30 June 2007

Unqualified Reservations

Via Arnold Kling, I find Unqualified Reservations. What a rollicking good read. The key insight is one which I have accepted but never managed to make so vivid - that the supernatural component of any religion is relatively unimportant and malleable. One point I did make earlier is that modern dominant "secularism" is rather different from 19th-Century underdog "freethinking", but this blogger "Mencius Moldbug" not only makes it but explains it.


If there's a criticism, it's "so what". That's not a strong criticism: describing the world accurately is worthwhile even if it doesn't lead to obvious courses of action, but we must remember the "why do we care" test to distinguish real meaning from word games.

29 June 2007

Note for Terrorists

High explosive - it's not an optional extra.


Dammit, killing people isn't a new idea. There's been a lot of thought and work put into it these last few millenia, and there's a good bit of prior art. The experts in large-scale homicide all agree: high explosives are the thing. Messing about with propane and petrol isn't even amateur - it's childish. Grow up and get some bombs.


How many people could they have killed if they'd thrown the silly toys out of the car and just started running people over? Cars kill 3-4 thousand people a year in Britain, and they use two whole cars up without killing anyone. They're embarrassing.


In seriousness, the police do seem to have succeeded in making it very difficult for the bad guys to get their hands on the good stuff, and deserve a lot of credit.

Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday ruled that Human Rights aren't really rules as such, more sort of guidelines towards the sort of policies that governments might like to consider following, if convenient. (Judgement in O'Halloran and Francis vs United Kingdom [word document {blech}])
Those who choose to keep and drive motor cars can be taken to have accepted certain responsibilities and obligations as part of the regulatory regime relating to motor vehicles, and in the legal framework of the United Kingdom, these responsibilities include the obligation, in the event of suspected commission of road traffic offences, to inform the authorities of the identity of the driver on that occasion.
I did intend to rant enthusiastically about the evil of this decision, calling for all right-thinking freedom-loving folk to take up their pitchforks and march on Strasbourg or wherever the damn thing is.


But at the end of the week, having got to my keyboard, I find I'm not really feeling up to that kind of hypocrisy. I'm just not that into human rights myself. Not that I deny that the individual needs protection from the state — far from it — but a laundry-list of absolute "rights" doesn't really provide much protection, while at the same time throwing confusion onto the normal functioning of the law. See for instance my old favourite case of Begum vs Denbigh High School, and others.


Viewed in isolation, there is nothing unusually obnoxious about the rule that the keeper of a vehicle must identify (to the best of his knowledge) the driver of the vehicle at the time it was being used to infringe a traffic law. Anyone with a view of freedom that is offended by that must agree that there are many hundreds of equally undesirable laws that have no similar close connection with an alleged human right. The only sensible reason for taking a stand against this law is that Rights once enumerated must be defended even in unimportant cases, so that they remain unarguable in the important cases. Reasonable as that argument sounds, it is a lost cause once your "Rights" include such windbaggery as "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life." (ECHR 8.1)


So, no ranting. Although, to be fair, whatever I think of human rights, there is some question as to what the point is of a Court of Human Rights that doesn't believe in human rights.


Anyway, without absolute rights, how are we to be protected from the state? It's not an easy thing — indeed history tells us that it's about the most difficult thing of all. I would concentrate on limiting the size and scope of the state, rather than micromanaging what techniques it is allowed to use. Define domains that are to be considered none of the state's business, and discourage it from growing. If it is kept small and weak, then the people will be able to prevent abuses without need of fiddly rules. If it is large and strong, then no piece of paper will restrain it.

If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.
J. S. Mill, On Liberty

23 June 2007

Joseph Corre

When first seeing that Joseph Corre had refused his MBE because, he said, Tony Blair's government was too morally bankrupt to award it, my first reaction was strongly favourable. The more people realise that the government is not "our leader" with moral authority to label things as good or bad, and to decide who is and isn't worthy of our admiration, the better.


On reading his statement, however, my cheerfulness declined to familiar doubt and disappointment. He picked on just a couple of points - the "organised lying" relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the erosion of our civil liberties. The likely implication is that without these two things, Corre would consider the government sufficiently honourable to assign MBEs to whoever. Robin Cook, for example, who in 2003 wanted Iraq to be merely blockaded and occasionally bombed, as was the policy for the preceding 12 years, rather than invaded — would be a sufficiently "honourable man" to hand out medals.


To declare that one has standards for how a government must behave to be considered a moral authority, and then to set those standards so low, is almost more alarming than to grant the government authority blindly. "My country right or wrong" is more defensible than "My country, providing its crimes are not too gross and blatant."


I have the same reaction whenever some pensioner makes a stand on principle against paying taxes. At first its "Yes! the government rules by consent of the governed, and that consent can be withdrawn", and then it emerges that the hero is only objecting to one particular war, or one hospital closure or something, and seems to be implying that everything else the government does is worthy of being funded — a position which makes the "protester" appear one of the government's strongest supporters.


I may be wronging Mr Corre — it may be that on reflection he would agree that no previous or alternative government was significantly more qualified to dispense "honour" than this one -- but his statement would be immeasurably better for making that explicit. (And, of course, making things explicit is his claim to fame and honour in the first place).

12 June 2007

Murder in George Street

The conclusions will come after all the facts are available, but here are some early thoughts:


First, quibble with the headlines. For the benefit of Times readers, half past seven is not rush hour in Luton town centre. The only people around are those few of us with early starts in London (I aim to reach Canary Wharf for 08:30), and preparation for the business day: cleaning windows, stocking shops, etc. The most coherent account of what happened was that a window cleaner who had been working at M&S was attacked while using the ATM at the Town Hall end of George Street.


The (premature) conclusion is that this was a freak. It's extremely rare for a police officer to be fatally stabbed while dealing with day-to-day street crime. I wouldn't like them to go into life-or-death mode every time there's a fight in the high street. If firearms are around they go into full combat mode and that's a different matter - it's a whole lot more dangerous for them and they have to be extremely cautious, which is unpleasant but reasonable. But I would hate to see them acting more "militarily" and less humanly whenever someone has a knife. It would cut them off further from the population and perhaps in net even make them more at risk.


Of course, if I in my comfortable safe job say that the risk of this happening is so small that the police ought to continue to run it - that is, that there should be no reaction of a general kind (changes to procedures, etc.), I must - and do - accept that the specific reaction to this death can be large. After all, if it's so rare, then we can afford it. I will make sure I remember the name of Jonathan Henry, and remember that he left a family who deserve special respect in Luton, for years to come. Attacks on the police are more serious crimes because they threaten to separate the police from the public in the way I discussed above.


I don't know whether the large-scale investigation taking place of what seems a straightforward event is just overkill, or a routine response to the use of the baton round, or a routine investigation into how an officer came to be killed. In any case, it is OK. The figure I saw on the ground at 7:35 looked pretty comprehensively disabled, but having been under-cautious the police would have had to jump to being over-cautious.


If the figure on the ground was PC Henry, then there was a screw-up, because one ambulance was already leaving, and another waiting. But I'm over-speculating now. I'll continue to follow the story as the facts come out.