So, The Sad Puppies, Then: 3 of 4 — “Libertarian” Authoritarians And Pulp

So, before we get to the actual point of this — the uproar in science fiction fandom about a number of books nominated for the Hugo Awards — let’s have a look at the list of libertarian policy positions supported by libertarian SF fandom I talked about last time :

  • Government is the only enemy of liberty, or the only one worth bothering with
  • “An armed society is a polite society” — guns make people behave
  • Securing the borders is one of only two legitimate functions of government
  • “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” — economics is a zero-sum game, and if you’re giving someone government welfare handouts, you must be taking them from someone else, who actually earned them.

Now, the interesting thing about that list is that it’s not the list of policy positions you would come up with if you looked at any of the attempts by Libertarians to get their ideas into mainstream discourse. If you were to, say, read Reason magazine for a year, or watch every episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, or any of the other venues in which Libertarian ideas are presented to the public, these would not be the ideas that would be harped on.

The reason for this is that Libertarianism is, like all political ideologies, a coalition, and self-described Libertarians fall into two very different groups.

The first group, the people who actually vote for the Libertarian Party, were discovered by the researcher Jonathan Haidt to be essentially small-l liberals who don’t care much about other people. That’s not an oversimplification — Haidt found that people’s moral and political views can be described by six factors: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. On all of them except “care”, the Libertarians were much closer to liberals than to conservatives, but on “care” they cared far less than conservatives, who cared less than liberals.

(That’s not necessarily a value judgement, by the way — it could be argued, though I think wrongly, that liberals let sentimentality get in the way of actually thinking with a clear head).

So the people who promote Libertarianism are, for the most part, promoting ideas that sound sensible to liberals, until they get to the occasional economic idea that just sounds wrong to non-Libertarians.

But most of the self-described Libertarians in SF fandom don’t vote for the Libertarian Party. Rather they’re independents who lean Republican, or they are actual Republicans, who use “Libertarian” as a label for the wing of the party they support, rather in the same way that Ken Clarke might describe himself as “on the liberal wing of the Conservative Party”.  And those people are rather different.

They are, for the most part, people who fit into the group identified by Robert Altermeyer in his research (summarised in his book The Authoritarians, which everyone should read). Altermeyer, like Haidt, found that people can be grouped into predictable clusters based on their answers to a relatively small number of questions, and one large group he called Right-Wing Authoritarians (yes, I know that the idea of a Libertarian Authoritarian sounds like an oxymoron…).

These people are, according to Altermeyer, those with three personality traits that they have in much higher degree than anyone else — authoritarian submission (following leaders, and believing that it’s right to follow leaders), authoritarian aggression (a dislike of the unlike, an aggression towards members of groups designated “other” by the leaders), and conventionalism (adhering to rigid norms and belief that others should follow those norms).

Now, at first glance, that sounds like the opposite of Libertarianism. Rigid conformity? Following leaders? That’s hardly the stuff of freedom-lovers, is it?

But look again at that list of policies. For a group of people whose main motivators are wanting to stick with the in-group and keep out the out-group, “securing the borders” and “an armed society is a polite society” sound very, very good.

So the RWAs in SF fandom for the most part gravitated towards Libertarianism.  But there are two other things that attracted them into specific areas.

The first was subject matter. RWAs are, as you might expect, big fans of the military, and so they quickly turned Heinlein’s libertarian-tinged stories about space militaries (notably Starship Troopers) into a whole genre, imaginatively known as “military science fiction”, about Space Marines In Space Doing Space Marine Stuff.  There are whole publishers (Baen Books is the most prominent) who publish almost nothing but “military science fiction”, usually along with a bit of military fantasy (the same stories but with orcs instead of aliens).

Not all military SF writers are RWAs, of course (John Scalzi, for example, whose Old Man’s War series is a conscious pastiche of Heinlein at his most militaristic, is a slightly-left-of-centre moderate liberal), and almost every SF writer has tried writing one or two military SF stories, but a huge number of them are. (Also, for some reason, a lot of military SF writers seem to be Mormon).

The other thing they gravitate to, again unsurprisingly, is the traditional pulp mode of storytelling. Not only is “conventional” an entirely good thing for RWAs, but the traditional pulp storyline (a baddy enters a community of good but weak people, and a goody who is stronger than those people defeats the baddy, where the baddy can be anything from an alien invasion fleet to the bandits raiding the village) dramatises perfectly the RWA view — there are people like us, good people, and there are bad forces out there that want to destroy the good people, and the good people need a strong man to protect them.

So in SF fandom there is a large group of people who are self-described Libertarians, but very much on the conservative end of that spectrum. Those people — or the in-group with which they identify — have been part of SF fandom since there’s been such a thing. They’ve never been the main group, but they’ve been a large and respected contingent within it. And both as writers and readers, they prefer pulpy fiction about tough men overcoming overwhelming odds to get the girl and save the planet.

But this contingent are now angry…

Bullet-Biters And Bomb-Testers

Sometimes serendipity happens. I was trying to think of a way to link together a couple of sections of the Hyperpost book, when I found this old post from Scott Aaronson’s blog Shtetl-Optimised.

In it, Aaronson talks about how he’d noticed that there was a lot of overlap between Libertarians and proponents of the Many-Worlds Hypothesis in quantum physics, and had tried to figure out why:

Some connections are obvious: libertarianism and MWI are both grand philosophical theories that start from premises that almost all educated people accept (quantum mechanics in the one case, Econ 101 in the other), and claim to reach conclusions that most educated people reject, or are at least puzzled by (the existence of parallel universes / the desirability of eliminating fire departments)…

My own hypothesis has to do with bullet-dodgers versus bullet-swallowers. A bullet-dodger is a person who says things like:

“Sure, obviously if you pursued that particular line of reasoning to an extreme, then you’d get such-and-such an absurd-seeming conclusion. But that very fact suggests that other forces might come into play that we don’t understand yet or haven’t accounted for. So let’s just make a mental note of it and move on.”

Faced with exactly the same situation, a bullet-swallower will exclaim:

“The entire world should follow the line of reasoning to precisely this extreme, and this is the conclusion, and if a ‘consensus of educated opinion’ finds it disagreeable or absurd, then so much the worse for educated opinion! Those who accept this are intellectual heroes; those who don’t are cowards.”

I think he’s on to something, but I think there’s a second aspect, which is what happens when those ideas actually hit reality.

Because Libertarianism and the Many Worlds Hypothesis have one big difference between them – one has immediate real-world consequences, and the other doesn’t. And that means that it is no longer a purely intellectual exercise.

Leaving aside whether the claims for Libertarianism (of the Ayn Rand type, which is what Aaronson is referring to) stack up logically, and assume for a moment one believes them to be correct, should you *act* as if you believe the claims to be correct? To take Aaronson’s example, should we privatise the fire service?

If you’re a libertarian, you believe the answer should be yes – that privatising the fire service would have the end result of fewer fires, and those fires being fought more cheaply. But what if you’re wrong? If you’re wrong, then the result would be people – potentially a lot of people – losing their homes.

So there’s a second level of calculation to be done here – how sure are you of your own reasoning ability and the information (your priors, in Bayesian terms) you use to come to your conclusions? *WHEN YOU FACTOR IN THE PROBABILITY OF YOU BEING WRONG* does the expected benefit if you’re right outweigh the expected loss if you’re wrong?

Now, on this blog I often fall into the ‘bullet biter’ side of things *when talking about ideas with no real-world immediate consequences*, because it’s both intellectually right and more interesting. But take the Many-Worlds hypothesis. I consider this the most likely of the various explanations of quantum theory I’ve read, and would put my confidence in that judgement at about 80% – I’m a bullet-biter there, and proud of it.

And I’m a bullet-biter when it comes to certain forms of alternative medicine. I’m convinced from the experimental evidence, for example, that taking certain vitamin supplements in large doses will massively decrease the risk of cancer, and have stated that on this blog too. And again, I’d put my confidence in that at about 80% (I rarely put my confidence in *anything* much above that).

Now, the downside with taking vitamins is that there’s a cost of maybe a pound a day and – if you believe the very worst possible reports, which as far as I can see have no evidentiary basis, but if we’re assuming I’m wrong we’re assuming I’m wrong – a very small increased risk of kidney stones. The benefit, if I’m right, is not getting cancer. An 80% chance of ‘not getting cancer’ outweighs a 20% chance of a 1% increase in kidney stones, so it’s worth the pound a day to me to put my money where my mouth is and actually take the vitamins.

On the other hand, one can come up with a real-world test for the Many-Worlds Hypothesis. If it’s true then, were I to stand at ground zero of a nuclear weapons test, I should expect to live through it. There would be a googolplex or so universes where I’d die instantly, but I would not experience those, because I’d die too quickly. On the other hand, there’d be a one-in-a-googolplex chance of me surviving, which according to Many-Worlds means there’s a universe where I *would* survive. That would be the only one I’d experience, so from my own point of view I’d survive.

But even though I am persuaded by the Many-Worlds hypothesis, I’m not going to try that one out.

However, there are people out there who *would* do it, who would say “No, I’ll be fine! Drop the bomb!” – let’s call them bomb-testers.

And I think while being a bullet-biter can be a good thing, being a bomb-tester never is.

A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, but I’ll give some money to Greenpeace just in case” while the bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, so I’m not going to support environmental protection measures, because we’ll be gods in twenty years anyway”.
A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, but I’m not going to hurt anyone who thinks differently”. A bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, so I’ll persecute homosexuals”

I think a lot of people – particularly in the ‘skeptic’ community – think of themselves as being bullet-biters when they’re actually bomb-testers. They’ve reached a logical conclusion, and are going to act on that and damn the consequences. This is why some people say Richard Dawkins and fundamentalist Christians are the same kind of person – not because their beliefs are equally unjustifiable, but because they are both certain enough of their own rightness that they’ll act on it even when the downside of that action looks to the rest of us far worse than whatever upside they believe in.

Which is not to say that “acting on one’s beliefs” is a bad thing. One reason I have more respect for Eliezer Yudkowsky (of Less Wrong ) than for other Signulatarians is that he’s willing to act on his beiefs (even though I don’t find his arguments convincing, and think he has more than a little of a Messianic streak at times). But his actions *take into account the possibility he’s wrong* – he’s acting in a way to minimise expected harm. If he’s right and he doesn’t act, the world will end. If he’s wrong and he does act, then he wastes his time and looks a fool. Were I to find his general arguments convincing, I’d be doing the same.

If you find yourself defending an intellectual position that others don’t hold, then you’re quite possibly an ‘intellectual hero’. But if you find yourself acting on that position without considering what might happen if you’re wrong, then you’ll end up a real-world villain…

Geeks Dig Metaphors: The Politics Of The Singularity

(Following on from the introduction and the technical problems )

Now, the Singulatarian worldview can be summed up, roughly, as “Real Soon Now, we’re going to enter a Golden Age which will last forever. This Golden Age will probably be brought about by companies like Google, (with the help of geeks like me, and other people who can see how right I am!), so long as government doesn’t interfere with them, and is what the whole of humanity has been leading up to!”

Now, that’s a dangerous message in itself – you’ve got a mythical Golden Age in the future to look forward to, support for unrestrained corporatism (so long as the corporations are working towards this Golden Age, or can appear as if they are) and a group of people (geeks) singled out as being better and more important than everyone else. Add in a scapegoat group to blame if everything goes wrong (I suggest Microsoft, if anyone’s wanting advice) and you’ve got all the recipes for fascism right there.

Now, ever since John W Campbell there’s been a strong admixture of racism and boil-in-the-bag Nietzscheanism (Fans Are Slans!) in ‘geek culture’, along with a big chunk of groupthink and support for the big company over the individual (see most recently all the people having conniptions at the idea that there were people who weren’t going to go and see Scott Pilgrim on its opening weekend – these multi-billion dollar film corporations need your support, people, or they might stop making middle-brow high-concept comic adaptations! – as well as the frankly disgusting attitudes taken by comic fans every time a creator actually tries to assert any of their rights. ) That kind of thing is why I resist being referred to as a geek.

But what’s more worrying is the Manifest Destiny aspect of this. Singulatarians (for the most part) believe this *has* to happen. Ray Kurzweil draws his straight lines, and they keep going on forever, so the Singularity *must* happen. Tipler is even firmer on this point – he argues that the Omega Point is a boundary condition for the wave function of the multiverse (this means it must happen by logical necessity, and if it didn’t the universe would cease ever to have existed). The Singularity is inevitable.

Now, this kind of thinking is very popular in extremists of both left and right – come the Glorious Revolution, all will be right/the Invisible Hand of the market will fix everything. The attraction in both cases is that it allows the privileged not to feel bad about their privilege. If the Worldwide Dictatorship of the Proletariat *HAS* to happen, then there’s no point trying to make poor people’s lives any better now – in fact it might be a bad thing, because it’ll discourage the proletariat from realising their oppression and rising up. Best just buy a new TV rather than help the poor. And if you’re on the right, it’s even easier – you’ve got your money because that’s the most efficient possible allocation of those resources. Helping poor people would actually be *inefficient* and in the long run would hurt them! Best just buy a new TV…

This is the natural political result of *any* kind of predestination, and explains why, for example, it was so easy for Christopher Hitchens to switch from being a Trotskyist SWP member to being an adviser to the Bush White House (in fact a huge number of neocons had previously been on the hard left).

It also explains why the Singularity is so beloved of tech billionaires – they’ve become billionaires as a necessary step to the Golden Age, and there’s no need for them to give their money to the poor or anything like that, because the Singularity will raise *everyone* to their level! In fact by keeping their money, and investing in tech companies, they’re helping the poor far more than redistribution could! Of course, it helps that people like Kurzweil think the current set-up is just great – Kurzweil actually says, in his book, that he believes it will soon be possible for us to create machines that will literally make *any physical object you want* – program it to make a steak, or a perfect atom-level copy of the Mona Lisa, and it will. He thinks that it will be important to protect the intellectual property rights of those who write these programs!!!

But it’s also a very, very dangerous attitude.

Because in so far as Kurzweil’s lines going off to infinity, measuring information processing over time, have any value at all, they’re also graphs of energy use (there is essentially a linear relationship between the two). And energy use is a problem.

There are a whole host of environmental and economic disasters that look set to hit over the next century or so – from overpopulation leading to massive food shortages, to global warming, to peak oil, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is entirely possible that human civilisation as we know it will end in the next century. Even if you believe that one of these is low-probability or soluble, the combination seems to have a pretty high risk.

But if you *know* – because you can draw a straight line – that all the world’s problems will be solved Real Soon Now – then you don’t need to do anything about these problems yourself, because it’ll all be fine.

Not only that, but you’re not going to support any efforts by anyone else to mitigate these risks, because it’s a waste of resources. You won’t vote for politicians who want to fix these problems, because you don’t believe that the problems are real.

(I am going to exempt Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence here. He sees the creation of a singularity of his favoured type as a way to avoid existential risk for humanity, and has decided to try to do this himself because he sees it as a moral duty to do something about it. He’s got an ego the size of the universe, some rather messianic beliefs about himself, and he hasn’t backed up his talk with any actual measurable action, but compared to the rest of these people he’s a model of sanity and clear-headedness, which is why I occasionally link his group blog Less Wrong here).

The Singularity may well happen at some point – the Singulatarians may be right and I may be wrong. But even if it doesn’t, they’re right when the say that life in a hundred years will be unimaginably different from how it is today. The question is whether it will be unimaginably better or unimaginably worse. And that is going to be decided by the actions of every person alive today, and the decisions they make. If we manage to find solutions to our problems, we may well end up with something like the Singularity, eventually, but *we need to work toward the solutions first*.

And for a bunch of rich, technically skilled people with access to the media, politicians and business leaders, to abrogate their responsibility to make those decisions and find those solutions, in favour of the worst kind of Panglossianism, is not only morally dubious but *dangerous* – in a very real sense they’re betting the earth that they’re right, and it’s not theirs to bet.

Hat And Beard 2 – Freedom

And so we move on to the second of today’s posts. This one, in honour of Honest Abe, will talk about freedom as I see it.

The libertarian blogger Charlotte Gore left a comment yesterday on the heavily-edited version of my Why I Am Not A Libertarian post that’s up at LibCon, asking how someone who thought that government intervention in the economy was a bad thing could ever justify it, or conversely “why would anyone who believes ’such measures’ are necessary, therefore a ‘good thing’, want there to be as little as possible of this ‘good thing’?”

She went on to say “Do you see what I’m saying? Either you accept that ’such measures’ are a bad thing and resist them entirely, or accept they’re a good thing – which is the libertarian point of view. We like to be consistent and logical, apparently.”

Now, without wanting to get into any further extended arguments with glibertarians, I think this actually shows up the *illogicality* of the libertarian (or ‘classical liberal’ as some prefer to style themselves) point of view. Libertarianism *as it’s defined here by a prominent libertarian blogger* seems to me to be one of the delusions that people fall into when they believe they have a perfect working model of the world inside their brain, and so no longer need to consult reality – people who have replaced pragma with dogma.

I am sure that anyone here can think of examples of ‘bad’ things that can sometimes be ‘good’. For example, taking paracetamol is generally a bad thing, and one would be advised to do it as little as possible – even very small amounts can lead to permanent liver damage and death. However, if you have a headache, then taking a paracetamol tablet is a rational thing to do. Similarly, most people would think that getting one’s foot cut off would be pretty close to the definition of a bad thing – very few people have “get foot cut off” as a new year’s resolution. However, were I to get gangrene in my foot, I would welcome amputation to avoid it spreading and causing me to die a slow, painful, smelly death.

Conversely, I would suspect most people reading this like chocolate. It tastes nice, it makes you feel happy, it can take the edge off your hunger, it can give you a quick energy boost – chocolate is A Good Thing. However, if you’re morbidly obese, diabetic and eating twenty chocolate bars a day, the chocolate is probably having an overall negative effect, and you may want to replace one of your Mars bars with some lettuce.

Likewise, while the freedom of the free market brings us many good things, which I would not want to be without, it has its drawbacks. One of them – the most important – is that money is, by definition, a form of power over other people. In a capitalist society money and freedom are essentially the same thing.

I am currently comparatively well off, and I make many choices in an average day – should I buy that interesting-sounding book now, or wait for it to come out in paperback? Should I go to Costa Coffee or Caffe Nero at lunchtime? Should I go on holiday with my family to Greece in the summer, or save my days off and maybe go to a festival instead?

However, a few years ago, I used to have a rather different set of choices to make – should I lose my job by not turning up to work, or risk a fine by jumping the tram I couldn’t afford? Should I pay my rent or eat today? Should I give myself a chest infection by continuing to live in a bedsit with black mould growing on the walls, or should I just sleep out on the streets?

Strangely, the freedom to make economic choices means rather more to me now than it did then, now that I’m not living on a diet of out-of-date Sugar Puffs because it’s the only thing I can afford.

If you doubt that money is equal to power over other people, by the way – if you doubt that it’s a form of coercion equally as real as state coercion – ask yourself how much coercion it would take for you to strip the semen- and faeces-encrusted sheets off the bed of someone with HIV who’s known to hide used needles in unusual places. I can tell you exactly how much coercion it takes – £6.50 an hour’s worth. I’ve done that, for that much money, while working as a nursing assistant, and I’ve done that partly because it needed doing, out of a sense of duty and all that, but mostly because I needed the money to support myself and my wife.

Many libertarians would look at me and see a by-his-bootstraps free market success story. I used to be extremely poor, and for a long time had to work 80+ hour weeks (shortly before my marriage I was actually working three jobs and surviving on practically no sleep). However, I took online courses in computing in my copious spare time, as well as collaborating on research papers, and eventually got a diploma from Oxford University. By doing this, my CV got good enough that I was able to get a low-paid student-work-experience type job at a small software company. By working every hour God sends while there, I was able to get the attention of management and get a full-time job on a better salary, and now that company’s been bought up by a very big famous one, and I have a good, well-paid job where I just have to work normal office hours, and I’m also on a Master’s degree course at a good university.

RIght there, that’s proof that hard work and guts can get you anywhere, and no matter how poor you are you can pull yourself up, right?

Well, except for the fact that during the time I was working eighty-hour weeks I still had to borrow money – a *lot* of money – from friends, some of whom I’m still paying off. I managed to do the research work only because my uncle decided to take a chance and let his useless unemployable bum of a nephew (who, however, was quite bright) collaborate with him on some papers. I managed to do the computing course only because government funding made up the bulk of the cost of the course (that funding has since been cancelled). I got the job at the small computer company because Holly had a friend (Dave Page who sometimes comments here) who put me forward for the job. And so on. Were it not for the help of many people – both directly through their own generosity and indirectly through the government – I would not have achieved *any* of the things I have – I would definitely not be married now, wouldn’t be in a flat as nice as even the run-down place I currently live in, I would not have the job or qualifications I currently have, and there’s a pretty good chance I would actually be dead now.

I suspect, truth be told, that almost *every* ‘success story’ in the world actually goes something like mine – to quote a third great historical figure, we’re *all* ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (and yes, I know he was just saying that to insult Robert Hooke. Doesn’t matter).

Now, many people don’t have the generous friends and relatives who helped me when I needed it and when they could, so the only help they will get from that list is the government type – and those people may be even more in need of that help than I was. So I think it would be utterly absurd of me to take the attitude that ‘I’ ‘earned’ the money I have and that ‘they’ don’t ‘deserve’ it. I would like to keep a reasonable chunk of the money I get from my job – I *have* worked hard and think I deserve a few nice things for all that work – but I think it would be obscene of me to try to deny others the opportunity to do better as well.

There *is* coercion involved in taxation, and libertarians are absolutely right to point that out, and there are many ways (localism, national minimum incomes and so on) that have been suggested to simplify and streamline the tax and benefits processes, and these should at the very least be seriously considered – because *any* interference in someone’s freedom needs a *hell* of a lot of justification. But even were my income tax to raise by 10% of my income (something no major party is currently proposing) the limit it would place on my freedom (I might have to drop a couple of comics from my pull list and maybe go down to the next level down of monthly eMusic downloads) would not be anything like as great as the limits on others’ freedom that the money would remove. And certainly when you talk about people earning orders of magnitude more than I am, the limits on freedom become simply imaginary. If someone earns a million pounds a year, they have no appreciable amount of freedom less if they only keep half a million a year after tax. But that half a million can be used to provide food and housing for at least fifty thousand homeless people for a year, giving those people the freedom for the first time to make decisions that aren’t about short-term survival.

But my writing on this subject is very emotive, and I tend to write from the heart rather than the brain, so if any of you want to pick holes in this, take it as read that I accept the holes are there. However, today a new site came up, run by (among others) the estimable James Graham of Quaequam Blog. That new site, the Social Liberal Forum, explains Social Liberalism, the political viewpoint closest to mine, in moderate, carefully-thought-out terms rather than my immoderate ranting about how everyone’s a bunch of bastards. Go and read it.

Linkblogging for 22/01/09

We’re going out tonight, so I don’t have time to do a review of Superman Beyond 3D until tomorrow (suffice to say I now know what I want on my gravestone, should I die). In the meantime, some quick links:

Pillock and the Mindless ones talk about how great I am. There’s some other stuff in there, about comics and libertarianism and Fukuyama, but I think what everyone will take away from it is that basically, I’m great.

Jon Morris does a comic of one day in his life. Featuring Daleks, ducks and Aquaman.

Fred Pohl’s started blogging. Here’s the story of his recent book, a collaboration with the late Arthur C Clarke.

Oskar Morgenstern’s account of Kurt Godel’s application for US citizenship. Includes Einstein’s cruel practical jokes.

And Mark Waid talks about how to do a pitch to a comic editor, and includes the sample pitch he wrote for an Aquaman series.

Why I Am Not A Libertarian

Recently, there appears (and ‘appears’ is the word – it’s almost certainly an artefact of looking over a few blogs and reading more into tone than into content, but this is something that has been remarked on by people other than myself) to have been an influx into the Liberal Democrats of Libertarians. This is typified by the members of ‘Liberal Vision‘, which is in turn part of a Tory organisation called ‘progressive voice’ (essentially a bunch of Objectivists).

Now, in many ways I agree with libertarians on many subjects – which is, of course, why we can be in the same party – I am all for more personal freedom, for a lack of government interference in people’s lives, for the restoration of recently-lost civil liberties and so on. But libertarians seem, to me, to have two big holes in their thinking, both of which are summed up by some recent comments by ‘Nick’ in this thread on Liberal Conspiracy (scroll down).

‘Nick’ may or may not be a self-described libertarian (or indeed liberal) but he’s following the libertarian ‘party line’ almost exactly. The government should not interfere with the workings of the market when companies are failing. Not only should they not spend any money bailing out the companies (a reasonable, debatable position) or on retraining the workers so they can get jobs elsewhere (a much less reasonable position in my view) – they should not even pay unemployment benefit to the people who lose their jobs, because the money would be better allocated by the market.

Now, there are two distinct errors here. The first, and less important, is the one that pretty much every ‘free market’ advocating politician of whatever stripe for the last thirty years has fallen into – the belief that markets will always guarantee the most efficient allocation of resources.

People who know a little about economics can fall into this trap, because free-market economists define ‘efficiency’, tautologically, as the state where everyone has the maximum possible without anyone else having any of their property taken from them – in other words, as ‘that state which a market will produce’.

However, ‘efficiency’ in this context is merely a local optimum, not an overall optimum. As an example, suppose that you, O Hypothetical Reader, have a pound – a whole shiny pound all to yourself. And I have nothing. Now, assuming you don’t want to just give me your money, that’s the most efficient distribution of the money possible.

But suppose that, while you don’t want to give me your money, you were forced to, and I invested the money and made ten pounds, of which I was forced to give you five. Instantly, we have *both* benefited, substantially, even though this is ‘less efficient’ in market terms.

Now, in this hypothetical situation, you would of course either just give me the money or invest it yourself. But in a real life situation involving billions of pounds in the pockets of millions of people, it can’t be guaranteed that the equivalent would happen.

A market is a very good way of ensuring, not that the economy always gets more efficient or runs at peak efficiency, for the common understanding of the word efficiency as opposed to the economists’ understanding, but rather that the economy *always moves into the most efficient adjacent position in the economic phase space*. These are very similar things, but they can be crucially different.

As an analogy (appropriately Newtonian for today) imagine a ball rolling downhill. Now, normally, that ball will continue down until it reaches the bottom of the hill (a state of maximum gravitational efficiency). But imagine a little dip in the hill halfway down. The ball rests there, because to go any further down it would first have to go up.

That kind of situation, economically, is when it makes sense for government intervention. Sometimes a mass of people acting independently do not come up with the most efficient solution, and a change, even an arbitrary one, needs to be made to free the ball from the rut. As an example, we need laws stating that you should only drive on one side of the road. The choice of which side is arbitrary, but not having those laws would cause infinitely more problems than the tiny amount of personal freedom given up.

I think the main defining characteristic of a liberal – as opposed to a libertarian – is that a liberal recognises the need for such measures but thinks they should be as few and as minimal as possible.

However, I have left the more important error to last, which is simply this – who says ‘efficiency’ of whatever kind is the thing we need most? For a long time the right have predetermined the terms of the debate by talking about ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘modernisation’. These are probably good things, overall, but are they the be-all and end-all? I think not.

Libertarians almost all seem to believe that they have achieved everything in life entirely by themselves, having struggled against mighty odds and overwhelming enemies to become moderately successful computer programmers, despite the horrible disadvantages of being born white, English-speaking heterosexual males in middle-class families. Their thought is ultimately a selfish one – “I did this, so anyone else can, and I had no help so I won’t help anyone else”.

I, on the other hand, have experienced poverty. I’ve never been at the lowest possible point, but the few months when I had to support my now-wife and myself on one person’s benefits were unpleasant, to say the least. So now I’m in a position where I’m working for a well-known company, earning a good income, doing a job I enjoy, I feel not only an obligation to society to pay back what I’ve taken (for I couldn’t have got this job without help both from individuals and from government institutions), but a profound *need* within myself to make sure that no-one else should have to dig around for half an hour to find twenty pence for a pack of custard creme biscuits which will be their only meal of the day…

PEOPLE are inefficient, messy things. There is no possible rational justification for supporting the continued existence of the human race, let alone helping individual members of it. But anyone who would gladly see tens of thousands of people jobless and with no source of income, either in the name of keeping a few extra pence a week in their own pocket or in the name of a heartless ‘efficiency’ has so little compassion in their heart, so little empathy, that I can’t even begin to imagine a common frame of reference for discussion, despite many surface similarities in our philosophies.