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Philosophy

Around the ’50s a political ideology formed. I’m sure its ideas date back further but it was at this time that it crystalised into a coherent group. More than a political ideology, it was, and is, a worldview. This worldview has no explicit pop-culture presence. No-one preaches it overtly. So most people are unaware of it directly. However it was, and still is, insidiously influential on the thoughts of some important people.

One of the most basic assertions/assumptions of this worldview is what is technically called strong reductionism. This is the idea that any system is just the sum of the elements in the system. Put plainly: to understand a society you have to only understand individuals. So, for example, if crime increases by 10% then the explanation is that individuals like crime by 10% more than before. It is this idea that lead Thatcher to believe and proclaim that “there is no such thing as society.” What she meant is that society is a kind of academic myth. A mirage created by a bad understanding of the world.

I don’t know how but this worldview has filtered out into popular culture. The world is confusing right now, and confusion both inspires and demands analysis. Reading the never-ending stream of analyses of how we got here, on racism, on sexism, on equality, on social justice, I have noticed that the worldview I mention is encoded right into all of them, and it makes these analysis irrelevant because they’re blind to the biggest factors.

These analyses seem mostly to try to reduce behaviours of societies down to how individuals think and act. Attributing things to individuals is difficult, as there are billions of them, so this approach necessarily requires demographic segmentation i.e. stereotypical thinking (which is ironically often what the analysis is out to criticise.) You have to find the demographic group whose behaviour, or thoughts, or opinions can reasonably be said to contain the behaviour you are trying to explain. I say reasonably because these analyses are usually only opinions; what the writer thinks is a reasonable explanation is accepted, usually without any actual evidence, instead relaying on the reader liking the sound of the conclusion. How many “why Trump got elected” videos and articles have you seen? Few provide any causal evidence, most only provide demographics as data masquerading as evidence. These are plentiful and have, undoubtedly, already coloured peoples ideas of how the world works.

This approach to understanding the world is limited to specific types of conclusions. If the phenomena we are most concerned about are recent this type of analysis can only conclude that the difference in our society is obviously the fault of whichever group represents the biggest recent demographic change; millennials. Things like institutional racism or sexism are incomprehensible because those phrases don’t mean anything. How can an institution be racist if none of the individuals in the institution are guilty of overt racism? How can we even approach fixing a sexist education system if none of the parts of that system are being sexist? How can inhuman labour practices be an issue if everyone working in the factories chose to work there?

Strong reductionism is bullshit. It was shown, with actual maths, to be bullshit over 100 years ago. The hard sciences, you know, the people who put robots on comets millions of miles away, predict weather with miraculous precision, run optical cables across the ocean floor, create self-driving vehicles, use general relativity to account for transmission distortion in communication between machines in geo-stationary orbits, put the magic machine you are looking at in front of you, those people, dropped strong reductionism at that time and never looked back.

If you want to understand radical changes in the behaviour of our society in the last decade there is an elephant in the room: social media. Social media itself mediates the new social interaction. The important word there being interaction. Interaction is not a feature of individuals so strong reductionist worldviews are blind to it. For them interaction is effectively inert. It just transmits benignly, having no overall effect on behaviour. It can express behavioural traits, that’s it.

When the world, apparently in unison, listens to Gangnam Style then a month later ritualistically pours buckets of water over their heads, what does that tell you? That everyone woke up one morning and decided they like songs about Korean horse farming, then changed their mind and really wanted to pour whatever over their heads and social media was just there to record it? Or is it a more feasible explanation that those things went viral largely because of the nature of social media itself? So many variables in that process are obviously part of how social media and the internet themselves work and cannot be reduced to individuals at all. If social media didn’t exist, but every music shop in the world sold copies of Gangnam Style one day, would people have bought it? There is clearly another factor at play here that isn’t just peoples’ traits.

There is a motion that fake news, transmitted by social media, was a large factor in recent political events. You might think that this is an example of a break from the worldview above because it is laying blame at Zuckerberg’s feet. Maybe it is, but this analysis, again, seems to be about the content traveling around social media rather than the system itself. The system is at fault in that it contains this type of content. It is recognised that social media creates filter bubbles in which our view of the world is coloured to match our outlook, biasing our opinions. Again, this looks at the situation in terms of individuals. Social media biases the individual, or more accurately the individual biases themselves using social media, which manifests itself as a societal bias. Social media is just providing a way for individuals to do what they as individuals want to do, but if that is true there is no bias… ta da!

This is, I’m sure, a factor but it’s an incomplete story. Social media filters content based on two broad factors: the user’s interaction with it and marketing revenue. So if we like things that steers social media’s shaping of the filter bubble but what we like is a function of our social interaction, which is itself mediated by social media and distorted by our filter bubble. It might sound like I have added nothing to this analysis. The first says “A affects B”. Mine says “A affects B which affects A”. I’ve just pointed out a feedback loop made from the same elements, but that feedback loop is an important extra element. Put a feedback loop in a speaker-microphone system and you get a loud, shrill whine, right? That screechy noise isn’t a product of the singer, or the mic, or the speaker, or the cables; it’s a product of those things combined. It’s exact pitch is a product of the properties of all of those things and it’s volume is a product of their interaction. You can sing a different song but you’ll still get the same pitch. The only way to get rid of it is to get rid of the feedback loop.

We all see definite polarisation on most important issues. The standard analysis is, again, that two groups form, and the difference in opinion between the two sums to the outlook of the society. And again we are ignoring interaction. What people miss out is that both sides have a vested interest in portraying the other side as as crazy as possible. So most of the examples of either side are actually picked out by the other side. Those articles about air conditioning being sexist, a woman with 40 kids on benefits, people complaining about a movie poster, outrage about this and that, political correctness gone made, are in every case minor incidents involving a handful of people selected by the other side and made viral. Then the analysis that follows is based on data handed over by this process. Apparently the worlds leading experts on gender equality are all well-off white men who think that feminists are all men hating nut-cases; a conclusion based on a biased view of the world provided largely by a social media system designed to respond to those opinions by shaping its filters to make the world look more like that view!

In technical science systems with feedback loops have a mathematical property called non-linearity. They’re called complex systems because they have complex and often weird behaviours. The properties of these systems are well understood by people whose opinions no one cares about, and are unknown unknowns to a huge number of people whose opinions that shape our society. You probably aren’t aware of this but the idea of strong reductionism is axiomatic to all neo-classical economics, which includes all the ideas about how economies function in official practice right now. It’s embedded in the university curricula studied by many of our government ministers, although to be fair they probably didn’t pay much attention.

I doubt many people know what Praxeology is despite its followers regarding it as the single most important and applicable advance in all of intellectual history. It’s more relevant than you might think. It inhabits the thoughts of many pro-market, anti-social responsibility think tanks and lobby groups. I think it’s only a matter of time before UKIP incorporate into their public manifesto.

Economics is split into ‘Schools’, one of which was called the Austrian School, which was largely similar to any neoclassical economics school until a guy called Ludwig von Mises came along and, in my opinion, fundamentally changed the school’s basic assertions. He kept the von in his name because he was a colossal snob and moved to the US  where an anarcho-capitalist movement was building political steam. The movement took the title ‘The Libertarian Party’ (a word that until then meant something completely different.) So called ‘Austrian Economics’ was chosen as its technical basis.

I say so called because nowadays ‘Austrian Economics’ means anything Mises said[2] and ‘Austrian Economists’ means a bunch of self-publishing, capitalist-funded apologists that unanimously conclude that capitalism is the answer. If you take a look at Mises.org you’ll see an obvious personality cult that literally praises Mises whenever possible.

Mises came up with Praxeology, which he presented as “the (not a) science of human action” (while spending a lot of time explaining that science is useless for understanding economic behavior). This is taken as the philosophical basis of Austrian economics. Taken in the sense that I’m not sure to what extent Austrian economists used praxeology, but Libertarians today seem to regard its position with respect to Austrian Economics as undisputed.

So, here’s the thing… Anarcho-capitalism smacks of religion. You have The Market. The Market is always right. You can’t ‘know’ The Market because it’s mysterious and if you try to know it or control it it’ll strike you down with righteous fury. If you think The Market is wrong you are wrong. There are no alternatives. There can be no compromise. This is just true, get over it. Global warming is a myth.

More similarities can be found in Praxeology texts. For example: Non-Overlapping Magisteria. This is the argument that theology and science deal with different aspects of reality and therefor cannot comment on each other’s findings. This is recreated explicitly in Praxeology, and some. They argue that “human action” can only be understood through pure-thought logic and that empirical evidence is of no consequence because it can’t prove or falsify economic theories.

Praxeology is a body of philosophical work. It presents itself as both complete and self-validating. It proves itself. It uses a kind of custom variant of logic, missing out a lot of key findings, like incompleteness. Like any quasi-philosophical crap it makes heavy use of special, private definitions of otherwise common words, while not making much effort to make that explicit. I think this is, in a sense, a useful property of the theory: it makes it very hard to think about competing ideas because it’s just confusing. It’s a bit like how companies use custom power adapters; it keeps you in the eco-system. For example, “true” means something like “valid” and/or “consistent”; and the terms “valid” and “consistent” themselves are often conflated. Formal logic allows a set of statements to be both valid and inconsistent; Praxeology doesn’t seem to allow that, or at least when this situation arises it’s discarded without justification. The same is true of words like “right”, “freedom”, “truth”, “valid”, “action”, “act”, “logic”, “axiom”, “aggression”, “state”… all of which have special definitions (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) in Praxeology and are often defined as derivatives of other concepts within Praxeology, making their use confusing.

Praxeology plays a strange game of switching between deduction and induction and back again (incoherently insisting it is both at once with only the fuzziest justification) to make statements that are asserted as empirical statements but defended as deductive ones. The only support for this necessary habit is to insist on the existence of a third category of statement beyond a priori and a posteriori, without providing any formalized way of deducing which of these categories a statement belongs to (arguably the third category is axioms, more on that later). This imposed ambiguity is actually used to allow unsupported shifts between deduction and induction. They argue that while many might think that a statement is either a priori or a posteriori, that in reality a statement can be a synthetic a priori (one that is deductive but tells you something about reality [5]). This is wobbly already because it’s like saying “a statement is verifiable, not verifiably, or something else”, but beyond that it also betrays a faulty idea of what a statement is. They imply that “all statements belong to one and only one of these three categories and you can just tell by looking at it”. This is not quite right. The statement “the moon is made of cheese” is neither a priori nor a posteriori in of itself. Only in it’s use in some system of statements does it become one of those things. Statements can be either, depending on use. Praxeologists assert statements, don’t specify what their usage is, and use that ambiguity to allow the impression that the statements are synthetic a priori statements by varying how it is framed.

You can get a taste of that when Austrian economists talk about governments causing inflation…then, when pursued, explain that they define inflation as increase in the money supply so their presented assertion about the world is just a statement about their own private definitions of common words[3].

The whole structure rests on one statement, the Action Axiom, from which Mises derived everything else. The action axiom is simply “human action in purposeful behaviour”. Mises then went on to argue that action is comprised of “categories of action” like “ends”, “means”, “profit”, “causation”, “time”, “space”. He argued that an “action” has a concept of “ends” built into it, or put another way, that an agent considering action must have an concept of end. To me, that is a boldly empirical claim, one that if demonstrated would be worth a Nobel Prize in Neuroscience. Of course, if forced to defend the assertion, it would be defended as a deductive statement. It’s as if “action includes ends” is just what those words mean… but also a statement about the world… but they don’t need to prove it empirically… so it’s deductive… so it’s just what those words mean…but it is definitely true…but they kind of use the words “true” and “valid” interchangeably…and “valid” often means “derivable from the action axiom”…which is true…because it is…

The Action Axiom is fraught with ambiguity. Is breathing purposeful? If so is every breath an action or are all breaths one action? Is every step an action with it’s own explicit purpose? What’s a purpose? Are there purposes to be found? If not in what sense is the Axiom true? Is converting oxygen to carbon dioxide purposeful? Is something not an action if it isn’t purposeful? If I don’t know I’m doing it is it an action? What are unintended consequences? How would you prove the axiom false? If the answer (which I believe it is) is that you can’t falsify it then I can use it to show that every molecule of oxygen you breath corresponds to a distinct and conceived purpose. Decomposing actions like this leads to the problem that the sum effort in performing individual acts is far higher than treating the whole breath as a single act, and that sum increases the more you arbitrarily split the action.. so the Praxeologist can’t argue that arbitrary division always adds to the same total. Obviously it limits at infinity, which has to be wrong.

Praxeologists… Praxeologians… use the word “axiom” a lot, which they define as something like “a statement that cannot be argued against without employing it”. Actually this is, again, a private definition. It’s not what an axiom is to everyone else in the world. An axiom is simply and underived statement. That’s it. Any statement can be used as an axiom. For example “the moon is made of cheese” is an axiom if it you use it as an axiom. That’s how logic works. It doesn’t deal with meaning and it doesn’t tell you anything about the world. It’s just a bunch of rules about how to derive statements from statements. Your axioms are your chosen starting point. If you can demonstrate that your axioms are true then any other statements you derive from those axioms are true, right? So, for example, if my chosen axioms are “the moon is made of cheese” and “cheese contains milk” then I can derive the statement “the moon contains milk”. If the axioms were true then all three of those statements would be true… or reality is crazy. This is going somewhere.

I really want to focus on one part of Praxeology; is it’s most clever and batshit bonkers idea: Performative Contradiction. It kind of follows from the their idea of what an axiom is. They never prove the Action Axiom (if they did it wouldn’t really be an axiom) instead they argue that a human can’t argue that humans don’t act without acting, therefor humans act. Many are very impressed with this idea. Arguing is an (intentional) action so arguing against the Action Axiom proves the Action Axiom. Brilliant and literally ridiculous.

The first problem is that contradiction happens between statements. A statement can contradict a statement. An act can’t contradict a statement. So there’s that. The act of asserting a statement is not a statement in the argument being asserted. Obviously. Perhaps the act demonstrates the arguer is a hypocrite. So by saying “the moon is made of cheese” I prove that I must believe that humans act with intention? The problem is that that still doesn’t prove the axiom is true. It simply demonstrates, at best, I presented a collection of statements that contain at least one contradiction. It doesn’t establish which side of the contradiction is false. If I say “the moon is made of cheese” and “the moon is not made of cheese”, those two statements collectively are invalid, but there is no way to deduce which of those statements is true from just those statements. Similarly the “performative contradiction” doesn’t establish that the axiom is true, only that it is either true or it’s antithesis is true, but that’s just an axiom of logic itself (it’s the definition of ‘not’). The performative contradiction argument only really works if the axiom is true, because if it is true then I did act with intention (regardless of whether I believe that I did or believe that I didn’t)… if it’s true it’s true. So what?* If it isn’t true then I didn’t act with intention regardless of what I actually said. The possibility remains that the counter-arguer doesn’t believe that humans act with intention, only that they believe they do, in which cause they could assert “humans believe they act with intention” and “humans don’t act with intention” without contradiction and therefor without proving the action axiom. This opens up the possibility of constructing an argument that disagrees with the action axiom without using the action axiom. So the action axiom isn’t an Austrian axiom.

In fact the Action Axiom isn’t event a genuine axiom. Another common property of internet nonsense is the use of hidden axioms. These are things that are axiomatic in the theory but never explicitly stated. This can be done intentionally or not, it’s hard to tell. Praxeology has a lot of them. If the Action Axiom is indeed proved by use of Performative Contradiction in an argument then the Action Axiom clearly isn’t axiomatic; the content of the Performative Contradiction argument is. The theory should, if it were proper formal logic, construct Performative Contradiction from other statements or it is itself axiomatic. Contradiction can be taken as given from logic theory itself but the theory has to establish that making an argument can somehow prove that the arguer has assumed something and how to derive what that something is. This is never given as far as I can tell but more importantly it isn’t derived from the Action Axiom. It’s just there. So the whole “praxeology proves itself” is plain wrong.

There are many other hidden axioms in Praxeology. Big ones too. Like “homesteading”; also known as “original appropriation”. It is held that people own themselves (which is bonkers in of itself). A statement that is defended with Performative Contradiction (bonkersly).  They then argue that owning something can only happen by voluntary exchange or original appropriation, by which I mean that they are established as congruent but not proved, and further that something can become owned once a moral agent “mixes his labour (as far as I can tell there are literally no women in Praxeology except Ayn Rand)” with the whatever it is. That’s right… mixes labour with stuff. Those people who snigger at “leftists” and “socialists” and “liberals” for being “economically illiterate” believe that mixing an action with a substance makes sense. This mixing is never derived. It’s just held that it can be done. How this mixing causes something to become owned is never demonstrated or derived from the Axiom Axiom. It’s not even proved by Performative Contradiction. Even further they make unfounded leaps; you “mix your labour” with soil but end up owning a geographic region. How? How do you “mix your labour” with a geographic region? As far as I can tell the only validation of homesteading is that it doesn’t, and cannot, be an act of aggression and therefor doesn’t breach their non-aggression principal. But this is clearly not true. I suspect that if you push a Praxeologian on it they’ll likely fall back to that being what the word “aggression” means i.e. a breach of property rights and nature has no property rights (another hidden axiom).

While Praxeology is presented as logically infallible it skirts over all kinds of ambiguity. A good example is the idea of a “threat.” You can’t initiate force, but you can use force to stop your property rights being breached, which is the basis of self/property defense. This argument is intrinsically flawed because you can’t use force to stop something that has already happened. If someone invades your property they have already done it. Using force can never stop them from doing it. If you use force before they invade your property you are the originator. Their theory only seems to permit something that it also forbids. It does however allow someone to respond to a threat but does so in a categorical way: if someone breaches your property rights then you can breach theirs (note that to a Praxeologian that includes murder). Praxeology removes the problematic ambiguity of lesser moral systems… but what constitutes a threat? A threat is, and can only be, a perception in the mind of the threatened. Remember that these are people who complain about the arbitrary power of states to deprive you of property, but have no problem peddling the idea that if someone steals your pen you can murder them. Of course, surely, no Praxeologist would argue that murdering someone over a pen is something that should be happening in any functional society, but how do they resolve that inherent ambiguity? We can employ arbitration, I have no objections to systems that need arbitration, but I do have a problem when people claim that they have a logically airtight moral system that generates such ambiguity. Praxeology doesn’t set a good foundation for resolution of what constitutes a threat, because, ultimately, who has the authority to deny anyone the right to murder a pen stealer? Any such authority is, by their own arguments, invalid. Some might argue that the only force that is allowed is whatever is necessary to return the pen to it’s owner, but, again, what is necessary? The approach also renders any third party force intervention invalid, because the third parties rights were never breached. The only way around that is to allow the third party to joint-own everything that could be stolen, granting them rights to use force against theives… sounds familiar. Or perhaps they could argue that anyone whose property rights are indirectly breached by the pen owner’s act to return the pen (say the pen owner’s boss who lost a day’s labour because the pen owner skipped work to murder someone) also have the right to use force against the pen thief, but who isn’t in that group? Something I have never understood about this is what happens if the pen thief kills the pen owner? Very caustic social castigation?

The incorporation of threat into Praxeology also leads to a clear self-contradiction with other parts of the theory. Praxeologians hold that the point of property norms is to minimize conflict (another hidden axiom) and that exclusive private property norms are the only realistic option[6] (which is a fantastic coincidence because by a completely unrelated argument exclusive property rights are undeniable). They argue that “argumentation” can never cause conflict but that is clearly false. A threat is a statement and arguments contain statements, so an argument can contain threats of any type. And anyone can be the target of the threat. So any “argumentation” between any two people can constitute a threat to any number of people. Obviously. They allow, by the use of the concept of threat, for “argumentation” to be a literal source of conflict. And, even more, the inclusion of a threat in an argument can happen without breaching any “argumentation” principals. For example, the arguer might not know it’s a threat. So there is no get out clause. They can’t say “the inclusion of the threat terminates the argumentation and avoids the contradiction” but even if that were valid argumentation would still clearly have the potential to lead to conflict. The only remaining defense is that responding to a threat doesn’t count as conflict, which would show that a world filled with people brutalizing each other all day long, because some third party argued that some pens might get nicked, is perfectly congruent with Praxeological morality, while a world in which no-one kills anyone but everyone pays tax isn’t and, as such, that this system of thought minimizes conflict by simply defining it a certain way. Good work guys.

So far I have dealt with Praxeology on a mostly logical level but there are some aspects that are worrying, rather than just absurd. They argue all rights are derived from self-ownership, which is itself just a special example of property right. But who has rights? You might think that those that have the right to not be harmed are those capable of suffering, right? Wrong. Harm to others is framed purely in terms of damage of property; the individual’s body being property. Rights are granted to “moral agents” and “moral agents” are individuals capable of deliberately respecting or breaching property rights. If a given being is not capable of conceptualizing their principals, like the principal of private property or self ownership or purposeful action, then they don’t have rights. That’s how they exclude animals. What is worrying is how easy it would be to include anyone in that category and how, coincidentally, that category seems to include anyone who disagrees with them. Not believing their fundamental principals is the same as not being able to deliberate over their implications. How can someone truly deliberately respect someone’s property rights while not believing they have them? So if you disagree you are either wrong or you have no basis claim your rights can be breached. Sound familiar? Like the annihilation of entire indigenous populations? It also demonstrates a tragic irony: no one has rights unless it can be established that they are moral agents… how would that be established?

[1] At best all Mises did was show that humans think that humans act with intention and can’t think otherwise, but that’s a pretty generous description, really he showed that any human that thinks the way Mises did will find it hard to conceive of themselves as not being intentional (we can easily conceive of others as not intentional), but clearly not impossible because his only proof requires humans to be able to at least conceive of themselves as not being intentional actors else how could they, even in theory, form the invalid argument Mises needs to prove his Action Axiom?

[2] Although they convieniently miss out when Mises said that any regulation that is beneficial to the efficacy of the market is valid, citing fire regulation as something that no sane man could disagree with. Or how Mises didn’t believe “Fiat Currency” existed. They also don’t mention that Hayek thought that government control of interest rates could have no significant effect (they very much disagree with him on that) because the expansion caused by private bank lending far outpaced it’s effects. That one isn’t so yay-capitalism.

[3] All government managed currencies inflate because that’s what those words really mean to them. They’ll never point out the epistemic invalidity of data gathering if people find data to back their ideas up but no data can prove them false.

[4] This video contains a few more examples of this similarity. A few minutes in Hoppe starts a slightly mocking attack on empirical scientists (positivists) with an inaccurate caricature of the scientific method (he hedges early on by saying he used to be an expert in this but forgot most of it). He says that they lack the luxury of absolute certainty possessed by praxeologians and that they repeatedly modify predictions until data fits them. You can find identical recreations of these criticisms in fundamentalist/creation science/intelligent design literature. He then argues that if Praxeology was accepted economists would all be out of work and as a result they all have a vested interest in opposing it (he missed out how Austrian Economists would also be out of work, but whatever). This persecution complex non-sequitur, again, can be found in anti-secularism texts; specifically that atheists like atheism and hate faith because it allows them to get away with their amoral way of life.

[5] I suspect that this is another special use. They seem to assume that a synthetic a priori tells you something about reality, but that’s not the classical meaning. A synthetic statement is one that asserts a concept not found in it’s subject concept (regardless of whether it refers to reality).

 [6] Yes, practicality is included in Praxeology despite it not accepting empirical methods.

I generally agree with what Harris said in The Moral Landscape. I thought a lot of the bad press he got over it wasn’t deserved simply because his book was largely a set of thought experiments; interesting as academic pursuits. As far as applying them to the real world goes not much was given. It’s defensible that what’s moral is an empirical, and therefor scientific, question, but what tools does that give us in the real world? I don’t know. 

So it’s interesting to look at how Harris himself approaches real-world issues just to see how it links back to his book. I’m not really sure how it does and what he has said gives the impression that if his position is based on his moral theorising it has left him unable to see an invasion as an invasion. In this blog post he starts out by arguing something like “in wars all bets are off, people do bad shit”. Maybe, but applying that to what’s happening in Gaza is extra-ordinarily misleading. He made this point in response to Israel’s record of war crimes. The vast detail he doesn’t mention is that all the terrorism and crimes against Israel that are given as pretexts to murder are the result of it’s invasion, blockade and siege of Palestine. Even the existence of Hamas itself is arguably the result of Israel’s war crimes. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” 

You have to ask yourself, given Harris’ recent history as a champion of reason: what is the reasonable response to terrorism? Is it murdering people who had nothing to do with it? If there is a way to stop it without killing people should that be the first option open to a reasonable mind? International law is clear on this. Another detail Harris ignores. Israel has the right to defend itself and everyone with any understanding of terrorism or security or the situation in Palestine understands exactly how Israel can stop all the terrorism right now: call off their invasion, blockades and sieges and go home inside Israel’s borders. They accidentally did this already. Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, which Israel totally violated by implementing blockades, another war crime, during which Hamas completely stopped rocket fire into Israel. So they could just do that, forever this time. Even if Israel was justified in using aggression, which it’s not, it would still be guilty of breaching the Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids transfer of population into occupied land. You have to understand that war is declared against states, not people or land. The threat is the state and once the state is pacified the threat is gone. Even declaring war doesn’t give a state de facto right to take any region over.

Harris’ entire thesis in The Moral Landscape is that morality comes down to suffering versus well-being. With that in mind read the following:

Consider how we behaved in World War II: We did things that would now constitute the worst war crimes imaginable—the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We literally burned hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive. Was all that carnage strategically necessary? I don’t know—probably not. And we certainly couldn’t behave this way today without invoking the wrath of billions of people. However, the crucial question is, what sort of world were we trying to create? What were the real intentions of the U.S. and Britain with respect to Germany and Japan? Well, you saw our intentions after the war: We helped rebuild these countries. Out of the ashes of this war, we created the allies we deserved. The truth is that we wanted to live in a peaceful world with thriving economies on all sides.

He seems to have stopped slightly short of saying burning people to death is OK so long as you have a nice idea in mind, OK so long as we “create the allies we deserved.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t mean that. Even to argue that intention is the crucial question seems to be a total deviation from his moral theoretics. It’s not the issue of killing people nor the issue of whether any of it was strategically necessary that’s central, we should look away from that, it’s the issue of intention that is crucial. 

So let’s talk about intentions. The current escalation in Gaza started with the abduction of some teenagers from Israel. Actually, not exactly… they were abducted form the occupied West Bank, not Israel. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and ordered a search in Gaza. Israeli soldiers started arresting people in Gaza, something like 800, no-one has since mentioned this, the biggest kidnapping ring in history. Not surprisingly this investigation pissed people off. You can imagine what would happen if foreign soldiers showed up in New York and arrested 800 people. Shortly after it was discovered that he knew that they were dead before starting the investigation. It was then revealed that his own people thought that the culprits probably weren’t receiving orders from Hamas; which was later confirmed. People get kidnapped and murdered all the time, do countries usually go to war over it? Why does Harris, a self defined supporter of reason, have nothing to say about such unreasonable behaviour? And if we are supposed to be interested in intentions: what are the intentions powering Israel’s actions? It seems murderous irrational belligerence. 

One way to measure a civilisation’s developmental progress is to look at the extent to which people’s lives are at the mercy of the environment. We can establish perfectly comfortable living standards in places that at one time would have been inhabitable only with extraordinary effort, or perhaps not inhabitable at all. It’s debatable about how far along that process we are, given that we are facing an imminent existential threat caused by how we have chosen to interact with the environment, but it is easy to see that technological and sociological development, at least in principal, gives rise to the possibility of completely abstracting our survival from environmental variables.

This line of thought is what, to me, uncovers how ridiculous our idea of alien invasion is.

Stephen Hawking recently said “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”, which is almost an exact quote from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Alien invasion would involve traveling a vast distance through space, either requiring a lot of time or a lot of energy, or both. Doing that would require a level of technology so advanced it can produce the required energy and provide such a level of abstraction from environmental threats that survival in space is not a problem. Why would a civilisation capable of that invade us?

Imagine this: You live in a comfortable home in a developed country with a nice job. You don’t need to worry about anything except getting to work on time. You decide to get on a plane, fly to the other side of the planet, taking a piece of wood with a nail in it with you, so you can bludgen a few natives on some desert island somewhere and steal their huts. And you do that because you like the fruit that grows on the few dozen trees outside. Why would you do that? Do you want that fruit that much?

This is the basic premise behind the vast majority of alien invasion narratives, including Hawking’s. The narrative hangs together with a piece of story telling proclamation: they want something we have; either oil, slaves, human brains, water or some vague idea of our ‘resources’. They have the technology to get here and destroy a whole planet but they are still dependent on plundering these basic things out of the ground?

The comparison to the West Indies, and my metaphor, break down for even more fundamental reasons. In those narratives the invader and the victim are both the same type of being. They have the same biology and therefor the same basic requirements. Alien planets are … alien. We have evolved to live in our world, we would almost certainly not find alien planets particularly comfortable, to say the least. What makes those planets beautiful and welcoming to the aliens would make them biologically terrifying to us. So imagine flying to the other side of the earth to live near a sea of acid breathing carbon monoxide near trees of poisonous fruit saturated with germs that can stroll past your immune system unnoticed… that invasion seems less appealing.

There’s also a much more philosophical objection to the idea of comparing our interactions with aliens to our past: aliens may well not think like us at all. The dynamics of human thought that give rise to our patterns of history might not even exist in alien minds. It could be that those patterns are purged from the cosmos by galactic darwinian selection: those races obsessed with imperialism at all costs may well always remove themselves from the universe before ever getting the opportunity victimise other planets. We are almost a case study in that. It could be that getting to the stage to be able to tackle interstellar travel requires a level of social cohesion that would-be invaders just don’t possess.

In my opinion there are only a few simple examples of alien invasion stories that hold any water: those in which the aliens invade not for any economic reason but because it is intrinsic in their nature. One example is the Borg. Another is from Babylon 5 in which the Vorlons find a way to travel to another universe and find a race that considers all other sentient life to be an insult. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a bit of a deviation in that the aliens invade because they see humans as a potential threat. In the original they saw our development of nuclear weapons as an indication of our destructiveness, which just raises the question: why would this be a significant problem to these advanced aliens? In the recent remake the producers reverted to a more standard alien invasion premise: we are are destroying a resource, our planet, and they have to intervene to stop us in order to secure that resource. This just raises the usual questions and further, why did the aliens see their only option to be killing us all with a magic black cloud? Why not get it to wipe out all of our polluting machinery? What’s the worst that would happen? People dying?

There could be realistic examples that are far more complex. A keen reader will have noticed that I could turn this whole argument on its head. If it is more realistic to imagine the alien’s motives to be simply some ingrained and irresistible psychotic behaviour, then it could be argued that that is exactly how humans behaved in the past and so drawing analogies to those events is a valid observation. Sure we can cast our history of conquest into terms of resource and economy, but ultimately we could have found alternatives, we didn’t need to do what we did in order to get what we needed. We chose the psychotic solution from a multitude of possibilities. Perhaps alien invaders would do the same. Perhaps they would hold to an economic model that resonates with their psychotic nature because its the only one that would allow them to act on that nature. And perhaps it would raise obvious questions like: “why did you come all the way here to kill us to steal something you don’t need?” This idea doesn’t quite hold because our invader ancestors conquered places to make someone somewhere rich by gaining control of the sole supply of something (initially land, then fossil fuels). Consumption of oil, and indeed, our need for land can’t exactly be explained in terms of psychotic motivations: we really do need land to live and oil is on first sight a good source of energy. It’s more accurate to say that a small section of society was in a position to act in a psychotic manner to get more of what they like at the cost of the rest, and the rest fit into this system by having valid needs for things like land and energy. The option to gain a fair share of land and enough energy by non-psychotic means we usually kept off the table. The motivation was always economic, by which I mean it was some people getting what they want by exploiting control of the supply of what all people need. Psychosis wasn’t the only fundamental factor, it was more a choice of strategy in response to an economic reality. If you took away that economic reality would the psychotic choice still be on the table?

Is it plausible to imagine a civilization advanced enough to have the technology to travel between stars to murder aliens and plunder their worlds either for some economic reasons that persist despite their advancements or for economic reasons that some of those aliens have developed (by infliction upon themselves without wiping themselves out) in order to engineer a situation in which they can murder aliens and plunder their worlds? When they take our land what will they do with it? Sell it to each other? To do what? Grow food they can’t eat? Set up factories? Why not set them up in space? What would those factories produce? The Roman Empire plundered gold but they only did that because gold what what they made coins out of and they did that because it was a good material to make coins out of. Again, it’s just a substance that is needed for some reason. What substance and what reason would the aliens be captive to? Why? Because they’ve, by some insane marketing scheme, tricked themselves into thinking they need to invade Earth? When the US invaded Iraq they secured oil that Americans bought. What would the aliens secure? Who would buy it and why? Have the aliens sustained a price bubble in the Earth property market? How? Why?

This is why alien invasion stories are always so nonsensical to me. There is never even a partial explanation for why the invasion is happening. It’s surprising that Hawking would enter into such a discussion and make such a simple claim as to assert a similarity to human history.

 

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about the nature of finance and money. It was hard to get into details as there was a lot of ground to cover. I thought it would be useful to summarise my position in a list of atomic propositions. The following is true for the UK but equally true for any country that issues it’s own currency at a floating exchange rate. This is all based on work by people like L. Randall Wray, Michael Hudson, Steve Keen, David Graeber and Robert Shiller.

1) Money is a representation of debt. If you buy a car off someone you could pay them with an IOU to the value of the car. The buyer could then at some time give you back the IOU and get something worth a car (from you.) The debt would be cancelled out and the IOU would disappear. Money is what happens when you implement some sort of system that allows some otherwise normal IOUs to be transferable. I-owe-yous become anyone-owes-yous. This means that the IOU given in payment can be given, in return for goods, to someone else.

2) There is more than one way to make IOUs transferable. Broadly speaking there are only two that I know of. The first is social money. This is based on optional trust. In this system the IOUs are transferable within a set of people who trust each other to honour the idea that those IOUs are transferable. These money systems tend to be small because they can only be as big as human personal social groups allow. The other system is central authority. In this system a central authority issues the IOUs, which are all claims on that authority rather than individuals.

3) If the debt that money represents is repaid then that money ceases to exist.

4) The thing that the government ‘owes’ currency holders is a reduction in their tax bill. The promise the government makes when it issues currency is that that currency can be used to pay any tax bill they issue.

5) The purpose of the tax system is to create demand for sovereign currency. By issuing a tax burden payable in some thing the government creates demand for that thing. From a macro-economic perspective it doesn’t matter how the tax bill is issued. Technically it doesn’t even need to be tax, it could be fines. It doesn’t matter if the tax bill is uniformly divided or levied on one individual, or anything in between. The fact that someone has to pay a tax bill with Xs means that demand for Xs is increased. If X has value even without the tax system, the X will be worth more with the tax system in place [1].

6) The government does not need to ‘raise’ pounds to spend pounds. The government issues pounds. All tax pounds it receives were issued by it in the first place. The government must issue pounds in order to tax them back.

7) The government cannot ‘save’ pounds. The government cannot save pounds for the same reason you cannot ‘save’ your own IOUs. You can’t have I-owe-myselfs.

8) Money creation is a process that ends with government issuing currency. It isn’t accurate to say that the government creates money. Most money creation happens without the government’s direct consent. The government can pursue policies that aim to issue new currency but only to the extent that the rest of the non-government sector is willing to participate. The only way the government can create money independently is by directly depositing currency simultaneously into a person’s bank accounts and into that person’s bank’s reserves (assuming people are happy to receive it). This, however, is not how most of the money in circulation comes to be. The other two processes are lending and spending. The first process is that people ask banks for loans, the bank choses to oblige or not (without the government having any real say), then the bank tries to get whatever reserves it feels it needs (historically the UK has had no reserve requirements). If the bank can’t get the reserves it needs from other banks it goes to the Bank of England and asks for, effectively, an overdraft. The BoE always obliges because to refuse would cause a credit crunch. At this point the ‘money’ is already in existence and the person receiving the loan could have already started spending it. The government then issues the currency making the money official. The other way the government can issue currency is through spending, buying goods and services, but note that the government can only buy what can be bought and generally can’t force anyone to sell, so it’s spending is limited by reality. It also can only buy things in it’s own currency that are for sale in it’s own currency. It can spend other countries currencies if it wants (and has some), but by doing so can’t issue pounds.

9) The economy is split into three sectors: the government, the domestic private sector and the world. This is a financially closed system by definition. The accounts of these three entities add up to zero (again by definition). From the perspective of the UK a foreign country is a bank that has an account in the BoE. Foreign firms have accounts in those banks. From this the rest of the world can be seen as just a sector of the UK economy. This sector is very similar to the domestic private sector. The main differences is that it internally isn’t subject to the rules of our government but conversely has no say in how our country is run. Our country is also part of the ‘rest of the world’ sectors in other economies (that is the BoE has accounts in other countries central banks).

10) For the non-government sector to run a surplus, the UK government must run a deficit. This is true by definition.

11) If the non-government sector is free to run a surplus then the government is not free to eliminate it’s deficit. This is true by deduction alone.

12) Activity funded with existing currency is repaying an old debt and issuing a new one. If I buy a car and issue an IOU, I owe you a thing worth a car. If that IOU is transferable then the person with my IOU can take it to someone else and exchange it for something, but in doing so they transfer the IOU to a third person. The second person is now settled., I now longer owe them anything, but the third person has a claim on me i.e. the IOU I issued. Spending money is the process of transferring a debt such the original issuer owes the final person in the chain, but the people in between are all left with a balance of zero (denominated in my IOUs). This is how our money works with the exception that my IOUs aren’t very transferable, but the government’s are. My IOUs are a bit transferable, so I can make these types of chains but only very short ones including people I know who trust me; however, I have little need to create such chains so never do. Instead I use the governments IOUs and become just another person in a chain, without having to worry about being the beginning or end.

13) Spontaneous activity requires issuing of new currency. From 12 it follows that the chain has to start somewhere. Someone has to simply issue the IOU from nothing. Linking to earlier points, this is usually how banks work. They start a debt chain then ask the government to insert themselves as the starting link, making the bank the second link in the chain.

14) Barter cannot explain expansion without charity. This is really an implication of 12 and 13. A business can be self-sufficient. It can pay for itself out of its income, but it has to have the income. It can’t generate an income before producing something. And it can’t produce something without capital. By deduction there has to be either a chain of debt that has to start somewhere (which disqualifies the economy as a barter economy) or someone must be simply gifting capital, which ultimately requires someone to be working for nothing. So a barter economy (lacking debt) that adheres to financial basics cannot expand.

15) There are good and bad ways to issue tax burdens and currency but the overall mechanics are the same. The government could choose to issue money by buying whatever it chooses. It could choose how it taxes and why. That will have varying social effects. The effects are an ethical matter not a macroeconomic matter. The choices will change the size of specific markets. For example if the government decided to always buy chocolate then chocolate markets would get a demand boost.

16) There is an optimum value for government surplus/deficit. There are pragmatic reasons to decide what a ‘good’ government deficit/surplus is, but those reasons do not include what the actual figure is. That figure is not always best when it is as low as possible and it is not always better when it is reduced. It is ‘best’ when it has the desired socioeconomic effects, which again are a matter of ethics not macroeconomics.

17) The UK government can not be forced to default on any debt denominated in pounds. It can never become insolvent. It can be forced to default on debts held in other currencies, but it can always issue the currency necessary to meet interest payments on debts in pounds.

18) The government set interest rates and therefor can always service public debt. If the UK interest rates were higher than growth, then the public debt would too quickly. But, again, the government sets interest rates so this could only happen if it chooses to let it happen.

19) Currency denominated in pounds can never leave the UK banking system. Often people talk about foreign held debt or dollars ‘in’ China or held by China. To be precise pounds cannot leave the UK banking system because they literally don’t exist outside of that system [4]. A foreign national bank can have an account at the BoE. In that account it can hold reserves or bonds. The currency can never be accurately described as being ‘in’ the foreign country. Pounds can only be spent in the UK financial system (or in a foreign country that uses pounds, which would be part of our banking system). Cash can be physically taken to foreign countries, but once there it becomes an asset in that country, not a currency. It can’t be paid into a bank account either, only bought in return for local currency if there is demand for pounds there. Virtual currency cannot be transfered to a foreign banking system either, the idea is meaningless. There is no meta-currency in which currency exchanges take place so currency exchange is either barter (floating exchange rates) or an arbitrary agreement to always issue a unit of currency in return for a unit of foreign currency. When a unit of currency is changed through a floating exchange rate it is really traded as an asset. When it is exchanged through a fixed exchange rate it is stockpiled by the foreign country and a new local currency unit is issued. The original unit of currency is still held in the currency issuer’s central bank (in an account controlled by the other country) and still entirely within that countries banking system.

20) A trade deficit does not export pounds. Following on from above, if the UK has a trade deficit (meaning it is at a net financial loss through trade, referred to as a current account deficit), this means that reserves are flowing into accounts in the BoE held by foreign central banks from other accounts in the BoE (usually mostly from domestic private accounts).

21) The UKs trade deficit is subject to interest rates that are set by the UK government just like domestically held public debt. Foreign central banks have accounts in the BoE, which pays interest just like any bank account. Higher interest can be earned by buying bonds (which are just like saving accounts). Those bonds, too, are just entries in an account at the BoE. Some think that this means foreign debt puts the UK government at some kind of default risk because of interest costs. The interest rates are, however, set by the BoE.

22) Refusing to issue currency to meet the non-government sector’s demand for it always translates into unemployment. Unemployment can be caused by there not being enough things to do or by a lack of demand but it can happen when there is plenty of both, which is usually the case in the real world [3]. Should the economy be in a position to expand its operations it needs finance. It needs finance for purely abstract reasons. It doesn’t ‘use’ finance in production. it can’t turn finance into anything. Because financial systems need to be tractable, that is they need to make mathematical sense, balance sheets need to add up etc., finance must be made available to allow new activity. In this case debt must be issued from nothing. If there aren’t enough pounds in circulation then, regardless of intentions or business models or demand or ingenuity, no new ventures can be undertaken without making our financial accounts mathematically nonsensical. Employing the unemployed, without taking wages from existing workers, requires new economic activity to happen spontaneously. This requires issuing currency, which in turn is the same as increasing the deficit (or reducing the surplus). Refusal to do that, through government policy, creates a situation in which the economy can’t employ more people regardless of any other factors [2].

23) The government pays interest on BoE accounts and charges interest on reserves it lends out in order to control interest rates. Reserve accounts at a central bank can pay interest, if the government decides to. It will also charge interest if a bank wants to borrow reserves. It doesn’t do this for fiscal reasons. It doesn’t need to profit off lending nor is it required to pay interest payments (often central banks pay zero interest on reserves). And it can ‘afford’ to pay as much interest as it likes. It does these things purely to control interest rates.

[1] This is why gold coins almost always circulate at prices above gold’s bullion value. There is an exception, however, which is when the material the currency is issued in is mixed. If the government issues coins in gold and copper, that both have the same nominal value (meaning the both count equally against a tax bill or fine), then people will obviously pay their tax bills in copper coins before gold ones. This extends to virtual currency that is just spreadsheet entries and has no real value.

[2] There is actually a very weird but accurate analogy: money is a unit of measurement of debt. In that sense it’s no different to meters or kilograms. Imagine that, for some bizarre reason, creating a road would require you to ‘have’ enough meters in the bank. Roads could be built only when old ones are ‘liquidated’ back into meters, or when new meters are issued. It’s easy to see what would happen if the government tried to ‘balance’ their meter account. It’s also bizarre to imagine a government stressing about having a ‘meter deficit’.

[3] I would argue that in the real world there is always something to do. ‘Bad times’ are identified by the very fact that there is a lot to do. Everyone always needs to eat and people always need shelter and security. Further, if modern life shows us anything it is that we can condition ourselves to demand literally anything.

[4] This is exactly the same as saying “points can’t leave a football tournament.” The points scored in a football tournament are meaningless outside of the tournament. You can ‘transfer’ a football point to a rugby point if tournament operators arbitrarily decide to honour the idea. In this case what would really happen is that the football point would disappear and the rugby point would be created. Or the two tournaments could use some kind of floating exchange rate by allowing bartering of points from the other tournaments.

You have probably watched one of those TV shows in which someone is convinced they can sing because they’ve only ever had positive encouragement from the small set of people who have heard them sing. The Stefan Molyneux phenomenon reminds me of that. Molyneux operates inside a bubble of his own making that suppresses negative feedback. He runs a community and charges a fee for full access. Discussions there are moderated. You know, to preserve the freedom. For example, there was a huge discussion on free will. Molyneux declared the subject off limits because he found it boring.

I found the embedded video mirrored on someone else’s youtube account:

He begins the video by introducing his podcast as the biggest philosophy podcast in the world. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as “the biggest podcast that tagged itself philosophy”. Now, I could spend a lot of time explaining all the ways I disagree with Molyneux. There are ways in which I agree with him but those aspects of his ideas are so intwined with such grotesque perversions of reason that it’s hard to find common ground even when I’m standing on it. Instead I will try to narrow my disagreement down to something fundamental. The video illustrates.

So he begins by telling us what his conclusion is: “there is no such thing as mental illness”. He then follows his standard format: bombards the viewer with a torrent of factoids without even explaining why they are relevant, let alone providing a common thread of reason. What I dislike about what he does is that: He has no idea how to do philosophy. He listed some facts about the number of people affected by what is called mental illness, none of which is relevant to his assertion. Further, the number of people affected by mental health issues is an empirical measure i.e. science, not philosophy. Not only is it all off topic but it demonstrates his lack of understanding of what philosophy really is. Further, his approach seems to amount to a kind of emotional pleading by throwing lots of facts around that are apparently significant for some reason and letting the viewer join the dots. All of which allows him to arrogantly begin a lot of his video titles with “The Truth About…” because his videos are often mostly factoid dumps.

He defines mental illness as “a chemical imbalance in the brain” then cites some people saying that cases of mental illnesses rarely involve a detectable “chemical imbalance”. He makes the rough argument that no-one has ever found a “chemical imbalance” underlying a mental illness [2]. But, again, that is an empirical argument about the existence of chemical imbalances not a philosophical argument about the nature of mental illness. He makes a big deal of the fact that mental illness diagnoses make use of behaviour measures, and picks out psychiatry as if it is the only field that discusses mental health (conveniently sidestepping neuroscience, which is the thing that he is criticising psychiatry for not being) [6].

There are two things that he needs to realise:

1) The fact that mental illnesses are detected and categorised based on behaviour is irrelevant as to whether they are a reality [7]. An illness is a situation that fulfills two criteria, firstly, it is out of the ordinary and secondly it negatively affects quality of life. That’s it. If we happen to be able to directly observe a physical process causing it that’s helpful for treatment but not necessary when it comes to actually recognizing it’s reality. Take an example, you have an infection that causes nausea. You are ill because throwing up all of the time is unusual and negatively affects your quality of life. In that case we can probably observe the offending bacteria. What if you simply believe you feel sick? Someone who is literally convinced they feel sick, by definition, is ill. To assert that the fact that we can’t find a physical correlate proves there is no physical correlate is a simple breach of logic. You can argue that it is false to claim we have seen the illness… but that is an (obvious) empirical statement, not a philosophical one [5]. If a million people just started throwing up one day, and doctors couldn’t find any offending physical cause, would that mean we should just stop looking for a cause? By Molyneux’s reasoning medical science is at fault for ever imagining that there was any physical cause for any illness.

2) People profiting off the illusion of something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I am sure there are plenty of huge companies in the US profiting of people thinking they are in need of drugs and that is terrible. So what? If someone convinced people in the US that they need insurance against tornadoes and, as a result, sold huge insurance policies and made a killing, would that lend any weight either way to whether tornadoes are real? No, obviously. So why dedicate so much time to it?

Perhaps what he meant to say was “there are people lying about what is or isn’t mental illness in order to profit” [1]. If so he should be precise because philosophy demands precision at the very least.

It’s ironic because he seems to have positioned himself as someone who is out to rid the world of statism, which he seems to regard as perfectly analogous to a mental illness. I vaguely remember him calling religion a virus of the mind in one of his videos.

Molyneux seems to have so effectively protected himself from criticism[4] that he has become convinced that he is an important philosopher with lots of indisputable arguments[3] that have, somehow, gone undiscovered for thousands of years before he showed up.

[1] I suspect he can’t actually allow himself to argue this because he espouses so called “free market” societies in which lying to people to sell drugs is perfectly acceptable.

[2] Actually he imposed this definition. His argument is analogous to arguing tornados are defined as “things caused be imbalance of chi” and concluding tornadoes don’t exist.

[3] One of his gems is the argument that if you disagree with him about whether free will is real you have already proved it is real.

[4] I think he at least partially rationalises this by applying the ideas of the “free market” to knowledge: He is providing a service and others are paying him to provide his trash. Which might be why he feels he has the right to censor, his customers could just leave. Or he is just a terrible human being.

[5] “We can’t find unicorns therefor no-one has found a unicorn”: a valid, but banal, deductive statement deduced from empirical findings. “We can’t find unicorns therefor unicorns don’t exist”: an empirical statement derived in an invalid way from another empirical statement.

[6] He also proves himself wrong halfway through the video and doesn’t realise. He pointed out that children with ADHD could have it as a result of the drugs they are given… which would be an example of a physical cause of a mental illness. Of course it would be an artificially induced but lots of non-metal illnesses are artificially induced. And if we were having a properly philosophical discussion the distinction between artificially induced illness and naturally occurring illnesses would be a point of contention in of itself. A sign of someone who has no idea how to do philosophy is that they take ideas like that distinction as solved because they don’t realise that philosophy is about debating the possibility that they aren’t solved.

[7] This is hard for people who haven’t studied epistemology to grasp but science doesn’t deal with reality. Science delivers models that can be used to predict. It is for this reason that the reality of a disease is formally irrelevant (it has to be because it is actually impossible to know). Science simply says “If we pretend that X is true, we can make the following predictions.” X is not the reality of a phenomenon it is a model. Science is a methodology for building such models. You can model a thing without knowing what it is as a reality, which is why science is possible because if we had direct access to reality we wouldn’t need science.

There is a great documentary on Netflix called “The Spirit of ’45”. It got a 75% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. The low scores mostly come from The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Sun… so, make up your own mind about that. The documentary is a bit patchy. It glances over the years between about 1955 and when Thatcher came to power. It also doesn’t give a clear description of how the state was organised during those years. Some interpret this as selectivity with the aim of misdirection. Perhaps it is, but I think including these things would have strengthened the movie’s position. And it does have a position. The main ideological objection to the documentary seems to be that it makes workers out to be heroes while casting the establishment (including the police) as thugish villains. Nigel Andrews from FT.com points out that the documentary “doesn’t spare a frame for the concrete block dropped by NUM protesters from a motorway bridge”. That is a fair point in of itself. Omitting things from a documentary that are relevant is a flaw. However, I’m not sure how he thinks this fits into his overall criticism. Police are people. NUM protesters are people. The country was in a state that caused people to do extreme things, and some people are stupid. So what? Is he arguing that socialism is really the result of people wanting to throw bricks off bridges? Or the result of people not wanting to be beat up by police? I suspect not. I suppose he’s just making a childish “I know you are but what am I” argument.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to make this a meta-review.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the British Empire was nearing the end of it’s life. The Empire had brutalised most of the planet in order to secure the economic interests of ‘Britain’ and yet Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe. This had not gone unnoticed. A small set of the population were rich and thought of, explicitly, as tyrants. A huge number of people were living in a state of poverty and could only work when fickle market forces happened to allow it. The healthcare system was private or voluntary, and as such practically non-existent.

Then WWII happened.

Many talk about how the war affected the economy in purely abstract economical terms. The war created demand, which sustained the economy. Even if you accept that, of course, war is intrinsically a bubble. Any demand created by the war would disappear as soon as the war ends, which it has to eventually. Also, wars tend to end abruptly. One day you are producing munitions at maximum capacity; the next two thirds of your industry is useless and you have huge stocks of stuff you don’t need. As it happens it’s quite easy to retool industry from war to useful production, so it’s not all bad.

This overlooks the impact of the war on people, and how psychology affects the economy. The war taught people a very clear lesson: everyone can have a job. During the war there was little involuntary unemployment. People openly questioned “if we can have full employment killing Germans, why can’t we have full employment doing something useful?” And this isn’t an abstract statement about what people where thinking. This idea was out in the open, in the news, in public discussions, in labour movement speeches.

As soon as the war ended an election was called. The Labour movement won by a landslide. This was the first time in British history that a Labour movement got into power.

It’s interesting to note at this point the similarity to the US today. The US has no labour movement party. It has only Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It has an empire that spans the world founded on military power. It is extremely powerful and yet, by any metric, it’s homeland is a third world country. It’s only apparently developed because a small section of the population (that is a parasitic class) raises the averages. It’s also, arguably, nearing a breakdown in it’s power. It has long since lost control over China. South America, too, is becoming independent. The Arab Spring is bringing about, to some extent, sovereign rights over middle-eastern domestic resources. China is gaining momentum as the new US and India and Brazil are huge emerging markets.

Many of the ideas that were alive during the 30s in the UK, the recognition of vast disparity of wealth and power, the overt revulsion over individualism and market speculation, the idea of worker control and ordering a society system around improving people’s lives first and improving the markets second can be seen in protest movements in the US.

There is, however, a qualitative difference. Whereas the UK saw a Labour movement, the US’s protest comes primarily from the anti-globalisation movement. The Occupy movement isn’t as such a worker movement (although they are all clearly workers in the nominal sense), it’s also a customer movement. I think this difference can be explained by the fact that the UK in the 30s was industrialised whereas the US (and UK) economy right now is financialised. As a result workers rights are a problem but so are financial customers’ rights [1].

When the Labour party got into power they did some truly awe inspiring things (whether you agree that the changes were good or not you can’t disagree they were significant). Today, a political party will knock together a few million pounds, make a slight change to policy (and commission a marketing / branding campaign) and call it revolutionary. The Labour Party literally changed the fundamental mechanics of our whole society and implemented things that people today take as a granted component of life.

For the first time normal people could do progressive things like ‘see (with glasses)’ or ‘not die in childbirth’ or ‘make a fair wage’ or ‘not be get killed in mines’.

The Labour Party was explicitly Socialist. That’s uncontroversial. The Labour manifesto talked about pubic ownership of means of production. There are a few ways to interpret this in a practical sense. That is, there are many ways to implement socialism. What was implemented was a form of State Socialism. Since then State Socialism has been taken as what Socialism is, and any criticisms of Socialism you will find will be, in reality, criticisms of State Socialism [2].

State Socialism is an interesting system. It has to comprise of two interdependent systems.

1) A Top-down planning and administration

The chosen means of action in a State Socialist system is a top down administrative system…

2) A Bottom-up feedback

…but in order for the system to qualify as Socialism it must have a means by which workers can control their work. So there must be a parallel system by which decisions can be made by workers that filter up through the system to be then translated into administrative policies to be passed back down. 1 is the state part and 2 is the socialist part.

If the bottom-up component of this system is deficient then what you have is effectively totalitarianism (actually, a big corporation).

One of the causal dynamics in Politics that is often ignored is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The government is never really purely Labour or purely Conservative. The government as a real thing (rather than a theoretic construct) is much more complicated. At the time, and like always, there were many who were totally against socialism in whatever form it might take. The Conservatives, during the 1945 election, had Hayek’s Road to Serfdom republished. It is effectively a tirade against Socialism, and in a more broad sense one of the many religious texts on which fanatical neo-liberalism is based. Like minded individual’s insisted and predicted that Socialism had to fail. The problem is that those making the prediction also had the power to make their prediction a reality.

So it makes me wonder if to some extent UK State Socialism, rather than Libertarian Socialism, came about as a result of there being individuals in powerful positions who didn’t want Socialism. Firstly, if you want to implement Socialism in a previously State Capitalist country you have to make some huge changes, but if you opt for State Socialism there are many conventions and paradigms that you can keep. Chiefly the overall top-down administrative systems. So, in this sense, State Socialism could be seen as a kind of conformist type of Socialism, a reformation of State Capitalism. Secondly, those who are dead set against Socialism (that is worker control over capital) have a say in how the system is to be implemented and will try to retain the structures that have served them in the past, and further will try to steer the system towards an implementation that they have the power to disrupt (for example by interfering with the bottom-up component of the system while installing themselves in positions to benefit from the top-down part of the system, or by interfering with funding and investment.)

Many argued that the new nationalised systems were, in the end, not so dissimilar to the old tyrannical systems in that many of the tyrants (including Lords and Ministers) had been placed into the system in positions of power, and the theoretical bottom-up component, worker representation, was deficient. Over the coming decades British industry suffered from a lack of investment, which could have been created by the public sector but would have been considered to ‘Keynesian.’

A reoccurring pattern followed: private interests conspired to interfere with the public sector, knowingly sabotaging it, then asserted that all Socialism is flawed and claimed credit for predicting it, using that as justification for more austerity and less market regulation, which resulted, ironically, in an increase in state expenditure during the Thatcher years, imposition of free-market economics on some and huge protectionism measures for a minority. This set the basis for unfettered speculative schemes, transferring most economic effort into abstract markets that have no productive output, which eventually lead to the financial sector discovering it could make more money speculating on the mortgage market than actually financing productive enterprise or people’s lives. The result was a huge speculative bubble in the property market that everyone except neoliberal fundamentalists could see was a problem. When the bubble burst it almost destroyed the world economy and had huge repercussions on peoples lives.

[1] It’s interesting that, if you think about it, customers aren’t significantly different to employees. In fact customers are like perfect employees. They have all the benefits of employees, well, there’s only one: they cause money to go into the employers’ pockets, but have none of the drawbacks. The employer doesn’t have to do any of the stuff associated with maintaining employees.