Saturday, 28 July 2012

Quicksilver Trilogy - Libertarian Fiction

This isn't exactly a book review blog, but the Quicksilver Trilogy (Rising, Zenith & Twilight) by Stan Nicholls (renamed the Dreamtime trilogy in the US) which I have just finished is, I think, a very libertarian set of books. They are a pretty easy read, so teens should be able to enjoy them, as would most adults. As a fantasy series, they are fairly decent without the libertarian side, so I would recommend them to fantasy readers on that basis anyway. The libertarian ethic though, I don't think can be ignored.

In the Quicksilver world, magic is hugely important, a controlled product by the dominant empires which is used as a tool of subjegation. The rival empires of Gath Tampoor (a typical seeming autocratic empire, no unifying ideology) and Rintarrah (a fascist/socialist state where everything is ordered and has its place in a supposedly egalitarian environment, but there is an enshrined upper class anyway) are both somewhat oligarchic, with a number of ruling figures at the top of departments, secret services and the like. The story watches as the main characters, through one method or another, are adopted into the resistance movements in the two empires and Bhealfa (a protectorate of Gath Tampoor) and their attempts to escape to a relatively uninhabited island and secure their liberty.

Without giving too much away, I'll try to show how this series goes through the abuses of the state, and thereby will help to give readers good libertarian insights. I'll start with a scene in the first book, where there's a confrontation between a prostitute who's friend has been killed, and a member of the upper echelons of society responsible; in the supposedly equal Rintarrah: "'Listen, slut' he snarled, 'I've got contacts. I can make things really difficult for you. I'm talking about big trouble.'" as well as the inbuilt racim of the state "'And you think the authorities would take the word of a Qalochian whore over that of a man of stature'". Bear in mind that the profession of prostitution, like everything else deemed bad by the authorities is denied to be in existence is the 'ordered' nation of Rintarrah. Throughout the books, the issues of race and legal injustice are brought up. Those at the top enjoying protection against the people, whilst the people are abused by those above.

There is a clear argument that tax is theft in the second book, where a former pirate defends his practice: "I spent three years in the business. And I use the word advisedly; it was a business as far as I was concerned'. 'That's a novel way of describing it.' 'But it's true. Piracy's a very elementary form of barter. You exchange possessions from people in exchange for letting them keep their lives. It's not dissimilar to taxes. Nobody wants to pay them but governments make you. [...] where people have to follow their laws at the ultimate expense of their lives.'"

So, the state is racist and unfair, and tax is theft, now onto book three and the abuse of language (which also appears earlier): "'[T]hey employ language as a weapon against us. Taking another's land is liberation. Suppressing the people's right to speak is freedom. Executing a patriot is an act of public order. And anybody opposing them is a terrorist.'" Even gun rights comes up in (although not directly, guns not yet existing in this universe) with magic as the equivalent; "'[T]hat's the fault of the system we live in, not the craft.' He held up the rapier he was still clutching. 'It's like this sword. It can be in the hands of a tyrant or a freedom fighter. The sword has no say in it.'"

Libertarian foreign policy is also brought to the fore through criticism of an interventionist foreign policy: "Where rival empires competed for dominance, foreign policy was often a euphemism for armed conflict. At any given time, territory was contested, rebellions were being quelled and unruly populations subdued. [...] And while the warring parties had made destruction a fine art, little attention was paid to helping its many innocent sufferers."

Show trials appear several times, including one of an ambassador: "'It amounts to treason.' 'But I'm not even a Bhealfan subject!' 'Ah, and neither is he. So you're making a further admission that like my enemy you're not a Bhealfan subject. This is all starting to sound rather damning, isn't it?' [...] 'Would you be kind enough to outline the nature of the charge?'.

This set of books evidently hasn't set the literary world on fire, and not the most brilliant pieces of fiction ever written, but they are entertaining, and I think they should be touted as the libertarian books they are, they might help open the eyes of somebody, and for that I recommend them to anyone interested in fantasy. Not as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and doesn't show how a libertarian world would work, but it shows the excesses of the state, which is just as important.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Oh Kimi

So, apparently North Korea is to 'reform' its economy under the leadership of Kim Kong-un. This has followed in the great traditions of China and the USSR in 'purging' generals in order to wrest control from them. Apparently the main general was pushed out for reasons of illness, but nobody seriously believes that. Evidently, opening up the insular nation and freeing the press were not high on the reformist list of 'things to do'. However, I have very little hope in these economic reforms, at least in the long run.

The cabinet had created a special bureau to take control of the economy, with the control being taken away from the military. What, on the microeconomic level has really changed? Nothing. This is the typical approach of the statist. Some economists of the left might write about how reforms of this nature will help revive the economy, as if it was simply a problem of mismanagement. Another approach, you might call it an Austrian approach, is to view the economy through the various actions individuals, and through them, businesses make to trade. Do they buy goods from X or Y? do they sell at price A or B? It is from this, microeconomic level, that the economy as a whole grows. The failure to merge this properly into macroeconomics is one of the greatest problems I see with modern economics. Modern macroeconomics sees the economy on the macro level acting independently from the micro, the sectors apparently not acting based on what people at the micro end buy and sell. This is why macroeconomists seem to spout such nonsense so often, and why their predictions tend to be way off target.

The problem is, both in Western governments, and more keenly felt in nations like North Korea, the government sees the economy in these narrow macroeconomic terms. Thinking that if you just build a steel industry, you will sell steel products to the world (or at least your own nation), and it will be wondrously efficient. This thinking is what gave the world the Lada and Moskvitch cars and the appalling failures of the Virgin and Idle lands Scheme (which turned large areas of Kazakhstan into desert and resulted in large quantities of grain being imported from Canada during the 1970s and 80s).

For all the zeal that the North Koreans might put into 'reforming' the economy, I doubt they will achieve that much. It is effectively impossible for any North Korean to accumulate capital, so the market economy cannot function. The only way to repair the economy is to free it from government control, to allow individuals to make up their mind as to what they are willing to buy and sell. Ignore the macroeconomists and set the microeconomy flourish, allow people to start a business and create wealth without facing insurmountable barriers. In essence, to fix the North Korean economy, North Korea must abandon the Communist mantra that makes it so famous today. It might not take up many news headlines, but at least the people would be able to eat.

The same solution applies at home, cut bureaucracy, cut government spending and allow the real, micro-level  economy to thrive.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Bank of Dave

So, this guy called Dave wants to start his own bank, as shown on Channel 4. A self made man (a minibus dealer), a proper capitalist. Should be exactly the sort of guy to start a new bank. He has some money behind him, should be easy, right? Nope. Contrary to the opinions of many, the banks do not suffer from a lack of regulation; Thatcher's deregulation is mostly a red herring. Not only does the UK have tonnes of regulations of its own, with the FSA and to some extent the Bank of England acting as policemen, but we have the Basel Accords on a more international level. You need to have a government license, for which you need to take of bunch of (costly) exams. This means you either have to be pretty well off, or already working in finance. This means that it is hard for new banks to start, as Bank of Dave showed. Dave could go to prison for using the work "bank" without the proper licences.

Dave starts his business by paying the local business taxes, before he even opens the doors. The government giving a helping hand to new start-ups, in its own special way. But he has to wait for the FSA to make up their mind before he can hold deposits or make loans. The deposit part of which is still undecided at the end of episode 1.

Capitalism rests on the idea that businesses can enter and leave markets, in the banking sector, this is clearly not the case. The normal risks of a business are not permitted, the regulations are so complex that only companies with a huge amount already invested in the sector stand a chance of getting through them. Is economist lingo this is called a Barrier to Entry.

Dave is doing exactly what I'd want a good bank to do, instead of going to some credit history, he goes and looks at the businesses he lends to. Whilst it might take some time to do, it will reduce risk as you know what you are investing in. Someone with no blips in their record might have a terrible business idea, and someone who has been unlucky might have a great idea, but not be able to get the credit he needs. It seems the current banks, and their focus on computer models for risk instead of people, means that they are less good at analysing where to lend (and unable to see a huge crash coming, as explained in the great book A Colossal Failure of Common Sense). If only new banks could start up and compete with them, we might end up with a better banking sector. Lending based on contact with local businesses to help them expand is how banking took off in this country, with most loans in the 19th century being to small businesses, often rolling over as they expanded. This model is also the kind that, in my opinion, would most suit developing nations. Letting small, one man businesses, often unregistered with the authorities, get money to expand and deliver the goods that people want and need.

Dave is a capitalist, a proper one, and the thing standing in his way is the regulator. We need to unleash Dave and others like him. Scrap the FSA and bring in Free Banking I say. Let Dave call his bank a bank, let him take deposits and make loans, and if he fails, then he fails, but on his own merit. Before anyone suggests it, no, free banking is not unstable. Indeed, free banking is a tried and tested model, working historically in Scotland, Canada, Australia, Sweden and a host of other nations.

Help out Dave, support real capitalism, free the banks!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

More Lords Reform

Many people, including me, are in favour of Lords Reform, but do not support the current proposals, or do so begrudgingly, hoping for later changes. Others are against reform, or for going backwards. So I'm going to try to explain why I'm in favour of reform more clearly, and then look at how to fix the constitutional problems with it.

The House of Lords is meant to act as a reviewing chamber, which more closely assesses the Bills put through the Commons. A replacement Senate, or whatever it might be called, should essentially do the same thing. The crucial thing for any reform is that it aids scrutiny, and does not diminish it. The current set up of the Lords is not only undemocratic (although the EU is a far larger problem on that count), but it is currently full of Labour peers that the Blair and Brown governments stuffed there, holding up reforms and generally getting in the way politically, instead of adding scrutiny to the Bills put through the Commons. Let us not forget that this is just a clearing up exercise for the "temporary" 1911 Parliament Act, which states in the preamble the desire to replace the HoL with an elected second chamber.

Most of the current Lords are not the "experts" that some would have you believe but former politicians, high level party donors, or simply folks like Lord Skidelsky, who is only an "expert" in the way that he is an academic, who frequently gets things horribly wrong. I would be very happy to have this lot chucked out. If the people were sufficiently expert, they need only convince the voters of it and they could get back in. If they don't win the votes, but they are still sufficiently expert, then they can still be called in to give evidence, as people do currently (because, as it turns out, the Lords isn't full of the experts that you need).

One of the issues from the pro-reform side (or at least the pro, current plans side) that irks me is the idea that a referendum is unnecessary because this issue was in the manifestos of all three main parties and was in the coalition agreement. However, none of those documents mentioned anything specific about these reforms, and the idea of there being a referendum is sound, as this is a clear constitutional issue over how the nation is governed.

What should the Other Place look like then? Well, being voted in by region might work, with say 3 or 6 senators/lords for each region/constituency, depending on what size the regions are. If you elect in thirds (with votes every two years), it means the people of the region get a fairly regular say in scrutiny, but the body as a whole is less likely to be based on the whims of national politics. Perhaps 6 year terms like the US senate would work, with the time between general elections cut to 3 or 4 years whilst we're at it. It is more likely to give you the sort of varied group that might do a good job of scrutinising bills. You definitely do not want a party list system as you are aiming for strong scrutiny, which means the less party politics the better, so of course PR voting doesn't make much sense (as it groups people into parties by nature). Perhaps there should be no pay for these Lords, so that they have to work separately as well, meaning that they are less likely to just become career politicians.

After bringing through something akin the the reforms I've outlined, the idea should then be put to a referendum as a matter of course, it is an issue over how the country is governed. The same reason we should have had referendums on the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties (they altered the relationship between the UK and the EU, losing some sovereignty); the way we were governed was greatly altered and it would be difficult if not impossible to revert by a new government, unlike normal Acts of Parliament.

So yes, I do want reform of the Lords, but it needs to be carefully thought out in respect to the purpose of the second chamber, i.e. scrutiny, and not just become a commons Mk.2, with the worst excesses taken further. At the end, whatever the composition looked like, it should be put to a referendum, because in principle, it is the right thing to do for this sort of thing. Besides, how do you keep a straight face whilst arguing that the Lords needs to be more democratic, whilst refusing the right of the people a say it how it is altered?

P.S. This was the last post on Lords Reform. Will find something more interesting to write about tomorrow.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

LibDems and The Other Place

I briefly mentioned Lords Reform on here the other day, but it seems to be top of the agenda for politicos, so I'm going to have another crack at it.

The House of Lords needs reform. As it stands it is home to a bunch of retired politicians and those who donated large sums to one of the three main parties (largely Labour, unbelievably, no charges were ever made over the Cash for Honours scandal). Nobody gets a say in who is appointed, except the PM. It is a terrible system we have now, worse than having wholly hereditary peers, at least they were unlikely to turn up and make a mess of things. Expenses in the Lords has also been an issue, possibly worse than in the commons, and unlike the commoners, we, the public, have no way of removing the rot.

So, I am very much in favour of reforming the House of Lords. That is pretty much where my agreement with Cleggy on this stops. The reforms suggested by him seem designed specifically to give him and his cronies a retirement home (see above), but with a bit more pretence of legitimacy. Of course, there is no real legitimacy here, 15 year terms? FIFTEEN! And a closed party list to boot! This is not democratising, this is just the elite giving themselves an easier job, I believe at higher pay (though I could be wrong) with pretty much no chance of getting kicked out until they retire. The dream for our 'elite'. I don't see any reason for any of these proposals other than in these corrupt terms. Fifteen years is a huge chunk of a career, only a career politician could think it reasonable to be in politics that long without having to persuade the people of your good works somewhere in between.

So, I do not support these proposals, if what was put before the house now was put to the people in a referendum, I would vote 'no'. That's not to say the current bill could not be reformed to be workable; my support can be gained. However, I am not to be asked, says Clegg, I, who have voted LibDem in local elections (mainly to try to get out Labour incumbents), am being told "we know better than you", by a guy who is purporting to be against unjustified privilege.The Whig tendency in the LibDems in dead. Giving the people a say? Ha! It isn't like this is a constitutional issue or anything, or an issue that deeply divides party political opinions. No, there is to be no referendum, and if the Conservatives don't like it, we'll threaten to  stop the boundary changes going through. Killing two Whig birds with one stone.

Well Mr. Clegg, you just lost any chance of getting a tactical vote out of me ever again, I know it was unlikely, but you represent nothing I stand for, you would rather rip up your manifesto than stop the privilege of your party mates. The current reforms don't really fix any problems and I really can't stand the idea of Sarah Teather, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or any other LibDem or other politician of that sort getting to sit in the Other Place for 15 years without facing election. We need less career politicians, not more.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Samsung/Apple Patent Fight

The current patent system is completely broken, I don't think patents should exist anyway, but if we had a more robust system, I probably wouldn't care too much (I'm not going to go into the philosophy of this now, but there is much to consider on both sides with regard to property rights). As it stands though, the current system does not protect single inventors, nor does it increase the amount of investment made. It has simply become (or always was to some extent) a way for large companies to buy or make loads of patents and spend all their money and time using the system to push smaller companies out of the market.

Now, onto the current case between Apple and Samsung, which has seen Samsung win the latest round. The  case has been going on for over a year, which has stopped Samsung from being able to sell its product (and rival to the iPad) in some countries. To the detriment of consumers. What is their offence according to Apple? What idea did Samsung steal? None, it was a line drawing of a tablet with rounded corners. Now, according to the general principles, this should never have been awarded as a patent (it is not clearly distinct from other ideas), but it did, and so do many, many other "ideas" that are not justified patents.

In a bizarre statement, the presiding judge, instead of saying that the patent should itself be thrown out, or anything justified, he just insults Samsung into them winning. I'm not sure how a high court judge can decide if something is cool or not, but I digress, coolness is something subjective and I'm not sure our legal system should be based on anyone's opinion on whether something is "cool". Not exactly a sound legal principle. One would hope that this is the end of the saga, but I can see it rumbling on as Apple try to force competitors out of the market and establish something of a legal monopoly - despite not inventing the tablet idea in the first place.

This case seems to represent everything that is wrong with the current patenting system, far too many unjustified patents being awarded, large companies amassing patents just to sue each other (patent hoarding) and a growing class of legal types abusing the system to everyone else's disadvantage (patent trolls). Investment in new ideas slows as money becomes earmarked to legal cases, small companies who can't afford millions of patents are trampled on and real inventors are left with nothing for their work, simply being unable to pay the fees to keep patents, let alone fight the legal battles. Whilst there are some sound arguments for keeping patents in some form, the complete abolition would be a great deal better than what we have now, for innovation, inventors, small businesses and the general consumer.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

This Week in Liberty

So, after a long absence from the blogosphere, I'm back. Degree over and plenty of time to blog between job applications (although I hope that this free time dries up in the form of paid employment soon). To get into the swing of things, I'll just give a quick comment on some stories for the week (maybe I'll do this every Sunday, who knows?).

Libya - So, elections is it? I notice the BBC and the like are very happy with this. Democracy, woo! Whilst I'm glad that the socialist Gadaffi is gone, I'm going to hold my breath at least until this new lot write up the new constitution. If the constitution is not set up to limit government, then I think Libya will just be another illiberal country with a pretence of democracy. I hope that whoever takes over is at least better than Gadaffi.

Barclays and Libor - So, Barclays and several other high street banks, seemingly with the knowledge of the ever dodgy Bank of England, fixed Libor rates. This is fraud, hammer anyone guilty. Sack anyone at the BoE who knew about it and was either compliant or did nothing. I have no faith however, in any inquiry, judge-led or otherwise. More regulation, they will surely say, failing to recognise that part of the problem here is clearly regulatory capture by the large banks. Free Banking I say!

House of Lords Reform - I don't think much of the HoL reform proposals, but the Other Place does need to be reformed away from the ever growing list of Labour party donors and that sort of ilk. Ideally, something like a democratic chamber with more power than the current Lords, with longer term lengths (maybe 8 years, with Commons term reduced to 4?) and staggered voting, to ensure that it doesn't just become a Commons Mk. 2 but bringing in some legitimacy. Honestly, this would be about the last thing I'd rebel over if I was a Conservative MP. Would be more angry over the lack of real spending cuts and tax rises in the budget (the Darling plan would have had deeper cuts!).

Glaxo - They made antidepressants that didn't work and were unsafe, corrupted the regulators and doctors. Now the regulators get to look good by fining Glaxo for something they initially said was safe. Yay for regulatory capture again. Calls for more regulation, anyone? OK, so officially the drugs in question were never meant for children and teenagers, just adults. But if something makes children and teens suicidal (this is an antidepressent?), why would it not do the same for adults? The only reason I can think of is that an adults liver would be able to absorb more of the dangerous stuff. But even then, why would it help? The regulators have a lot to answer for here, as usual.

All in all, an interesting week for the regulators of the world, and I do hope that the Libyans come up with a half-decent constitution, they could become a model nation for that part of the world. Anyway, its good to be back to blogging.