Trump: Good President, Bad Loser

In the presidential elections of 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton (not formally, as I am not a U.S. citizen, but in my mind). She was a known entity, relatively moderate politically, and with a lot of experience. ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.’ I was against Donald Trump for two reasons. He was a self-proclaimed protectionist whereas the case for free trade is conclusive, and important. We should build bridges, not walls. Secondly, he came across as a bully. He did not act presidential.

Trump however turned out to be a much better president than I had anticipated. His bark was much worse than his bite. He was not in the habit, like his predecessors, of sending American troops into other countries without any long-term strategy or exit options. I do not agree with American isolationists, but the United States should not be acting as the unwanted and unloved policeman of the world. I also heartily agree with Trump that affluent European countries should pay for their defence themselves, and not try to pass the bill over to American taxpayers. Again, it was a triumph for Trump when Israel, encouraged by the Americans, made peace with the United Arab Emirates and improved relations with Saudi Arabia.

On the home front, Trump cut taxes and deregulated, two steps necessary to rejuvenate the American economy. He did not pursue his misconceived protectionism all that far. Moreover, his appointments to the Supreme Court were excellent. The judges he nominated are all of the school of jurisprudence that wants cases to be decided in accordance with the Constitution, not with the personal preferences or prejudices of the individuals on the bench. I would not hold Trump’s somewhat erratic response to the Wuhan virus against him: none of us knew precisely what was happening, not least because the Chinese authorities have withheld the relevant information. Personally, I am still not sure what would have been the most prudent policy.

Of course, once in the White House Trump continued to act unpresidential. He was often rude, offensive and insensitive, although he may have gained rather than lost votes that way. It is not the most popular pastime in America to be a Washington insider, and Trump certainly was not one. But I must admit that I was occasionally amused, even relieved, by the way in which Trump refused to go along with the media and the bureaucracy. Of course he was a populist. All successful politicians have to be populists, up to a point, including my two favourite ones, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Therefore, I voted for Trump, not Joe Biden, in the 2020 elections which Trump narrowly lost, indeed much more narrowly than the left-wing pundits had predicted.

However, Trump the President has been replaced by Trump the Loser, and it is not a pretty sight. He claims that the presidential election was fraudulent. But as Trump’s own Attorney General, William Barr, hitherto fiercely loyal to his president, pointed out there is no plausible evidence that possible election fraud—of course not to be ruled out completely in this vast and diverse country—made any difference. The elections were not stolen by the Democrats. Trump may come from a culture where being a ‘loser’ is the worst epithet possible. But he lost. He cannot change that. He is not clinching a deal, turning a defeat into a victory by persuasion, even trickery. A defeat is a defeat is a defeat.

Certainly Trump and his supporters can point out that from the very beginning the Democrats refused to accept him as president, using the judicial system to harass his closest advisers and even impeaching him on non-factual grounds. Trump and his supporters can also legitimately complain about the hypocrisy and double standard of the traditional as well as the social media. Few will forget the image from Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020 where a CNN reporter stood in front of a blazing fire set by a mob, with a chyron running: FIERY BUT MOSTLY PEACEFUL PROTESTS AFTER POLICE SHOOTING. Compare that to CNN’s coverage of the attack on the Capitol on 6 January. (A white woman was shot by the police. What would have been said if a black woman had been shot in a riot instigated by the left?) On Twitter and Facebook, leftwingers can without any problems spew venom over affluent, law-abiding, white citizens who dare to defend right-wing causes, whereas Trump, the President of the United States, is repeatedly being blocked.

Such pent-up grievances may explain the fierce attack by Trump supporters on the Capitol on 6 January. But an explanation is not an excuse. The attack was inexcusable, and Trump himself bears some responsibility for it. It is a great blot on his record. It was awful to watch it. We want the rule of law, not of a mob. Trump does not seem to realise that you need not become a loser even if you lose a battle or two. You only become a loser if you behave in a certain way. In life, you may occasionally fail and sometimes fall. But the point is whether you stand up again. We still have to see Trump do that.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 7 January 2021.)

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The Folly of the Common Fisheries Policy

Although in most countries except Iceland the fishery is a negligible sector of the economy, it has an enormous potential. The seven seas cover seven-tenth of the earth’s surface, while their utilisation is still in the hunting-gathering stage, as was the utilisation of land before the agricultural revolution which basically started civilisation some thousands of years ago. But until recently, the ocean was, as John Locke remarked in his Treatise on Government, the ‘great and still remaining common of mankind’. The problem with a common is of course that after the proper technology has been introduced it will be over-utilised. What is owned by all will be cared for by nobody. Few are going to cultivate gardens which cannot be fenced off and not with their fruits being reserved for the cultivators. This is the ‘tragedy of the commons’, as Garrett Hardin called it. Economists alternatively describe it as the common-pool or open-access problem.

This is precisely what happened in world fisheries in the twentieth century. In earlier times, technology was not sufficiently advanced to harvest much of the fish stocks offshore, some of them immensely fertile, for example in the Icelandic waters or in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. But with modern fishing gear you can basically harvest at will. This means, as the pioneers of fisheries economics demonstrated, that under open access the fishing effort (for example the number of fishing vessels) was going to increase until possible profit in the fishing sector had fallen to zero, or in other words when revenue equalled cost. But this meant that much more capital was utilised in harvesting fish than would have been necessary. The possible rent, or special income from the fertility of fishing grounds—similar to the special income from the fertility of different plots on land—was dissipated in excessive effort. In brief, in a small fishery sixteen boats were harvesting even less total catch than eight boats could have brought onshore. Too many boats were chasing the fish.

An important step to resolve the common-pool problem was taken when the principle of a 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ, in the fisheries gained international recognition in the 1970s. The pool was divided up between different states. The access was limited. This enabled Iceland for example to start managing her fisheries sensibly. Two factors made this especially urgent for the Icelanders. First, the fishery was by far the most important sector of the Icelandic economy, and secondly, the Icelanders had seen the herring almost disappear in the Icelandic wates as a result of overfishing in the 1960s: the spectre of overfishing was haunting them. In 1975, the authorities for the first time set a total allowable catch, TAC, in the herring fishery and allocated equal shares in the TAC to the fishing boats (which were mostly of roughly equal size). Soon, the owners of fishing boats were allowed to transfer their shares, or fishing quotas, between different boats which made their operations more flexible and efficient. Four year later, similar principles were adopted for the other pelagic species important in Iceland, in the capelin fishery, where the quotas were eventually also made transferable. (Pelagic fishes are mostly found in big schools near the surface of the ocean, roaming over wide areas, unlike groundfish.) The positive results in those two fisheries led the authorities, after difficult negotiations and some missteps, to adopt in 1990 a similar system in the economically much more important demersal fisheries, harvesting groundfish such as cod, catfish, plaice, flounder, and haddock.

The Icelandic system of individual transferable quotas, ITQs—which was developed simultaneously and independently in New Zealand—works quite well. The authorities set a total allowable catch, TAC, in each fish stock, and owners of fishing vessels hold transferable shares, the quotas, in the TACs. Initially the quotas were allocated on the basis of catch history in the years prior to the adoption of the system: if you had previously harvested 5 per cent of the total catch in a species, then in the beginning you received a quota for 5 per cent of the TAC. Over time, of course, almost all the quotas have changed hands. The system has been in place in the pelagic fisheries for 45 years, and in the demersal fisheries for more than thirty years. Since the quotas are transferable, nowadays it is essentially the market that allocates them.

The two keys to the efficiency of the system are exclusivity and transferability. There is no longer open access to the Icelandic waters. Only those who hold quotas can harvest fish there. This means that they can plan their operations in the certainty that nobody else is going to snatch the fish away from them and they are therefore not tempted to over-invest in vessels and fishing gear. Others are excluded, although this really only means that they have been deprived of the opportunity of harvesting fish at zero profit, as would happen in an open-access fishery. The transferability means that the more efficient fishermen can gradually buy out the less efficient ones. Fishing effort will gradually fall down to what is economically efficient. To return to the example of a small fishery: In the beginning sixteen boats were harvesting fish. Over time, the eight more efficient bought out the eight less efficient; the number of vessels went down from sixteen to eight; profit replaced rent dissipation; excessive cost was eliminated. Importantly, also, under an ITQ system the mindset of the fishermen will change, as we have observed in Iceland. They become shareholders in the fish stock in which they hold quotas, concerned about its long-term profitability. Indeed, the Icelandic fishing community has strongly supported responsible decisions by the authorities about TACs in different fish stocks. It is after all their livelihood which is at stake.

This enables us to see what is wrong with the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, of the European Union. The fatal error lies in the word ‘Common’. It was a positive step when in the 1970s individual countries appropriated large areas of the ocean, the 200 miles EEZs, because it was a move towards exclusivity, as it had been the open-access or common-pool nature of the resource which had been the problem. But when the EU introduced the CFP, it took a step backwards, in practice recreating a ‘tragedy of the commons’. Since then, it has tried, with little success, to manage the fisheries. The TACs in different fish stocks have only recently been set in a responsible way by the EU authorities, and instead of enabling the fishing communities in various countries to reduce fishing effort themselves by the transfer of quotas between individual quota-holders, the EU has in effect long subsidised an increase in the fishing fleet. The huge and non-transparent EU bureaucracy has been trying to do what should be left to the fishing communities themselves. But bureaucrats cannot replace stakeholders. The EU should never have re-introduced a common pool: this was the problem, not the solution. Instead, each EU country should have kept her EEZ and managed it as she best saw fit. This would undoubtedly have led many countries to adopt a system in the fisheries similar to that which has been developed in Iceland, as some of them are slowly doing now, but with the EU hovering over them and without full exclusivity and transferability.

The CFP was introduced literally hours before the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, and Norway applied for membership in 1973 of what was then the European Economic Community. The existing member states wanted to gain access to the immense fishing grounds belonging to the applicant states. This was the reason Norway eventually withdrew her application. Hopefully, therefore, the United Kingdom will stand firm in reclaiming her EEZ when she leaves the EU. Why should landlocked countries like Luxembourg and Austria participate anyway in decisions about offshore fisheries? Moreover, the CFP is clearly in conflict with the subsidiarity principle which should be the lodestar of the EU: to make decisions at the lowest, nearest and most appropriate level. Decision-making should not have been moved from London to Brussels: instead, it should have been moved from London to Brixham, Fleetwood, Grimsby, Lowestoft, Newlyn, Whitby and Kingston upon Hull, with the authorities only setting the TACs in different species and monitoring harvesting, like they do in Iceland. It is a different matter that adjustments to the present situation should be made gradually rather than abruptly, and that the United Kingdom and the EU should part peacefully, through negotiations in good faith, not in a mutually harmful conflict.

The system of individual transferable quotas in the fishery is by no means perfect, as I have argued. The quotas are extraction rights rather than complete property rights. But because of their exclusivity and transferability they partake of many of the advantages of complete property rights to natural resources and mostly resolve the open-access or common-pool issue. The potential of the fishery lies not only in the fact that if harvesting can be done at half the present cost then it releases a lot of capital for productive use elsewhere. Nor in the fact that fish is an indispensable part of a healthy and nutritious diet. The introduction of certainty, profitability and long-term planning in the fishery also encourages explorations by entrepreneurs of new possibilities, as Daniel Hannan perceptively points out. For example, in Iceland, what was previously often thrown away is now being utilised, such as fish livers, roes, heads, intestines, bones, and scales. Private companies flourish besides the traditional fishing firms. Hannan mentions some: Zymetech extracts fish enzymes for use in medicines; Genis turns shrimp shells into pharmaceutical products; Primex turns them into cosmetics; Kerecis uses fish skins and fatty acids to treat wounds and control infections.

In an intriguing recent development, Iceland’s largest producer of fish oil Lysi has been testing a new product: it seems that fish oil to which free fatty acids have been added destroys viruses in an effective way, including the coronavirus. Of course such explorations would be conceivable without an ITQ system in the fisheries. But it is fair to say that profitable fisheries facilitate them, not least by providing capital for the necessary research and development. Industries which utilise seven-tenth of the earth’s surface certainly need not, and should not, be negligible.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 10 December 2020.)

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Churchill in Iceland

Today, 30 November, is the birthday of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century. He was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874, the year in which Iceland celebrated her thousand years: The first settler, Ingolf Arnarson, came from Norway in 874. Probably not too many people know however that in Churchill’s illustrious career there is a slight Icelandic connection. In the spring of 1940, British forces had occupied Iceland, and in August 1941, Churchill paid a visit to the country, on his way home from a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Newfoundland. The British Prime Minister was warmly welcomed by the Icelanders who were discreetly relieved that their sparsely populated European outpost was occupied by Great Britain and not by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. According to an Icelandic newspaper (Morgunbladid 20 August 1941), it was in Iceland that Churchill, for the first time in public, used his fingers to make his famous salute with the V sign for Victory.

From the balcony of Parliament House in Reykjavik Churchill addressed a crowd that had gathered outside. He said: ‘I am glad to have an opportunity to visit the nation which for so long has loved democracy and freedom. We, and later the Americans, have undertaken to keep war away from this country. But you will all realize that if we had not come others would. We will do all in our power to make sure that our presence here shall cause as little trouble as possible in the lives of the Icelanders. But at the moment your country is an important base for the protection of the rights of the nations. When the present struggle is over, we, and the Americans, will ensure that Iceland shall receive absolute freedom. We come to you as one cultured nation to another, and it is our aim that your culture in the past may be joined to your progress in the future as a free people. I have pleasure in wishing you happiness and good luck in time to come.’

Churchill was referring to the fact that a month earlier, in July 1941, the government of Iceland, on the initiative of the United Kingdom, had signed a pact with the United States that American forces would defend the country during the war, replacing the British forces. This was a significant move by President Roosevelt towards American participation in the Second World War. During his visit to Reykjavik, Churchill went sight-seeing, looking at hot springs and later writing in his memoirs: ‘I thought immediately that they should also be used to heat Reykjavik, and tried to further this plan even during the war.’ There was some amusement in Iceland over this remark, because an Icelandic politician, Jon Thorlaksson, a civil engineer by training, and the first Leader of the centre-right Independence Party, had already in 1926 presented a well-thought out plan to use the ample supplies of hot water in Iceland to heat Reykjavik. He had started implementing this plan when he became Mayor of Reykjavik in 1933, before passing away prematurely in 1935. (In 1992, I published Thorlaksson’s biography.) But of course great minds think alike.

Besides the Icelandic connection, I have a tiny personal connection to Churchill because I did my doctoral dissertation on Anglo-Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Churchill had been greatly impressed by Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, published in 1944. This was a warning that central economic planning, then championed by most socialists, would require a police state if it was to be consistently implemented. In a party broadcast before the 1945 elections Churchill said: ‘No socialist government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent.’ Churchill added: ‘They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.’ British socialists immediately seized on his words, and in his next party broadcast Labour Leader Clement Attlee commented that Churchill’s ‘Gestapo speech’ was a ‘second-hand version of the academic views of an Austrian professor, Friedrich August von Hayek’. Attlee ignored the fact that Hayek had been a British subject since 1938, calling him by a full name he had abandoned himself, to make it sound as German as possible. However, in 1945 the British electorate was hardly ready for any suggestion of an association between the Labour Party and the Gestapo. The mild-mannered and unassuming Attlee seemed an unlikely Hitler. The Conservatives lost the elections by a wide margin. The ‘Gestapo speech’ probably had not helped. Some time later Hayek, at a social event, met Churchill who said to him: ‘You are completely right; but it will never happen in Britain!’

I think that both Hayek and Churchill were right. In Central and Eastern Europe central economic planning was implemented with the disastrous consequences for liberty of which Hayek had warned, but after the war socialists in the West turned to other measures, such as regulation of industries, the introduction of welfare provisions by the state and redistribution of income through taxes. They did not go too far however down that road. In a paper on Hayek and Keynes, economist Robert Skidelsky, the author of a massive biography of Keynes, writes: ‘By the 1970s there was some evidence of the slippery slope … and then there was Thatcher. Hayek’s warning played a critical part in her determination to “roll back the state”.’

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 30 November 2020.)

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The Real Thatcher: Not in The Crown

Most of us were brought up on fairy tales of princes and princesses, kings and queens, fairies with fluttering wings and witches riding on brooms, and of castles, dungeons and dragons. It is therefore not surprising that The Crown, the Netflix series on Queen Elizabeth II and her family, has found a large audience. It purports to offer an insider’s view of a real-life fairy tale. It is not a documentary, and of course the scriptwriters take liberty with persons and events, both to simplify and to dramatise. This is what theatre is about, on stage as well as on screen. It is, and should be, distillation, not description. Alas, in the case of Margaret Thatcher who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, the Netflix scriptwriters present a caricature, not a portrayal.

Of course, outwardly Gillian Anderson bears an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher, more so than Meryl Streep who played her brilliantly in the film The Iron Lady in 2011. But Streep captured more of her strong and vibrant personality. I lived in England in 1981–5 when Thatcher was fighting her toughest battles, and then and afterwards I followed her career closely. I met her several times, although mostly at large, formal dinners. Outside a receiving line, I only had the opportunity to chat with her twice, both times in 2002. In September of that year I attended a small reception at the Estonian Embassy in London where Prime Minister Mart Laar was launching a book about the swift and sweeping economic reforms he implemented in his country in the 1990s. He merrily recalled her comment when he told her that he was introducing a flat income tax: ‘You are a brave young man!’ Thatcher was relaxed and gracious. She rather enjoyed the admiration she met in Central and Eastern Europe where she was seen as the only strongly anti-communist in Western Europe with deeds matching words: the Iron Lady. As I was chatting with her and Laar, she noticed a photographer, called him over, marshalled us into positions and had our photograph taken. She took it for granted, and she was right about it, that everybody wanted to have a photograph taken with her.

The second occasion was a month later, also in London. At a relatively small dinner, Thatcher was awarding the Bastiat Prize for journalism, and I was asked over to her table for a while to chat with her. She expressed her approval of the fact that Iceland had not joined the European Union. She wanted Europe to be an open market, not a closed state. Then she discussed the difference between the Anglo-Saxon political tradition on the one hand and continental political practice on the other hand. ‘I’m afraid that the Brussels bureaucrats and many politicians on the continent have never really understood the British tradition of liberty under the law,’ she said. Her brief account to me of what she saw as this tradition reminded me of Michael Oakeshott’s eloquent interpretation of the liberty that ‘lies in a coherence of mutually supporting liberties, each of which amplifies the whole and none of which stands alone. It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary, nor from any one of the thousand other devices and arrangements characteristic of our society, but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’ (The Political Economy of Freedom, Rationalism in Politics, p. 388). Of course, Oakeshott once remarked that Thatcher seemed ‘to be more of a genuine Conservative than her predecessors’ (in Daily Telegraph 29 June 1978).

The Thatcher I met was forceful without being domineering, dignified without being arrogant. She was robust and resolute, but not strident, let alone hectoring. But what matters more than the caricature of Thatcher’s personality in the Netflix series is the cliche-ridden misrepresentation of her policies. Incredibly, a deranged person who managed to break into Buckingham Palace is described as a victim of Thatcher’s allegedly callous, uncaring policies. It has to be recalled that Thatcher and her allies in the leadership of the Conservative Party had witnessed the utter failure of the Keynesian idea of full employment at any price. Before she took power, there had been a widespread, naive belief that by throwing money at problems they could be solved, in particular that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment: if there was unemployment, then you just needed to put into effect expansionary policies, print money, and it would disappear. This could only work for a while, as Thatcher’s economic mentors, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, predicted: then ‘stagflation’ would set in, a combination of stagnation and inflation. This is what happened in the 1970s. What Thatcher therefore aimed at, instead, was monetary and fiscal stability. Unemployment had to be tackled in the marketplace, by flexible wages and economic growth, in other words by natural and not artificial expansion. Trade unions could not be allowed to price non-members out of the market and to hinder the introduction of new and more efficient technology.

According to the Netflix scriptwriters, Thatcherism was socially divisive. But what was really divisive was the violence used by militant trade unions in order to hinder voluntary agreements between workers and their employers, most significantly during a miners’ strike in 1984–5 and a printers’ strike in 1986–7. In the battles we saw on the television screen, the police was protecting working miners and working printers against intimidation by pickets. When I was at Oxford, I attended a series of lectures by legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. He criticised Thatcher for creating unemployment. I raised my hand. He smiled and paused, and I said: ‘But is unemployment not that the supply of labour exceeds the demand? And will this not be solved by the market, through price adjustments and economic growth? Surely most workers prefer low pay to no pay.’ Dworkin’s smile broadened and he replied: ‘Yes, of course, but it takes just such a long time.’ Soon after this, however, unemployment started to go down and was at less than 7 per cent when Thatcher left office in 1990. The theory worked, adjustments were made, new jobs were created. Moreover, when Thatcher closed down unprofitable coal mines and steel smelters, she was revealing unemployment rather than creating it. If blame there should be, it should be on the trade unions which had forced previous governments to continue inefficient, unprofitable operations.

The Netflix scriptwriters echo left-wing journalists, such as Simon Rogers of the Guardian who wrote in his epitaph of Thatcher in 2013 that under her poverty and inequality had gone up. He should have known better. His concept of poverty turned out to be that of relative poverty, often defined as the proportion of people with less than 60 per cent of median income. But relative poverty is really nothing but another criterion of inequality. What is relevant is absolute poverty, the lack of necessities, and during the Thatcher years it went down. ‘Poverty is about not having enough rather than about having less,’ as philosophers Loren Lomasky and Kyle Swan succinctly point out. Rogers was just saying that under Thatcher inequality according to one criterion went up, as did inequality according to another criterion! It is important to realise that in almost all Western countries income distribution became less equal in the 1980s and 1990s, not because any group became poorer, but rather because some groups became richer at a faster rater than others. What this implied was that new opportunities emerged.

Under Thatcher, Britain became a dynamic, flexible economy. It is said that then economic growth was slower than in the post-war years. Of course it was: Britain was recovering from the war. What matters is the long period of sustained economic growth from 1982 to 2008 (with the exception of two years). In this period the economy grew faster and performed better than in comparable economies, those of the United States, Germany, and France. Thatcher put the Great back into Britain. Perhaps Richard III could not survive Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a sinister figure: possibly ahistorical, it is etched in memory. But Thatcher will survive the caricature of her in the Netflix series. Their scriptwriters are no Shakespeares.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 29 November 2020.)

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The Paradox of the Anti-Vote

In the U.S. presidential elections on 3 November, much of the votes cast were doubtlessly anti-votes. It was Trump who lost the elections. It was not Biden who won them. Many of those who voted for Biden did not do so because they thought he would make a good president. On the contrary, they like everybody else saw that he lacks energy and focus, and that even if he himself is a moderate, as a survivor of almost fifty years in Washington has to be, he is surrounded by unpleasant people with blazing eyes and a strong left-wing agenda: close down the economy until the covid virus is completely extinguished, raise taxes on the rich, stop the emission of greenhouse gases. Ordinary people voted for Biden because they could not stand Trump. They were voting against Trump, not voting for Biden. Then there were those who voted for Trump despite Trump and because of Biden. Both groups were motivated by fear rather than hope.

The anti-vote is nothing new. In 1976, as Italian communists seemed to be assuming power, journalist Indro Montanelli famously exclaimed: “Hold your nose and vote Christian Democratic.” He preferred corrupt Christian Democrats to fanatical communists. Many voters took his advice, and a communist takeover was averted. Then after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Italian communists turned themselves into social democrats and ceased to threaten civil and political liberties, although they still want to deprive Italians of whatever remains of their economic freedom. Another well-known instance of an anti-vote occurred in France in 2002 when to the surprise of everybody the socialist candidate came third in the first round, after President Jacques Chirac and nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the second round voters had to choose between Chirac and Le Pen, and of course socialists voted for Chirac as the lesser evil, however much they opposed him.

There is however something peculiar about the anti-vote. When you go out to the shopping centre, you choose the goods you want and then you buy them. You vote with your pounds or euros. You get what you want, and if you are not satisfied with a certain good, you may be able to return it, and then next time you buy something else. It would hardly occur to you to buy some good just because it is less bad than another good on offer. The situation is completely different in the polling booth. There you cannot choose between hundreds or thousands of goods as in the shopping centre. You only have a choice between a few, and often just two, candidates or parties. Your vote is one of many, a tiny drop in the ocean, and the outcome is uncertain. You do not have a clue as to what will happen after the elections. Therefore you often reluctantly vote for the candidate who seems the least worst, although I would be the first to admit that there have been politicians who really inspired their supporters, for example Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Even in Thatcher’s case, though, it helped her that the Labour Party was then in thrall to the far left and presented unelectable leaders.

Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan who passed away in 2013 was a pioneer in the realistic assessment and analysis of politics. What he did was to compare individual choice in the shopping centre where you vote almost daily with your pounds or euros, and individual choice in the polling booth where you vote every fourth or fifth year with your pencil. What he found was that private choice, in the marketplace, was much more likely to express real preferences of individuals than public choice, in the political arena. This was not only because one was a daily vote whereas the other was a vote every fourth or fifth year, or because the shopping centre offered a much wider selection of goods than the polling booth, or because in politics there was much more uncertainty about the outcome. I shall here mention two more reasons why public choice tends to be more problematic than private choice. In the shopping centre there are price tags on goods: you know how much you have to pay if you decide to buy a good. But in the polling booth you have little or no idea how much policies proposed by the candidates are going to cost. in the second place, those who seek power most enthusiastically are sometimes the people least trustworthy to handle it.

Not only find individuals it harder to express their preferences in the political arena than in the marketplace. They also risk having their preferences suppressed by well-organised special interests. For example, predatory groups may impose redistribution from the more productive to the less productive. Buchanan devoted much of his academic career to find ways of defending individuals against such exploitation. Public choice could not be made more effective by multiplying the choices in the polling booth. That would only lead to chaos. What had to be done was to agree on restraining those who would be voted in. This is an old insight. A ship has to be built for rough seas, and institutions have to withstand bad rulers. For Buchanan, stricter constitutional constraints would strengthen real democracy, reducing or better still eliminating the possibility for one group to exploit another through political maneuvers. The American Founding Fathers were aware of the problem and tried to solve it by the separation of powers, checks and balances and decentralisation. Buchanan however argued that additional constitutional constraints were necessary, especially on the fiscal and monetary powers of government. He demonstrated for example that a public deficit was really a tax on coming generations and that inflation was a mechanism for transferring money from creditors to debtors (again a preference for the present over the future). Therefore he proposed constitutional stipulations about a balanced budget and a monetary rule. But the upshot of the argument is that with stricter constitutional constraints it would become much less relevant than it is now whether it is a Trump or a Biden who is elected to the highest office of the United States. In the voting booth you should not have to be motivated by fear alone. If Buchanan’s many proposals for constitutional change were accepted, the anti-vote could turn into a normal vote.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 18 November 2020.)

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Nozick and the Experience Machine

Today is the birthday of Robert Nozick, one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century. He was born on 16 December 1938 and passed away, prematurely, on 23 January 2002. When I was a graduate student at Oxford University in the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to spend some time with him at two Liberty Fund seminars. He was a remarkable man, handsome like a film star (looking a bit like George Clooney), brisk and merry, with an easy smile. He was a superb debater, quick as a lightning, locating with apparent ease the logical fallacies in the arguments of his opponents. Milton Friedman was the only person I found to be his equal in debate.

Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia was a sensation when it was published in 1974. In the first part he argued against anarchists that the state could arise spontaneously, without violating individual rights. In the second part he demonstrated that the only morally justifiable state would be the nightwatchman state, or a minimum state that would confine itself to preventing injustice. In the third part he pointed out that people could realise their own little utopias within the minimum state: socialists could for example found workers’ collectives like the kibbutz in Israel: the only requirement would be that they would not force others into their communities.

The philosophy establishment gasped in surprise at Nozick’s audacity as he presented in the second part of his book one clever argument after another against income redistribution. They had never even thought of some of them. In my opinion, however, the second part is not as original as the first part. The second part is basically a brilliant restatement of the case against economic interventionism, forcefully made earlier by Frédéric Bastiat, Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. These thinkers, famous and influential in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sunk into oblivion, as interventionists slowly took over the universities in the twentieth century. In the first part Nozick however ingeniously uses an ‘invisible hand’ explanation to show how the state could arise as the unintended consequence of individual choices, out of a state of nature. To do this, Nozick applied his knowledge of Austrian economics. His explanation of the state is similar to Carl Menger’s account of the emergence of money in a spontaneous evolution, not planned by anyone, a result of human action, but not of human design.

Nozick based his arguments against the redistributive state on the postulate that individuals have inviolable rights. They should be treated as ends in themselves, not only as means for others. His critics have argued that therefore his theory lacks foundations, as he did not provide an independent, sustained argument for natural rights, only some suggestions. I think this criticism misses the mark. Nozick was concerned with demonstrating how redistribution of income violated the rights of people to their talents and abilities and to the income they could freely derive from those talents and abilities. Be that as it may, Nozick’s theory goes against one of the most common moral theories of modern times, utilitarianism, the idea that we should maximise pleasure or happiness. If society is serving such an end, then the sacrifice of some individuals may be necessary to increase the pleasure of others. Then they are not treated as ends in themselves, but as means to the one prevalent social end, maximum pleasure. (This is the case with all ends or goals involving maximisation, including economic growth.)

Nozick also rejects utilitarianism because it is in conflict with our idea of the individual as a distinct person with his or her own traits and projects. He illustrates this with his famous experience machine. Imagine a machine which would give you any experience you could desire. You could for example think and feel that you were writing a great novel, making a new friend, or listening to a wonderful piece of music, perhaps even creating it. There would be no negative repercussions of entering and staying in the machine, and an incredible variety of experiences to be selected inside it. Would you plug in for, say, two years at a time? Nozick replies: No, for several reasons. We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. We also want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. The man in the experience machine is just floating around, with no personal traits, not being courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, or loving. Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, whereas we want to live our lives for ourselves, come what come may.

I think the experience machine is a powerful and convincing parable. But I find it surprising that nobody seems to have noticed that a similar parable was told by a nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Paulsen, who wrote in his System of Ethics, published in 1889 and translated into English ten years later: “Let us suppose that we could distil a drug like opium, capable of arousing joyful dreams, without, however, producing harmful effects in the intoxicated one or his surroundings. Should we recommend the use of the drug, and praise the discoverer as having made life more valuable? Perhaps not even a hedonistic moral philosopher would do that. Why not?” Paulsen adds: “The simple reason is that such pleasures would be ‘unnatural,’ and a life composed of them would no longer be a ‘human’ life.” Paulsen recalls the tale in the Odyssey of the sorceress Circe who changed the visitors of her island into well-fed and thoroughly contented swine. Was it then a blessing to have been cast on her shores? Of course not, Paulsen replies. Man is no swine. “He desires to live a human life and all that is implied in it; that is, a mental, historical life, in which there is room for the exercise of all human, mental powers and virtues. He desires to play and to learn, to work and to acquire wealth, to possess and to enjoy, to form and to create; he desires to love and to admire, to obey and to rule, to fight and to win, to make poetry and to dream, to think and to investigate.”

I am pretty sure that Nozick invented his experience machine himself. This similarity is just a demonstration of an old truth: Great minds think alike.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 16 November 2020.)

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