Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Censor's decision on video game is pure puritanism

We live in a time when we are seeing the erosion of freedoms that were only recently won. The freedom to read and watch the things we want, whether for education, entertainment or information, is fundamental to a free society. Governments know that by controlling what we read, listen to and watch, they can more easily control our actions. This is the real reason why in so many Western nations governments established monopolistic state broadcasting organisations such as the BBC. It is also why they have always been very ready to engage in censorship.

Censorship has been used by governments since time immemorial as a tool to guard against public disorder or as a means to enforce official views of morality. In modern times censorship has waxed and waned, with the British Crown abandoning its historical licensing of the press in the late 17th Century and the newly-minted United States including press freedom in the Bill of Rights in 1789. Of course successive governments in those countries and others continued to use censorship to control what people could read in newspapers, books, magazines - and even what they could see on the stage - and censorship reached its zenith (or nadir, it you like) in the 20th Century under Fascism and Communism. Western countries also used the world wars as an excuse to introduce draconian censorship such as Woodrow Wilson's Sedition Act, which extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover speech and opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light. (Incidentally, the latter was seldom used by any government until the Obama administration, which used it on seven occasions to charge whistleblowers such as Bradley [Chelsea] Manning and Edward Snowden.)

After World War II we saw a relaxation of all forms of censorship, particularly for moral purposes. The unsuccessful prosecution of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act for the publication of Lady's Chatterley's Lover was the last use of that law to ban a mainstream work of fiction. Not that the prurient didn't still try to control what we were reading and watching, with prominent morals campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse in Britain and Patricia Bartlett in New Zealand continuing to push for much greater censorship. I remember when I was a child films such as A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris receiving very restrictive ratings from the New Zealand censors, and entertainment industry self-censoring almost any depiction of homosexual relationships or any other 'abnormal' sexual behaviour in films and on television. I can recall the first time a same-sex romantic kiss was shown on network television here and in the United States - on the TV show LA Law in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately we appear to be regressing into puritanism again. The latest example is the decision by New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to ban a Japanese video game that depicts sex with teenage girls and sexual violence. I should point out that the game is in the style of a cartoon, so it doesn't show real people being subject to anything. The censor pompously claims that "there is a strong likelihood of injury to the public good, including to adults from the trivialisation and normalisation of such behaviour". 

Really, Mr (or Ms) Censor? What do you think we are, imbeciles? Is this video really any more likely to lead to such behaviour in the real world than, say, Grand Theft Auto is likely to led to an outbreak of violent car thefts amongst nerdy college kids? Numerous recent studies (see examples herehere, here and here) have shown that the OFLC's claims are bunkum and far from causing "normalisation of such behaviour", those who play video games are actually less likely to display aggressive behaviour of any sort.

So what is the real reason for banning the game? It is that the censors (and those who lay the complaints that the censors act on) don't like the idea of people playing such games. They find the thought of it disgusting - the objectionable nature of it is entirely in their own minds. In a word, it is puritanism. H L Mencken said that puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy, and this aptly describes the attitude shown in this decision.

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 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 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.