30 August 2006

Terrorism and Piracy

Via Schneier, excellent article in Legal Affairs comparing modern terrorists with pirates. Parallels are strong, complete with states backing pirates for deniable attacks on other states, and pirates seizing land and forming mini-states in wild lands. The emphasis is on the law of the sea as precedent for an international legal framework for dealing with terrorism.

One difference, which is significant to the argument that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated: piracy was essentially for-profit, and therefore sustainable. Terrorism creates occasional opportunities for plunder, but is generally a loss-making activity requiring external funding. Therefore it is less likely to be as widespread and as near-permanent a problem as piracy was (and is).

Where terrorism is profitable, it is in "danger" of decaying into pure gansterism, losing its political side where that is not good for business. I believe that happened to a certain extent in Northern Ireland.

29 August 2006

Legal downloading begins

The BBC is reporting that Microsoft's WMA copy-protection has been cracked, and that a program for removing the protection has been published.

I haven't seen any details from authoritative technically literate sources yet, but assuming it's true...

"An analyst" (Mark Mulligan of Jupiter Research) said Microsoft was probably working to "close the hole" - but I suspect that might not be possible without breaking many or all WMA players out there - including portable music players that play Microsoft's files.

If so, then from now on, people who buy WMA-protected music from online stores will be able to actually play it on any music-playing equipment they own. Paid-for downloads will be almost as high quality as illegal downloads.

What I would therefore expect would be an enormous spike in the volume of legal paid-for downloads. I would certainly start buying them myself.

This could be the best thing to happen to the music studios since the invention of the CD.

23 August 2006

Immigration and Liberty

Chris Dillow complains that the debate over East European immigration is carried on entirely in terms of the harm or benefit to Britain, and not of the freedom of the immigrants.

I don't think this criticism is justified. I accept the idea that British government policy should be directed at the welfare of Britons, not of all humanity. This is a basic assumption of the system - it's why the government is elected specifically by British voters. Benefiting foreigners is, all things being equal, desirable, but it's a low priority, as indicated by such things as foreign aid.

Further, anything else would be unstable. Imagine for the sake of argument that allowing large numbers of Poles (or Chinese, or whoever) in is extremely detrimental to Britain. If we allow it anyway on the grounds of liberty, Britain would become weaker, poorer, and so on as a result. The benefit to the immigrants themselves would be limited. Therefore I think it is right that we assume that Poles, whyever they are put on Earth, should only be put in Luton that they might enrich the Brits.

To me, though not to most people, these aren't entirely separate questions. To me, things like liberty and privacy are good because they are generally beneficial, so I am not surprised when principled and pragmatic arguments agree.

Also, the anti-immigrant arguments in this debate are weak enough that I am happy to take them on on their own terms. Half a million Poles sounds like a lot, but I read recently there are almost as many French in Britain. There are better places to be on the dole than Britain - people come to Britain to work. The last round of panic was over the load on local authority services, which doesn't worry me in the slightest, firstly because they are so close to useless anyway that completely destroying them would constitute trivial harm, and secondly that, since the immigrants are working and paying taxes, there should be no problem once the bureaucracy has got its head round how many people there actually are in each area.

Finally, there is the track record of history. The claim that this wave of immigration is going to destroy society might seem plausible, but they always say that, and they always turn out to be wrong. They made as much fuss about the "Boat People", and you can hardly say now with a straight face that we couldn't have taken 10 times as many of them. Ditto Ugandan Asians.

I have the same attitude to Global Warming. People have been saying since the beginning of recorded history that our wealth and greed would cause us to be punished with natural disasters, and they've always been wrong so far. Climate simulation might have a bit more going for it than the "Angry God" model but one can say with one's eyes closed that, as with immigration, whatever rational basis there is for concern is going to get massively exaggerated, because it always does.

20 August 2006

Political Survival

By coincidence, just after posting my prevous piece on the importance of considering political survival as a constraint on any government, the EconTalk podcast on The Logic of Political Survival came out. Like others, I found this fascinating, and not satisfied with the 88 minutes of interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, I bought the book, which arrived on Friday.

The book in many ways lives up to its promise, but there are a few annoyances with it. The errors in the English are quite distracting: the first chapter is titled "Reigning in the Prince". It's just conceivable that this is some kind of clever pun, but if so it doesn't quite work - it looks much more like ignorance of what reining in is. The title is taken from the sentence on page 4, "On the basis of our analysis, we propose ways of reigning in not ony Hobbes's Leviathan, but Machiavelli's well-advised Prince as well". That makes perfect sense if it means "reining", but has a quite different meaning if "reigning" were really intended, as well as sloppy grammar. (That is, it could refer to ways of reigning in the context of Leviathan or The Prince. I think it doesn't).

The other problem is more general, not specific to this book. As you can see, the book compares the authors' theories with those of other political scientists, from Hobbes and Machiavelli to the present day. There is a glaring ommission, though: an influential political thinker who produced a large body of work looking at the same questions. I shudder to think of the sarcasm that will come my way when I tell a Marxist about a new theory that governments are necessarily constrained for their survival to act in the interests of a definable powerful subset of the population.

This is not a problem with the theory - while the "Selectorate" is in many instances identical to what some call "The Ruling Class", in other cases it isn't, and the reasons for both the similarities and the differences between the two concepts are illuminating. But because of that, I think the comparison would have been worth making by the authors. If the Selectorate is identifiable as a class in the Marxist sense of sharing the same relationship to the means of production, that makes it easy for the leader to produce semi-public goods that benefit the Selectorate at the expense of the rest of the population, and harder to produce goods that benefit the "Winning Coalition" at the expense of the rest of the Selectorate. Conversely, if the Selectorate cuts across classes, then many policy choices would be available to favour one class within the Selectorate at the expense of others. This will have interesting implications on the behaviour of the government within the context of the theory, which in the part I've so far read and in the parts I've skimmed, don't seem to be studied.

Of course, there are many avenues for further development opened by the theory, and that is just one, but it is an obvious one that occurs to anyone who has, like me, a passing even if hostile aquaintance with Marxism.

I have a bit of an interest in Catholic theology, on the basis that since this is what the brightest minds half the world could produce spent about a thousand years on, it is likely to have some value, even if it is fundamentally flawed. In the same way, a large proportion of political science in the twentieth century was carried out in a Marxist framework, and while it is no doubt the worse for it, it is a stretch to dismiss it as worthless, less worthy as a point of comparison than Hobbes or Machiavelli, or to examine Lenin and Mao as political practitioners without giving any attention to the theories they expounded before coming to power.

Even if I am wrong about there being useful insights in Marxist theory that are worth looking for, it is also the case that the world today contains a large number of ex-Marxists, ex-Marxist political parties, and even ex-Marxist countries. Is it really the case that they need to forget everything they ever learned about politics? So long as the dogmatic approach is rejected, it would seem more productive to show that modern free political scientists are looking at the same questions as the Marxists in much the same way, and drawing conclusions that in some cases agree and in others disagree with aspects of Marxist political theory.

08 August 2006

First Principles

The biggest cost (in the widest sense) of any political system is that which it expends in preventing its overthrow.

Attempting to "design" a political system without paying attention to how it will protect itself is like designing a building without paying attention to how it will stay up - architecture without gravity, castles in the air.

To our current system - the family of political structures labelled "Western Democracy", the cost is high. It saves costs, compared to traditional autocracy, on direct counter-subversion, but spends instead on bribery and waste to pacify potential opponents. The total cost of government is comparable to, but probably lower than, that of an outright dictatorship.

This is why I am not a revolutionary. I can draw up a political system enormously superior to any currently existing - minimising waste and maximising progress and prosperity for all - but my plans do not include mechanisms for maintaining the system itself. Such mechanisms would have to be improvised - and would in all probability be improvised much as Lenin's were.

My ideal government being smaller and lighter than Lenin's, the ad-hoc instruments of "state security" would have an even easier job of coming to dominate the whole.

So here I sit, in the midst of waste and ignorance, attempting to chip away here and there at the very worst of what Western Democracy is producing. It is a depressing vision, as the more succesful our society is, the more waste it can afford, so the cost of politics trends ever upwards. But our lives are improving, and will continue to do so. The brakes on progress are enormously frustrating, but the best we can do is spread the ideas - the key idea that goverment is mainly waste and the less of it the better - to reduce the cost of maintaining the political system.