Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 in Review - More Delusion and a Dose of Reality

Two Thousand and Fifteen has been an interesting year.

Internationally, we've seen a shattering of some myths - the most striking example being that terrorist incidents perpetrated by people shouting Allahu Akbar are 'nothing to do with Islam'. This has been asserted ad nauseum by so-called world leaders such as Obama, Cameron and Hollande after every attack by Islamic terrorists in recent years, including following the murders of those who worked for the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the patrons of a Jewish supermarket in Paris. But by the end of the year the body count from the Islamic terrorist attacks at a Paris sports stadium, a concert venue and several cafés was so large that these dishonest deflections were wearing a little thin even amongst those for whom 'diversity' triumphs any concept of objective morality. France's Socialist president, Francois Hollande, grew a backbone and launched airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria, whereas Barack Obama did a Neville Chamberlain, achieving 'peace in our time' with the evil Islamic regime in Iran.

The only world leader who consistently showed backbone was Vladimir Putin, shrugging off criticism of his support for Ukrainian separatists to take charge in Syria by supporting President al-Assad's fight against ISIS. A bomb that brought down a Russian airliner was ISIS's retaliation and Turkey and Russia nearly came to serious blows after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November.

Socialism seemed to be on the rise again around the world. The Greeks voted in a Socialist government led by Alexis Tsipras and subsequently voted 'no' in a referendum on whether they should pay back their debts. Reality dawned later in the year when Tsipras went to the polls again to gain a mandate for his newly-negotiated debt repayment plan. 

Meanwhile in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the Marxist MP who had never held any office in his party, was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, and in the United States, the only credible alternative candidate to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2016 US presidential race is the former Socialist Party stalwart, Bernie Sanders. The Australian Liberal Government defenestrated Tony Abbott in favour of the oleaginous Malcolm Turnball and Canadian voters followed suit by ousting their sound but uncharismatic prime minister Stephen Harper in favour of the impeccably bien-pensant Justin Trudeau and his left-wing Liberals.  On the other hand, the awful Chauvistas of Venezuela and Kirchner of Argentina were defeated.

Scientifically, we saw some significant advances including liquid water found on Mars and the fly past of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft with its stunning images of that most remote world. There were signs of yet another mysterious particle from the Large Hadron Collider and the human epigenome (the molecular switches that can turn on or off individual genes in DNA) was mapped. But we also saw the triumph of pseudo-science in the signing of a global agreement to limit global temperatures to 2℃. Two hundred King Canutes and tens of thousands of their fellow travellers flew into shell-shocked Paris to delude themselves into thinking they can control the the world's climate. Good luck with that, fools!

I don't follow New Zealand news very much because most of it is of the 'village pump' variety - quaint and unimportant - but the biggest stories here were the Rugby World Cup win by the All Blacks and John Key's quixotic referendum to change the flag. More important in terms of New Zealand's future was our signing of the TPP free trade agreement involving 12 countries including the United States. 

In the blogosphere, while I wasn't personally as regular with my posts as I would have liked to have been, my favourite bloggers were as prolific as usual. I particularly enjoyed Lindsay MitchellPeter CresswellMark Steyn, James Delingpole and Thomas Sowell this year. I was sad to see Mark Hubbard signing off this week - I trust this does not mean he has surrendered to the forces of darkness in the Fortress of Legislation. To all of you on the rational side of the debate, keep up the good work.

All that remains is to thank those who read my occasional posts, the few who commented, and those generous folk that linked to me from their blogs. Merry Christmas (in the most secular sense of that phrase) and a very prosperous 2016 to you!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reaction to San Bernadino Shooting is Revealing

The reaction to the mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, last week was almost as horrifying as the killing spree itself. I learned about the incident as was I was talking to a senior civil servant I have been working with recently and he immediately muttered something about, "right-wing gun nuts." This guy was, like most senior civil servants, an avowed leftie and it was obviously wishful thinking on his behalf because even at that stage the facts indicated that this was no run-of-the-mill (if one could use that expression in this context) mass killing. It was known there were at least three heavily armed offenders dressed in body armour and driving a large SUV, facts that suggested it was an organised, military-style attack. I responded by betting him it was Islamic terrorism and it gives me no pleasure to have been proven right in the days since the attack.

The comments of this civil servant were echoed throughout the left-wing media here and in the United States and the anti-gun lobby, including President Obama, jumped in with calls for stricter gun laws. Of course, calling for a ban on gun ownership in response to a case like this is about as pathetic as calling for aircraft to be banned in the wake of 9/11. Yesterday Obama changed tack and made a speech in which he conceded this attack really was terrorism.

The response of left-wing commentators and politicians to this incident says a lot about their moral ambivalence. In the leftist view, a mass killing by a right-wing nut job is bad, but a similar incident by a Muslim in the name of his faith is not so bad. We see this double standard all the time - it is bad for Israeli soliders to respond to rocket attacks on their cities by targeting Hamas strongholds in Gaza but okay for Obama to order drone strikes on civilian targets in Waziristan. In their view it is not the act itself or the degree of innocence of the victims that makes mass killing moral or immoral - it is the political views of the perpetrators.

We should not be surprised by this moral ambivalence because that is at the heart of the collectivist philosophy. The rights of the individual are subservient to the will of the majority and therefore the idea of any absolute human rights is alien to them. Even the right to life is relative - leftist lives are worthy, but right-wing nut jobs do not deserve to live.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Climate Change Primer

I don't write here much on the subject of climate change. This is in spite of the fact that I am keenly interested in the topic and it was climate change that really got me started blogging. The reason for my reluctance to return to the topic will be obvious to anyone who has been active in the public debate, but given the significance of the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) being held in Paris, which has been hailed as the greatest gathering of world leaders in history, I thought it was time I returned to the subject and explained in layman's terms what all the fuss is about.

Around eight years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a prominent New Zealand scientist about the question of anthropogenic global warming and he urged me to read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which had just been released.

At the time I was pretty neutral on the issue and I wanted to trust the authors of the report - after all, they were supposed to be experts in the field - but as I started to delve into AR4, I began to have some concerns about what I was reading. While I am not a scientist, I studied maths and statistics at university and climate science is more about these fields - analysing past trends and making predictions - than anything else. There is a bit of physics involved and this is entirely incontrovertible - Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, first suggested in 1896 that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to global temperature rises. The scientific disagreement (and there really is a lot of scientific disagreement - 97% consensus claims notwithstanding) is really in two areas - the extent to which increases in CO2 will drive a relative increase in global temperatures, and the extent to which carbon emissions from human activity are responsible for the CO2 increases. Let us deal with the second of these two issues first.

Carbon in the atmosphere is measured very accurately these days. The most reliable measurement is done by the Nasa Earth Observatory on the top of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii. It has been taking accurate measurements since the 1950s, during which period atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from around 320 parts per million to around 400 ppm. Prior to this, the record is less accurate but other sources suggest the atmospheric carbon dioxide content increased from around 270ppm in the mid 19th Century, and some ice-core records suggest CO2 levels rose from as low as 220ppm in the 18th Century (which would indicate the trend started well before there were significant fossil-fuel emissions).

The scientific claim that humans are causing the increase is based on chemical analysis of the composition of the carbon in the atmosphere, specifically the change in the ratio between the quantity of the isotopes of Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. Biological sources such as trees contain more Carbon-12 so a measured decrease in the Carbon-13/Carbon-12 ratio in the atmosphere means the source of the emissions is likely to be biological. A major source of biological carbon emissions is, of course, the coal, oil and gas extracted from the ground and burned by humans, but there are also natural biological emissions from swamps, forest fires and the like. Further evidence that the increase is caused by humans is derived from the fact that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in recent years roughly equates to the sum of human carbon emissions. 

It all seems perfectly logical to assume that mankind is causing the increase in carbon emissions until you consider that carbon in the atmosphere has never been constant and in fact there is strong evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to similar levels to today during earlier periods in the Holocene (up to around 12,000 years ago) and much higher than current levels in prehistoric eras. Some scientists have provided evidence that over long time periods increases and decreases in atmospheric CO2 tend to follow rather than lead corresponding changes in temperatures. Others have provided evidence that the changes in the C-13/C-12 ratio do not correlate with mankind's carbon emissions either geographically (i.e. the greatest increases are not over industrialised areas such as North America and Europe) or with seasonal cycles of human carbon output (e.g. increased fossil fuel use in cold climates during winter).

The other issue is whether anthropogenic carbon emissions will cause the sort of temperature increases that are predicted by some scientists and politicians. This depends on the effect of what physicists call 'forcing'. Scientists agree that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not on its own produce an increase in temperatures anything close to the maximum level predicted in the AR4 report (6.6℃ by 2100). This predicted level of increase arises from computer models that multiply the warming effect of carbon dioxide by other factors, the most important of these being an increase in cloud cover. But the effect of increased cloud cover is known to be both positive and negative in terms of temperature increases. Water molecules in the upper atmosphere act as a greenhouse gas but clouds also reduce the amount of the sun's radiation reaching Earth thereby tending to reduce temperatures. Many scientists believe that increases in carbon dioxide will have a diminishing, not an increasing, impact on global temperatures.

The best indication of the likely future increase in temperatures is provided by the past increase. Average global temperatures have increased about 0.76℃ since the mid-19th Century - around 0.05℃ per decade. The rate of increase went up in the last few decades of the 20th Century to about 0.13℃ per decade but temperatures have been largely static since 1998. A reasonable worst case scenario is that the rate of increase in the late 20th Century will soon resume, which would mean we will see a 1℃ increase over the entire 21st Century. To put that in perspective, the total increase in temperatures from the Little Ice Age around the year 1600 to the present day is probably about 2℃. This period has seen the greatest increase in human life expectancy and quality of life in the history of our species, something that some historians ironically credit in part to the warmer climate.

Is this issue, as President Obama and the Pope are claiming, the greatest threat facing mankind? I certainly do not think so. Weapons of mass destruction, epidemic diseases, religious fundamentalism, even collisions with objects from outer space are probably greater threats to our civilisation. So why has this become the biggest issue of our time? Well, answering that question is probably another whole blog post.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paris attacks were actually a skirmish in a war of values

The dust has settled around last Friday's Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and with the perspective of an elapsed week it is interesting to reflect on the responses to the attacks. French President Francois Hollande has conducted himself surprisingly well, I think, with his almost Churchillian comments ("the terrorists [that] are capable of doing such acts...must know that they will face a France very determined - a France united") and his ordering of immediate military retaliation against Islamic State targets in Syria.

However, there were also plenty of the sort of self-indulgence responses we have come to expect after these tragedies (remember Michelle Obama's "#BringBackOurGirls" hashtag following the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram), with the guy who dragged a piano to the street outside the Bataclan theatre to play John Lennon's Imagine perhaps being the lamest. There were the usual futile gestures on social media, particularly the Eiffel Tower-cum-Ban-the Bomb symbol and French flag photo on every second Facebook posting. But I think President Obama's response takes the prize for the most disingenuous. He described the events thus: "an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share."

What universal values? Does he really expect us to believe that all of humanity shares a respect for Western values of individual rights, freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, etc.?  Of course it doesn't. These values are actually fairly unique to that small section of humanity that grew out of Ancient Greece, survived the fall of the Roman Empire and persisted in small pockets during the Dark Ages to finally flourish in the Enlightenment that took hold in Western Europe. But perhaps Obama didn't mean these Enlightenment values, perhaps instead he meant Islamic values such as submission to their god and the killing of those who reject or blaspheme him. Certainly with the way Islam is growing there's a fair chance that those values will be more universal than the values of the Enlightenment.

In the war of values, the West has declared unilateral disarmament. We don't believe in our values anymore and instead believe in nothing, or more precisely, in everything. This is the religion of cultural relativism - that all cultures and beliefs are equal. The only universal value that the West seems to hold dear these days is that no one should have to be offended by anything. Our values have become as unsubstantial and pliable as a squishy tomato.

The problem with this is that fundamentalist adherents to Islam are not relativistic - they believe that Islam is the last religion and that its teachings in the Koran and the Hadith are perfect and absolute. Their values are like a sharp knife to our squishy tomato, so in a contest for the hearts and minds of some of the disaffected youth of Western cities, it is any wonder that the Islamists increasingly win?

The fight against Islamic terrorism is a fight about values and we can't fight it if we have disarmed ourselves. Our values - our original Enlightment values as expressed by John Locke and Thomas Paine - are the right ones, the moral ones, and if we aren't prepared to re-adopt and defend them then we will never win the battle of ideas against the evil of religious fundamentalism. We must decide what we believe in before we can defend it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Zealanders on Christmas Island are not refugees

We have heard quite a lot over the last few days about the New Zealanders in Australia's refugee detention centre at Christmas Island. The media have tried to cast these people in the same light as the refugees that make up the largest proportion of detainees but this is clearly fallacious. So let us understand some facts about these people.

Firstly, they are few in number - just 40 in the Christmas Island detention centre and around 500 in total facing deportation from Australia out of a estimated total of around 600,000 New Zealand citizens living there. 

Secondly, almost all of them face deportation because they have committed serious crimes and because they are being deported upon release from prison. Many of them are appealing their deportation order. This is why they are in detention centres.

Thirdly, Australia, like most countries, does not deport its own citizens. We have heard sob stories of people who have been in Australia many decades being deported back to New Zealand, but these people must have been unwilling or unable to obtain citizenship or there would be no question about them being deported. New Zealanders can apply for permanent residency and then citizenship after just twelve months in that country. There are eighteen different categories under which New Zealanders can apply and it is actually encouraged by the Australian Government because they want New Zealand immigrants to be fully functioning members of Australian society.

Finally, New Zealand citizens do not qualify as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." That definition does not apply to these New Zealanders.

I have written on this blog about my liberal views on immigration (most recently here and here). I think it is very much in any country's interests to accept all manner of people who want to live productive, independent lives in a new home and I have the utmost sympathy for those fleeing persecution in their original countries. But I accept that it also a country's right to deny entry or to deport those who are determined not to live productive, independent lives. The only issue I have with Australia deporting these undesirable New Zealanders is that we have to accept them back here. 

Perhaps we should put them on the Auckland Islands.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Who paid for the Starship Enterprise?

My last post discussed how the left wing has won the culture war and that this is not surprising when 'every university lecturer, musician, film star, writer and other public figure is parroting the socialist-environmentalist mantra'. This theme was, at least tangentially, the subject of Jonah Goldberg's recent post about the new Star Trek television series to be made by CBS and that got me thinking about the true nature of the society portrayed on Star Trek.

Star Trek's United Federation of Planets is actually a militaristic feudal order. The Federation is governed by an elite supported by an all-powerful military establishment. Their society seems to be based, at best, on chivalry (after all, what is the Enterprise's crew other than a group of futuristic knights?) but, at worst, on militaristic expansion and colonisation of independent planets. They regard any form of commerce as a much lower order of human activity than military service, just like any Earth-bound feudal society. Money appears to have been abolished, at least in polite society, and witness the contempt held for the Ferengi, who are a trading race much more interested in making a profit than in conquering the universe. Of course, the United Federation of Planets is a somewhat milder form of collectivist society than the Borg, whose culture seems to most closely resemble Maoist Communism.

The question I ponder is, who paid for the Starship Enterprise? Consider the enormous economic resources that has to go into its construction - the engineers and scientists than need to be employed to design it, the rare minerals (e.g. dilithium crystals) that need to be mined to build it and to power its engines, and the undoubtedly huge operating costs of its endless missions. All of these need to be paid for somehow. I've always had this uneasy thought that somewhere, hidden away on dozens of colonised planets, there are millions of slaves working to support the Enterprise. Alternatively, a lot of people must be paying a lot of tax to fund it all. In short, the Enterprise must rely on real enterprise, but enterprise doesn't appear to exist in Star Trek society other than as some contemptible activity engaged in by the Ferengi.

I love to study history and one of the characteristics of history that encourages me as a libertarian is that human society tends towards greater freedom. It is not a straight progression and from time to time we regress into barbarism like the Nazi and Communist eras in the 20th Century, but these reversions tend to be increasingly the exceptions rather than rule. So when I imagine the 23rd Century I think it will be incredibly libertarian.

Individual freedom will be large, government will be small. Capitalism will be universal and each individual will be as powerful a player in the market as the biggest corporation is today. True poverty will be a thing of the past because everyone will be able to trade their ideas, skills and products freely with anyone else anywhere on (or beyond) Earth, and body and brain augmentation technologies will mean that everyone will have skills that are valuable in the marketplace. Cronyism, corruption and fraud will be largely absent from human interactions as such behaviour will be instantaneously exposed by the power of communications technology and social media. Money will be virtual and multiplicitous - meaning that there will be dozens, perhaps thousands of competing currencies and the devices we use to do business will instantly exchange between them, selecting the safest and best for our particular needs.

In short, the future will be Utopian, but not in the sense imagined by most who have written about such futures - it will be as far removed from Brave New World as you could imagine, but rather more like the hidden valley in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

There may be a United Federation of Planets, but its real heroes will be the Ferengi. After all, it is undoubtedly the Ferengi who will pay for the Starship Enterprise.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why the West is looking to more radical candidates

We are seeing an interesting political trend across the globe at the moment and that is the rise of more radical political candidates. It started with the surge of UKIP in Great Britain and the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul in the United States, and more recently has seen the election of the Marxist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party and Socialist Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. You could say Donald Trump is part of the trend, but Trump is less radical than any of the others (although he does represent an anti-establishment sentiment in the Republican Party). While we have yet to see the support for these more radical candidates translate into real political office, it is entirely possible one of them may end up leading their country in the next few years.

So what is happening here? Is it a hardening of "divisive politics" as Barack Obama would have us believe? Well, I guess you could call it that. What I think it is more precisely is a retreat from centrist politics.

If we look at major political shifts in the Western world since the Second World War, it is fair to say that there has been some significant swings. There was definitely a swing to the left up until the late 1970s. Britain, most of Europe, and even the United States saw a huge expansion of the role of the state, the rapid growth of welfare, and a corresponding increase in income taxes until they were at exorbitant levels (e.g. marginal rates of more than 90% in Britain). Then came Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and, here in New Zealand, the Lange-Douglas Labour Government. These leaders hauled back the expansion of the state and reduced taxes. Since 1990 most Western countries have been retreating from the more libertarian policies of Thatcher, Reagan, et al, and we have seen the rise of the 'third way' (as Tony Blair dubbed it), supposedly a middle ground between rampant socialism and hard-edged capitalism.

In reality, the so-called third way was really no way, at least in a philosophical sense. It represented the lack of a political philosophy, an anything-goes (or more precisely anything-that-can-win-an-election) approach to policy making. John Key's government here in New Zealand is the epitome of it and David Cameron in Britain is another archetype. They see themselves as pragmatists and believe everything should be a compromise.

The truth is that most people have a basic political belief system. It might not be very well-defined but they can tell you whether they think the state is too big or whether it should care more for the poor, whether we should raise or lower taxes, whether abortion and gay marriage should be legal, etc. They often hold strong views on these issues and don't like to compromise those views. The politics of compromise actually satisfies no one.

One of the problems for those of us on the classical liberal side of the political spectrum is, as Mark Steyn is fond of saying, we've lost the culture war. When almost every university lecturer, musician, film star, writer and other public figure is parroting the socialist-environmentalist mantra, there is only one side of the debate that is expected to compromise. You see this when President Obama talks about divisive politics - he's not talking about Democrats failing to compromise, is he?

The other problem that we've got is what James Delingpole so poetically calls the 'dog-shit-yoghurt problem'. If I like yoghurt and you like eating dog shit, the pragmatist says we should both eat dog-shit-yoghurt. I'm sure you can see the problem with this compromise, particularly for the yoghurt lover. Libertarians essentially want the government to leave us alone to get on with our lives. We don't need to force our beliefs on anyone else - we just need effective constraints on others forcing us to do things. Socialists want the government to interfere with everyone's lives, not just their own, because socialism doesn't work if it's only for those who want it. So they are always more willing to use force.

I think the polarisation of politics is not a bad thing for libertarians because it forces people to examine the arguments and decide what they really believe. When people have had no choice but to eat dog-shit-yoghurt for years, it is not a bad thing for the yoghurt seller when they are forced to choose between the two dishes.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ACLU report on Chinese 'credit score' is frightening

Every now and then a news item appears that at first glance looks to be not very consequential but on examination turns out to be something that signals a real tipping point in the political and social environment. Such an article appeared on the ACLU website earlier this month and was subsequently picked up by a few libertarian news sites (but, interestingly, not to any great extent by the mainstream media).

The article states that China is introducing a "comprehensive credit score" system whereby everyone in that country is given a score by the government that is linked to their national identity card. The ACLU article states that,
In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like...
It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.
Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.
Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it...
Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
I should point out that some commentators have questioned the accuracy of the report, but it is consistent with the Chinese Communist regime's already rigid control of the internet and social media.

Paul Rahe on the Ricochet blog says, "Totalitarianism is a function of technology. Prior to recent times, governments might claim to be absolute, but they did not have the record-keeping, administrative capacity to make good on that claim. Now they can do so far more easily than ever before — without hiring armies of spies. All that they have to do is follow the population on the Internet and use computers to collect and analyze the data."

I have blogged against the encroachment of government electronic spying on all of our private communications such as the Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Act brought into law by the New Zealand Government last year. Governments always defend such laws by saying they will only be used against threats to national security. But all around the world governments are also introducing laws against so-called 'hate speech', the definition of which is usually speech that offends someone, with the interpretation of what that means left to officials to decide. Where these two types of law intersect - the means to monitor all social interactions and the criminalisation of unacceptable speech  - you have the ingredients of totalitarianism.

The Chinese credit score, if true, takes the freedom of social media and turns it into what undoubtedly will be a very effective and pervasive social and political control tool. In East Germany one in three of the population were informers for the Stasi secret police. Under this system, China will turn almost everyone into an informer for the state.

We in the West should fear China. At a time when the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is being fêted in Britain, the Chinese are rapidly expanding their occupation of isolated, disputed islands in the South China Sea and continue to viciously suppress any political opposition at home. But we should fear them most of all because they lend legitimacy to Communist dictatorship and because their clout on the world stage turns our governments into appeasers of their authoritarian rule. 

Totalitarianism is infectious and we all risk catching the disease. That is why their credit score is so frightening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Irwin Schiff demonstrated the true nature of taxation

Irwin Schiff died last Friday. He was 87 years old, legally blind and had skin and lung cancer. He ended his days shackled to a hospital bed guarded by federal prison officers, having been incarcerated since 2003. His family had appealed in the last few months for his release on compassionate grounds, so he could die with them around him, but the Federal Government denied their request.

What was Irwin Schiff's crime that was so heinous the US Government still considered this terminally-ill, completely incapacitated old man too much of a threat to release? Was he a terrorist or a serial killer? No, he was nothing of the sort - his crime was that he had refused to file an income tax return. The accounts I have read previously about Schiff suggested that he probably did not even owe any income tax (although his convictions included tax evasion for an arbitrarily assessed amount of income).  His refusal to file the return was based on his sincere belief that the Federal Income Tax was unconstitutional (he believed the constitution only for allowed corporate and sales taxes) and that the demand to file a tax return was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition on self-incrimination.

Schiff was almost certainly mistaken in his interpretation of the legality of the income tax (even his lawyers argued in court that he was conscientiously mistaken) and, much as I support his cause, even I think he was foolish as his treatment at the hands of the US Government was entirely predictable. But Schiff made a stand on principle and you have to admire him for that. More importantly, he demonstrated a very important point - that the moral basis for taxation is entirely questionable.

Taxation is the forcible expropriation of people's income and wealth - and the key word is 'forcible'. Politicians of all political persuasions like to refer to taxation euphemistically, as President Obama does when he says we should "ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more" or "give something back", but there is no asking or giving involved. Taxation is not voluntary - it is extorted from the population with threats of violence, and they are not idle threats, as we see in Irwin Schiff's case and the many jail sentences handed out to New Zealanders for tax evasion in recent years.

I don't expect the vast majority of people who accept the need for an income tax system will change their views on the basis of Irwin Schiff's experience, but I think they should understand and accept that what was done to Schiff was entirely consistent with their view on the morality of income tax. An elderly, incapacitated man chained to a hospital bed is the obvious end state for anyone who choses to defy the rapacious tax-gathering state and people should be honest enough to admit it.

If you would like to know more about Irwin Schiff, read the fitting tribute written by his son, Peter Schiff, on Zero Hedge or Not PC's blog.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It's time to buy a new Volkswagen

A couple of years ago I bought a Skoda Superb Wagon to replace my wife's older SUV. There was a time when I never thought I would buy a Skoda but these days they are made by Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) and are terrific cars. The Skoda Superb is basically an Audi A6 with slightly different body panels and a price that is half the Audi's. It has a two litre diesel engine that produces 125Kw of power and 350Nm of torque, which in a car that weighs just 1500Kg means it goes like a scalded cat. And it is incredibly economical, getting around 800km range from a single tank of gas!

You might imagine that I got a little a little upset the other day to hear that Volkswagen has been 'cheating' its emissions tests on its diesel engines. After all, the Skoda has one of those Volkswagen diesel engines under its hood. But I'm not. In fact, I might take the opportunity of VAG's likely sales slump to press the dealer for a really good deal on a new Volkswagen or Audi.

You see, I don't think that Volkswagen has cheated me at all. I've got a damned good car that is beautifully made, economical to run, and fantastic to drive. And frankly, I don't give a shit about the U.S. Government's emissions standards. After all, this is the government that has lied to world repeatedly about everything from the motives behind the murder of its diplomatic staff in Libya to the extent of the recent hacking of government personnel files and whose leader continues to dupe his people about the impact of his climate change policies. I would rather trust Volkswagen to keep my family and the environment safe than the U.S. Government.

Environmental law has become a trojan horse for government interference in every aspect of our business and personal lives. Emissions regulations and taxes have pushed up the price of energy to levels where many people cannot afford to heat their houses or run their cars, impoverishing the elderly and bringing third-world illnesses to the first-world poor. The demands on companies like Volkswagen to comply with draconian, inconsistent and frankly unscientific environmental regulations impose huge costs on us all. Obviously, someone in the Volkswagen organisation, an engineer with a libertarian streak perhaps, became so fed up with trying to achieve the impossible - a smooth, powerful, fuel efficient car that also complied with all the emissions regulations - that they decided to rig the engine computers to fake the tests.

If nothing else, you've got to admire the chutzpah of it. Certainly, it is no reason not to buy a Volkswagen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Give me a principled Marxist over an unprincipled Tory squib any day

There has been a great deal of comment about the removal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his replacement with that country's sixth prime minister in eight years, Malcolm Turnbull. Tony Abbott deserved to be defenestrated - not because he was (as some pundits have claimed) too ideological, but rather because he compromised his ideology where he shouldn't have and didn't compromise it where he should have done so. He stuck to his guns on gay marriage in spite of the mood for change but broke a lot of election promises in areas such as health and education reforms, lowering taxes and repeal of the Orwellian Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He did stand by his position on repealing the repressive climate tax (which Labor PM Julia Gillard had introduced after breaking her election promise not to), but that was a rare show of backbone in an otherwise invertebrate performance.

Malcolm Turnbull's admiration for John Key says everything any New Zealander needs to know about the new Australian PM. John Key may have his strengths (um...his common touch and a nice smile, perhaps?) but standing on principle is not one of them. Key promised in the 2008 election not to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme and that went out the window with many of his other promises as soon as he was ensconced in the office at the top of The Beehive.

The interesting thing about principles in politics is that it is only those on the left are allowed to have them. Liberal Party politicians in Australia, Conservatives in Britain and National Party members in New Zealand are all condemned as too ideological if they stick to their ostensible principles like small government, free markets and freedom of choice in education and health. But you can have the most extreme left-wing views and the mainstream media and chattering classes will give you a free pass. You can be an out-and-out Marxist, willing to nationalise all manner of private businesses without compensation, want to withdraw from any Western defence alliances, and be a supporter of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and your reward is to be elected Leader of the Opposition in Britain.

But I actually admire Jeremy Corbyn more than Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or John Key. Give me a principled Marxist any day over an unprincipled Tory squib like David Cameron. At least you know where you stand with a Marxist.

Monday, September 7, 2015

All immigrants need is life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness

In recent days we have seen a lot of hand-wringing, particularly from the Western liberal-left media, about the influx of refugees into Europe from Syria. On the one hand they say we must "do something", on the other it is clear they don't like the idea of letting such people into their own countries. In fact, modern so-called liberals tend not to be liberal at all when it comes to immigration. This is not surprising because immigration poses a dilemma for Western democratic socialism.

Marx's ideal of international socialist solidarity has morphed in Western countries into a highly nationalistic socialism that is all about preserving the privilege and exclusivity of the domestic welfare state. Western socialists pretend to be concerned with the victims of repression in countries like Syria but actually they see such people as a threat to their increasingly fragile world. They realise that each immigrant is a challenge to the carefully constructed power balance in Western societies between the increasing unproductive majority of the population and the productive minority who support them. Unproductive immigrants add to the burden on a base of taxpayers already staggering under the weight of welfare demands, and productive immigrants merely serve to show how unnecessary and counterproductive much of the modern welfare state really is.

The reason I am truly liberal on immigration is because I am a humanist. Socialists try to paint themselves as humanists, but a true humanist is someone who values human potential. A true humanist sees immigrants for their opportunity to add to our society as producers, not as victims who only ever consume limited resources.

A guest post by Alex Nowraseth from the Cato Institute on Not PC's blog proposes building a wall around the welfare system to exclude immigrants. Personally, I think this is morally indefensible. Are immigrants merely slaves to the indolent native-born? The only moral solution is to reduce, or better abolish, the welfare state so that the productive of society, whether immigrants or native-born, are unshackled to pursue their own interests.

The Statue of Liberty was inscribed with the famous words from Emma Lazarus' poem "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and America lived up to this exhortation by absorbing more than 30 million immigrants between 1850 and 1920. It was only a comparatively free and capitalist society like the United States was during that period that could afford to absorb so many from those huddled masses. Americans understood back then that immigrants bring with them in their minds and bodies the opportunities they create. They don't need to be given anything other than life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue their own happiness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

'Don't just stand by and watch'

I have written before about the lack of heroism in today's world but it is pleasing to see the noble trait is not dead. The actions of Americans Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, Briton Chris Norman, and especially the 51-year-old French-American Mark Moogalian (who was the first to act and received a serious bullet wound for his trouble) in subduing an Islamic terrorist intent on taking the lives of innocent train passengers in France is enormously admirable. It is fitting that French President Francois Hollande has awarded them the Légion d'honneur, the highest French honour, for their bravery.

Sadler said he hoped others would draw a lesson from what happened. “Hiding or sitting back is not going to accomplish anything, and the gunman would’ve been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up. So I just want that lesson to be learned going forward, in times of terror like that, to please do something. Don’t just stand by and watch.”

Well said.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Liberals who aren't when it comes to immigration

Last night I watched a television news article about Syrian refugees trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Crowded into small, inflatable boats that were already foundering as they were pushed out from shore into the waves, the men, women and children were so obviously risking their lives it was tragic to watch. As if any further evidence of their peril were required, we watched as a man dragged himself back to shore from a capsized boat further out to sea.

I am a liberal on immigration. I believe Western nations should encourage free and open immigration for any law-abiding individual that wants to come to our countries and support themselves. What surprises me is that many so-called liberals I encounter are anything but liberal on immigration issues.

If I think logically about it, the attitudes of these liberals shouldn't surprise me at all. More than anything, they want to protect their cosy, unsustainable lifestyle and they understand that the biggest risk comes from the people they purport to care about - the poor and downtrodden of other countries.

Today I was speaking with a female colleague (whom I know to be left-wing) about the news article and she confirmed my suspicions by saying she thought immigration was a threat to the 'social cohesion' here in New Zealand. Social cohesion is liberal newspeak for entrenched privilege. It is the carefully constructed, interdependent, socio-political hegemony that milks the productive to maintain the less-productive in comfort, that is maintained by a majority of the electorate continuing to hypocritically vote for their self-interest while telling themselves they are doing it out of concern for those less fortunate than themselves. It is no surprise, therefore, to see the left-wing Labour Party in blaming Chinese immigrants for rising house prices in our largest city.

Western liberals regard immigrants as charity cases - needing to be taken care of from the moment they arrive with all-encompassing social support and generous welfare benefits. But immigrants tend not to regard themselves as charity cases - they often want nothing more than the opportunity to be free to work hard to improve their lot. They are happy to start off in a new society living and working in conditions and for wages that most Western liberals would find inadequate, in order to end up in much better lives. They have no interest in maintaining the privileged positions of those in our society who are not prepared to work as hard as they are and that is why they are regarded as a threat to the so-called social cohesion.

We should give immigrants what they want - a safe harbour and the opportunity to improve themselves. They do not want anything more than that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

FBI Director Wants Everyone to Leave Backdoors Unlocked so He Can Search at Will

The director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, has called for technology companies to build 'backdoors' into their encryption systems so that the US Government can access anyone's digital communications. The most obvious flaw in his plan, as outlined in this article, is that any backdoor created for the US intelligence agencies can also be exploited by America's enemies. The vulnerability of US Government systems to hackers has been repeatedly proven, most recently with the hacking of the US Office of Personnel Management in which the confidential records of 21.5 million people who had been required to go through background checks for US government jobs were stolen, probably by the Chinese Government.

The naïveté of Comey's intentions is secondary, however, to the more important considerations of which he appears to be ignorant. It seems almost quaint to discuss the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, given how utterly those documents have been philosophically shredded in recent decades, however the Fourth Amendment states that,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It is pretty unambiguous, isn't it? What part of that statement says that the US Government can require everyone to leave the digital equivalent of the backdoors of their houses unlocked so that one of its agencies can enter and search at will? Even the US Supreme Court, which has been only too willing to ignore James Madison's plain English and allow all sorts of unwarranted searches and seizures in recent decades, has to its credit upheld the rights of the people in respect of smartphones searches in two recent cases.

James Madison and many of his contemporaries originally thought that the powers granted to the Federal Government in the original seven articles of the US Constitution were implicitly limited, but they came to realise that the reverse was true. They understood that government power and individual rights were inherently in conflict and that for citizens to be sovereign (which is the most fundamental tenet of the US Declaration of Independence), government powers had to be explicitly limited. This is why the Bill of Rights was written.

James Comey believes the opposite to James Madison. The former believes the citizenry lives at the pleasure of the government and that therefore it is the right of the government to know everything about each and every one of its citizens, irrespective of whether there is reasonable cause to believe that a citizen has committed a crime. In James Comey's eyes, we are all guilty until proven innocent. This is why his view is so fundamentally wrong. It is why James Comey and his type that are the greatest threat to liberty today, rather than the threats from the likes of terrorist groups like ISIS that he uses to justify his demands for ever-greater power over our lives.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Yes, Bob Jones, I've had enough of airlines treating us like cattle, too.

A few months ago, the well-known New Zealand businessman, raconteur and boxing pundit, Bob Jones, was ejected from an Air New Zealand flight on the grounds that he refused to respond to a stewardess who wanted to know whether he was familiar with the operation of an emergency exit next to which he was sitting. Bob used to be best known for his brief political foray in the mid-1980s when he formed The New Zealand Party with the express intention of unseating the then prime minister, Rob Muldoon, whose politics and style of rule had come to more closely resemble that of Josef Stalin rather than the head of government in a Westminster democracy. Bob and his fledgling party attracted around 12% of the votes in the 1984 election, enough to unseat Muldoon and his cronies and to usher in the neo-liberal Labour Party that slashed taxes, sold off state assets, closed down unnecessary government agencies and led a most remarkable turn-around in New Zealand's economic fortunes from which the country still benefits today. I worked on that campaign with Bob Jones when I was a university student and remember him as always pleasant, courteous and good-humoured.

Bob Jones was in the news again this week because he has responded to his defenestration from that Air New Zealand flight in the best possible way - by buying his own executive jet. Actually, despite reports to the contrary, it is not the first time Bob has had his own executive jet - I recall his public investment company owned one during the height of the sharemarket boom that followed the defeat of the Muldoon regime. But his latest acquisition was a perfectly symbolic raised middle finger to New Zealand's national airline.

I've been reasonably successful financially in my career but not enough (yet) to buy my own executive jet. I most definitely would if I could because the treatment of commercial airline passengers all around the world is an absolute disgrace. Bob Jones is right to compare Air New Zealand unfavourably to Soviet-era airlines. As bad as Aeroflot once was (and it's safety record was so bad travel agents used to call it 'Aero-flop' in recognition of the propensity of its aircraft to crash), it at least operated in an era when airlines understood that good customer service didn't include bullying. Today, most airlines and airports treat their customers like cattle and I think it is only a matter of time before their staff resort to electric cattle prods to achieve their aims. Of course, they are aided by government security officials who treat all passengers, no matter how law-abiding, like convicted criminals.

The only aspect of all this with which I disagree with Bob Jones is that Air New Zealand is especially bad. Actually, all airlines in this part of the world are far ahead of those in the United States as anyone who has recently flown domestically there will tell you. Not only are U.S. airport security procedures far more intrusive (and literally bodily-intrusive in many cases) than ours, they have enormous structural issues due to the hub-and-spoke nature of their transit routes, a practice of always overbooking flights (which is frankly fraudulent) and a national psych that is anti-service - all of which results in an industry that regards passengers as something less valuable than insentient freight.

The only area in which Air New Zealand is worse than U.S. airlines is in its appalling, infantile safety videos (see example here). I guess they are supposed to be amusing but I find such videos only to be insulting and cringe-inducing, especially after the twentieth viewing. If they have to turn safety videos into childrens' fantasy tales in order to get people to watch them, what chance is there that anyone will have the maturity and presence of mind to actually follow the instructions during an emergency? It is all just part of the general infantilisation of Western culture that seems to be done to excess in this country.

Hmmm, I wonder how much that new jet costs?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The question all lefties should answer

A friend of mine, with whom I don't usually discuss politics, recently explained her view on some current issue by saying, "Of course, I'm a leftie."

There were a couple of things I felt like saying in response. The first was to express a complete lack of surprise. She is an attractive, educated woman with a nice house, a husband who makes plenty of money and a beautiful young family - what else would such a self-satisfied creature be but a leftie? The second was to question her moral compass, given that lefties were responsible for far more murders of their political opponents than 'righties' over the course of the last hundred years. In fairness to my friend, I assumed her views were more a product of intellectual laziness than immorality and I didn't say any of these things to her because I didn't want to spoil what was a very pleasant lunch date at an outdoor café on a sunny afternoon.

The moral challenge I felt like posing to my leftie friend is similar to that posed by American historian Eugene Genovese in his essay, The Question. Genovese was a notorious Marxist who changed his views later in life because he reflexively posed the question that is the subject of his essay - the same question that was asked of Germans in respect of the Holocaust after World War II - "What did you know, and when did you know it?" Genovese, perhaps uniquely amongst left-wingers, poses the question to Marxists and their fellow-travellers, "democratic socialists" and "radical democrats" (and he applies the parentheses to those terms), in respect of the tens or hundreds of millions of people who have been killed by left-wing regimes that Western lefties have supported. I raised a similar question in my blog post from Cambodia earlier this year on Western support for Pol Pot.

Genovese challenges the inevitable excuse of the left-wing apologists for genocidal regimes by saying, "the horrors did not arise from perversions of radical ideology but from the ideology itself." The excuse that every instance of radical socialism in practice is not a true manifestation of Marx's philosophy is what I find to be the most pathetic and dishonest of all of the left's multitudinous examples of self-delusion. Genocide is not an aberration of Marxism, it is the sine qua non of it.

I recall having an argument with my political science tutor at university, a proud Marxist (which, again, is hardly a surprise) who stressed Marx's theory that the dictatorship of the proletariat would dissolve upon achievement of the egalitarian aims of the revolution. In other words, the existence of Marxism was not dependent on a dictatorial state other than in its early stages. I pointed out the obvious logical inconsistency with the theory - that a system that requires violent repression of human rights during its gestation cannot endure in the absence of that violent repression. Once the state has been dissolved, there is nothing to enforce the artificially-constructed egalitarianism of Marxist ideals.

Human rights are, by definition, about allowing humans to pursue their own self-interest, i.e. what the American founding fathers called "the pursuit of happiness", and socialism is about subjugating self-interest in the interests of the collective. So, logically, the only way of maintaining the socialist nirvana is to retain the necessarily violent suppression of human rights that imposed it in the first place. I also pointed out to my tutor the logical inconsistency that any system that is reliant on an elite who have the guns can hardly be called egalitarian. I don't think he had ever had anyone challenge his beliefs in such a manner as he seemed quite crushed by the encounter with logic.

I guess it comes down to whether you think you can separate the means from the ends, and this is the moral problem I have always had with Marxist philosophy. I believe that any system that requires its adherents to justify murder in pursuit of its goals cannot be moral. She would be outraged were I to point it out, but there is a terrible moral equivalence between genocidal maniacs like Stalin and my friend sipping her latte in a café on a sunny day. They differ only in the extent to which they would stomach the logical outcomes of their beliefs.

[A hat-tip to Tom Woods who brought my attention to Genovese's essay in a recent episode of his excellent podcast.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fascinating Insight into US-Israel Relationship

It has been a while since I last posted. The main reason I have been so remiss is that I've been busy with business, but it's also because I've been doing a lot of reading recently. Most of the books I have read are non-fiction, ranging the gamut of my eclectic interests including music, politics, economics, science and particularly biography. One of the most interesting books in the last category is the autobiography of the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

American-born and raised, Oren became a avowed Zionist as a teenager when he met Yitzhak Rabin during the latter's term in the diplomatic job that was eventually to become Oren's own. Rabin was, of course, later to become the Prime Minister of Israel who signed the Oslo Peace Accord with Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasir Arafat, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize (together with Arafat and Shimon Peres). Oren fell in love with Israel on his first visit there as a seventeen year-old and was determined to become its ambassador to his country of birth, but before being selected for the role by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he had a distinguished career as an Israeli paratrooper, a history professor and a novelist. 

Oren served as ambassador from 2009 until 2013, one of the most turbulent periods in the often fractious Israel-US alliance. He had to smooth the stormy relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama at a time when Israel became increasingly cast (most unfairly in my view) as the villain in the Middle East. He managed to gain the respect of the Washington political and diplomatic establishment and constantly provided Israel with a professional, objective voice in America, in spite of the fact that his own family back in Israel was often under threat of terrorist attack and Hamas missiles. He was there during the build-up to the recent Iran nuclear agreement and had to personally manage the relationship between a Prime Minister who saw the deal as the ultimate existential threat to his nation and a US President who seemed to be only too willing to trade an ally's security for his own political legacy. Michael Oren retired before the dreaded Iran deal was completed and I imagine Netanyahu acutely feels his loss.

Whatever you think of Israel (and I make no apology for the fact that I am an admirer), Oren's book, Ally, is a fascinating insight into that country's politics, as well as into the explosive Middle East and the personalities and games of Washington politics.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beware of Greeks Seeking Gifts

We are seeing the end days in Greece. The Greek people, having voted earlier this year for a new prime minister, Alex Tsipras, whose unholy alliance of Marxist–Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Eurocommunists, Luxemburgists and environmentalists known as Syriza stood on a platform of not paying back their loans, are now seeing the consequences of their decision. The weaselly Tsipras had a cunning plan of calling a referendum a week after Greece's final deadline for a major loan repayment to their creditors, assuming the witless European Central Bank would extend the country further credit (what's another week, after all?). But he miscalculated - the ECB in Frankfurt told the Greek prime minister they've finally run out of patience (although, more precisely, they've run out of political capital with the only net creditors on the continent - the German people).

The effect of this severe miscalculation by Tsipras and the ECB is now being seen. Greek banks are closed to avoid a massive run on deposits, ATMs are running out of cash despite a €60 per day limit on withdrawals, and many people don't even have enough cash to pay their rent and buy groceries. But in spite of this awful but entirely predictable outcome for the Greek people, Tsipras is not backing down, urging them to vote 'no' to the referendum question and thumbing his nose at the latest ultimatum from the acronymic troika of the EC, ECB and IMF.

The Greek people cannot claim they are ignorant dupes in this matter. For more than 10 years they have benefited from their governments' duplicitousness, down-right lies and reneging on successive bailout arrangements. The Greeks have enjoyed a standard of living they have not earned because of the willingness of European central bankers and private institutions to lend them more and more money. They expected, perhaps understandably, the largesse to continue ad infinitum and were disbelieving and aggrieved when the ECB called 'last drinks'.

One cannot solely blame the Greek people. The real villains in the piece are all the governments around the world who subscribe to the fantastical Keynesian economic theory of creating money out of thin air to lend to banks to drive economic growth. The reality is that so-called quantitative easing only drives asset price bubbles and does little for real economic growth (which is a factor of the increasingly efficient use of capital, not of an increase in the price of assets). That's why real estate and stock markets have reached record highs during the period of nil or low economic growth in Western economies since 2007.

Asset price bubbles inevitably burst, then everything comes crashing down. Watch this space.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mass Killings, Gun Control and Individual Rights

The recent shooting of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by a young man acting out of a racist motivation, was a terrible thing. I have relatives in that city (including African-American relatives) and I can only imagine the horror they must feel at this dreadful crime so close to home. But the horror that is felt by Charlestonians is not helped by the opportunistic comments by President Obama and others about gun control.

Obama said that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries". He is wrong. This type of mass violence has occurred even here in comparatively peaceful New Zealand (with numerous incidents from the killing of 14 in Aramoana in 1990 to the six killed in Raurimu in 1997), and in other countries such as the 77 killed in Norway in 2011 and 35 killed in Australia in 1996. America has had the most incidents of mass shootings of any Western nation in recent years but proportionately it is only 6th on the list in number of fatalities and it is only 111th out of 218 countries in terms of total firearm homicides (see this Wikipedia article).

Most non-Americans have trouble understanding the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms. I have written before about why the Second Amendment to the Constitution exists - to Americans it is an important part of their system of government and it is unlikely to be given up in the foreseeable future, if ever. In any event, further controls on the sale of firearms in the US are unlikely to reduce the homicide rate because the vast majority of killings are carried out by criminal gangs (e.g. this article says 80% of Chicago gun homicides and non-fatal shootings are gang-related), typically using illegally-obtained firearms. Homicides with firearms have dropped by 40 - 50% over the past two decades despite the number of registered firearms having increased significantly (ibid).

I have been in two minds about whether I believe people should have the right to bear arms for their own protection. In a civil society we give up certain things, such as personally carrying out retributive justice, in return for the protection of our individual rights by the state. But we do not give up the right to self-defence. A firearm is simply a much more effective form of self-defence, and a remarkable equaliser when it comes to facing down a more powerful adversary, than one's fists. Should law-abiding people not be allowed that most effective form of self-defence just because a few use such weapons indiscriminately?

Personally, I am not into guns and don't feel the need to own them, despite having grown up around firearms and been trained to use them, but I live in a place where physical violence is a remote threat. If I lived in a more dangerous environment, for example the less-salubrious inner suburbs of some American cities, I would feel differently. Even here in New Zealand there are areas, particularly certain rural areas, where people I know feel the need to have firearms in their houses for personal protection. These areas are usually characterised by the absence of, or remoteness from, any form of police presence. In such circumstances it is foolhardy not to make some provision for the protection of yourself and your family.

There is no right to life if one does not have the right to protect one's life. On balance, I think law-abiding individuals should have the right to bear arms for their own protection.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Science, Politics and the Death of Free Speech

The Hapless Tim Hunt
Last week we saw the extraordinary sight of Nobel-winning scientist, Tim Hunt, being hounded out of his job because he made a bad-taste joke about women in the science laboratory. Not only was he forced to resign from his job at University College London but he also lost his positions with the Royal Society and the European Research Council.

At the same time it has been revealed that the scientists of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have been deliberately manipulating data to make global temperature records fit the political narrative around global warming, and we have seen the pronouncements from the head of the Roman Catholic church on the subject being heralded in the mainstream media.

It seems we are entering (or returning to) an era when science no longer stands alone from politics and religion but rather is considered to be just another cultural artefact. Here in New Zealand we have had educationalists promoting the teaching of 'Maori science', presumably in the belief that while Newton's or Einstein's theories apply on Proxima Centauri and planets in the Vega system, they do not amongst the people of partial Polynesian descent who happen to live in New Zealand in the 21st Century.

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College and adjunct professor at Harvard University, has written about the 'death of expertise'. He posits that we no longer value professional knowledge and that the views of a Playboy model who did not complete high school are just as valid as those of a immunologist when it comes to assessing the efficacy and risks of vaccination. Perhaps this is unsurprising when the scientific community is so willing to sell-out their knowledge and methods for political favouritism.

But, as Tim Hunt discovered, it is not true to say that any opinion is valued. It is only those that fit with the template of totalitarian views of Western so-called liberals that are allowed to be heard (and I don't think it is extreme to call these views totalitarian because they certainly meet the dictionary definition of 'exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others'). In today's world you can believe anything so long as it is consistent with the acceptable groupthink. Thus it is perfectly acceptable for scientists to manipulate data for political ends but not acceptable for scientists to make slightly inappropriate jokes about female colleagues.

It seems we have finally arrived at the time envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where truth is lies, the use of any language that might describe any undesirable concepts is banned, and even thoughts are crimes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

FIFA, Silk Road and American "Justice"

This week in the news we have seen two criminal cases that are not entirely unrelated - the sentencing of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and the arrest of FIFA officials in Switzerland.

Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. What did he do that the US justice system determined was so irredeemable, you might ask? Did he commit mass murder? No, he ran a website that was used by people all over the world for the buying and selling of recreational narcotics. Ulbricht appears to have been motivated not so much by financial gain (although there is nothing wrong with that) as philosophy. He was a libertarian and believes, as I do, that governments have no business interfering in the voluntary interactions of rational, adult human beings. As this article on libertarian website explains, Ulbricht believes people should have the right to choose whether or not they take recreational drugs and governments should not initiate violence against those who do so (or those like him who enable them to do so).

The United States Government has devoted a large part of its resources over the last few decades to pursuing and imprisoning people who consume and trade in recreational narcotics. As a result America has the highest level of imprisonment of any Western nation (with 4.4% of the world's population, the US has 22% of the world's prisoners - and more than half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences). The very high imprisonment rate is due to three factors. Firstly the American justice system is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of prosecutors with federal prosecutors having a 93% conviction rate [2012 figures], which is matched only in countries that tend not to have much respect for the rule of law such as China. Secondly, the prosecutorial system in the United States is based on a fundamentally corrupt practice that is outlawed in many other countries - that of plea bargaining. This practice encourages prosecutors to lay manifestly excessive charges against defendants so that they will be forced to plead guilty to lesser charges, even when those lesser charges are themselves tenuous. Thirdly, the US has manifestly excessive sentences, especially for drug offences - for a first offence conviction for trafficking in just one gram of LSD the federal mandatory sentence is 5 - 40 years in prison [source: DEA website].

In Ross Ulbricht's case the inherent excess and corruption of the US justice system is made even worse by what Forbes magazine describes as "staggering corruption in the Silk Road investigation." The article reveals that two of the investigators in the case have been charged with embezzlement and theft and that "a state's witness took the fall for an agent's theft, thus becoming a target for murder-for-hire" (for which it was implied that Ross Ulbricht was responsible even though he was not tried for this). Evidence of this incredible corruption was suppressed by the prosecution until immediately prior to the trial and the judge denied all attempts by the defence to introduce it during the trial. Read the article linked above for yourself and I'm sure you will be as gobsmacked as me as to how someone can be sentenced to life in prison on the back of such impropriety by the US authorities.

With all this in mind, what should we make of the arrest of FIFA officials in Switizerland on extradiction warrants from the US Government? I think there is no doubt that FIFA is a very corrupt organisation and has been for many decades. The officials concerned, and long-term FIFA president Sepp Blatter as well, should held accountable for their corrupt practices. But I think Russian president Vladimir Putin (who is something of an expert on corruption himself) has it right when he says the arrests were “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” The sight of US Justice Department officials posing for photos as they left FIFA's regional association offices in Miami with boxes of papers had more than an hint of sham about it, and newly-appointed US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch's press conference did not add to the credibility of the case (and doesn't she know it isn't called "soccer" in the rest of the world?).

I have written before about the imperialistic ambitions of the United States to extend its legal bailiwick to the whole world. This wouldn't be so bad if the United States lived up to the intent of its founding document as a nation of people with "unalienable Rights...[including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", whose government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed." But America is no longer that, if it ever was. The US has deviated so far from its founders' original intent of a limited republic, where the government serves at the pleasure of its people rather than the other way around, that it is hypocritical in the extreme for it to try and impose its legislative morality on the rest of the world.

Don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying America is irredeemably corrupt or has lost all respect for the rule of law, and I'd still far sooner be tried in an American court than a Chinese one - but a state that locks up a man for the rest of his life for the offence of running a website is a cruel and capricious one. And the world doesn't need a cruel and capricious imperial policeman.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cyclists are the Parasites of the Roads

Recently a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist told me he was off to protest outside the Wellington City Council chambers with a bunch of like-minded, two-wheeled self-locomotionists. When I asked him why, he said it was because the Wellington City Council did not provide enough cycleways.

'Let's get this straight,' I said to my friend. 'You don't pay any road user charges or petrol taxes, you don't pay any accident insurance levies and you don't even pay any city rates because you live out of town. And yet you want Wellington City ratepayers like me to provide you with special paved tracks for you and your mates to cycle around the city. Is that correct?'

That's right,' he said with a smirk.

A little while ago I narrowly avoided my vehicle being hit by a cyclist while I was stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The cyclist had broken at least three traffic rules and by doing so had placed himself in the position of having to chose whether to hit an elderly pedestrian on the crossing or my car. It was only my alertness and my very quick reactions in getting my car out of the way that prevented him causing serious injuries either to himself or the pedestrian. My reward for my almost superhuman effort to save him from disaster of his own making was to suffer his verbal abuse. Rest assured, I gave as good as I got.

Let's face it - cyclists are the parasites of the roads. They don't obey any road rules, they are the most discourteous road users, they constantly put themselves in danger and expect motorists to have some sort of six sense to avoid them, and they think the rest of us should be happy to pay for their self-indulgent lifestyle choice. They are the ultimate bludgers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Time to Sell Biased State Media

One of the first and most significant appointments David Cameron has made after his landslide UK election victory was that of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. The reason this appointment is significant is that Whittingdale will be the minister responsible for the BBC and in his previous role as chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee he has been very critical of the BBC and the licence fee that funds it. Some are going as far to suggest that Whittingdale's appointment is the Conservative Government's payback to the BBC for its very biased (i.e. pro-Labour Party) coverage of the election.

In Britain the BBC has a dominance over broadcast media that state media outlets in former Soviet bloc countries could only dream of.  It owns nine television channels and sixteen radio stations as well as numerous digital media outlets and cultural assets such as symphony orchestras. The BBC paints itself as unbiased but it is certainly not. It is partisan, secretive and ruthless in pushing its biases, and it is incredibly arrogant in refusing to concede its errors. 

Some examples of the BBC's behaviour are its cover-up of accusations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile, its promotion of the scandalous libel against former Tory peer Lord McAlpine and its reliance on a secretive panel of so-called independent climate scientists for its coverage of climate change issues (that turned out to largely comprise non-scientists from environmental lobby groups). The BBC is, in short, a malevolent presence in British culture.

In New Zealand over the last few weeks there has been a minor furore about the likely cancellation of TV3's current affairs Campbell Live. I have written before about left-wing bias in the the coverage of politics by the New Zealand media and in particular about how partisan John Campbell is. I said that I didn't have a particular problem with Campbell Live because TV3 is a privately-owned broadcaster and that eventually the market would sort him out. The uncertain future of the show is proof I was right. The BBC and our own state broadcasters Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand are a different matter. State-owned enterprises, even those like Television New Zealand that are commercially-focused, are not subject to the economic realities of private enterprises. The market cannot sort them out.

Thomas Jefferson said that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical'. State broadcasting, particularly state broadcasting that is politically biased, does exactly that.

If there were ever valid arguments for the state to own media outlets (presumably around the lack of sufficient scale in small countries to justify private sector investment and monopolistic practices of a small number of private media outlets even in larger markets) those arguments no longer exist. The internet has reduced the cost so dramatically that anyone can afford to broadcast to millions from their bedroom and there are literally millions of news and opinion outlets of every possible political persuasion. It is time for the state to get out of broadcasting. Cameron's government should break up and sell the BBC and the New Zealand government should do the same for Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand.

I'm sure Rupert Murdoch would be interested.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tax Freedom Day

It is tax freedom day in New Zealand - the notional day of the year on which we no longer have to hand over our hard-earned money to the government but can start to keep it for ourselves. May 7th is also the day on which businesses have to make their final provisional income tax and Goods and Services Tax payments for the previous financial year. For profitable small businesses like mine, that means making a very big payment to the Inland Revenue Department.

I do not willingly pay this money. I only hand over this large chunk of my income because the government threatens to incarcerate me if I don't. I know I could make better use of the money than the government does and that paying for my family's health, education and savings would cost me less than the wodge of cash I pay the government. And don't tell me it's the price of living in a civil society - according to the Minister of Finance, the New Zealand Government obtains 70% of its income tax revenue from 10% of its taxpayers so clearly I'm paying for a hell of lot more than what it actually costs me and my family to live in this society. Plus, there are perfectly civilised societies in the world, such as Monaco, that have no personal taxation at all.

I recently attended a discussion with Inland Revenue Department staff about the future of tax collection in New Zealand and was surprised when one of the representatives of the IRD said that they were considering all views on how tax services should be operated in future except for the view that 'taxation is immoral and should be abolished.' The fact that even in the fortress of taxation they acknowledged that the morality of taxation was not a certainty was very gratifying, if cold comfort for those like me who hold to that view.

I am not so quixotic as to believe that taxation will be abolished in my lifetime, but I do think we stand at a crossroads in respect of the burden of taxation. During the period from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s most Western governments reduced the burden of income tax on their populations, but many countries like New Zealand saw left-of-centre governments restored in the 2000s that increased tax rates again, albeit not to the staggeringly high levels that were commonplace before the 1980 reforms. Leftish parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand now want to increase the burden further to pay for their profligate policies. The tax take as a percentage of GDP in New Zealand currently sits at about 39%. That's two dollars in every five that is taken by the government and too much already.

We must continually remind politicians that it is our money and our tolerance of the extortion that is taxation is not boundless.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

This last week we saw another mass execution of foreigners by the Indonesian government for drug trafficking, and earlier in the week I listened to a debate on the Intelligence Squared postcast on the subject of "Should We Abolish the Death Penality." These events caused me to reflect on and reaffirm my opposition to the death penalty.

There is something nauseatingly banal about the ritual of judicial execution. The build-up to the Indonesian executions was accompanied by months of legal and political wrangling as the Indonesian President Joko Widodo dismissed appeals and stuck to his determination to make an example of the offenders. The condemned became unwilling celebrities as everyone connected to the case including the local police commissioner ensured they were photographed with those about to die.

The Intelligence Squared debate outlined various important arguments for and against the death penalty. Those in favour of it won the debate and I thought they made the better arguments - that some crimes and some criminals are so bad there is no valid alternative to putting them to death. Those against the death penalty made the usual arguments - that mistakes are made and innocent people are executed, and that the death penalty is applied discriminately. However, I think that neither addressed the key question in my mind - is the death penalty moral?

The question of the morality of state-sanctioned homicide cannot be answered without addressing the broader question of what is the moral role of the state. As a libertarian, my view on this is clear - the state exists only to protect individual rights. More specifically, the state exists to prevent the initiation of violent actions against individuals and their property. The corollary of this is that the state cannot morally initiate violence unless it is to counter actual or imminent violence against individuals. The cold-blooded killing of a criminal, however justified it may seem in terms of retributive punishment, does not satisfy this criteria.

The execution of drug traffickers by the Indonesian government is a particularly grievous example of immoral state-sanctioned killing. Trading in recreational narcotics does not, in itself, present an imminent threat of violence to anyone (leaving aside the fact that drug trafficking laws have driven the trade into the hands of violent gangsters) and therefore it should not be illegal, let alone punishable by death. The only real crime here was the murder of the traffickers by the Indonesian government.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lest We Forget

Today is Anzac Day, the day on which we commemorate those who died in the original Australian and New Zealand Army Corps action at Gallipoli in World War 1, and those who have served in the defence of our two countries since. I am always in two minds about such commemorations. On the one hand, I have enormous admiration and gratitude for those who died to defend the relatively free and prosperous societies we have established in countries like Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, I always find myself angry at the fact that we don't seem to have learned the lessons from that brave sacrifice.

World War 1 is particularly instructive because no one can seriously call it a just war. The Kaiser's Germany was no better or worse morally in its actions than Imperial Britain or France and probably better on almost any count than our ally, Russia. Others have written about the bungling and political expediency that led to war and the ridiculous circumstances by which New Zealanders found themselves invading Turkey, a country we had previously had no truck with, in support of the territorial ambitions of Russia, the country we had previously regarded as our biggest threat. But the root causes of the Great War come down to one common factor - the propensity of governments everywhere and at every time to sacrifice the freedom and eventually the lives of its people in pursuit of ever-greater power.

The threat to freedom does not come mainly from without, it comes from within our societies. It comes from those who who see the power of the state as a tool to solve whatever problem they perceive ails us. Initially, they are well-intentioned and the problems universally agreed, such poverty, prejudice and oppression, but sooner or later their sights are turned to people and causes that are nothing more than scapegoats for the wrongs they wish to right - foreigners, rich people, intellectuals or certain religious and ethnic groups. Historical grievances, real or perceived, are dredged out of the deep pool of past conflicts and used to justify present-day prejudices. Minor territorial disputes from earlier ages become reasons for beligerence and eventually actual military aggression. Thus begins war.

I see too many parallels with the origins of the Great War in the actions of governments and the words of demogogues today. As in 1914, there are signs that the long period of comparative peace and prosperity that the Western world has enjoyed is coming to an end. We have a declining superpower and an ascending rival and a host of regional and religious conflicts that threaten to go global. We have economic uncertainty and an end to the sustained growth of the post-World War II decades. This is dry tinder for political pyromaniacs.

The phrase "lest we forget" originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessional and didn't mean what we take it to mean today - that we should remember the fallen. Rudyard intended it to mean that we shouldn't forget what we have. At the time he was, of course, talking about British society and its values of freedom, morality, individual responsibility and respect for the rule of law. To me, this is the more powerful meaning of the phrase. We shouldn't forget those who scacrificed their lives, but more importantly, we shouldn't forget what they sacrificed their lives for.