Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why voluntary taxation isn't a crazy idea

Taxation is theft. This saying is credited to many great thinkers such as Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard and Walter Williams. It is really axiomatic because taxation involves the taking of something that clearly belongs to another and it always involves force, extortion or subterfuge. In fact almost everyone who supports the idea of taxation argues from this axiomatic position - they do not seek to deny the larcenous nature of it but rather seek to justify the larceny.

I oppose taxation because I oppose the initiation of force in human relations and I make no exception for the state. I accept that individual citizens delegate the protection of their rights to the state but I do not accept that the state ever needs to initiate the use of force to carry out this role as the protector of rights*. Taxation requires the state to threaten and use violence against citizens who have no intention of committing violence themselves - and without the threat and use of arrest and imprisonment, the tax system would fall apart.

I often ask people who argue in support of taxation why, if they believe it is fair and moral, does it need to be backed with the threat of violence? They usually reply that while they would be prepared to voluntarily contribute to social goods, no one else would. That is, of course, a pretty misanthropic view of the world (and, in my experience, a fairly typical attitude amongst those who profess to be altruistic).

So how would we fund the state without taxation? The alternative is a system of voluntary contributions, similar to that in Ancient Greece, which they called liturgy (the use of the term in church services came from the fact that it was at these services that parishioners made voluntary contributions). The liturgical system worked well, funding the great buildings, institutions, festivals and even wars of the Athenian state. It was highly progressive, with the burden falling more heavily on the richest in society than in any modern state. A strong sense of public obligation amongst the wealthy, and a clever mechanism called antidosis, ensured that few escaped paying their fair share. 

The world is becoming a less violent, more rights-respecting place and the apogee of this trend is a society that rejects the initiation of force in all human interactions. I believe there will come a time when involuntary taxation is considered to be a type of slavery and no longer a necessary part of human society. That will be a very great day for human dignity.

* Note that I do not consider action to prevent the imminent use of violence, such as a policeman arresting someone who is about to stab you, to be the initiation of force. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

No smoke, no fire in Trump investigation

The media has been in a feeding frenzy ever since Donald Trump was elected over his supposed ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin, with the implication that Russian agents subverted the 2016 election to get their man Trump elected. I have expressed scepticism (here and here) about this story because I could not see how it benefited Russia to have Trump elected.

Last week finally we got to hear former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the investigation into the matter and if you discard the ongoing media hype and the political grandstanding of the committee members, it absolutely bears out my scepticism. I have read through the hours of testimony and so that you don't have to, I have listed the key questions and Comey's answers below. The questioners are senators Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, and James Risch and Marco Rubio - all Republicans.

  • BURR: Are you confident that no votes cast in the 2016 presidential election were altered?
  • COMEY: I’m confident. By the time — when I left as director, I had seen no indication of that whatsoever.
  • BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?
  • COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.
  • BURR: Did any individual working for this administration, including the Justice Department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?
  • COMEY: No.
  • RISCH: ...while you were director, the president of the United States was not under investigation. Is that a fair statement?
  • COMEY: That’s correct.
  • RISCH: You talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the New York Times wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians...so the American people can understand this, that report by the New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?
  • COMEY: In the main, it was not true.
  • RISCH: I want to drill right down...to the most recent dust-up regarding allegations that the president of the United States obstructed justice... He did not direct you to let [the Flynn investigation] go?
  • COMEY: Not in his words, no.
  • RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?
  • COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.
  • RUBIO: In essence, the president agreed with your statement that it would be great if we could have an investigation, all the facts came out and we found nothing. So he agreed that that would be ideal, but this cloud is still messing up my ability to do the rest of my agenda. Is that an accurate assessment of...
  • COMEY: Yes, sir. He actually went farther than that. He — he said, “And if some of my satellites did something wrong, it’d be good to find that out.”
  • RUBIO: Well, that’s the second part, and that is the satellites. He said, “If one of my satellites” — I imagine, by that, he meant some of the other people surrounding his campaign — “did something wrong, it would be great to know that, as well”?
  • COMEY: Yes, sir. That’s what he said.
Comey mostly declined to answer questions about Michael Flynn, the short-lived National Security Advisor whom Trump fired after discovering he lied about his ties to the Russian Government, because that case is still the subject of an on-going investigation. This suggests that matter is the only investigation into any of the current or former members of the Trump administration that has any substance.

So, will this mean the end of the media campaign to paint Trump as a Manchurian Candidate? I doubt it, and even if it is, the media will just manufacture another set of false accusations to undermine Trump and his administration. In a Western liberal democracy, and under President Donald Trump, they have the freedom to say whatever they please. But we don't have to listen.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Prosecution of property co will make it worse for renters

New Zealand is frequently held up as a paragon of freedom and I guess it is in comparison with many other countries, but I think being top of a sinking pack is not something of which to be especially proud. Every Western nation is seeing an erosion of rights we take for granted - to free speech, privacy, due process - and New Zealand is no exception. The trend is particularly obvious in the commercial sphere where it seems we have moved to a situation where everything is illegal unless the government gives you permission to do it, a reversal of the principles on which our English system of law has been based since pre-Conquest times.

The latest signal case is the prosecution of Wellington commercial landlord, PrimeProperty, for letting a family live in one of its office buildings. It is not obvious from the news reports why this was a problem, particularly in view of the fact that many if not most Wellington office buildings now have some residential use. The reports say that the prosecution was for 'putting lives at risk' - a reference to the fact that the building was damaged in last November's Magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a decision has since been made to demolish it. However, no one was injured in the earthquake and the building in question stood up sufficiently well to enable the family in question to safely evacuate.

The structural requirements for residential properties are actually less onerous than for a commercial property, and there are buildings in Wellington that have been cleared of commercial tenants since the earthquake that are still being used for residential accomodation (presumably with the blessing of the bureaucrats), so no one can seriously claim that housing people in commercial buildings is placing them in any greater risk. The most heinous factor in this case seems to be that the landlord did not have the bureaucrats' permission.

My business is a tenant of PrimeProperty. I find them to be an excellent landlord. Their rents are reasonable, they provide excellent service, and the building I am in is very safe. The owner of PrimeProperty says he allowed the family to occupy the space in his building at a low rental as a favour, and I believe him. Presenting the family as victims of reckless endangerment is an inversion of the truth - they were 'victims' only of Aharoni's generosity and the crime was only of bureaucratic non-compliance. The prosecution, like so many these days, was to justify the unnecessary bureaucratic interference rather than to keep tenants safe.

A woman from an organisation named Wellington Renters United, of which I have never heard, claims that "if it weren't for the utter lack of affordable housing in the city, this situation is unlikely to have occurred in the first place." This comment demonstrates a typical ignorance of economics from many who advocate on behalf of those on low incomes. The truth is that if it weren't for the plethora of unnecessary regulations in the property market, and the high costs of of developers and landlords complying with them, there would be a lot more rental accomodation available in the city and the competition would drive rents down to more affordable levels. This prosecution will only make the situation worse.

Friday, June 2, 2017

No, Hillary, you lost it all on your own

Hillary Clinton gave an interview at the Code Conference this week in which she blamed everyone under the sun for her election loss - the Russians, Wikileaks, Macedonian fake news sites, a British data mining company, the dumb American electorate - in other words, everyone but herself. Her interview was cringe-inducing. This woman has lost her grasp of reality and if nothing else, it proves why she should never have been president. Has she no self-awareness at all? 

I have argued in an earlier post that it was not in the interests of Russia to have Donald Trump elected president of the United States, but if they did try to influence the election, they didn't do a very good job of it. A Stanford University study has shown that fake news probably had no effect on voters intentions. Even Hillary Clinton herself admits in the interview that the emails of DNC Chairman John Podesta's that were dumped by Wikileaks were 'anodyne to boredom' (sic). 

Hillary lost because of herself. She was a stinker of a candidate - an inarticulate, boring, elitist politician who has always had a whiff of corruption around her. She had no credible policy positions, having changed her stripes so often - on free trade, gay rights, health care and foreign policy amongst others - that two-thirds of Americans said they didn't trust her during the election campaign. She had the full support of the legendary Democratic Party electoral machine and the endorsement of almost every major media outlet, political commentator and celebrity in the country.

Trump had almost no support from the mainstream media and commentariat, and he didn't even have the unequivocal support of his own party. He won because he was (in the words of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson) 'pure message'. You mightn't have liked his message, but you have to admit he stuck to it - on immigration, trade, climate change, etc. He bypassed the mainstream media through his use of social media and his hugely-popular rallies all over the country, to communicate that message directly to the electorate, and enough of the electorate in enough states liked enough of what they heard to give him 57% of the electoral college, 60% of the states, and 80% of the counties. And he worked harder than Clinton, doing twice as many campaign events as Clinton.

No one likes a sore loser and Clinton is particularly pathetic with her 'I was robbed' whining. Her political career is over and it is time she stepped aside and let the Democratic Party refocus and rebuild, and to be the responsible opposition party that America needs in the Trump era.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Truth in the 21st Century

There has been much made of 'fake news' recently and it is certainly true that we live in an era where there is a Newspeak-like inversion - truth is lies and lies are truth. However, the claims about what is fake news are themselves inverted with the accusations coming mostly from those who are greatest purveyors of fake news - the left-leaning mainstream media.

The fake news phenomenon is just the latest iteration of a culture war that has its origins in Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's ideas about cultural hegemony. Gramsci believed there was no reality outside of human experience and he believed that only way to establish a Marxist world order was to undermine the existing cultural institutions and to impose a new reality that was conducive to Marxian thought. He cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution that had so dominated European society that it had defined the way people perceived reality.

This is what George Orwell imagined so well in his novel 1984. The government in that story developed propaganda into such a science that it could change recorded history and nobody could imagine a world where the propaganda wasn't true. The aim was to make people incapable of questioning the apparent reality, such as 'we have always been at war with Eurasia', because every trace of evidence that it wasn't true has been erased. The fake news becomes reality.

We have seen this is in real life with the 97% scientific consensus on climate change. Hardly anyone knows where that claim came from (it was a study by Cook et al, which was been thoroughly debunked) and yet it has gained such currency that it doesn't matter that no one can cite the source and no one questions it. This is classic Gramsci - it is irrelevant that the claim is false because there is no objectively true or false state, and in any event established science is simply part of the cultural hegemony of capitalism. Impose a new cultural hegemony and, hey presto, whatever you want to claim can become true!

Of course there is an objective reality - one plus one does equal two, the Earth does orbit the Sun, and Donald Trump is the duly-elected president of the United States. No one has yet proved the Catholic Church's doctrine of the transubstantiation to be true, so that is not objective reality, however much the faithful might believe it to be so. Neither is much of what passes for news in the mainstream media, such as a rape crisis in US universities, an increase in racial violence under Trump, or that recent terrorist attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

The fact that Gramsci's philosophy is nonsense does not diminish how dangerous it is. It underpins so much of the left-wing's influence on accepted thought in modern Western societies and if it is not understood, it cannot be effectively opposed. The good news is that voters around the world seem to be pretty good at distilling reality from the fake news and making electoral choices in their own interests.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The problem isn't Islam, it is us.

Another day, another terrorist attack, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. I have the deepest sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and others who will have to nurse broken and maimed bodies back into some semblance of a normal life. 

The Islamic State has claimed credit for the bombing, which was carried out by a 'Briton of Libyan descent', but unlike others I am not going to blame the Islamic faith, even though I have written before about my concerns about the tenets of that religion. The fact that so many of these terrorists are home-grown, often second or third generation descendants of immigrants who came to the West in search of a better life, should tell us something about the roots of the violence. These killers are not the advance guard of an external enemy, they are fifth columnists who want to destroy their own societies from within. The problem is not Islam, the problem is us.

I believe we in the West have incited this wave of Islamic terrorism in our midst at least in part because we have become cringing apologists for our own way of life. We teach our children that Western nations are the cause of every grievance of non-Western people all over the world. We maintain we were responsible for slavery, even though slavery was a universal fact of pre-Enlightenment human society and it was Britain that led the world in stopping the slave trade. We maintain we are racists and misogynists, despite the fact that we have built our modern societies on equal rights for all and have emancipated minorities throughout the world. We maintain that we entrench inequality, despite the fact that it is the Western values of free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law that are responsible for the vast majority of the world's population being lifted out of poverty over the last century.

A few days ago I listened to an excellent interview by Mark Steyn of Hollywood screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd that shed some light on the nature of the problem. Chetwynd served in the Black Watch regiment of the Canadian Army before going on to write dozens of scripts for films and television series and he talked about Hollywood's need to internalise the enemy. Thus, Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears, which was about Palestinian terrorists getting hold of an atomic weapon, became a film in which the bad guys were neo-Nazis. If you are watching the current Netflix series, Designated Survivor, you'll see a similar transformation. Hollywood is a magnifying lens for our culture and the fact that it always makes us the bad guys simply reflects our societal self-hatred.

If we keep telling ourselves that our society is the root of all the world's evil, is it any wonder that a few of the children and grandchildren of those to whom we are supposed to have done evil will nurture those grievances to the point where they want to destroy us? If we don't believe our society is worth defending, how can we possibly expect them to value it?

I don't think I have ever listened to an Ariana Grande song and I dare say I would find her music a little too saccharine for my tastes, but her concerts are very much part of the culture I value and want to defend. She would never be allowed on a stage in Riyadh or Khartoum and that is an indictment of those societies, not ours. The fact that millions of people from Islamic nations want to come and live in our countries, but not the reverse, is all the proof we need that our society is better than theirs. 

We need to stand up and defend Western society and values. We need to say that Islamic State and the like will never drag us down to their level and will never defeat us. Doing so won't necessarily stop the terrorist attacks, but at least it will make the battle lines clear and people will know what we are paying the price of terrorist attacks to defend. And it might just help a few of those second and third generation potential terrorists figure out who are really the good guys.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Climate of Change

It looks increasingly like Donald Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and in my opinion that will be a very good thing. I have written numerous times on this blog about anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming but will restate my conclusions and some of the evidence below to explain why I support Trump's position on climate change.

1. The earth has been warming since the 1600s, when we experienced what is known as the Little Ice Age, and has warmed about 0.85ºC since the mid-19th Century. Temperatures today are similar to those in what is known at the Medieval Warm Period, as shown in the following temperature reconstruction graph.

Reconstructed global temperature past 2,000 years (Loehe and UKMO data)

2. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It makes the Earth habitable for life, and life would not exist on Earth if there was no CO2 in the atmosphere. An increase in atmospheric CO2, all other things being equal, would be expected to lead to an increase in average global temperatures but with a diminishing effect (the physics behind this is explained in the "Into the Laboratory" section of this article). 

3. Mankind's carbon emissions, mostly generated through the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to the CO2 in the atmosphere. The exact extent of mankind's contribution to the increase in CO2 is unknown because we don't know the net natural contribution, but in recent years mankind's total emissions has been roughly equal to the increase in CO2 so many scientists just assume that human emissions account for all of the increase. If this was true then CO2 levels would have been constant prior to the development of human civilisation, which is patently not true as the following graph shows.

Reconstructed atmospheric CO2 levels (100PPM) from various sources

4. Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant. To claim that is to say that all life on Earth pollutes the environment merely by living, which is patently ridiculous. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from around 250ppm to 400ppm since the 18th Century but current CO2 levels are not dangerous. In fact, we are still only a little above the minimum levels of atmospheric CO2 necessary to sustain life on Earth and scientists now accept that rising CO2 levels have led to increased greening of the world, including a net increase in rainforest and a receding Sahara Desert.

5. The current increase in global temperature levels are NOT dangerous to life. Human civilisation flourished in warm periods and geographical areas (such as the Middle East and Mediterranean) rather than in cooler periods and climes precisely because less resources needed to be spent creating shelter and growing food in warmer areas, leaving more resources to be devoted to civilisational advancement.

6. Dangerous weather events are NOT increasing around the world. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer hurricanes and storms than any other decade since modern records began. Total deaths attributed to all extreme weather events globally declined by more than 90% since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events (source: Goklany). Many more people die each year from extreme cold than from heat and therefore an increase in global temperatures is likely to further lower climate deaths. Millions die in the third world every year from toxic heating fuels such as dung and biomass, deaths that would be prevented if they converted to natural gas or other clean fossil fuels.

So what is the point of the international political consensus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? We know that human carbon dioxide emissions won't lead to runaway global warming and that further CO2 increases won't be harmful to life. On the other hand, we can say with certainty that policies that reduce the ability of people in cooler climates to heat their houses will lead to more deaths, and likewise any policies that reduce the ability for people in the third world to shift to less toxic energy sources than they currently use.

I accept, as do almost all scientists, that human activity contributes to changes in the climate, but I think the evidence does not support the proposition that mankind's carbon emissions are the dominant factor in recent increases in global average temperatures. But what about the argument that prudent risk management means we should cut our emissions anyway? Well, a prudent risk management strategy always considers the costs of mitigation and at the moment the costs of mitigation far outweigh the costs of the risk. Eliminating human carbon emissions to stop global warming is akin to amputating your leg to get rid of a muscle ache.

This is why the Paris Accord is bad policy and why I hope Trump' sticks to his guns and withdraws from it.