The fury and rage.

The fury and rage.

Before all the dead have been found, before anyone has been buried, and the left has started using them as fodder to make political points. Before we know the facts they are trying to create the narrative – this, in their eyes, was a fire caused by austerity and social inequality. The possibilities of criminal negligence, inadequate building regulations or of materials failure are all put out of mind, while they try and stir the flames for their “Day of Rage”.

I will certainly feel enraged if we discover that malevolence or negligence caused this tragedy. If people were sacrificed for short term gain then the fury will be real and justified. But I will also be enraged if this manipulated political fury allows the guilty to hide from responsibility. I fear the shifting the focus from the real task of finding our the causes of the fire, and the causes of the failure of systems to mitigate against the fire’s deadly effects,  to the task of scoring political points will obscure the truth and allow the guilty to escape.

There are likely to be, at the very least, lessons to be learnt on how to offer help and support to communities in the wake of tragedies like this. Knowing how to do this, and doing it, is more important than scoring a point against a Tory council.

The only bright glimmer of hope so far has been in the response of the local community. Local groups and charities have managed to get assistance to the victims very rapidly and with great skill. They have shown that individuals, working voluntarily, can outperform government agencies. Rather than being ashamed of this, as some commentators have suggested, we should celebrate this and consider how we could support this approach more generally.

 

Dodging a bullet ?

Dodging a bullet ?

The was a collective sigh of relief when Macron won the French election yesterday. There was a general feeling that a bullet had been dodged and normality has been restored. There have been some congratulatory reports that the French have turned the populist tide that had caused so much consternation with the Brexit referendum in the UK and Trump’s victory in the USA. But is this the case ?

It is clear that Macron won comfortably  by nearly 2:1. However, this misses a number of other factors. Firstly the turnout was poor  compared to previous French elections and there was the lowest turnout since 1969 and this as amplified by 9% of voters voting “Blank” finding themselves unable to support either party. Secondly, as was the case previously with Chirac, many voted for Macron, holding their noses, as they wished to defeat Le Pen rather then support Macron, and, thirdly, nearly 11 million French voted for the Front National. If one looks at the distribution of this vote it shows a clear divide in France between the more prosperous metropolitan areas supporting Macron and Le Pen’s support in the rural areas and ‘rust belts’. In addition to these problems there are the additional details that Macron has to form a government without the backing of an established political party which is unknown ground.

Then there is the problem of Macron himself. He presented himself as the outsider, the agent for change, the new broom. However, his background and policies are clearly those of the EU ‘business as usual” form. He had difficulties introducing these when he was the minister of the economy in  Hollande’s government. He has plans to reduce corporation tax, reduce  the number working in the public sector, promote greater EU integration and reduce the deficit. His policies will please companies and corporations and be regarded well, but are unlikely to be well received by those at the bottom. They will do nothing to improve the lot of those who currently feel disadvantaged and left behind. If the French economy  does not continue to grow, and grow substantially,  then those 11 million who voted for Le Pen will not have found a saviour in Macron and might find their numbers grow.

It is clear that the bureaucrats in the EU and the large companies and corporations who benefit from the EU (through rent seeking and stifling competition) feel they have dodged a bullet. However, it may be that they dodged this bullet by pushing a public sector worker in front of it, and it is in no way certain that the gun won’t be reloaded.

 

 

 

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’

Did you see this about Donald ?

Did you see this about Donald ?

I am sure many others, like me, have found their timelines on facebook and twitter awash with jokes at the expense of Donald Trump. Joke about his character, his hair, his colour, his spelling ability and so on. Some are funny but most are simply attempts at humiliation. The audience for these jokes is obviously other like-minded  people and they serve as a way to share unhappiness with the present situation and to rail against this.

It reminded me of when I was a junior doctor and would share black humour with my comrades. We made jokes about dreadful things, and in dreadful taste, in an effort to show to ourselves and each other that we shared and appreciation of the predicament. It fostered camaraderie and developed support at a particularly stressful time in our career. We knew this and found it useful. However, we never mistook it for a strategy to improve things. It was a coping strategy not a mechanism for change. Increasing experience and knowledge, union activism, and political change were the things which improved things (partially), not our black jokes.

I can therefore understand why some people make jokes about Trump. It helps them cope and to identify themselves to other fellow ‘sufferers’ so they may develop a sense of community and lessen any feelings of isolation. But is it wise in the world of politics, and, more importantly, could it be counter-productive ?

Though many wish to go back to the thirties to look for historical similarities which might help us understand Trump this is unnecessary. We barely need to go back 10 years and can look at the story of Silvio Berlusconi, the infamous Prime Minister of Italy, who despite many obvious failings also has the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of Italy as well as the most controversial.

In an article in the  New York Times Luigi Zingales considered how this pompous, brash, and at times corrupt man could remain in power for so long. One reason seems to have been the failure of the opposition to him to take him seriously, and the tendency of the opposition to focus on his personality rather than on politics. As with Trump, there was no shortage of attempts to bring down Berlusconi with humour and ridicule. Unfortunately, while this made the opposition feel good about their ability to create stinging puns, and confirmed their prowess in the cartoon, it did nothing to unsettle him and may have strengthened his position.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

 

And ..

The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.

We need to debate the issues and politics with Donald Trump. We need to show what needs to be done and warn against what should not be done. We should not allow ourselves the distraction of the option of an easy joke or a zippy one-liner. We must ignore what he looks like, must ignore his bluster and style and focus on what he says and does. It is easy to debate the wrongs of protectionism in the economy, the wrongs of religious prejudice, the wrongs of nationalism and the wrongs of cronyism. If we do this we will possibly avoid the danger of just talking amongst ourselves and might, hopefully, win round others to our views so that four years do not become eight.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.

This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and  Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.

Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other  tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.

Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.

This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings,  inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous  activity by individuals  and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.

Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.

The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.

Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals.  Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions.  Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority.  Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.

 

 

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

There was an excellent article on  Bleeding Heart Libertarians site discussing some attitudes to the recent election of Donald Trump. I would encourage anyone of a libertarian  bent to read this as it is both well written and important. It concerns the fact that many libertarians seem to be offering some support to Donald Trumps election, though largely on the basis that his victory was the lesser of two evils, and that on balance he may do more good than harm.

But when one looks at the ‘on balance’ argument it falls down quite quickly as the benefits he may bring are minor and the disadvantages are often very major :-

A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.

Also there is an apparent moral problem with how these gains and losses are distributed which we can not avoid :-

Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.

Part of this problem may arise from the fact that, for many libertarians, their dislike of the left is greater than the importance they apply to their liberal principles. But joy, or schadenfreude, at Clinton’s loss should not blind us to the nature of the man who won.

Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not.

 

via Liberalism in the Balance – Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Don’t be to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

Don’t be  to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

It is quite likely that altruism was one of the human traits which allowed our species to develop and progress. It is possible that this ability to behave in a way which is to the benefit of others, while being at our own expense, underpinned our development as a social animal.

Some scientists have proposed that “cooperative breeding” is at the core of this issue .

Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need. A new study suggests that our lineage got that way by adopting so-called cooperative breeding: the caring for infants not just by the mother, but also by other members of the family and sometimes even unrelated adults. In addition to helping us get along with others, the advance led to the development of language and complex civilizations,” (1)

Although cooperative breeding is not unique to humans, 10% of birds act in this way, it seems that we are the only group of primates which act in this manner. Whether is was cooperative breeding which initiated this change or not it has long been recognised that altruism is an important human characteristic and possibly the defining human characteristic.

Even before the evolutionary scientists and psychologists started to think about altruism the great thinkers had already considered it as an intrinsic and defining aspect of human nature. Indeed Adam Smith opening his major work with the following sentence :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” (2)

We, as individuals in our species, gain pleasure from helping our fellows. Smith believed that this combination, of having a drive to look after oneself (self-interest) combined with the experience of deriving pleasure from making others happy (altruism), allowed us to develop a trading and commercial society where everyone looked after their own interests while at the same time promoting the common good. This type of society, capitalism, has allowed us as a species to greatly expand our wealth(3), reduce poverty (4),  extend health and longevity over the globe (5) and even, possibly, reduce the likelihood of wars (6).  It may even reduce the rates of materialism and consumerism (7).

However, we need to be careful and be clear what altruism actually is. There is a danger that, if we neglect the nature of altruism and clumsily try and promote good behaviour, we might actually damage on of  the most valuable aspects of our behaviour. Altrusim is defined as :-

“Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”:(8)

Its synonyms include charity, humanitarianism, generosity, benevolence, self-sacrifice and goodwill. At the core of this definition is that something is done by someone which is either not to their benefit, or possibly to their disadvantage, and it is done purely for the pleasure of making the other person’s life better in some way. There is no aspect of altruism which weighs up the potential future benefit the the giver, the altruistic action is performed simply for the pleasure of the other person. One doesn’t pay good wages altruistically, one pays good wages to ensure better staff. It is not altruistic if one undertakes an act in the hope that the consequences will benefit you in the future. If one is altruistic one doesn’t give money to the poor because you hope it will make your life more secure by reducing the likelihood that he will rob your house. It is not altruistic to donate money to a medical charity trying to find cures for the illness that troubles your sick child. These may be wise steps but they are not signs of your altruism.

People are altruistic as it is in their nature, it gives pleasure in its own right. If we try and force good behaviour on people, in the hope that this will promote altruism we will be mistaken. There is pleasure to be had from looking after a sick relative, positive feelings will also be felt when we give money to the poor, and we will feel good, and possibly pride when we place ourselves at risk to defend a friend or fellow from attack. These positive feelings allow us to know we have behaved well. They have their counterpoints in the shame we feel we don’t intervene to tackle an injustice, the regret when we missed an opportunity to help an ailing family member and the guilt we might feel if we judge ourselves to have been greedy while there are still people in need. We need to feel these emotions to guide our development as people. If we are to become better people we need to have some idea of what constitutes a “good“man or woman. We need to know this in order to allow ourselves to become better.

If altruism is replaced by state compulsion this is lost. When I arrange for for a sitter for my relative it is a chore. When my taxes go to help some group in need, there is no pleasure, I have no relationship with the good which occurs. If I am conscripted to defend my fellows I will do my duty but there will be no pride. None of these things allow me to choose my intervention, to experience the decision and to feel the consequence of goodwill to my fellows. In all of these I am no better, or worse, than anyone else. I do not get the opportunity to expand my moral development, to think about benevolence and charity, and how I might become a better person. Indeed with time, I will start to think that it is not my role to help others, I am just an individual after all, it is the role of government, the authorities, the state, certainly somebody else to make sure good works occur.

This is dangerous. There is evidence that, as welfare states expand, the amount of charitable activity and charitable giving reduces (8). We take away the individuals connection to altruism while doing nothing to alter their feelings driving them to self-interest. This is a recipe for decreasing the effectiveness of our market economies in spreading wealth more equitably.

States have always urged us to be altruistic. Early religions promoted the ideas of self-sacrifice for the common good, later nations promoted the need for us all to pull together, or tighten our belts, for the good of us all. But as they have removed our individual right in this process they have damaged altruism. If I have no choice, I am not acting well, I never chose to pay taxes for armaments for whatever war  was deeded necessary. Indeed often I feel my taxes are used for morally questionable interventions (Though at least I have no personal responsibility for these either). No-one can force someone else to be altruistic. While the altruistic soldier can volunteer for the suicide raid, the soldier sent by order on a suicidal mission does not die altruistically. Our rulers compel us to make donations, pay taxes, for good causes. These good causes help maintain the state that those in power run. Thus, they benefit directly from this action. There is no altruism on their part, simple self-interest and maintenance of the systems of power is their motive.

We need to bring benevolence and good will back to the individual so that we may benefit from its positive effects. We need to wrest it out of the hands of the state, despite any dire warnings of the tragedies which might befall us. If we really want these good works to continue, and I am sure most of us wish to look after our communities and our fellow, we will voluntarily contribute for them. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing us to play a part in determining what we feel we wish to promote. I would guess that the call for voluntary payments to support the bombing of some distant upstart country might fall of deaf ears, and that would be a good thing.


Prompted by the Daily Prompt : Tempted“>Tempted


  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/08/human-altruism-traces-back-origins-humanity
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Moral_Sentiments
  3. http://www.wealthandwant.com/themes/Free_Market_Capitalism.html
  4. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/what-oxfam-wont-tell-you-about-capitalism-and-poverty/
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10412499/The-world-has-never-had-it-so-good-thanks-partly-to-capitalism.html
  6. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature
  7. https://mises.org/library/does-capitalism-make-us-more-materialistic
  8. http://www.thewelfarestatewerein.com/

Tempted