Lord Save Us from doctors making public policy

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There's an old bon mot about preferring to be ruled by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone book than the combined faculty of Harvard, experts that they are in their subjects. And so it is when we've got doctors trying to tell us what public policy should be rather than their sticking to their knitting and trying to treat the diseases that we become prey to:

Cancer is the best way to die because it gives people the chance to come to terms with their own mortality, the former editor of the British Medical Journal has claimed.

Dr Richard Smith, an honorary professor at the University of Warwick, said that a protracted death allowed time to say goodbye to loved ones, listen to favourite pieces or music or poetry and leave final messages.

He claimed that any pain of dying could be made bearable through ‘love, morphine, and whisky.’

Writing in a blog for the BMJ, Dr Smith admitted that his view was 'romantic', but said charities should stop spending billions trying to find a cure for the disease because it was clearly the best option for an ageing population.

It's entirely possible that going out on a wave of whisky and heroin (not a combination we would recommend if you're not planning on going out just yet and yes, gin is worse than whisky in this regard, off what libertines liberals like us know about) having said goodbye and enjoyed those last days is indeed the "best" way to go.

But we're afraid that it's still an insane thing for anyone to say that we should not try to cure cancer. The mistake is akin to that made by so many of the slower thinkers about market interactions. Sure, if there's only one single market interaction then as game theory tells us the incentive is to rip off the other party. But most market interactions are not one off transactions, they're simply a part of a number of iterations of the same transaction. In which case the incentive is to cooperate to mutual advantage.

Looking to cancer the assumption being made is that OK, once suffered from one should simply fold one's tent and steal away into that long dark night. Which is to entirely ignore the fact that as cancer treatments get better it's possible to have a series of iterations. That first, that skin cancer, say is treated and two decades later the luck of the draw brings on, say, colon cancer which may or may not be treatable. The whisky and heroin option taken at that first iteration would then have robbed one of that 20 years of life.

It's entirely possible that cancer is that "good death" but surviving one or two brushes with it before succumbing would be even better. So no, while we might well take a doctor's advice on how to treat a cancer we shouldn't be taking same on whether to investigate treatments or not. To do so would be to succumb to the views of the experts, something that pulling names randomly from the phone book would avoid.

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 9: The End of It

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Splurge was awakened by the sun streaming through the curtains, and the distinctive morning knock of one of his Downing Street staff. “What day is this?” cried Splurge.

“Why, the day of your Party Conference speech, Prime Minister!” came the reply from outside.

“Oh spirits!” exclaimed Splurge. “Thank you! Thank you! I haven’t missed it! I shall make them such a speech!”

His hands were busy with his garments; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, such a state he was in. As he picked up his wallet to thrust it into his usual pocket, he chanced a look inside and saw the picture of Adam Smith on the back of the £20 note. “It’s all right! It’s all true, it all happened! Ha, ha ha,” he whooped.

He frisked into the study and fumbled excitedly for a pen and paper. “Oh, I am light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy,” he exclaimed, laughing and crying in the same breath.

“What a speech it will be! I will tell them that public spending and regulation always has perverse side effects! I shall tell them that government just keeps on growing unless you restrain it! I will tell them how a free society is tolerant of others and does not try to dictate their how they should live; and how we should be wary of politicians telling us they are limiting our freedom of speech and action for our own good.”

“I will tell them about Public Choice! Yes, indeed! How democracy is not the answer to everything, and is best limited to things we cannot decide by any other means. How elections are not a measure of the public interest but a battle of competing interests – and how the majority has no right to exploit the minority with high taxation. The Rule of Law! Yes! I will tell them about how laws should apply to everyone, without favour, and not framed to give privileges to those in government and their cronies!”

“Oh, they will be so surprised!”

“And the IMF too,” he exclaimed all on a sudden, remembering his recent conversation. “I will tell them how the financial crash was caused by our expansionary policy, built on cheap credit and loose money! And how our inept regulators made it worse! That it wasn’t the bankers at all – that they were just caught up in the spiral like everyone else!”

“I know!” – at this point he danced a little jig of excitement – I will tell them that we will adopt market monetarism so that our currency remains sound and these things never happen again. And that we will pay off the national debt and adopt a zero deficit and balanced budget rule so that governments are never again tempted to spend beyond their means.” Splurge looked into the distance for a moment, thinking. “Oh, and I must write to the European regulators too! So much to do! So much to do!”

And gathering up his sheaf of scribbled notes, he dashed onto the street, dismissed his chauffeur-driven car, and took the bus to the conference centre where the Party were assembled. He had never dreamed that being surrounded by ordinary people, who were not part of the political class, could give him so much happiness. Nor that his mission to save and preserve human freedom could yield him so much pleasure.

Splurge was better than his word. He said it all, and did infinitely more. To freedom, which did NOT die, he became the as good a friend, as good a protector, as the good old Westminster Village knew. Some people laughed at his U-turn, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. For he was wise enough to know, how healthy it is for a society to be able to laugh at its politicians, and how so few societies allow such jest.

He had no further intercourse with extravagant public spending schemes, nor bureaucracy, nor excessive taxation and regulation; but lived upon the Limited Government principle, ever afterwards. And it was always said of him, that he knew how to preserve liberty well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of all of us!

And so, as Adam Smith observed, “It is the highest impertinence, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people. They are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society.” Save all of us from that, every one!

Isn't the Venezuelan economy doing well?

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The Venezuelan economy is at the top of the world. For something, at least:

The South American oil giant's economy shrank 2.3pc in the third quarter, after contracting 4.8pc in the first quarter and 4.9pc in the second, the central bank said.

The inflation rate, a figure the government had not released since August, came in at 4.7pc for November and 63.6pc for the year - among the highest in the world.

As we've mentioned around here before there's nothing wrong at all with the idea that you'd like to change an uneven income distribution. It may or may not be desirable, may or may not be practicable, but the basic desire for a little less extremity in the gap between rich and poor is not a dishonourable goal. It's just that there are sensible and non-sensible ways of going about this.

President Nicolas Maduro's leftist government has introduced mandatory price cuts and rent controls in a bid to rein in the increases but has not managed to get the inflationary spiral under control.

Inflation has been aggravated by severe shortages of basic goods.

Well, yes, it would be. Because price fixing is the wrong way to go about doing it. The problem that all too many of the simpler sorts of socialists have is that prices are not just what people must pay for something, they're also information to those producing things. So, if we price fix because we want the poor to have, say, toilet paper, we then find that the information going to those producing toilet paper is corrupted.

If we set prices above the market clearing price then forests will be razed to provide enough paper to overwhelm the very nation. If prices are set below that market clearing price, as they have been, then there will be shortages of this most basic accoutrement of a civilised bathroom experience. As there have been. And if we set prices at the market clearing price (ignoring that we can't actually calculate that without using the market itself to do so) then what the heck are we doing anyway?

Further, deliberately lowering prices by fiat will reduce production. Thus increasing the price of what is produced on that black market that will inevitably develop and this increasing inflation.

Price fixing just isn't the way to do it.

This is a lesson that our own socialists here in the rich world have learnt to some extent. They still get a bit confused over things like electricity, housing and health care, but at least for general consumables and comestibles they've got it. The way to enable the poor to enjoy more of these things is not to try to fix the price low but to simply give the poor some more money so they can buy at that market price. Which is what we do with tax credits and the like.

Whether we should be reducing inequality is a different matter: but if we are to then we should be doing it in a sensible manner. As Venezuela so obviously isn't.

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 8

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The story so far: The third spirit to visit the high-spending politician Ed Splurge is showing him the dystopia that will be created by his statist policies…  

What Splurge had seen was bad enough: talk of universal surveillance, the suppression of free action, free speech, even of free thought itself, in this future of his own creation. But as the Ghost of Freedom Yet to Come continued to point Splurge towards the dismal scene, he knew that worse was to come.

The zealots arranged around their computer screens continued their business. “Report from the Minister of Public Safety!” called the figure at the head of the gathering, as another got up to speak.

“I am glad to report, Prime Minister,” said this second figure, “that a complete ban on unhealthy living is now in place. After our total suppression of smoking – “

“Total?” asked another, skeptically. “I understood that the black market in cigarettes was booming since you outlawed tobacco, and that thousands were being smuggled in by organized gangs!”

The Minister of Public Safety hardly missed a beat “– we moved to ban fatty foods and fizzy drinks, with similarly harsh penalties for those who subject their bodies to these vile substances.

“But there is more sugar in orange juice than fizzy pop!” cried Splurge, before realizing that the shadows before him could not hear, and were unaware of his presence.

“Chocolates, bacon, and eating Christmas goose are now all illegal,” continued the Minister. It is a positive contribution to the health and welfare of our citizens.” There was yet more satisfaction expressed by the assembled gathering.

“Oh, spirit! Cried Splurge. “Can they not see that in the name of promoting the welfare of human beings, they have robbed them of their very humanity? They have robbed them of their freedom!”

“Chancellor of the Exchequer!” Another figure rose up to speak at the command: “The new 100% tax on income is working well, Prime Minister,” it reported. “Our procedures to assess how much people actually need to live on are now in place, and most are receiving their allowances within a month at the most.”

“Can we really be taking all people’s income, and then giving them back only what the state deems fit?” howled Splurge, realizing the horror of where his high-spending, high-taxing, high-borrowing policies were actually leading. “Do people in this future really need to ask officials before they dare do anything at all?”

Another figure was called to speak: “The Permission to Act Bill has now completed its passage through Parliament and is now the Permission to Act Act,” it began.

But by this point, Splurge’s head was reeling. As darkness swept over him, he had a strange feeling, that the figure at the head of the discussants was none other than – himself.

“Spirit!” he pleaded. “Are these the shadows of things that must be? Tell me these things might yet be changed!” But there came no reply, only darkness.

Adam Curtis and the shapeshifting lizards

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It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance ~ Murray Rothbard

Adam Curtis's segment in Charlie Brooker's look back on 2014 tells us that news is confusing, and hard to paint into black and white. We've withdrawn from Afghanistan, but did we win or lose? Bashar al-Assad is bad, but is ISIS even worse? But nothing, he says, is more confusing than the economy.

The economy is growing, but wages are falling; the deficit is falling, but the national debt is rising. This, he says, keeps the population (whether intentionally or not) in a state of confusion and apathy.

But at the 'dark heart of this shapeshifting world' he says, is quantitative easing (QE), which pumps hundreds of billions of pounds into the economy at the same time as the government is 'taking it out' via its austerity programme.

According to Curtis, the Bank of England has 'admitted' that his has accrued to the richest 5%, a failure of the programme. He calls it 'a ruthless elite, siphoning off billions of pounds of public money'. He even suggests it's roughly analogous to the situation in Russia, comparing British wealthy to oligarchs.

But I wonder if he's looked at any of the research into the programme, asked any economists, or even, perhaps, interviewed some people at the Bank of England?

The reason why some Bank of England research says that the wealth benefited disproportionately in wealth terms is that without the QE programme there would have been a depression, and asset prices would have collapsed. The rich hold assets, the poor don't. But does anyone think the poor would have done better had there been a depression and mass unemployment?

Curtis might find a comparison between what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard calls the 'QE bloc' of the US and UK (and now Japan) and the Eurozone germane. Where have we seen deflation? Where have we seen mass unemployment?

They might look at some of the peer reviewed and robust research telling us whether and how QE has worked.

Much of it is from the Bank of England and Federal Reserve, although I suspect that the credence Brooker & Curtis give to the Bank only extends to stuff that says things they want to hear. Anything else may be dismissed as being exactly what you'd expect the shapeshifting lizards to say.

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 7

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The story so far: The politician Ed Splurge has been visited by two spirits who have shown him the error of his high-spending ways; and now he is expecting the third.  

In the darkness, Splurge remembered the prediction of old Adam Smith, and, lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.

“Are you the Ghost of Freedom Yet to Come?” said Splurge.

“You are about to show me shadows of things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us?” Splurge persisted. The spirit’s garment moved, as if the phantom had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

“Ghost of Freedom Future,” exclaimed Splurge, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. I am resigned! Lead on!”

He followed the spirit’s outstretched hand, and found himself in his old office in Downing Street. But now it was full of the strangest equipment. Splurge realized he was looking at it in some future configuration. A group of people sat around a circle of computer screens, deep in discussion.

“Next item: report from the Minister of Truth,” said the figure at the head of the circle. Splurge surmised that this must be a Cabinet meeting of the future.

“Excellent progress, Prime Minster,” said another. The last of the nation’s CCTV surveillance cameras have been completely decommissioned and recycled.”

“Well, that at least is welcome news, spirit,” said Splurge. “Freedom is not yet completely extinguished.” But in an instant he realized that he had formed this conclusion too soon.

“Excellent indeed!” said the first, gleefully. “Now that the entire population has been microchipped, we can trace everyone’s movements with far greater precision and reliability. Crime will soon be a thing of the past.”

“But how can this be justified in a free society?” exclaimed Splurge.

The figures round the table did not respond. Splurge knew that they were but the shadows of things that would be, and that they were unaware of his presence, or that of the ghost.

Yet it was almost as if they had heard his question, for they all said in unison, in a sort of mantra, “Only the guilty have anything to hide.” Much mutual congratulation followed.

The first spoke again. “And thought crime…?”

“Quite unthinkable,” said the first, now that all computers are configured to prevent the use of banned words, phrases and concepts. Already this is leading to a measurable fall in criticism of the government.” There was much self-satisfaction again.

“Oh, no! I did not want this to happen,” wailed Splurge. “I just wanted to make people safe. To cut crime. To spare people from upsetting others.”

But the shadows of this dark future carried on with their business…

Plus ca change, c'est la meme chose

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A little bit of interesting history. We used to have, here in the UK, an official of the Royal Household who determined what might be shown to us proles on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain's office included the responsibility to:

so that he could only prohibit the performance of plays where he was of the opinion that "it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do".

Of course we did away with all that fuddy duddy nonsense with the Theatres Act of 1968. The Earl Peel now has no such responsibility or power.

Yes, of course we did away with all of that fuddy duddy stuff, there's no one able to limit what the proles may see upon the stage or screen:

Seventies comedies would not be allowed on television screens today because they were so racist and offensive, the outgoing head of Ofcom has said.

Ed Richards, who stands down as chief executive of the media watchdog at the end of this month, said programmes from a previous generation were no longer suitable for today’s more enlightened audiences.

What it is that we proles may be shown seems to have changed a little, the August Personage who gets to decide it seems to have changed, but it does still seem to be that the bien pensants of the day get to decide what may or may not be shown to the populace.

Haven't we all had such a radical expansion in freedom and liberty, in cultural expression?

Not that we're in favour of racism, sexism or whatever, particularly. It's just that we can't help thinking that an actual free market in these things would work rather better. If people didn't like what was being shown then they wouldn't watch it and it would quickly fail and be taken off the air. And at least in the Lord Chamberlain's day they were very clear about this: you may not show these things because people would like them too much. The modern censorship is making the opposite argument: you may not show them because no one would like them. But if that is so then we don't need the censorship, do we, because something that no one likes won't survive. We thus suspect that the censorship survives precisely because those censoring know that the populace does not share their views.

How very liberal, eh?

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 6

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The story so far: The second of two messengers sent by Adam Smith is showing the big-government statist Ed Splurge the dismal results of his policies….  

“Spirit!” wailed Splurge. “What is this miserable place to which you have brought me?”

They stood in some kind of a prison, though much more dismal a prison than any of Splurge’s imagination. It heaved with abject members of humanity. Yet even though the place already seemed to be bursting at its seams, more new inmates were arriving.

“What vile country, spirit, treats people so?” he inquired.

“Yours, Splurge,” responded the Ghost of Freedom Present. “The more laws you have passed, the more criminals you have created out of honest men and women.”

“Are there no proper facilities for their accommodation, their education, and their rehabilitation?”

“You know well, Splurge, that spending on such things buys you no votes,” answered the ghost. “So you choose to spend public money on much more visible causes.”

Splurge was downcast in shame; he knew it was true.

“You, Splurge, spend it to buy off the vested interest groups. You take money from those who work hard and use it for your own political advantage.”

“Oh, spirit! Such Public Choice Theory realities pain me! Take me away from this place!”

“There is yet more to see,” said the ghost. “Let us visit some of these criminals that your bulging statute-book has created.”

Splurge and the ghost passed down an endless corridor of bulging prison cells. “These unfortunates,” it explained, pointing to the first, “are victims of your anti-terrorism legislation.”

“But we must have such laws!” objected Splurge.

“There were already plenty,” growled the ghost. “And each new law you passed cast wider than the last, until near any action could be punished in the most dire way. This woman was arrested merely for walking along a cycle path. This old man, for heckling a politician at a party conference. This couple, for a silent anti-war demonstration.”

“This was not meant to be,” pleaded Splurge. “The police must have exceeded their powers.”

“You gave them those powers,” replied the ghost. “Did no one tell you that power corrupts?”

“This man” – it pointed to another wretched inmate – ”is here simply for insulting someone else. This other, for proclaiming beliefs that some find unwelcome. These, for selling fruit in non-metric measures.”

It turned to Splurge. “It is evident, is it not, that in this country you have created, freedom exists only in name?”

“Oh, no,” said Splurge. “This was not meant to be! Kind spirit, say that human freedom will survive.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered, none other of your race,” returned the ghost, “will find freedom in any action.”

Splurge hung his head, overcome with penitence and grief. A sudden tiredness came over him, and all turned dark.

Zoe gets horribly confused about the difference between charity and taxes

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An alternative headline for this would be since when did Zoe Williams become a libertarian? For she's managed to get herself horribly confused over the difference between charity and taxation.

It is impossible to devise good tax policy on the basis that reasonable people don’t want to pay it and have to be either coerced or conned into doing so. .... You cannot collect tax unless you believe in tax; likewise you cannot pay tax gladly unless you love it, not for the useful stuff it might buy but in itself. This is seen as a political impossibility. But why? Tax is no more and no less than an investment in the future.

What is being described there is charity, not tax. And any good libertarian would rub their hands with glee at the idea that we should all be paying only what we voluntarily wish to pay for the good of our souls and of the society at large. And it's also a goodly part of the classical liberal point that if taxation were lower then there would be more charitable giving as we all gladly would alleviate the suffering of our fellows.

Quite how this got published in The Guardian I'm really not sure. For she really is insisting that we should be forking out only that amount that we love to: and let the coercive aspects of the State demanding money from us go hang. At which point, if that really happened, quite a lot of us would have to pack up and go home, job done.

Think of it another way. I'd certainly be happy enough to pay, voluntarily, for, say, food banks which feed the hungry in their time of need. Come to think of it, where I actually live, I do (and the fire and ambulance service in fact). It's the paying for the State professional class that reads The Guardian that I'm not so keen on the State forcing me to do. So, let us bring on Zoe's system forthwith! Tax is only what we will voluntarily pay, as with charity. All we're left with now is the thorny question of what on earth Zoe would do for a living....

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 6

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The story so far: After meeting the first of Adam Smith’s heralded three messengers, the high-spending enthusiast for statism, Splurge, prepares for the second…  

Awakening in the middle of a loud snore, Splurge felt that he was restored to consciousness for the especial purpose of conferring with the second messenger dispatched to him through Adam Smith’s intervention.

Consequently, when the bell struck One, he was not surprised to find himself enveloped in an eerie light, the source of which seemed to be in the adjoining room. He rose softly and shuffled to the door.

The moment Splurge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice bade him enter. “Come in! And know me better, man!”

The spirit that introduced itself gave every appearance of one who had known better days. It had a weak, sickly pallor. “I am the Ghost of Freedom Present,” it explained. “Touch my robe!”

As Splurge did so, the room vanished instantly, and he found himself standing, in his night-gown, in the city streets. As before, there were people about, all wishing each other good-day. But many of the shops and ale-houses seemed to be closed and shuttered.

“It must be Christmas morning,” ventured Splurge, as he sought to explain the evident lack of commerce.

“It is,” said the spirit, “but that is not why all these enterprises are closed. He pointed: “This ale-house, for example, shut two months ago, unable to bear the cost of all the regulations – on planning, on its product, and the terms on which it employs its staff. Like thousands of others, it was driven out of business.”

“The young people you see,” it continued, “a million of them, are not in the street for exercise and enjoyment,” – Splurge wondered why anyone should think they might, given the coldness of the air and the light snow that was falling – “but because they have been driven out of work by the minimum wages that employers cannot afford to pay them.”

“Oh, no, spirit!” exclaimed Splurge. “These laws were meant to protect workers! To guarantee a fair deal to the poorest, to the young, to women, to minorities and the vulnerable.”

“…The very groups who employers stop hiring,” said the ghost, “when times are most difficult. As they are now. Thanks to you."

“That was the bankers!” Splurge insisted.

“No!” replied the ghost. “It was the easy credit and loose money you created, in the attempt to create an economic boom. But it was a fake boom, which inevitably turned into a bust – a bust deep and damaging, for these wretched individuals and the businesses that, in a more liberal age, once sustained them.

“Spirit! I cannot endure these Austrian visions!” cried Splurge. “Do not torment me with the unintended consequences of my policies! Take me away from this place!”

“Touch my robe!” answered the ghost; and in an instant, the scene dissolved again.