On the day, as reports trickled in, it became clear that this event was, first and last, about human suffering. As I have learnt more about the victims' stories, that impression has deepened and strengthened. But it has not altered. A film about the victims would reinforce these feelings, but it would not change my fundamental opinion about the horror of the day.

However, my average capacity for empathy does not even bring me close to understanding the motives of the bombers, or of those who recruited and encouraged them. I simply cannot comprehend the thought processes involved. A good film about the journey from unremarkable schoolboy to suicide bomber could concievably give me some insight. By a good film, I don't mean one which makes excuses, or suggests that in someway the bomber is making a rational choice, but one which shows me the descent into radicalization and terrorism. Not because to understand all is to forgive all - in cases such as this, it's really, really not - but because, given that this happened and might happen again, I need simply to understand. In part because the better we understand such things, the more effective our strategies for combatting them will be; mainly, because I need to make sense of the senseless. Some of this is getting into Norm's second question:

If anger and alienation are the key thing, why are these feelings more interesting in Brits than in 'émigrés'?

Instinctively, it seems more shocking that people who grew up in Britain should feel alienated than it does to find that an 'emigré' who is effectively ignorant of British life should. I can picture a Middle-East born terrorist being indoctrinated by his controllers - fed a stream of lies and propaganda about how the British are at war with Islam. What's harder to imagine is that anyone who grew up in Britain could think that. We imagine - is this naive? - that evidence to the contrary is all around, and has been part of everyday experience. If that's not the case, if the proposition that Britain is at war with Islam doesn't get laughed out the door on first hearing, what's happened?

Now, as I understand it, Britz did not in fact address these questions very well. From what I've read, the motivations given to the suicide bomber were wholly unrelated to anything attributed to or claimed by the actual London bombers, which for me would render the whole thing pointless. (This may be because Peter Kosminsky also failed to comprehend them, and gave himself an easy way out.) But I don't think the idea of making films addresssing these issues is as morally and intellectually lightweight as Norm suggests.