What good news as we face more First World Problems


This will no doubt set off the usual anguished whining among the usual suspects. But we regard this as cheering news, extremely cheering in fact:

Poor diet has emerged as the biggest contributor to early death around the world, according to new analysis from the leading authorities on the global disease, with red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages among the foods implicated in 21% of global deaths.

Smoking cigarettes still carries the highest risk factor of premature death in the UK, followed by high blood pressure and obesity. But the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) in the US says that a combination of dietary factors, from eating too few fruit and vegetables, nuts and whole grains to too much sodium and cholesterol, is taking a toll on health in the UK and across the globe.

We do rather doubt much of what we're told by these prodnoses who would control our diet. It was only last week that they were telling us that animal fats would murder us all in our beds and then after decades of saying so they've changed their minds. However, the good news is here:

Sub-Saharan Africa has a different pattern of risks from the rest of the world, with a toxic combination of childhood undernutrition, unsafe water and sanitation, unsafe sex, and alcohol use.

That is, where people are still in that absolute destitution of peasant poverty then people die from simply lack of food and sanitation. Whereas where people are not in that absolute destitution of peasant poverty they live long enough to die of something else. We regard this as an advance in human civilisation, whatever our beliefs about the accuracy of the diagnoses of those First World diseases.

For it's never going to be true that we can solve all the troubles of the world in one fell swoop: but that we do seem to be solving them, one by one, is reason for cheerfulness, no?

The Assisted Dying Bill should not have been euthanised


In light of the failure of the Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Commons today, I can't help but wonder why people are so against the idea of legalising euthanasia. Nobody's forcing you to die, so why should you be able to prevent other people from that choice? Many of the main arguments include having respect for the sanctity of life, a fear that the vulnerable will come under pressure from family or friends to use the service, and suggestions that better palliative care could negate the need for euthanasia. However, while these are all valid arguments, I do not subscribe to the thought that any of these reasons override the principal of autonomy.

The government simply should not be able to tell another individual when they should or should not be allowed to die. The bill itself had a number of pretty solid proposals to prevent any potential abuse of the system, specifically the approval of two doctors and a high court judge. In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, about a third of people who were prescribed the drugs necessary then decided not to take them and extend their life, illustrating that people take comfort in just being able to have the choice, although they may not necessarily take it. To take the autonomy argument even further, there are a lot of people who believe the choice to die in a clinic should be available for all people and not just the terminally ill, as we ultimately should own ourselves.

Another reason beyond autonomy as to why this bill should have passed, is compassion for those who are suffering and in pain, or even just having the ability to decide the terms on which you die, surrounded by friends and loved ones. British people are the second most frequent visitors of Dignitas in Switzerland, so there is clearly demand for legal euthanasia within the UK, yet the government's decision today has simply limited the ability of those who are less well off to make that decision. A trip to Dignitas can cost between €4,000 and €7,000, not including the cost of flights and accommodation for family members. That's something many people in the UK are not financially able to do; the legalisation of euthanasia in the UK would have made this fundamentally humane practice more accessible for people of all income levels.

Although it is estimated 1 in 5 people allow family circumstances to influence their decision, there is no reason why a person should not be allowed in their own right to not want to burden their family. Scott Alexander found that euthanasia does not disproportionately affect the elderly and that 99.8% of Dutch euthanisations were in cases where the pain was said to be “unbearable”, clearly showing that family pressure is not a primary reason behind euthanasia. The court and doctor checks suggested by the UK bill were part of a process to ensure external pressure is therefore not a reason behind the patient's decision. In addition, instances where euthanasia has been permitted for psychological reasons rather than terminal illness are minimal, with one case Belgium being the exception to this rule.

The percentage of deaths in Oregon caused by euthanasia last year was only 0.3%. The bill that failed today was not an act to encourage suicide or make it 'the norm', as it clearly is not in Oregon, but a logical and compassionate way to extend the freedoms of people in the UK. The government regulates enough already, the wishes of a terminally ill person should be one area free from their interference.

Freedom makes us nicer.


Human imperfection can be counted upon as surely as death and taxes. Despite this, study after study seems to confirm that most of us are rather decent fellows when push comes to shove. I am willing to wager that a desire to do good, whatever that may be, is an evolved trait innate in the condition of most people. Against this, our nature is certainly affected by the conditions in which we live, and resultantly subject to change for good or ill. Our natures cannot be summed up in a single phrase or formula, and any attempt to produce such a rule tends to prove intellectually awkward. Commonality of behaviour, however, suggests that on the whole we do not benefit from the kinds of societies autocrats would force upon us. The material ages of humanity, as outlined by Marx, give a clear indication of how the economic superstructure can warp our natural instincts. The licence of masters, the dehumanisation of slaves, and the mutual fear and loathing induced by this asymmetry in power does not make for moral and responsible agents.

Though the divisions of rank and legal status have been smoothed by time, the continuing divisions between property owner and unemployed tenant still shape the behaviours of both classes to some extent. The property owner has an interest in conservation and expansion of their material interests, the welfare dependent on extracting subsistence from others, both through the coercive power of the state.

Changing the behaviours of both groups will require a new phenomenon, the liberating force of popular capitalism. Universal property ownership which began with right-to-buy should be extended, with planning liberalisations to allow for more house building, and support for personal savings and retirement accounts. As with the sale of council houses in the 1980s, the right to save for old age, and support in the form of replacing National Insurance Contributions with a tax free pensions saving allowance, will change attitudes. The division between property owner, and those alienated from the capital rewards of progress will be erased, with, as its result, a concordantly greater understanding and support of the market.

The greatest role for institutions may be elsewhere. As Randolph Churchill defended constitutional traditions for their role in guiding and balancing the state and its leaders, so too must liberals champion the great pillar of the free society: the voluntary association. Tradition adds colour and a spiritual connection between generations past, present and unborn, but its true purpose is to get the best from each of us. The friendly societies, cooperatives, clubs, universities and trades unions of this country can do just that; and have evolved and sustained themselves out of the better nature of free individuals. You don't need to engineer or manipulate the individual to make them good, you simply need people to discover the essence of what it is to live well with one another. Left to our own devices, human beings will creatively find new ways to overcome our own failings, learning from the past experiences of others through the living network of societies. If institutional memory can teach us how to be good without reference to a state compelling us to live in one particular or narrow fashion, then every liberal person should celebrate. The victims of arbitrary authority reflect its character; therefore, lets make ourselves freer so we can carry on being nice.

The Devil's in the details but this sounds like a good idea.....


We have, for some years now, been saying that Britain doesn't have a shortage of land to build upon but does have a shortage of land that people are allowed to build upon. That permission to build is artificially constricted by the state and any solution has to be an increase in the number of those permits granted. So, this looks encouraging:

Billions of pounds worth of public land and buildings could be sold off with planning permission already granted to solve the housing crisis, David Cameron will announce today. In a major speech ahead of the spending review the prime minister will outline plans to cut waste, sell off government assets and merge public services as Ministers attempt to save cash.

Of course, it's entirely possible for such schemes to die in a blizzard of bureaucracy. But government as a whole grants planning permission and government as a whole owns a lot of land. So, if they can manage to get their act together they could in fact achieve what would be at least a partial solution to our housing problems: the release to hte market of substantial amounts of land with planning permissions.

That government will capture the value of the granting of the planning permission is an added bonus. Government should, after all, capture the value that government creates where this is possible. But it's not the point and purpose of the scheme at all: that is simply to make available more land to build upon.

We'll have to see how well government can deal with its own bureaucracy though. One could, for example, imagine local authorities being forced to grant outline permissions but then, when the project is bought by private interests, playing silly buggers with the detailed implementation. We'll see no doubt...

Poor George Monbiot doesn't really get it, does he?


That there's something wrong with the British property and land markets is entirely true. but if we're going to complain about it it does help if we manage to identify what is actually wrong with it. Which is where George Monbiot doesn't really get it:

It’s hardly surprising, given the degree of oversight. Private Eye has produced a map of British land owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens. The holdings amount to 1.2m acres, including much of the country’s prime real estate. Among those it names as beneficiaries are a cast of Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, British aristocrats and newspaper proprietors. These are the people for whom government policy works – and the less regulated the system that enriches them, the happier they are.

Land has great value in Britain not because it is less regulated, little regulated nor even under-regulated. It is because it is all over-regulated. Specifically, through the planning system which creates and artificial scarcity of who may build what, where. That makes having the right chitty extremely valuable. And as such, the people who currently own both land and chitty are absolutely delighted about this system of over-regulation. While the rest of us are less so as we're forced to pay for that artificial value created by the artificial scarcity.

It has been pointed out for decades, just as one example, that the existence of green belts is simply a subsidy to those who currently own land inside one. The answer to which is, of course, deregulation of those restrictive planning laws.

Or, as we have suggested more than once around here, simple demolition of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and all its successors.

We do agree with Monbiot that all is not right with Britain's land. But the problem is one of over-regulation, not under-.

Freedom fighter John Von Kannon


We are sad to report the death, at 66, of John Von Kannon, a friend and leading figure in the freedom movement in Washington DC. He was Vice President of the Heritage Foundation, which he had served since 1980 as a thinker, doer and fundraiser – one of the founding generation that included Ed Feulner, Phil Truluck and Stuart Butler. John – nicknamed "The Baron" – Von Kannon was one of the founders of The American Spectator where he learnt the art of raising money. Blessed with great humour, an easygoing manner but also great focus and determination, he helped raise the Heritage Foundation's budget from $4m to over $90m. He was also instrumental in building up conservative and free-market think-tanks and campaign groups into an effective national network.

Among other awards for his work for liberty, he received the Heritage Foundation's highest honour, the Clare Booth Luce award – previous winners included Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and Ashland University's John Ashbrook award. He was also elected a 'distinguished member' of the Philadelphia Society. He was a trustee of the Foundation for Research on the Economics of the Environment and Vice President of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a leading public interest law foundation.

John was charming, funny, effective and constant. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

What have the Syrians ever done for us?


Anton Howes, an economic historian who studies the causes of the Industrial Revolution, writes on refugee inventors:

Another was Johann Jacob Schweppe (1740-1821), whose company lives on of course as a manufacturer of tonic water. Schweppe’s major contribution was to apply Joseph Priestley’s experiments on carbonating water to develop a machine that could mass-produce it, and then to develop it into a marketable product. Schweppe was the son of a peasant from Hesse. Lacking the strength for agricultural labour, he was apprenticed to a travelling tinker, who recommended him to a silversmith. He eventually ended up settling in Geneva.

Soon after taking his business to London in 1792, where he set up an aerated water factory on Drury Lane, the turmoil in France intervened. Fortunately, his daughter managed to join him before France declared war on Britain in 1793. Fearing the government’s reaction, Schweppe successfully appealed for the right to stay. He eventually returned to Geneva in 1802. France having annexed it in 1798, he returned to find himself a French citizen. (By the way, contrary to what it says on Wikipedia, his business did not fail - it was actually extremely successful and he simply sold his majority stake).

But Anton's list is of Europeans. What about Syrians? I was quite surprised to find out that Steve Jobs is half-Syrian, but the list goes on:

First up, there’s Ayman Abdel Nour, a one-time university friend of Assad’s at the University of Damascus, where he studied engineering. He became increasingly disillusioned with the regime, fleeing to the UAE in 2007, and then the US, where he is editor-in-chief of an online paper focusing on Syria. However, he has since developed and patented a sub-surface irrigation system, dubbed the Hydramiser. I don’t know much about irrigation, but it seems like a pretty helpful innovation for arid countries attempting to overcome their inherent agricultural disadvantages.

Read Anton's whole piece for more. I don't know of any inventors who are both Syrian and refugees, but perhaps one day that'll change.

And yes, I am aware that there are cultural differences between Syrians and Britons. Lots of people said this to me after my own piece that argued that accepting refugees might not be so bad in the long-run, economically speaking. Indeed Sweden, which in Europe takes by far the greatest number of immigrants from the Muslim world per capita, seems to have quite a serious crime problem.

But on the other hand London has done rather well out of immigration. The Asians who fled Uganda have been a success story in Britain, and the Arab migrants to the United States have integrated very well too. We should bear the potential problems with immigration in mind, but the fact that there are costs does not mean we should ignore the benefits too.

There's not really $22 trillion in savings from giving cities lots of money


Another day, another new report on how if we just spend squillions on pet schemes then more than squillions will be saved and we'll all become rich! As reported:

Putting cities on a course of smart growth – with expanded public transit, energy-saving buildings, and better waste management - could save as much as $22tn and avoid the equivalent in carbon pollution of India’s entire annual output of greenhouse gasses, according to leading economists.

So, to the report itself:

Even with this focus on the low-carbon options that could be adopted or promoted by local government, and with conservative and time-limited estimates of costs and benefits, the analysis finds a compelling economic case for significant low-carbon investment in cities. In the “medium” scenario, the gross global costs of these investments would be US$977 billion per year in 2015–2050 (equivalent to 1.3% of global GDP in 2014), but they would reduce annual energy expenditure by US$1.58 trillion in 2030 and US$5.85 trillion in 2050 (see Table 2 for further information).

Well, yeees. We would rather like to see this benchmarked against the predicted costs and benefits of earlier schemes and their out turns. Given the rather large variance between predictions and outcomes we're not convinced that a 1.5 return is enough to span the gap on what people have been given the money to do so far. But we're afraid that this report does get worse than this:

Beyond those built into the International Energy Agency (IEA) 4DS scenario, this estimate of carbon saving potential does not take into account rebound effects, where savings from improved energy efficiency are used to access more energy services rather than to achieve energy demand reduction.

Ah, yes, so we're aware of the Jevons Paradox, where greater energy efficiency leads to greater energy use because it's cheaper, but we've decided not to include it because it makes our sums look bad. And:

While we must acknowledge potentially significant opportunity costs,

They don't include any opportunity costs at all in their calculations, that is their full acknowledgement. And an economic report that doesn't consider the most important part of economics isn't worth the paper this report isn't printed on, is it? Finally:

The main findings are based on a central or “medium” scenario where real (i.e. after inflation) energy prices rise by 2.5% per year, real interest rates are 3% per year, and the technological learning rate for each measure is low.

That is, we've magicked in that all this new technology will be really easy to work out and install (umm, like Edinburgh's tram for example?) and energy is going to rise in price really strongly off into the future. Do note that that assumption about energy prices makes energy double in price every 28 years. Not, to put it mildly, the experience of the past couple of centuries where, with blips of course, energy has been getting cheaper. Seriously, their model says easy alternative technology and vast energy prices: why would any action other than market forces be needed in such a scenario?

So, grossly unrealistic assumptions, a determined ignorance of the two main economic points that should be under discussion and even then a return well under the ability of the public sector to screw things up....well, would you invest on this basis?

Finally, two things. Firstly, if energy is going to go up in price in that manner then absolutely no public action is necessary. Because a doubling of real energy prices every generation will mean that people will quite naturally move to different technologies. And secondly, there's absolutely nothing here that could not be better achieved by instituiting a carbon tax, so as to move prices to make sure that people do indeed do so.

No, we think not. Into the roundunderthdeskreportfile for this one.

Why the answer is a carbon tax and not carbon credits


Back a decade we here at the ASI were mulling through the implications of the Stern Review and associated work. We still differ over the strength of the evidence stating that disaster is imminent. But our views on how to deal with it all assuming the evidence is true have converged. Some of us were in favour of carbon permits, trade in them across countries and industries, for such markets would be a most efficient manner of gaining the cheapest reductions in emissions quickly. Others of us preferred a carbon tax. Essentially on the grounds that while in theory less efficient the intervention of the necessary bureaucracy would make the cap and trade systems less efficient after all.

Here we show that all projects abating HFC-23 and SF6 under the Kyoto Protocol’s Joint Implementation mechanism in Russia increased waste gas generation to unprecedented levels once they could generate credits from producing more waste gas. Our results suggest that perverse incentives can substantially undermine the environmental integrity of project-based mechanisms and that adequate regulatory oversight is crucial. Our findings are critical for mechanisms in both national jurisdictions and under international agreements.

So we are, assuming the evidence insisting upon action is robust, rather of the view that the tax route is better.

Centralisers don't get it: We're all planners!


Unless you live a solitary life on a forgotten island, it seems likely that decisions you make will impact upon others. Decisions about what to buy and sell, which causes to support, which groups to join, which friends to make, and which things to say, all constitute the actual form of society. The fallacy of the central planner is to believe that none of this could happen effectively without their interference. The debate, therefore, is as to what kind of society we ought to live in; a bottom-up society of individuals voluntarily cooperating, or a "strategically planned" society with fundamental parts of our lives influenced by social science experts.

While the "invisible hand" explains the behavioural forces that make a free society possible, the advantage of dynamic planning as system over a system of state control is infrequently made. The free society acts as a total nexus between all agents, retaining all the information of how people act, and, indirectly what people want. Though it lacks a mind to process or plan, the ripple effects of our decisions change the system and society as a whole, whether through changes in prices and production, our personal relationships or through cultural memes. No central planner, no computer and no expert can comprehend the complexity of the organic society they wish to reorder, nor can the information held in bit pieces by individuals be reduced and aggregated to guide the planner as to our wants. The paradox is that the brightest and best intentioned officials are routinely outsmarted by ordinary people managing small projects, precisely because the system of free association has no calculating centre or mind to overrule the genuine needs and desires of individuals to plan for themselves. Going forward, it is necessary to accept that a network of ordinary people has more collective intelligence than any committee of even the super bright.

Even indicative planning assumes that authority knows best how to arrange our lives, and, as with the holiday companion who insists on planning every minute of your day around their own interests, this engineering of persons soon becomes tiresome. Yet the stifling conceit of strategic planning can be replaced with a decentralised model. As everyone is different, finding satisfaction in colours of life specific to their person, our approach to others must recognise human beings as ends in themselves, and respect that their own path to happiness may not be the same as our own.

Localised actors, whether individuals, companies or governments can act based on better knowledge of their own specific problems, and provide solutions that are diverse and flexible. The inflexibility of the standardised national plan is its fragility, for whatever its political imperative, compounded errors induced by poor information impact on the grand scale. The utopian thinker should remember "small is beautiful", and be content to respect the authentic wishes and plans of people as they are.