Heraclitus v. Parmenides – Flux v. Stasis


I gave the opening lecture at Freedom Week at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge last week.  My theme was "Flux versus Stasis," and I contrasted the views of Parmenides and Heraclitus, two of the Presocratic philosophers.  Parmenides took the view that nothing changes in reality; only our senses convey the appearance of change.  Heraclitus, by contrast, thought that everything changes all the time, and that "we step and do not step into the same river," for new waters flow ever about us.

I divided the world between those who seek permanence (the stasis of Parmenides) and those who embrace change (the flux of Heraclitus).  Those who prefer stasis resist change and innovation, and try to keep society following traditional practices, using social pressures and, if necessary, the force of law to sustain conventional norms.  They include people who resist technological change and the changes it brings to employment, as well as those who urge subsidies and tariffs to sustain domestic markets against foreign competitors.

Those who accept that change happens and try to adapt to its flux follow Heraclitus.  Their societies allow experiment and innovation, even knowing that some will be upset by the disturbance they bring to traditional ways.  They allow markets to pulse and flow, reacting to inputs, and adapting to and coping with those changes.  

Stasis societies value order and tend to entrust government to maintain their status quo.  Flux societies value new ideas and look for progress toward their citizens' goals.  It is the flux societies, the ones ready to embrace change and develop its positive aspects, which are most friendly to liberty and the right of people to pursue self-referring goals unimpeded by arbitrary restrictions imposed by others.

The full text of my lecture can be seen here.

Hunting Foxes... Because You Like It


Last week, a new vote on whether the Hunting Act, the scorn of politics in the early 2000s, should be amended, was thrown out of the window. There was none of the anger that had filled the 400,000 protestors outside of Parliament Square in 2004, nor the 700 hours of debate that had occupied the Commons. Only a smug look from Nicola Sturgeon, as she realised she had outsmarted David Cameron.

Amending and repealing the Hunting Act has long been on the agenda for the Conservatives. Before the 2010 election, there were murmurings that, were a Conservative majority to take power, repeal of the ban on fox hunting with dogs would be looked at.

So let’s look at fox hunting with dogs. The Countryside Alliance declares the Hunting Act bad for the rural economy, bad for rural communities, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources’. It is true that reports of malpractice on foxhunts and police prevention take up time and resources. Very few convictions for those hunting with dogs have ever been brought about, despite the amount of evidence which animal rights groups present. ‘Bad for animal welfare’ is somewhat difficult to comprehend, but if they mean that it is bad for animal welfare that poultry might be killed by a fox, before they are killed by the slaughterhouse, perhaps this is an understandable argument. Bad for the rural economy and rural communities is a dubious case to make. Many hunts have seen their numbers grow since the ban. The Burns Report, which examined hunting before the Hunting Act was introduced, registered 178 hunts in 2000; there are now 176. However, although there are fewer hunts, the number of participants has dramatically risen. 20,591 people were subscribed for foxhunts in 2000; around 45,000 now take part regularly in hunts. The demand for foxhunting has certainly not diminished.

Most interesting of all is to examine how hunting affects fox numbers. Perhaps the most reiterated reason which hunting enthusiasts enjoy promoting is that hunting is a form of culling – that without hunting, foxes would be ravaging farming communities. Realistically, fox hunting causes very little impact to fox numbers and likely increases them if anything. Fox numbers are determined by competition. Foxes will move into territories where they find it easier to find food and face less competition from other foxes. This means that there is a constant movement of foxes which cannot be stopped by hunting. Moreover, studies have shown that the more foxes killed in a winter cull, the more that are born in litters come springtime. The greatest regulator of the fox population are the foxes'  social factors themselves: social groups of foxes will defend their territory from other fox groups on a nationwide level. Other factors involve food availability and disease, but these tend to be local issues with little impact.

Fox hunting has very little to do with the actual real numbers of foxes killed. Those who participate should not try to convince both others and themselves that they are a necessity to the protection of farming. It remains their liberty to hunt, but it is for the purpose of their enjoyment, not conservation.

This article was written by Benjamin Jackson, a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute. Benjamin is half-way through his Classics degree at the University of Edinburgh.

To put minds at rest: Australia is not going to be the new Greece


Sadly, some seem not to have grasped the specific problem that is powering the Greek nightmare. Given this failure to understand the underlying cause, we get predictions like this:

Commodities crash could turn Australia into a new Greece

In more detail:

The respected Australian economist Stephen Koukoulas recently wrote of the dangers that escalating levels of foreign debt could present for future generations. Could a prolonged period of depressed commodity prices even turn Australia into Asia’s version of Greece, with China being its banker of last resort instead of the European Union.

No, simply no.

It's true that the Lucky Country has been very lucky, being the major commodity supplier into China as that nation actually built a nation. And that growth is slowing, the prices of those commodities are falling and so the terms of trade that Oz faces are deteriorating. But this will not, cannot, turn that country into another basket case like Greece.

For Australia has its own currency: the one thing that Greece does not have an which is causing that economic grief.

So, imagine that commodities, the major exports, do decline in price, and stay down in price. Yes, Australia as a whole is thus somewhat poorer. And it's likely that Australian wages relative to the rest of the world will therefore need to decline. Greece had to do this by making sure that 50% of young people, 25% of all people, were thrown out of work so that wages would indeed decline. Both Keynes and Friedman were adamant on this point, that nominal wages are sticky downwards and when those two agree you'd better pay attention. Australia, of course, does not need to do that. They can, as Friedman pointed out was the sensible way to do this, depreciate the currency instead. Relative wages change but no one has to be thrown on the scrapheap to achieve it. Indeed, as the value of those export commodities declines the currency will fall quite naturally, causing our price change without any action at all.

That is, Australia simply will not be the new Greece because Australia has its own currency. As Greece, obviously, does not.

Keynesian infrastructure spending might not be the answer you know


This story of the Don Quijote airport in Spain is instructive about one of the delusions of our times.

Spain's "ghost airport" - that cost hundreds of millions of euros to build and which became a notorious symbol of the excess of the country's bonanza years has been sold to a group of British and Asian investors for just €10,000 (£7,000). Ciudad Real airport airport, in the central Castilla-La Mancha region, has been closed since 2012, despite opening only four years prior to closure. The regional authorities raised an estimated €1billion in private investment to build it. They had hoped it would draw millions of visitors each year to Ciudad Real and the surrounding area, which is known as the home of Miguel de Cervantes’s fictional knight Don Quixote. But the airport itself soon became seen as a quixotic venture, drawing just 33,000 travellers in 2010.

This is of course a symbol of the investment excess in Spain in the boom years rather than of government infrastructure spending in a slump to boost the economy. But it faces exactly the same problem as all other such spending. Whether it is being done to boost the level of demand in the economy or not it is still necessary for the thing itself being built to add value. An airport (and this is not the only one in Spain) that no one wants to use is just a very expensive piece of tarmac with no other actual value. This thus makes all poorer.

Which produces a problem for those who would use infrastructure spending to boost the economy in recession. If the project itself would add value then it should be built, recession or no. And if it doesn't add value then it shouldn't be built, recession or no. There is no room left for the argument that it should be built because recession.

The Financial Misconduct Authority

I never expected to feel sorry for Martin Wheatley who, last week, resigned his position as Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, but I do. George Osborne gave him a non-job and Wheatley tried to make the most of it, thereby alienating too many people. The history of this is simple. A few months before the 2010 election, George Osborne, then Shadow Chancellor, announced that he would abolish the Financial Services Authority which had grown massively to 3,500 people, too many of them lawyers, who wasted everyone’s time with “compliance”, achieved nothing and signally failed to anticipate, still less prevent, the 2008 financial crisis. Their defence that this was all outside their control, being US driven, was nonsense. The Canadian financial sector is far closer to Wall Street than London is, and, by traditional banking properly supervised, the Canadians slid by gracefully.

Although Osborne was right to axe the FSA, he, being new to the game, failed to recognise the problem created by not explaining what would follow and how supervision would be maintained. FSA executives did not wait to pass “go” and accepted the lucrative offers coming their way. The City does not like uncertainty and panic ensured.

To bring calm, Osborne then announced that no one should fear for their jobs as he would replace, going one better than Hydra, the FSA with three new quangos: The Prudential Regulation Authority, The Financial Conduct Authority and the Money Advice Service. In addition we had the Financial Ombudsman Service and The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (both established by Gordon Brown in 2001). By the PRA becoming part of the Bank of England, the BoE regained its traditional City supervisory role. The Governor’s June encyclical, the Fair and Effective Markets Review, promotes that wider Bank responsibility.

Wheatley’s problem was that we never needed the FCA in the first place (see “Do we need the FCA?” (May 2015)  and “FCA should be 'terminated at birth’, suggests think tank” (October 2012)). The work for which the FCA took credit was largely conducted by consultants who could have been commissioned by any one. The rest of their “make work” could be done, if it is necessary at all, by the Financial Ombudsman Service, which also needs reform, the PRA and the competition authorities roosting in the myriad branches of the Business Interference and Skills department. It would be easier to reform the Financial Ombudsman Service if they had full responsibility for the job they are supposed to do.

Osborne, faced by dealing with the wrong man in the wrong job, has once again made the wrong decision. The FCA should have been axed, not poor Mr Wheatley. The question now is whether HMT has learnt anything from this experience. One fears not.

It's important to work out what parking meters are for


Before abolishing parking meters and charging for parking it's important to work out why we did this in the first place. It's an example of Chesterton's Fence: before you remove the obstacle you need to work out why it was placed there in the first place. Only then can you work out whether the reason is now obsolete, to that the fence is defunct. And the original point of parking meters wasn't to charge people for parking, nor to ration spaces by price, not at all:

Shoppers in small-town high streets should be allowed to park free, a minister has indicated, as figures show that councils are raising more money than ever from motorists. Marcus Jones, who was made high streets minister in David Cameron’s post-election reshuffle, suggested that small town centres could become “parking meter-free zones” in an effort to save shops from closure. The Government is growing increasingly concerned that punitive parking costs and fines are deterring shoppers from using their local high streets.

The original reason for parking meters was to increase the number of people using the area.

If parking is entirely free then some goodly number of people will use it all day and possibly every day. This takes up those scarce parking spaces. So, if you want to increase the number of people that pass through an area you want people to have free parking but only for some limited period of time. Then they will move on and others will be able to use the space to visit the area.

Thus, if your intention is to increase the human traffic through an area like a local High Street the answer is not to have free parking at all. It's to have free parking for some limited period of time. On the order of free for an hour, no return within an hour, those sorts of restrictions, rather than "park here all day for free". All of the parking meters and ticket machines needed are already in place. Just program them to issue the first hour's ticket for free.

From the Rockefeller Lancet report


Only a minor little point but symptomatic of how people really don't quite get the basics sometimes. The Lancet has teamed up with the Rockefeller foundation bods to tell us all that we'd better have global environmental socialism real soon now or Aieee! We're All Gonna Die! We think we've been told this before really.

They talk about the joys of the circular economy and seem to miss rather an important point about it:

Several essential steps need to be taken to transform the economy to support planetary health. These steps include the reduction of waste through the production of products that are more durable and require lower quantities of materials and less energy to manufacture than those that are being produced at present; the incentivisation of recycling, re-use, and repair; and the substitution of hazardous materials with safer alternatives. These changes will necessitate innovations in design and manufacture that capitalise on the potential restorative powers of natural systems combined with strategies to reduce overall demand for resources that greatly damage the environment during the course of their extraction, production, use, or disposal—leading ultimately to the circular economy (panel 1; figure 19).11 Importantly, such a transformation could also bring benefits to health and wellbeing if occupational health standards are adhered to, including through reduced amounts of air, water, and soil pollution; increased employment opportunities; and changes in diet and physical activity.

It's that "increased employment opportunities". That's a synonym for "everyone has to work harder". And that's really not a development that we're happy about having. For the aim and point of this having an economy thing is that we minimise the amount of human labour that has to be performed thus maximising the amount of human leisure that can be enjoyed. The basic problem here being of course that all too many people don't realise that jobs, employment, these are not benefits of a plan, they are costs of one.

Yes, it's only one small point taken from a large and long report. But it is symptomatic of their lack of knowledge about how economics works. That lost more people are going to have to work reprocessing our rubbish is not a good part of their plan, it is a cost of their plan.

Housing the Homeless


Homelessness in the UK is on the rise. 2014 figures show that 2,744 people slept rough on any one night in England, a 55 per cent rise on 2010. In London, there has been a rise of 16 per cent in a single year. Homelessness is a result of poverty and creates a downward spiral that is difficult to escape from. It is clear that it is an issue that needs to be tackled, particularly given the rising figures. The current policy on homelessness from the government centres on preventing long-term rough sleeping on the streets. The ‘No Second Night Out’ scheme has been successful in achieving this aim: its introduction led to 75 per cent of rough sleepers not spending a second night on the streets. An admirable success - but largely superficial.  It does not account for the ‘hidden homeless’, those who live in hostels, nor is it a lasting solution to homelessness. It is extremely difficult to build a life around inconsistent housing.

The root problem of homelessness is not achieved by taking people off the streets into temporary housing. It is only solved by people having places to live. And the current crisis in UK housing is not helping this. The severe lack of affordable housing is forcing people onto the streets and into homelessness. In 2013-2014, only 140,000 houses were built for the demand of 250,000, hardly enough to cover those who can afford to buy them, let alone those who live on the streets. Moreover, the cut to housing benefit announced in the July budget will not be conducive to preventing homelessness, instead, making it more difficult to combat it.

When examining the most successful solutions to homelessness, offering effective housing solutions is the best way. Preventative measures have been lauded, but these do not help those who are recurrently homeless. Schemes in America and Canada offering long-term housing have been hugely successful in turning around homelessness figures. Utah has dramatically reduced their homeless problem through their Housing First program that offers housing to homeless people with no strings attached. When given a stable home, rather than inconsistent halfway housing, people were able to effectively build their lives. Similar projects in cities across Canada have brought the same results, showing that it is also more cost effective to offer housing rather than pay for the upkeep of the homeless in temporary accommodation, particularly when we included costs accrued indirectly - such as healthcare.

But these solutions seem unlikely to be as effective in the UK while housing is at such a premium and remains as expensive.  Until then, the government will have to rely on preventative measures as its most effective solution until it can solve the real problem of housing.


This article was written by Benjamin Jackson, a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute. Benjamin is half-way through his Classics degree at the University of Edinburgh.

MPs in the dark about key policies helping entrepreneurs


The Entrepreneurs Network has released its 2015 Parliamentary Snapshot, which provides insights into the views of MPs about entrepreneurship, and gives the entrepreneurial community a useful perspective on the legislative landscape. The first main finding is that many views on policy that would impact entrepreneurs are firmly set by party lines. Take, for example, membership of the EU: 58% of Conservative MPs think Brexit would be good for entrepreneurial activity, but only 1% of Labour MPs think likewise. This is a key finding with broader repercussions: some political commentators have claimed that Labour MPs are as Eurosceptic as Conservative MPs, but this suggests that Labour MPs see the benefits of continued membership while Conservative MPs see opportunities for leaving – at least when it comes to entrepreneurship. This is reinforced by MPs' views of the impact of EU business regulation: 90% of Conservative MPs think exempting the UK from EU business regulation would be positive for entrepreneurs, but only 10% of Labour MPs agree.

This isn't to say that Labour and Conservative MPs are at complete loggerheads when it comes to pro-entrepreneurial policy: 80% of Conservative MPs and 66% of Labour MPs agree that making it easier for entrepreneurs to move to the UK would benefit the UK's entrepreneurial landscape. In fact, this was the second most popular policy across the House of Commons.

The second main finding regards MPs knowledge of existing initiatives to support entrepreneurs in the UK. This year's Parliamentary Snapshot gives us a woeful image of an under-informed legislative body. Although Conservative MPs are in favour of tax cuts, most were unaware of the tax incentives already in place - for example, the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme. Most Labour MPs support increased spending to support entrepreneurs, but are oblivious to initiatives, like Innovate UK, already in place.

This has consequences for MPs' sense of how effective these initiatives are. Many in the entrepreneurial community see the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) as essential to the UK's entrepreneurial success – but Conservative MPs' support for the scheme dropped from 68% last year to 45% this year, with the remainder largely unaware of it. This policy is widely lauded by entrepreneurs who have raised funds to grow their business.

It's clear that entrepreneurs need to be more vocal about what works for them, so that MPs are better informed about the challenges the community faces and why supporting entrepreneurs is so essential to support the British economy. To this end, over the coming months and years, The Entrepreneurs Network will ensure that entrepreneurs' preferences are heard loud and clear in corridors of power and beyond. If MPs don't know what policies work best on the ground, there's a serious risk they'll scrap the policies that have made Britain one of the best places in the world to start a business.

Energy efficiency isn't quite as efficient as it's cracked up to be


It's true that this information is from the US. It's also true that this shows more than a dash of Hayek's "fatal conceit". The idea that the clever people can plan things for us and we'll all go off and do them just as we're planned to do. Human beings don't really work like that which is why planning so often fails. But to the information itself: energy efficiency programmes don't have the effects the planners thought they would:

Conventional wisdom suggests that energy efficiency (EE) policies are beneficial because they induce investments that pay for themselves and lead to emissions reductions. However, this belief is primarily based on projections from engineering models. This paper reports on the results of an experimental evaluation of the nation’s largest residential EE program conducted on a sample of more than 30,000 households. The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings. Further, the model-projected savings are roughly 2.5 times the actual savings. While this might be attributed to the “rebound” effect – when demand for energy end uses increases as a result of greater efficiency – the paper fails to find evidence of significantly higher indoor temperatures at weatherized homes. Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.

What we are looking for in an investment is a positive rate of return of course. The idea that the outputs of whatever it is that we do are worth more than the original value of the resources we have to put into doing it. A negative rate of return is evidence that we shouldn't be doing this, whatever it is, because it is making us poorer.

Which is why, if action to deal with climate change there is going to be we have always insisted that that action should be a carbon tax. It's analagous to the argument over Greece and the euro. The horrendous economic pain there is because they must go through internal devaluation. That austerity: in order to screw down the price level for local labour. It's far easier, and there's a great deal less pain, if just the one price, the exchange rate, can be changed and thus realign the economy in a much simpler manner. So it is with the carbon tax and climate change. By changing that one price we make it rational to perform those tasks where the savings are greater than the costs. Including, of course, those social costs of carbon emissions.

We thus don't need to have armies of engineers making plans where the outcomes aren't going to live up to the hype. It becomes in the rational self-interest of each consumer to do those things which help and not to do those things which don't. So, consumers do those beneficial things.

We're generally of the view that government is best kept out of the operation of the economy. Yet even we agree that sometimes intervention is necessary. But when intervening, keep that intervention to the simplest action that will achieve the task: in both of these cases that means just the one single change to the price level and then let the market calculate out the implications of it.