Bureaucratic Precision

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This must be right. The EU's translation budget is hundreds of millions a year.




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The Tower of Babble

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I don’t look good in hats. Especially not when they’re made of tinfoil. It’s quite possible that some of you may picture me in one as you read this essay. But I hail the Brexit vote as a huge and very welcome step away from a one-world government.

Episcopalians generally don’t worry much about such a thing. No priest or theologian in my church, so far as I’ve ever heard, has warned us against it. I think we’re generally supposed to regard the stories in Genesis as having edifying spiritual lessons to teach us, but parallels are seldom drawn between them and our 21st-century world. Please excuse me for bringing religion into the discussion, but I see a definite parallel in the European Union.

Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all.

In the story in Genesis 11, the peoples of the world have become one unified mass. They’re proud of their unity, which they take as a sign that they can do anything they set their minds to. And they begin to build a monument to themselves and their greatness: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves: otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We are told that the Lord does not share their enthusiasm. “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

God does a lot of really human stuff in the Old Testament; he even has to move around to keep track of us. If I were to adhere too closely to the story in Genesis, I’d need to believe not only that he has no idea what’s going on until he comes down to see it but alsothat he thinks people are able to succeed in doing whatever they attempt, which obviously they can’t. Nevertheless, the story seems to be true about certain people’s intentions. Consider those of the people who run the EU. Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, as they claim, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all. Ruling the world is an ambition even older than the Bible. It shows no sign of dying out today.

Genesis reports that “the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.” In whose interest is it, really, for the world to speak the same language? And in the deeper sense, what would that mean?

It might not necessarily mean that everybody would understand the same words but that everybody would have the same ideas — that we could all be gathered together by one governing body and made to conform to one overriding plan. Tyrants have always loved that concept, because it would make it possible for them to keep everyone under their control. For the rest of us, however, it’s a much more dubious prospect.

The teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity.

In an earlier story in Genesis, the serpent tempts our first parents with the promise that if they eat the fruit God has forbidden them, they will be like gods. That’s the ambition of everyone who has ever desired to rule the world. It could very credibly be claimed that it’s what the lords and masters of the European Union aspire to do.

In reality, the teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity. It may be too big a job for anyone but God. At any rate, it’s an endeavor no person or organization on this earth has ever been able to accomplish. Whether we believe in God, in Natural Law or in the Unseen Hand of the Market, centuries of experience show that we are far more justified in trusting any of those entities than in trusting any aspiring leader, or set of leaders.

We possess technology that, until this century, would have been unimaginable outside of a dystopian sci-fi movie. Never before has the possibility of a one-world government loomed so menacingly. If the trend toward greater government centralization continues, tyrants will have the capability of monitoring our communications, our most intimate movements, our facial expressions, and our very thoughts. They will be able to stretch that tower all the way to the sky — perhaps even into space. If we don’t stand up and dismantle the project now, the time may be approaching when it will be unstoppable.

But it’s a long way from being unstoppable yet. What the Brits voted to abandon, on the 24th of June, could just as well be called the Tower of Babble. Constructed of empty promises and held together by political doublespeak and outright bribery, the latest thrust at one-world government stands on shaky ground. Now, other nations have apparently been inspired to consider exit referenda of their own. Perhaps Americans will be moved to reconsider the possibility of decentralizing our own political authority.

Will that tower fall? If it does, the crash will be heard around the world. To the devotees of the superstate, it will be the sound of catastrophe. But to those of us who hold freedom dear, it will be the music of heaven.




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Report From Iquitos

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I am writing from Iquitos, a town in Peru, encircled by the jungle of the Amazon. The only connection to the external world is by air. Boats — loaded with cattle, exotic animals, human beings, and forest-produce that in the US would put you in prison for several lives — go downstream and upstream, providing access to smaller villages and tribes, but not to anything beyond. Iquitos is very spacious and well-planned. The mighty Amazon and its tributaries surround the town, and most people have come here from its tribal areas.

For less than $40 a day, I can have a very good style of life. It costs me $22 for a good, clean, air-conditioned hotel, with full breakfast included. A tip of 30 cents a day gets me all the attention I want. A very good meal at an “expensive” restaurant costs me $8. The cost is much less — about $3 — if I go to a good, busy place for locals. Most taxi rides cost 60 cents. Yet because most things are flown in, Iquitos tends to be about 25% more “expensive,” in my estimation, than similar places I have visited in Peru.

During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait.

I tend to eat at local places. I buy fruit from roadside vendors; a handful costs me 30 cents. This helps the local economy the most, for the money that I spend in touristic areas mostly accrues to the well-connected, entrenched interests. Moreover, spending money directly with locals ensures that their emotions get aligned with my interests and safety — eventually they will go out of their way to win my favors. People are very friendly.

The Amazon offers cheap and good food. During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait. Fruit trees are easy to find. It is hard to go hungry.

Not too far away is dense jungle and animals of all sorts, all of which are hunted down, irrespective of the diktats of the federal government, the World Wildlife Fund, and so forth. If something “protected” is not killed, it is because its meat is not tasty. In the local market every endangered or protected species can be bought. Locals might show revulsion if you asked them directly whether they hunt monkeys and dolphins. But ask them subtly — without evoking any implanted defences — what dolphin and monkey meat tastes like, and they will describe it.

I feel very free in Iquitos. But for locals it is not a libertarian paradise, not even close. Outside the core, touristic area, Iquitos is very dirty, because people utterly lack the concept of hygiene.

The receptionist at my hotel works every single day, from 3 PM to 11 PM. She works 365 days a year, with no vacation or weekends. This is how they all exist. In the morning she looks after her younger siblings while her own parents go to work. She has nine siblings, all younger, six of them are girls. When asked, she had to count to remind herself how many there are. All of them share a couple of small, dark rooms. Every woman is loaded with children, mostly girls.

The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future.

There is something about this area that results in a high female-to-male ratio. Some say there might be twice as many — or more — female births than male births in this area; anecdotal evidence shows this. One possible reason is a local fruit called aguaje, which apparently encourages certain hormones in women, although I failed to find a properly researched document to support this.

Girls here want to get pregnant quickly, partly because they have very strong maternal instincts, and being a single mother is perfectly acceptable socially — in fact this is the only way. The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future. My travel guide, who speaks fluent English, sees absolutely no reason why he should have any discussion with his daughters about the risks of unplanned, early, single motherhood. At the age of 23, he has three daughters, from three different women. Mostly he does not care what the woman he has a relationship with does when he is not with her. Incest is not uncommon.

People have enough to eat, so major crimes do not happen. But when crime must be controlled, it is through fear of punishment and much more importantly through real-time policing; those who cannot think much into a future don’t worry about punishment tomorrow. This reminds me that in many parts of Africa there is no word for “tomorrow” or “future.”

As I have seen elsewhere among people lacking reflective, critical reason — which is the situation in most of the non-Western world — petty crime, such as seizure of cellphones, is not considered immoral and hence is very common. The police and military must stand on every corner.

The area around Iquitos could be better than Switzerland. It isn’t. But you cannot blame lack of resources, lack of space, or even lack of educational possibilities. People here have a very high time-preference. A remote village of 500 people that I went to, about two hours away by boat from Iquitos, started getting surplus money through its interactions with jungle-related tourism, so it set up a night club and two bars. Not a piece of machinery was bought.

Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Any excess money over basic needs gets spent on pleasure, right away. Iquitos is very noisy, because people like loud music and other loud sounds. Girls in very short skirts stand outside shops to attract people to buy motorbikes, TVs, and big, high-capacity sound systems, all playing at full blast. Casinos (and I am told brothels, in this rather promiscuous society) are everywhere, showing how bored people are. They are addicted to constant distractions.

Any rational person would have expected the surplus to go into investments in capital. But of course, the World Bank with its Ivy League educated “economists” must be happy, for they want consumption to go up. Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Outside the supermarket here, there are several women sitting with scales, to let people weigh themselves for a few cents. None has business. There are shops after shops after shops, all well stocked, selling exactly the same wares, with none too busy. Hundreds of women sit next to one another selling exactly the same vegetables and fruit, all staring in oblivion, from early morning to late in the evening. Everywhere people, including the receptionist at my hotel, sit glued to the soap operas on their TVs. Soap operas are packed with fighting and exaggerated emotional dramas.

Anyone who tried to understand the situation might come, quite contrary to what the mainstream developmental economists would suggest, to the conclusion that in the final analysis the problem here — as elsewhere in the developing world — is not lack of capital, space, resources, safety, or property rights; nor is it overpopulation. The World Bank, the IMF and most economists are looking in the wrong direction.

The problem of poor societies is their lack of imagination, creativity, and reason, which is the dominant characteristic of the non-Western world. Modern education has completely failed to inculcate these human qualities. Perhaps it has made the situation worse, for education has been marketed to people in the non-Western world as something that offers a better material future, not a bigger vision of life. This has encouraged rote learning, not a passion for understanding the universe. In the end the education instilled in such students becomes just another baggage of beliefs, burdening them and distancing them from imagination, creativity, and reason.

Material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable.

In most parts of the poor world (Africa, India, Peru, Central America, the Middle East, etc.) economic growth — the kind encouraged by international institutions — has had many bad consequences. These regions did not develop the concept of reasoning, planning, and strategic thinking. In the absence of these things, removing people from their tribal lives leads to emptiness and confusion. Any money they get goes into showing off and into too much drinking and partying. Noise, smell, chaos seem to develop quickly wherever surplus money comes to exist. Obesity and other lifestyle diseases are growing rapidly in all of these poor countries. And most rational people in the West fail to understand the situation: rational people’s rationality preempts them from understanding how irrational the developing world really is.

In such places wealth does not lead to peace, hygiene, improved health, and enlightened living. Even what could be an oasis becomes noisy, dirty, and diseased. The developing world has been the economic beneficiary of easy imports of technology, almost all of it attributable to the internet and telephony — both of which, during the past two decades, opened the floodgates of quick economic growth. Contrary to the claims of international institutions, growth in most of the developing world cannot be shown to be a product of liberalization, the spread of democracy, or public education.

For now, the World Bank and the IMF can justify their existence, but correlation is not causation. Liberalization didn’t really happen, although democracy is rearing its ugly head everywhere in the developing world. It has involved masses of people in public policy, masses who cannot think and reason, and are mostly driven by the desire for bread and circuses. Public education hasn’t delivered.

At the core, material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable. Now the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and growth rate in the developing world is falling rapidly. The consequences of overconsumption and lack of capital investment are becoming visible.

A true developmental economist should look at the reality beyond the superficial economic numbers. I am extremely happy and free in Iquitos, but what a tourist and an outsider with money can experience is not the full reality. Never trust economists who do a quick fly-in and fly-out of a poor country and while there get driven around in Mercedes cars and stay in five-star hotels. Ask them if they have been to Iquitos, and the jungles with mosquitoes and naked tribes.




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The Greek Mystique

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I’m not an economist. I may have gotten my figures wrong. I may have gotten my economic history wrong. But it seems to me that Greece, population 11 million, has defaulted on about $100 billion worth of emergency loans that were made to cover its inability to pay off even larger loans. It also seems to me that the money that was loaned went to sustain a pension system that enabled people — almost half of them government employees — to retire at an absurdly early age, and at a still more absurd age if they worked at hundreds of “hazardous” occupations, such as beautician and radio announcer. And it now appears that while taking emergency loans to enable it to get through a “tough” period of “austerity” mandated by its fiendish creditors, Greece actually added 70,000 workers to the government payroll.

In response to the awful suffering imposed on them from beyond, Greeks went to the polls on Sunday and passed a referendum encouraging their government to demand yet more money from their creditors, with the stipulation that Greeks themselves would do nothing “further” to economize. The referendum won by a landslide. The human pebbles who slid down the electoral hill apparently believed that the people who loaned them money were exploiting them by expecting them to honor some part of their agreements.

The Greek government will now demand that a large portion of its debt be “written down”; in other words, that Greece be licensed simply to keep the money it was loaned and now refuses to pay back. In support of this idealistic notion, many of the pebbles took to the streets, indignantly proclaiming that “Greeks are not beggars!” They are right; there are other words for what they are — or, more properly, for how they’re acting. It’s a fine illustration of the way in which normal, decent people turn into ne’er-do-wells and conmen at the polls. The first victims of the conmen are themselves. They convince themselves that they are acting decently — indeed, that they are impelled by a righteous cause.

hile taking emergency loans to enable it to get through a “tough” period of “austerity” mandated by its fiendish creditors, Greece actually added 70,000 workers to the government payroll.

We’ll see whether Greece will continue to find European financial agencies that are silly enough to provide more money, on the Greeks’ own terms. Maybe it will. In Europe, there are two suckers born every minute.

Others besides me have commented on these matters, and I’ve read a lot of their comments. But so far I haven’t encountered a certain kind of comment. It seems to me an obvious one to make, but it isn’t being made. So I’ll make it.

When we talk about “European” loans to “Greece,” we must remember that we are talking about money that governments and government-sponsored banks have arranged to cover the debts of Greek official institutions. No private individual would make loans like this, unless he was figuring on some government covering his ass. In Greece itself, no private individual would do that.It’s like the California “bullet train”: it’s supposed to be a wonderful investment, but somehow, not a penny of private money has ever been invested in it.

If there is a better argument against centralized economic decisions, I can’t think of one. Here we have enormously ridiculous, enormously expensive losses, engendered by a class of government-sponsored experts who thought they knew better than every other individual on the planet. And by the way, these experts were working with other people’s money, with money that is taken, not requested. That kind of money is always easy to spend. And here is the financial system that is supposed to give the world security.

No private individual would make loans like this, unless he was figuring on some government covering his ass.

The Greeks aren’t the only people who think that “investment” means extracting money from productive individuals and giving it to the government to spend on projects that can’t possibly turn a profit. That’s the modern system of political economy. As for the ability of the United States, or the now-sainted China, to stimulate its economy by increasing its debts, the comment of Ray Gaines in Monday’s Wall Street Journal says it all: the system is not working. Meanwhile, the culture of entitlement that is inseparably linked to borrowing without repaying spreads inexorably from the seminar room to the legislative chamber to the chamber of commerce and the welfare mob. Too confused to argue, it asserts its positions; too proud to beg, it demands.




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Hong Kong in Context

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Taking a casual survey of American political rhetoric, one would suspect that we were at the dawn of a new age — or at least that this nation had a poor memory. Somehow everything has become unprecedented. Unprecedented healthcare reform; unprecedented opposition to healthcare reform; unprecedented Republican victories in the midterm elections; unprecedented demonstrations in Hong Kong. But China has a long memory.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have adhered to the choreography of Chinese politics in at least one important respect: the Communist regime has accused its political opponents of being unpatriotic. Xinhua, the state news agency, recently published a commentary denouncing celebrities who supported the protests for the putative crime of challenging the authority of the Party, and — by a heroic leap of logic — of betraying a lack of love for the motherland. CY Leung, the Chief Executive, has accused foreign actors of orchestrating the demonstrations. He did not specify who these foreign actors were, but we all know that he means the United States, as if we weren’t content with the existing friction in bilateral relations and decided on a whim to make life more difficult for the Chinese government.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity, but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share.

Such hamfisted tactics could be dismissed, were it not for the real danger that the accusations might actually be taken seriously. There is an ugly history of antagonism between the people of Hong Kong and their estranged brethren on mainland China, inspired by subjects ranging from the status of the Cantonese dialect to patriotic education to reports of tourists doing unseemly things in unseemly places in Hong Kong. To people from mainland China, the aloofness of people from Hong Kong often smacks of arrogance and snobbery. But the Chinese can put up with snobbery. It plagues Beijing and Shanghai, and nobody seems to mind. In the case of Hong Kong, the danger is that the protests may be viewed in light of this antagonism and interpreted as a posture of “more-democratic-than-thou.”

Hong Kong has always been viewed as an enclave of wealthy, westernized Chinese, enjoying a wide measure of civil liberties that have been resolutely denied to people from the mainland. There is a significant possibility that they will be regarded as spoiled children, not content with their privileges and clamoring for more. The Communist regime will avail itself of every opportunity to cast aspersions on the pro-democracy demonstrators, and any indication that this is a struggle for Hong Kong’s exclusive rights will only serve to alienate it from the rest of China.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity — for that would invite references to their former status as a colony of the West — but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share. To Americans nurtured on the idea of universal values, this should not seem unprecedented.

/p




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Canada’s 10/14

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Two recent events in Canada have taken over the emotions both of Canadians and of people far and wide. In a more rational world these might not even have been news, but in our world they have become very big news, largely for the wrong reasons: the victims were in uniform and there is an association with Islam.

Americans and Canadians have been so conditioned to fear Islamic influence that even minor events related to Islam suddenly appear to be all that matters. They also forget that those in uniform take up jobs in which their lives may actually be at stake. Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

The state never loses an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. The indoctrinated, infantile population, deep in their being expecting a utopia where no one ever dies or even gets hurt, must beg and plead for a bigger state, more reductions in privacy, and a ramp up of war.

Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

In league with the United States, Canada has unilaterally declared war on several states or state-like entities in the Middle East, most recently on ISIS, an organization that no one, not even the “all-knowing” US spy agencies, had a clue about a few months back but that, ironically, for the convenience of the English speaking populace, has given itself an English name rather than scarier ones such as Abu Sayyaf, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, etc. The Taliban and al Qaeda are now old-fashioned. If what we have been told about ISIS is to be believed, it is trying to take over a region where what is supposed to work politically in the United States has not worked. Having removed Saddam Hussein, who kept stability and sectarian violence at bay, the US created massive chaos in the region.

The whole iteration of implanting democracies, removing democratically elected Islamists, funding and arming rebels who then become inconvenient, then going back through the sequence again and again, forever churning out more insecure sociopaths, hasn’t convinced the US that it should leave Iraq and Syria alone to deal with their own problems, organically evolving their own institutions, as Hayek would have suggested. The US and its groupies, Canada and the UK, must decide how others should live.

To say that there has been a lack of perspective concerning subsequent events would be putting it mildly. In Canada, the two murderers had opportunities to kill a few civilians on the way; they didn’t. Moreover, the fact that there was only one crazy who was involved in entering the Canadian parliament shows that he was unable to find more to join him in his “jihad.” Making the next step a rational response is too much to expect from indoctrinated Canadians. They will do exactly the opposite. They will work to increase the size of the state and its military effort. The guy working at Starbucks worries about the lack of driving rights among women in Saudi Arabia, not knowing that it is a US protectorate. In a generalized fear of all the strange things he hears, he sees massive civilian deaths by US drones as mere collateral damage; he acquiesces in the idea of killing women and kids to bring more freedom to women and better education to kids. People who are indoctrinated emotionally lose their bearings and their foothold on reality — and when it comes to the crunch, Canadians, the more indoctrinated and socialistic people, will exhibit a worse side than Americans.

We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden?

Stephen Harper will not let this overblown crisis go to waste. If sanity prevailed, Canadians would be protesting their entanglements in Iraq, Syria, etc., which have had horrible unintended consequences. But expecting rational actions would be asking for the impossible.

Post script: We must all watch what we say these days. What one says or writes ends up in the NSA or similar meta-databases. We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden? The Canadian government is contemplating a law to make it illegal for anyone to sympathize with terrorists. What “sympathy” means will of course be left to the judgment of the bureaucrat. My guess is that Canadians will take the pill of increased slavery without a murmur.

We often forget that governments can actually get away with a lot more than they do. The reason they do not increase regulatory control is not so much a fear of resistance from the citizens as a fear of hurting the economy, and hence their tax collections, as well as a realization that heavy-handed laws may increase corruption and the fragmentation of their control mechanisms, defeating the whole purpose. They always tread the thin line that helps them maximize control, tyranny, and privilege.




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Hong Kong: Democracy and Liberties

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As I write (October 15), protestors in Hong Kong are still trying to make the city more democratic and to wean it off Chinese government influence.

Protestors were seen cleaning up after themselves and even helping out the police with umbrellas during downpours. Indeed, HK is one of the most civilized places I have been to, and I visit several times a year. Despite its congestion, people respect your space and are hard-working, making it one of the freest, safest, and most competitive places in the world.

China itself is a communist dictatorship, or so it is believed. When the UK transferred the administration of HK to China in 1997, the world was convinced that China would destroy HK’s liberties. Between 1997 and 2003, the HK property market fell between 30% and 50%, and in some areas even more. A mass-migration happened to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

Democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators.

By 2003, the realization had set in that the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of destroying HK’s liberties. HK continued to boom and stayed as one of the freest places in the world. China not only did not flood HK with continental Chinese, as had been suspected, but it maintained a visa regime like that which had existed before they took over: even today it is Chinese who need a visa to visit, not Indians, the stark enemies of China. Those who had left HK for good started returning. Businesses, the stock market, and the general economy boomed.

Within HK, you could speak, shout, and write against China and the Communist Party, on the streets and in the parliament, and still find yourself feeling as secure as you would have in a similar situation in Canada or the UK.

International observers — from social democrats to believers in the free market — sacrificed their integrity when they refused to admit that their forecasts about what China would do with HK had been proven wrong. They refused to express respect toward China for how well it had maintained HK. Even a criminal deserves fair treatment.

But should HK not get democracy, more liberties, and freedom of speech?

People’s understanding of democracy is utterly twisted, in an Orwellian sense. “Begging the question,” they treat liberty and democracy as synonymous. As defined, “democracy” is a system in which the government is elected, in some form, by the majority of people. By itself the concept says nothing about institutions of liberty and the size of government.

The fanatic believers in democracy, despite the common failure of democracies around the world — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and more recently in Libya and Egypt — refuse to see the shallowness of their New Age religion. They refuse to see that democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators. This invariably leads to overall reduction of liberties and relegates the majority to the culture and mentality of beggars.

The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them.

But what about the freedom of speech and liberties that democracy promotes? As a student in my university in India, I could be beaten up without any moral hiccups if that was what the majority decided. These days, I podcast interviews of people from around the world, to discuss cultures. Most of my contacts feel flattered and are happy to talk. The country with the highest refusal rate for interviews is democratic India. In fact, the rate is close to 100%. In India, you can speak against systemic corruption, as long you do so in vague, broad terms, although what really matters in any fight is to pinpoint corruption of specific institutions. Hardly an Indian will talk to me about specific corruption.

Institutional corruption entangles people, for they must be a part of it even if they hate it, if they want to survive. Last week, I was in a government office in India. There were more private “facilitators,” to help navigate the corruption, than bureaucrats. The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them. Where are liberties and freedom of speech in the world’s biggest democracy?

Should it be so difficult to understand that democracy and liberties are not synonymous?

If you want freedom of speech and other liberties, you must fight for better institutions, preferably private and non-democratic and hence unpoisoned by the majority who care less for virtues and more for material pleasures.

Or let’s consider the world’s second biggest democracy and the most passionate proselytizer, the land of the free, the USA. Americans can talk freely about broad, amorphous subjects. But can they talk about specific ones? How many people can claim to speak their minds openly about race, native Indian issues, the sexual orientation of others, women, etc.? And how many fail to speak freely because they fear they might get into the no-fly list or in the records of the CIA or that an unhappy government might initiate IRS audits? When at American airports, I make sure I don’t utter certain words — even in an innocent sentence — to avoid having a SWAT team descend on me. The lack of freedom of speech has become so institutionalized in the minds of Americans that they don’t even realize what they don’t have.

In comparison, non-democratic Hong Kong is a freewheeling place where people have the freedom to say what they think. There is hardly a country anywhere in the world better in comparison. Only those prepared to fool themselves or incapable of deeper thinking conflate freedom of speech with democracy.

Another way in which the international society, the secular but fanatic believers in democracy, has lacked integrity is their failure to recognize that some of the best improvements in liberties and economic growth have appeared in non-democratic countries: HK, China, Singapore, and Macau. Korea and Taiwan grew the most when they lacked a proper democratic system. So did Japan and Chile. I struggle to find a nation in recent times that has begun to succeed under democracy.

Our lack of integrity is not just a standalone vice. It detaches us from seeing the truth, from weighing the situation properly and assess what must be done to improve society.

But given the liberties and higher intellectual environment in HK — as I concede above — should its people not have the right to vote freely for their own government? Aren’t the students and people of HK — as I concede above — among the most civilized people anywhere?

It is an error to believe that what people say is what they want. The fever of democracy has now been sweeping the world for a few years. This is not a demand for more liberties or improvement in human rights, as they seem to demand, but in essence a demand for a magic wand, to get something for nothing.

People should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction.

Collectives and mass movements are based on such desires and it is an error to expect higher ideals from them. Ready to follow unexamined romantic ideas, students of HK are supporting leftist elements. While a parliamentarian, Leung Kwok-hung, a Che Guevara lover, shouts and protests against the Chinese regime openly and without fear while he is in HK, I wonder if he would allow the same liberties to others if he came to power in a democratic Hong Kong.

One of the worst political disasters of recent times has been to give the vote to students. However good they might be, they simply lack the life experience to understand the relationships between ideas and, if they do, to weigh them based on their importance. They lack the experience to comprehend life in its complexities. Formal education at best is about learning the alphabet of life. But life must be lived and experienced to create prose from this alphabet. Moreover, education around the world, including HK and Singapore, indoctrinates students in what must be accepted as beliefs. And it is the “progressive” agenda of those in the West and their wishy-washy Marxist ideology that is now a matter of faith among students around the world. HK’s recent movement is heavily influenced by this.

So, what should Hong Kong do, if not fight for more liberties? HK has perhaps the smallest government in the world and is among the freest societies. Even then it’s worth reducing the size of its government, one hopes to nothing. Yes, indeed, people should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction. Moreover, fighting on the street is always a wrong start, for it presumes that the protestor can infringe on other people’s liberties, to somehow gain larger liberties for everyone. Our path must be in sync with our goals. What one sees in HK today is the path backwards.




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The Political Philosophy of the Crimean Crisis

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I tried to resist, but I can’t. At the risk of being accused of pro-Soviet tendencies, I have to comment on a bizarre but real report in The Telegraph (March 6):

As European leaders [who else?] met in Brussels [where else?], President Barack Obama denounced plans for a referendum on whether the occupied Crimea region should join Russia as a “violation” of international law.

A violation of Ukrainian law, doubtless; but how does international law get into it? And just who is it that deliberates on international law, passes it, and provides for its amendment? Doubtless “European leaders.” So can they decide that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, despite all evidence that the majority of its population doesn’t want things that way? But to continue:

“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” he [President Obama] said.

I can’t make sense of that. Can you? Apparently, borders can be redrawn; that, in fact, is what he’s objecting to.

Now, there are strong arguments that borders should not be redrawn, no matter what. No matter what nationalisms are involved, no matter what petty religious or historical or linguistic disputes are available, the peace of Europe demands, or at least requests, that changes not take place in the continent’s frequently arbitrary borders. (I note, as I have before, that the Crimea became part of Ukraine by fiat of the Soviet dictatorship. So much for “law.”) Any people that wants to institute the kind of political changes that will bring it the blessings of prosperity would do well to drop its more exuberant forms of nationalism, accept whatever borders have been dealt to it, and think in terms of freedom for the individual, not vengeance for the ethnos.

None of this is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game.

But that’s not what Obama is saying. He’s saying, or seems to be saying, that “leaders,” who are also supposedly “democratic,” get to decide. Does that mean Putin? Apparently it must — though that’s not what Obama wants his words to mean. And how about the Ukrainian president, the one whom Ukrainian revolutionaries just kicked out? Also a democratic leader. Should he decide the fate of the Crimea? But what about the people who are being led? Do they get to say anything? No, they don’t. Not according to Obama. He wants no referendum. Does he suspect that it would be about as democratic as an election in Chicago? Or is he offended that he, the biggest of all democratic leaders, would have no say in its results?

None of this fits. None of it holds together. None of it is a rational political philosophy. It’s just a dumber form of the old statist shell game, in which the principle of legitimacy passes from “the people” to “the leaders” and back again, over and over, and where it lights is simply the place on the sidewalk where the politicians squat in a circle and play their games according to the rules they make up.

And what rules can we expect from a president who suggests, according to the same news report, that the Crimean crisis can be “resolved diplomatically in a way which would satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the international community.”

Satisfy them? Satisfy them all?




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Still Waiting

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Today (August 31), President Obama made a bellicose speech in which he said that he had decided to attack Syria — but wouldn’t do it until he had a supportive vote from Congress. At least that’s the way I interpreted his remarks. “Are you going to strike if Congress disapproves?” shouted a member of the audience. But Obama walked away from her question.

The president had just said he was confident he had the authority to act but out of respect for democracy he wanted to bring Congress into the thing. His thought was characteristically muddled, but the meaning I take from it is that the chief executive views democratic consent as a privilege, not as a right. It is the kind of privilege that mom and dad give to the “family council.” The kind of privilege your boss gives you when he says, “We’re going to go forward with Project X. I’m sure you agree.”

I expect Congress to disappoint him. But if that happens, I’m sorry to say that it will be because the Great Decider has blundered so badly, not because the Little Deciders have rejected the idea of an aggressive executive power.




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The Egyptian Mess

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Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
                                                                                   —Isaiah 36:6

No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.

The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.

Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.

We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.

Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.

The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.

Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.

The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.

Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.

After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.

Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.

Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.

When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.

Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:

  • Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
  • The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
  • The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
  • Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
  • Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
  • The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
  • Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
  • Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.

Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.

I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.




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