George Monbiot is entirely correct here

This will shock some, that we agree with George Monbiot on any subject more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. It will also shock others that George Monbiot is actually correct about something more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. But it is so, he is right and we agree with him:

No progressive party can survive the corporate press, corrupt party funding systems and conservative fear machines by fighting these forces on their own terms. The left can build only from the ground up, reshaping itself through the revitalisation of communities, working with local people to help fill the gaps in social provision left by an uncaring elite. A successful progressive movement must now be Citizens Advice bureau, housing association, scout troop, trade union, credit union, bingo hall, food bank, careworker, football club and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups and spin doctors no longer deliver.

We’re not, to be honest, sure that this is either left wing or progressive. For it is exactly the classical liberal vision of society. Yes, certainly there are some things that must be done by the State. For there is some small group of things that both must be done and can only be done by said State. We are not anarchists. But beyond those things that can only be done in that manner and also must be done there’s vast areas of human life that do require some amount of organisation and coordination.

And who are the best people to do this organisation and coordination? Why, obviously, the people themselves in whatever manner they decide suits them to do such organisation and coordination. Let a thousand, a million, organisations of voluntary cooperation bloom across the nation. The Friendly Societies, the Churches, advice bureaus, sporting associations, however and whatever the people decide themselves that they wish to do in such voluntary cooperation. This includes any form of business organisation anyone wishes, a workers’ coop, a customer one, a producer one, a capitalist firm, not for profits, for profits and every conceivable variation thereof.

Our agreement here with Monbiot does not prevent us from being just a little sharp clawed, as with those cute kittens. For of course all Monbiot has done here is rediscover Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. Something that the rest of us didn’t forget in the first place, not since he first pointed it out in 1790.

So why is it that everyone hates libertarians?

The easy answer of course is that libertarians are hateful people. But when you translate “libertarian” from American into English you get “classical liberal” which means us. And we’re lovely, cuddly, people so that cannot be the right answer. Over in the US they’re trying to answer this question (Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan) and there’s a variety of reasons given. None of which quite explain it all to our satisfaction.

So, we’ll put forward two more, the first not entirely serious. Which is that we’re right, they know we’re right, we know we’re right and everyone hates smug gits who know they’re right and who everyone knows are right.

The second, entirely serious, reason is that we’re the only people not telling people how to live their lives. On the right, the conservatives, want to insist that everyone keep it in their pants until married, don’t ingest things that make you feel good, work hard and if you conform to our prescriptions then maybe we’ll let you be. On the left we’ve the usual hodge podge but the same urge is there. Live your life according to the manner in which we demand you live your life. Don’t be greedy, don’t be too successful or we’ll take it all off you, you must respect everyone’s decisions about how they live their lives and don’t, whatever you do, blame anyone for creating their own bed that they’ve now got to sleep in.

By contrast we’re the only people saying that we don’t give a damn how you live your life. As long as you’re not harming others, nor their ability to live their life as they wish, why on earth should we even pay attention to how you live let alone control, or even respect, how you do?

Which is why they all shout at us of course. For if you’re running around with a set of rules that everyone must live by it’s OK to have another group running around with a different set of rules about how you must live. But it’s disconcerting, discombobulating even, to have a group insisting that there is no such list so would everyone shut up please? What merit in gaining control of the State in order to force everyone to follow your prescriptive rules if the libertarians (or classical liberals) have got there first and removed the power of the State to insist upon everyone having to follow any set of such rules?

To put it very simply, those who fight to insist upon vanilla flavoured cake are quite happy to battle those who fight for chocolate flavoured cake and vice versa, but they’ll unite in hatred against those who say the cake is a lie.

Debating the death of capitalism

I took part last Friday in a debate at Durham University Union on the motion that “This house welcomes the death of capitalism.” I opposed it, of course, arguing that capitalism has not died, is not dying, and probably will not die. I argued that two of its central elements went with the grain of human nature: investment and exchange. I suggested humorously that the first caveman who fashioned a bone hook invested time he could have spent happily hunting mastodons in order to gain greater rewards in future. This is like the child who chooses two chocolates tomorrow rather than a single chocolate today, or the investor who forgoes the pleasures that spending £100 might bring in order to have £105 to spend next year.

Investment is one way in which people better their lot. Another, I said, was exchange. When the caveman swaps one of his bone hooks for a fur offered by a hunter, both gain something they value more in exchange for something they value less. Each gains value and wealth is created. It was these two elements, I remarked, that had enabled capitalism to generate unparalleled wealth for humanity, the wealth that has lifted billions out of starvation and subsistence, and has paid for medicine and sanitation, the arts and education. It has doubled life expectancy within a century, and has meant that far fewer children die in infancy, or mothers in childbirth. Capitalism survives because of what it enables us to achieve.

I dealt with two things that capitalism is not. The first is cronyism, where big business gets into bed with government to secure special measures that enable it to exploit the public instead of competing fairly for their custom. The second is fraud, where bankers illegally fiddle interest rates, where Enron swindles its shareholders out of billions, or where Bernie Maddoff steals from his clients. This is not capitalism; it is criminality, and both of these practices need vigilance to thwart them.

People have asked “What will come after capitalism?” I replied, “Capitalism,” pointing out that after each crisis it is modified so the same mistakes are not repeated. It evolves and learns, as humans themselves do. We should not applaud its death, I said, but celebrate its continued life.

The students came down on the side of capitalism by defeating the motion.

The Ayn Rand Institute Europe

Today in Copenhagen is launched the Ayn Rand Institute Europe. Its mission is to promote awareness and understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, and to spread awareness of her life and work, including her highly influential novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Heading up the programmes is Annie Vinther Sanz, originally Danish but now living in France, who has spent two decades in international business and now heads up her own consulting firm. And she is fluent in six languages (don’t you hate people like that?).

Lars Seier Christensen, CEO of Saxo Bank, is chairing the new Institute’s advisory board, and the event takes place at Saxo Bank’s impressive headquarters. Some 300 people are expected at the launch, which includes short talks by Christensen, the head of the Ayn Rand Institute in the US Yaron Brook, and our own Eamonn Butler.

Eamonn admits that he is not an earnest devotee of Ayn Rand, though he shares some of her conclusions – like the importance of free-market capitalism, the rule of law, property rights and a robust system of justice. But that, says Yaron Brook, is exactly why he has been invited to give the main talk. Eamonn is strongly aware of Rand’s importance to the intellectual right and her ability, through her novels in particular, to win people over too it.

Many young people, in fact, have been won over to the ideas of capitalism, and a belief in individuals as ends in themselves rather than mere cogs in some collective, by reading Rand. In the words of Jerome Tuccille, ‘It usually begins with Ayn Rand.

Rand, Eamonn will say, has many supporters in the United States, where she lived for most of her life. The former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, was a member of Rand’s inner circle. And her work influenced many other notable people, such as the former head of BB&T bank and of Cato, John Allison; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and PayPal creator Peter Thiel. Entrepreneurs, indeed, still name their children after her or her fictional characters.

She has, perhaps, less traction in Europe. That may be because the American right is more concerned with the protection of individual liberty, while the European right is more about conserving existing institutions. But as a result of today’s launch, there is no doubt that Rand is about to become even better known, and much more influential, in Europe too.

Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist

The Technology expo Mobile World Congress was held this week, and amongst shiny new phones and gadgets, a number of reveals pertained to the future of motoring. Across the board firms are leading with the idea of interconnected devices and the ‘Internet of Things’, and the automobile industry is no different.

AT&T showed how to control a ‘smart home’ from your ‘connected car’, whilst Visa wants us to use our wheels to order pizza. Tech and automobile companies are converging and partnering, with both Apple and Google racing ahead to provide dashboard operating systems. Of course, Google’s most distinctive contribution to motoring so far is still its cartoon-like driverless cars; a potentially transformative sector other companies are piling into.

This week Renault Nissan announced plans to bring an autonomous, connected car to market by 2016. This wouldn’t be as far down the line as a fully driverless car, capable only (pending regulatory approval) of driving autonomously in traffic jams. Whilst Renault Nissan’s head predicted that autonomous motorway travel is not far off, moving beyond that point is far more difficult because we simply can’t currently ensure that autonomous vehicles make rational decisions in an emergency.

Questions of which emergency choices would be rational, and which, indeed, would be most ethical to take are some of the most interesting in the pursuit of automated transport. Such cases bear a strong resemblance to the classic Trolley Problem thought experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

In philosophy this problem (along with permutations involving fat men being shoved off bridges and looping tracks) is used to tease out consequentialist v. deontological intuitions — should you always act to save the many, or is it wrong to treat people as a means to and end? — as well as moral distinctions between forseeing and intending a death, and killing and letting die.

The ethics of driverless cars in this sense are particularly juicy. Unlucky drivers may experience their own trolley-like problems: should they swerve into the next lane or aim instead for the pavement? Generally, though, we’re pretty forgiving of a bad call made in a split second and under extreme duress, and wouldn’t really consider a particular choice an ‘ethical’ one.

However, what driverless cars do in a dangerous situation will be thought far more significant. Even if cars ‘learn’ with road time and experience, their instinctive behaviour will already be premeditated and decided; written in as part of the car’s program and consciously chosen by a coder.

This predetermination of the car’s behavior (and by extension, its moral philosophy) makes trolley-related problems both an ethical and legal minefield. Regardless (or perhaps, because,) of how effective driverless cars may be in reducing overall accidents, lawsuits are likely to be significant, and expensive. Whether or not a car is automated to minimize total casualties or programmed to never hit an innocent bystander, there will likely come a time when someone asks ‘why was my loved one already marked out to die in this situation?’ Applying different moral codes will inevitably lead to very different ideas of what it is acceptable for a driverless car to do.

Picking the ‘right’ ethical choice in a range of hypothetical situations will therefore be important, especially if the deployment of driverless cars relies on political and populist goodwill. There’s no end of considerations — is a forseen death acceptable? Is a child’s life more valuable than an adult’s? How do the number and ages of individuals weigh against one another? Should a driverless car prioritize the safety of its passengers over pedestrians, or should it try to minimize third party harm? Should public and private vehicles act differently? Ultimately it may be governments who insist on taking these decisions, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

There’s a number of interesting articles on this sort of thing, and  it will be interesting to hear futher development and discussion of these issues as driverless technology evolves. However, one solution to ‘choosing’ the right outcomes which I found interesting, posited by Owen Barder, would be to let the market decide and with each person to purchase a car programmed with their own moral philosophy. This may not work out in practice, but I do like the idea of a ‘Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist’ bumper sticker.