The London Libertarian

The London Libertarian

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Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >


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World war one

Current AffairsPosted by David McDonagh Mon, August 11, 2014 19:34:02

Was the 1914 world war a good thing after all?

On Monday 4 August 2014 there was a state celebration of the outbreak of the 1914 war, that had broken out a hundred years earlier, attended by the Prime Mister, David Cameron, and Prince William who both joined about 500 other state functionaries, from the various European states, at a war cemetery near Mons in Belgium.

The UK government has also announced, this centenary week, a £50m 1914 war commemorative to be spent, despite the supposed and declared age of austerity, over the next four years.

All this year, many historians, led apparently by Hew Strachan, who denies that there ever was a lost generation [The First World War (2006) p.xvi] seem to have been attempting to overthrow the 1960s fashion that is still reflected in such recent comedy shows, like Blackadder, that the 1914-’18 war as a complete folly. The recent historians, for the most part, want to say that it was actually a very worthwhile war after all. It looks like this is a clear majority in the profession of historians, for it clearly is a majority in television audiences on the many programmes that have so far been put out on the media on this year, for only the odd bod, like Niall Ferguson, or Dominic Sandbrook who wrote in The Daily Mail that the UK should have kept out of the 1914 war, seems to protest against this almost uniform tide of experts, and there are currently 8 000 books on the war in print in the UK today, in addition to lots of broadcasting on the topic this year so far, that sets out to put the public right on the non-wasteful nature of what was once thought to be the war to end all future war, for the fashion amongst most of the historians this year is that the 1914 war was a very good thing.

Those celebrations tend to have been a factor in the recent revival jingoism in the press, and at Westminster too, against Russia, the target of pristine jingoism some century and a half ago, all seemingly overlooking that the prolonging of NATO, as well as other unilateral actions against Russia, that seem to be way more warmongering or gratuitously aggressive than has come in reaction from members of the former WARSAW PACT motherland of Russia, who seem to be doing what the jingoists are moaning about only in reaction to the aggression of “the west”.

One might have expected NATO to follow the WARSAW PACT example of going into oblivion once that the USSR became defunct. But few state-run institutions tend to accept that their time is up, though the likes of Max Hastings, in yet another of his frequent warmongering articles in The Daily Mail, this time on 9 August 2014 (p7), says he has the historian Michael Howard, now 92, who has write books against the liberal solution to war but not well argued books. Anyway, Howard is with Hastings, as ever, on the naivety of ever cutting back on the UK’s armed forces, or in its support of a strong USA, NATO or the UN, especially as things is now in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, though, mercifully, Hastings does not want UK or USA troops back in Iraq; despite the dire events going on there of late, caused mainly by the earlier warmongering of the west, of course.

Richard Cobden and Norman Angell, of whom Howard showed no clear understanding of, are not often, explicitly, cited but the liberal idea that free trade, or globalisation, crowds out war is very often ridiculed, if not often understood, and it has been openly ridiculed on the media again recently, both before, on and since Monday 4 August 2014. We have been told on the BBC media, both on radio and on television, that many in 1913 believed that war was an impossibility in a world of global trade and international progress by trade, but that is a celebrated misunderstanding; both of Cobden in the 1840s and of Angell from his publication of The Great Illusion (1910) onwards, despite both authors being very clear in what they wrote. The pristine liberal thesis, that is also in The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith, was only that it would make the price of war way clearer to the public, but, as we can see over the last few months, that clear price or cost of war, or of the recent sanctions imposed on Russia lately, and the willingness of facing a similar additional cost of the reaction by the Russians to them of their own sanctions, is a cost that normal politicians are all too willing to pay, for it is a high price only to the taxpayers for what the politicians, very oddly, tend to suppose their warmongering be their moral position or duty. It is not being paid with their own money after all. And politicians do not often lose their own lives in war.

Many in the media imagine that there is something of value to be learnt from the 1914 conflict of a hundred years back, but is the examination of the horrors that those who went through those four years of war truly ever informative? Are we ever surprised by the horrors we read about in the books on the war? I tend to think not. We can adequately imagine the horrors beforehand.

It seems that current common sense could draw more lessons from the pre-1914 fears of Angell, or the pre-Crimean War fears of Cobden other than that both liberal propagandists feared the said wars rather than is still current misunderstanding that they both thought that the wars they feared were quite impossible. A high cost only tends to deter, it need never render what it tends to deter impossible. Cobden first, then later Angell, saw as clearly as we can today that a high cost was not bound to deter the warmongering politicians. The lesson the politicians seem to need to know is that war is always wasteful, indeed, so is the negative sum cold war of normal politics that gives rise to war, for Hobbes got it exactly wrong in thinking that politics imposes peace on society, for it does instead institutionally imposes politics, which is a war of all against all, it is cold war seeking forever to get hot in what we can all see as actual war. Hobbes was right that war is not only naked violence but the continual threat of it viz. naked coercion only. The state is perennially exactly that, as it is the negative sum game where we oppose people who we have never even met. For even any vote, that current common sense sees as being peaceful, is, in fact, a vote against other people. It always coerces the other people in a proactive manner. So the normal outlook of the politicians is cold war. The common idea that their current push for unmistakable war is a sort of investment, one to stave off some yet more expensive or worse later war is a political delusion. War is not a means, as most people seem to think today but rather the acme of politics. So we can expect war to emerge later on only owing to state institutions with their traditional authority to tax the public, for taxation is about the only means of paying this grand cost that war imposes.

There is no war that is going to get more dire should the dutiful politicians neglect this supposed duty of standing up to this or to that latest supposed Hitler, or latest little-Hitler, sooner rather than later. Voltaire said that if God did not exist then we would need to invent him. I am not entirely clear what he meant there, but it does seem clear that Hitler certainly did seem to supply a vital need for the warmongers to use in their warmongering today.



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Harry Stopes-Roe

Current AffairsPosted by David McDonagh Fri, May 30, 2014 16:04:09

Harry Stopes- Roe died, at the age of 90, on 11 May 2014. He was born on 24 March 1924.

I first met Harry Stopes –Roe in 1979, when he came to give a course on nuclear power with a joint-presenter, a young Green half his age or younger. The Green hated nuclear power, of course, but both presenters/tutors of the extramural night time class at the University of Warwick, held degrees in physics. There were not many in the class, but having read Petr Beckman’s book, The Health Hazards of NOT going Nuclear (1976), I was about the only one who was sympathetic to the case for nuclear power that Harry was making, but that the young Green, and most of the class, were quite hostile to.

Harry later turned up at the debate put on by the Debating Society at Warwick between G.A. Wells and Michael Goulder on the topic Did Jesus Exist? He had given Michael Goulder a lift from Birmingham and he gave me and Michael a lift back to Birmingham. We discussed Popper versus Kuhn in his car on the way to our then common home city.

I later met Harry at a few of the funerals that he conducted as a Humanist for some secular friends of mine who had died. We always seemed to get on well.

I did not know that he had taken a degree in philosophy till this last week. He was certainly still exceedingly keen on physics whenever I met him.

He was born to the famous Marie Stopes, the birth control advocate, in London. He took a BSc, and then an MSc, in physics from Imperial College, London.

He became an amateur atheist who later was the chairman of the British Humanist Association until his death. He later took a PhD from the University of Cambridge in philosophy. He provided secular funeral services and he thought that Wells made out a better case than Michael Goulder in the debate at Warwick. But Goulder was an extravert whilst Wells was somewhat shy, so that was not the majority view. We failed to record the debate.

Harry married Mary Eyre Wallis, the daughter of the Dam Buster’s engineer, Barnes Wallis, but his mother cut him out of her will for doing so, as Mary was short sighted. On Last Word 23 May radio 4, Mary told of how daunted she was by her future mother in law before they married. Marie objected to the marriage, as Mary’s short sightedness showed up that she was from inferior stock. She expected poor sighted grandchildren from such a match.

Harry took a job at the University of Birmingham teaching Science Studies. This will be how we came to meet at Warwick in 1979, for Warwick used Birmingham’s Extramural Department to put on night classes. I took Philosophy as a student at Warwick during the day but still attended night classes in the evenings.

Harry showed no positive or negative reaction to liberalism when I brought it up, but he did change the subject. I never brought it up a second time. He seemed to be interested in other things, but he did the same with socialism too, when an associate common to us both, brought socialism up at one funeral. So I suppose he was apathetic on that sort of thing, as most of the public are.





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The taboo of Political Correctness

Current AffairsPosted by David McDonagh Sat, May 10, 2014 14:21:39

The hubris of Political Correctness

In the last week or so we have seen the groveling apology of Jeremy Clarkson, the popular Sun columnist, for an edited out mumbling of the decision rhyme of eenie meene minie moe from Top Gear, where he used it to decide between cars, as we all know that it recites what they call, in the USA, the N word and that the Politically Correct fans in the UK media and parliament feel could potentially be as taboo in the UK; as it has been long since in the USA.

The fuss over Clarkson was all the work of the almost, but not quite, Labourite Daily Mirror but not because ebbing PC is going to ever be popular with its readers, but rather that the sacking of Clarkson might make the Sun that bit duller thus that bit less of a rival newspaper.

It might also make the BBC Top Gear TV show that bit duller too but they will not be too bothered about that at the Mirror. Clarkson denied saying the whole rhyme and even the advanced digital forensics that the Mirror team used, called CY4OR, was only 75% confident that the N word was said by Clarkson off air, but it was enough to get Clarkson to grovel, though he normally flouts PC for the sheer fun of it, which is a factor in his massive popularity. But, he seems to think, why risk all that TV and media income if a bit of groveling might save it?

The media PCers want him to go. They even seem to suppose that he successfully undermines their ideology with the public, but they ought to realise that it never did catch on. Like the Trotskyite-hubris about a supposed working class support they had in the 1960s, the PCers imagine that most of the public agree with them, as do the similar PC MPs in the House of Commons.

Bertrand Russell thought on his first visit to Japan that the people there were happy, but later on, after discovering that the Emperor had said he would punish anyone who did not smile, he thought that he might have been mistaken. Similarly, the ban imposed on free speech by the media on the PC topics of race and sex has aided the delusion that the PCers have that most people, by now, agree with them.

The BBC “comedians” are in a similar hubris, Bob Monkhouse called the so called alternative comedians an alternative to comedy but the Now Show steamed ahead as usual on Saturday, 10 May 2014 at 12:30pm with its sketch, but it was way more moderate than it would have been a year ago, with the spokesman saying [adding?] “I like Jeremy Clarkson” to mitigate his attack.

In the last year, or so, the alternative to comedy goons have seen that the earlier idea that criticism of people for not being PC is comedy no longer works, as if it ever did work. They were confident that it was good comedy up till about a year ago; as have the serious critics on BBC Arts programmes have, similarly, realised that their almost identical claptrap is not serious criticism. A PC reward was comedy or advanced criticism without any thought needed. But why the same material should be comedy or criticism never seemed to occur to any of them. After all, even if it was ever funny in the first place, a much repeated joke soon gets stale, but it never was funny. Ditto repeated points in criticism get stale, though it too never was pertinent criticism in the first place either. It was just PC ideology, so not comedy or criticism. But the Now Show personnel continue their campaign against the hated UKIP, that has successfully registered the ebbing of PC, even with the media zombies.

It seems they have not caught on that the joke, [or is it the criticism?] is stale after all on the Now Show but only that the UKIP might be the ruining of this joke rather than being a messenger from the public that it was not funny in the first place. So they seem to think that if they can just counter the UKIP then they might still go on with the one rather easy PC joke after all. However, they are counter-productive here, as people are now tired of PC, that they never were so keen on in the first place. As Flynn, the UKIP spokesman, said to the Labourite Barbara Roach, on BBC2’s Newsnight about two weeks back, so far all the PC smears against UKIP have been own goals, as part of the UKIP success is a rejection of PC. He urged Roach to keep it up.

The nearest thing to a PCer in UKIP is Farage himself. When he has expelled the fruitcakes he has almost scored own goals, but not quite, as he thereby does make himself, and the UKIP, more acceptable to a hostile media personnel, thus clear the way for more UKIP advances by use of the mass media.

Even the female journalist with only the PC string to her bow, the Indian Yasmin Alibhai-Brown , realises that there is not likely to ever be a viewer boycott against Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. As an outsider, she can haply see that the British public are not PC; but, rather, they are far from it. She moans that more egregious forms of xenophobia and discrimination go unremarked on. If they do sack him then Clarkson will only become a poster boy for UKIP, she said. She feels all anti-racists need to be less emotive and more strategic.

But the wonder is that such a perverse ideology such as PC ever caught on with the major parties or the media in the first place. It has exactly no chance of ever catching on with the masses. The reality is that it is a reason for the unpopularity of parliament and its members to about to the extent as the Daily Telegraph expenses scandal is, if not greater.





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Start the Week

Current AffairsPosted by David McDonagh Thu, May 01, 2014 19:56:26

The Future of Capitalism

On Start The Week radio 4, Monday 28 April Anne McElvoy talked to the social theorist Jeremy Rifkin who says that he foresees the gradual decline of capitalism and the rise of a new collaborative economy.

As new technology enables greater sharing of goods and services, then Rifkin expects that it will challenge the market economy. The price free access on the Internet looks set to bypass prices in many other wares too, As on the Internet many posters have provided freely to forums and blogs over the last ten years so will many other producers so that the market will be ignored. This has already hit commercial newspapers and publishing. But soon it will hit other market projects.

Solar panels in Germany have also bypassed prices. Zero marginal cost looks on the way. Rifkin did not think, until lately, that he would live to see capitalism wane but here it is vanishing before our eyes.. The more people get things free the less they will want to pay for. Civil society always has been the real third economic sector in addition to the market and the state but now it is about to take off to replace the other two, says Rifkin. It is early days but it is clearly going to make headway. If they get near zero marginal cost then a profit cannot be made. But this is only the beginning.

But the common sale of bottled water when anyone has it freely on tap in the UK seems to be a clear counter example to that idea that Rifkin has. Because we get things free hardly means that they cannot be sold. Also it is true that friends and neighbours have done things price free for each other for centuries in what Rifkin calls the third sector and that has lately spread to the Internet, as Rifkin says. but it is not clear why he thinks that this activity might one day replace the price system or even the uneconomic state. Why did it not do so long since? There are many reasons why and they continue to operate. The chief one was put forward against socialism in the 1920s by Mises: the economic calculation argument,

Rifkin feels the modern change of AI and automation is going to threated jobs more than ever. But this meme of fearing the coming of machines dates back to the Luddites of the early nineteenth century. Rifkin says that fossil fuels are now too expensive but why would that aid the rise of this supposed third sector?

The sociologist Saskia Sassen warns that the majority of people may not enjoy the fruits of this new world as increasing inequality, land evictions and complex financial systems lead to the expulsion of many people from the economy. She says people were ignoring her on inequality ten years ago but they are not today. But is this the case? PC sociologists are always on about inequality. It does not seem that it is now being agreed to more than ever. It seems that they are just moaning on about it as the same rate as ever.

The big banks would not make loans as there was no profit in it, she continues. All the states are getting poorer, says Saskia Sassen, though China is the one exception.

The Conservative MP, Kwasi Kwarteng, the third guest, looks back at the history of international finance and how gold and war have shaped the economic order of today. He calls for world government. Since we left the gold standard we have gone onto fiat money. Governments have printed money to finance war, he said. In 2008 they had very low interest rates so the banks had to search for higher yields. He wants better regulation rather than more regulation though he says he is a free market man. He says he is concerned about the future of the welfare state too. That is capitalism too, he tells us But we still have the old industrial model that he says that we now need to replace. But he is not sure if capitalism will be the outcome but he says the internet does not seem to be a threat to the market system as such but only to some music and other publishing ventures.

A free market man who loves the welfare state and wants better regulation, if not more regulation, looks a bit confused. But Kwasi Kwarteng seems to be right that the internet is no threat to the price system, even if he is confused otherwise.



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The Bigotry of the New Atheism (by an Old Atheist)

Current AffairsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sat, April 12, 2014 22:05:39

(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and changed it slightly in several places.)

If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force for evil. All kinds of atrocities are laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.

The central message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred because their perpetrators believed in God. This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

If you believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell us. I view this as a fairytale, just as far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.

Atheists Do It Better (Mass Murder, That Is)

There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement, and terrorizing of many millions of people.

By any measure, the evil deeds done by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if not thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism, National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of millions.

Since this factual point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account for it. Their most common response is that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a very strange claim.

Even if this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,” meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic ideologies. Now, even if the religious atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.

However, the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be false. Belief in God is an integral part of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in God. I can’t imagine how you extract from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities “because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they disbelieved in God.

Another argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National Socialist regimes. The New Atheists don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.

But, in any case, what do such examples really show? Fascism and National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new, small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the slightest bit of support from the churches. Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops to join the Nazi Party.

By the time Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected countries. Both totalitarian movements, Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties came to power.

It’s also true that some Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these regimes and paid for it. The truly heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.

As well as the Soviet repression of theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.

In 1924, the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the activities of the Catholic church. Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example, that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb outside a church). The brutal repression of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a documentary work, The Lawless Roads (1939), and then in a novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). The former president and de facto ruler of Mexico at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.

The traditional anticlericalism, often atheism, of Mexico’s ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in Mexico.

In another example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some regions of rural Spain by the 1930s. They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were “exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.

Atheist Terrorism

Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in Heaven. The religious zeal of fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.

Harris, and following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any atheist group conducting suicide terrorism. In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been atheists. In the years up to 2009, the pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were of Hindu background but led by atheists. Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently anti-religion.

Another atheist group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999 the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide bombings, and later changed its name.

Suicide terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives which provide the reason for their actions. Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows that many of them are not especially religious.

If suicide bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing themselves, they would act upon it. The reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it works. The Israeli government, for example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians following suicide bombings. Reagan pulled the troops out of Lebanon because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.

This is not to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely well. Suicide terrorism is far more effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities under foreign military occupation. It’s a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political goods.

Some readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by its assessment of how these activities will serve its political objectives. Being prepared to give up one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always positively valued when done for the side we favor.

It’s understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant success.) Still, anyone of a curious disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells. Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.

What Makes Religion Dangerous?

Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).

The first thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but go right back to repeating it. They keep drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.

If “religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly accepted that their original claim is false.

The second thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from non-religious beliefs. But a favorite rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines “religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says, without justification.

However, virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything without evidence. They would go on to assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have unpacked at length in my Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy).

But the crucial thing to remember here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right and the theists are wrong. But we are all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the predisposition to kill people.

And so we find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that “religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have said the same thing.

Why Atheists Have More Blood on Their Hands

While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists, I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.

As I see it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between theism and atrocities. Neither theism nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism Explained). But I do have a historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.

Enthusiastic ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin as a superstar of mass murder.

Modern capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces secularization. But secularization does not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been replaced by Environmentalism. When Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for contact with space aliens.

In the “third world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries, most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific belief systems.

The New Illiberalism

Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists themselves? Some of the things they say aren’t very reassuring.

Harris informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific meaning in the history of liberal thought. It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the hands of the police. Hence the chilling quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”

Maybe this was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of it. “Some propositions are so dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the moral standing of insect pests. Just imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill people simply for believing there is no God. But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.

Commenting on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).

Quite possibly. And if the New Atheists today, when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty, fifty, or sixty percent of the population?



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Ukraine: Game, Set and Match to Russia

Current AffairsPosted by Stephen Berry Wed, April 02, 2014 17:50:59

Nico Metten in his blog A Libertarian look at what is going on in Crimea wonders why Libertarians should bother about the conflict in the Ukraine at all. I can think of two excellent reasons.

As rational, thinking individuals we are bound take note of significant events in the outside world. Particularly interesting are those events where a large section of official opinion seems to hold views which bear no relation to what is actually going on anywhere. By ‘official opinion’ here, I mean not just the utterances of politicians, always to be taken with a warehouse full of salt. I also include the media outlets and the academies which in the West have always trumpeted their independence from government.

A government in the Ukraine is overthrown by force of arms and its president has to flee for his life. In the present world, such a happening is hardly a unique occurrence. What is remarkable is that the Western media should present this as a ‘victory for democratic forces’. The recent overthrow by the military in Egypt of the elected President Morsi was presented as what it was – a coup d’etat which favoured Western interests, but a coup d’etat nevertheless. Why can’t the guys who took power in Kiev receive the same treatment, especially when they have amongst their number, some with distinctly unsavoury and violent political leanings? Why couldn’t the Western media outlets ask the ‘democratic forces’ in the Ukraine to wait one more year for the actual democratic election which was then due?

One reason could be that the Western media are congenitally incapable of seeing any revolution which overthrows an imperfect government as other than a marvellous happening and a brave new dawn. When, a couple of years ago, the media were enjoying wet ecstasies about the ‘Arab Spring’ (henceforth to go down in the history books as the ‘Arab Winter’) it was not difficult to see trouble looming. A passing acquaintance with the history of previous revolutions should have cooled journalistic ardour. Most people can see that war is damaging to a society. It kills people, destroys capital and disrupts the productive forces on which civilised existence depends. But what does a revolution do? It kills people, destroys capital and disrupts the productive forces on which civilised existence depends! And it often leads on to a civil war. England, France and Russia have all had revolutions which became civil wars and the Ukraine will count itself lucky if it avoids a similar fate. The violent seizure of power is the same, whether it is conducted by the military in Cairo or Western-backed idealists in the centre of Kiev.

One of the first acts of the new government in Kiev was to propose the abolition of Russian as an official language in the Ukraine. Given that there are many Russian speakers in the east of that country, this was not the most auspicious start from the revolutionaries. Alexander Solzhenitsyn accepted that, after the Soviet experience, many Western Ukrainians had been permanently alienated from Russia. However, he thought that if the Western Ukrainians wanted a state sharply differentiated from Russia, they too must recognise the rights of the Ukrainian Russian speakers east of the Dnieper.

Is it any wonder that Russians in the Crimea, puzzled by a democratic putsch in Kiev, frightened by the prospect of anti-Russian measures, decided to put Solzhenitsyn’s musings into action? Why would they not choose union with Russia in preference to a government of dubious leanings which actively disliked them? For the media to present the result of the referendum in Crimea as an undesirable annexation, when the mass of Crimeans clearly regarded it as a liberation, is one more perplexing episode in this sorry saga. For the UK government, which has elevated national self-determination to a religious principle in the Falklands and Scotland, to take this line must strike many as strange.

But to insult people’s intelligence is not the most important achievement of the Western politicians and their media flunkies when dealing with the Ukraine crisis. Before 1989, NATO fulfilled an honourable role when it prevented the spread of a backward and barbarous political system into Western Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO powers have become one of the most destabilising factors in the present international system.

It could have all been done differently. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet system, a case could have been made for the disbandment of NATO along with the Warsaw Pact. More likely, NATO could have remained a Western European alliance with the old Eastern Bloc countries assuming a political status similar to Finland and Austria; neutral, but leaning in their political and economic systems to the West. A third option has been chosen. NATO has expanded to include all the former countries of the Warsaw Pact and short-range missiles have been installed along the Russian border. This was precisely the kind of act which prompted Kennedy to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union in 1962.

Now, it was one thing for NATO powers over the last 15 years to bomb Third World countries such as Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It was another thing to desire to bomb Syria but have that cup so cruelly dashed from their lips. But it is a something else to play ducks and drakes with Russia. After the failed invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, orchestrated by the Georgian President and Western satrap Mikheil Saakashvili, it should have been clear that Russia would not permit acts of gross impertinence on its borders. Ukraine is yet another reminder that when the NATO powers push, the Russians were prepared to push back. Like Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya the Russians were prepared to take it. Unlike those powers, the Russians would also be able to hand it out.

And this explains the almost hysterical mouthings of the Western politicians to the entirely predictable Russian reaction. But merely repeating one hundred times that Mr Putin is a nasty man will not get them what they want. Neither will endless finger wagging. Still less will the list of footling sanctions trumpeted by the West prevent one Russian oligarch from purchasing the flat of his dreams in Belgravia.

NATO politicians know that to get what they want, they would have to bomb Russia and that this is fraught with danger. At that point public opinion in the West would have to wake up and ask why their representatives were messing around in Russia’s backyard. It was one thing to send the light brigade to their doom 160 years ago:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

But why would the rest of us want to ride into the ‘valley of Death’ for the Crimea in 2014?

So NATO have wisely decided to bluster and fold on the Ukraine. How they must be laughing in the Kremlin and how I laughed with them.



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Selling off the Royal Mail

Current AffairsPosted by David McDonagh Tue, April 01, 2014 15:28:01

It is always a step in the right direction when the state privatises. Any rolling back of the state will be a public boon, as the state is intrinsically wasteful and anti-social. So both state ownership and state regulation is usually a waste of both time and money. But to fully privatise the state needs to withdraw altogether. In most so-called privatisations it has failed to do that, usually insisting that what it sells off continues as an entity as well as to be regulated by the state. It often still taxes the public to subsidised the supposedly privatised entity. But to truly sell off would be to allow the resourced sold to be used in whatever way the buyers saw fit.

With the recent shedding of the Royal Mail there have arose some moaning by quangos and Labourites about how the taxpayers might have been better off had the politicians staked a higher price. But that is to grumble about a few pounds that seem silly when we consider that a state liability has been well shed.

What needs to be done here is to also shed the state spending watchdog too. The National Audit Office, the UK name for this supposed watchdog, says that too much emphasis was put on quickly selling the Royal Mail off before the next election. Had they hung on, they might have got a better price, but the so-called watchdogs do not seem to give any consideration of the saved cost of holding onto the Royal Mail by an early sale. Moreover, if the Labourites win the next election then they may well have decided to retain the Royal Mail in state ownership, so that would continue its burden on the taxpayers. Instead, they feel the rapid rise of Royal Mail shares that are today, Tuesday, 1 April 2014, show some 70% increase of the sale price of 330p back in October 2013. It allows some people to think that the National Audit Office is doing a good job after all whenever it makes such “criticisms” of the government. It helps to obfuscate it as an organisation of sinecures.

The government sent a spokesman to BBC’s Today programme this morning to reply to them, or at least to the news item Business minister, Michael Fallon, replied that the sellers, his department, were right to be cautious. He said: “We could have got a higher price but we would have taken a bigger risk of people not subscribing to the shares and the Royal Mail share collapsing.”

But later in the day at the House of Commons, the Labourite Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna said that investors were laughing all the way to the bank, for they had gained hundreds of millions of pounds at the taxpayer’s expense.

The midday news announced that there had been calls for Vince Cable, the head of campaign to sell off the Royal Mail, to resign but that he had replied that a failure to sell it off would have been worse yet for the tax payers.

There had been a 38% increase in the price from 330p to 455p in the first day, arise of 750m for the new shareholders. Some shares were given to the Post Office workers to keep them sweet. They had planned a strike that they later called off but the government cited this strike-threat as one reason they set the price low. Many earlier attempts to privatise the Royal Mail had failed over the last few decades. They wanted it to get into the top hundred firms and it had. So that was a success, its spokesmen were reported on the midday news as saying.

Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office said the government was too keen to get the firm into the FTSE top hundred. But Cable replied that it had never been the aim to get the highest price, and that aim was not a risk free quest. It clashed with th aim they had. The aim had been, indeed, the FTSE hundred. He went on that the 30% share would bring in money to the state. But he did not say that as nationalised it was always a burden on the taxpayers as he remains something still of an old Labourite himself. But it maybe is going to earn for the state rather than costing the state but it is not totally privatised if state shares are retained.

It had been feared by banks advising the state, like USB and Goldman Sachs, that there would be a lack of demand owing to uncertainty and complexity but the actual demand was 24 times larger than expected. The current government aims to lower state ownership to below 50%.

Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee said that the sharp rise in the Royal Mail’s share price since the sale showed that Cable and his team had no idea what they were doing. But they did sell it off to people out to serve the public on the market rather than to attempt to rule them by the state. So it had been moved from an institution that taxes people into a market organisation that seeks to serve the public.

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A Libertarian look at what is going on in Crimea

Current AffairsPosted by Nico Metten Thu, March 27, 2014 15:11:45

Everywhere in the media, Russia is condemned for annexing Crimea. We are witnessing a huge propaganda war on both sides of this conflict in which the truth does not seem to play an important role. Like always in political situations, the world seems to become black and white. Everyone is expected to take clear sides. Once you have picked a side you are supposed to praise everything your own team does and to condemn every action of the other side.

But from a Libertarian point of view there are no clear sides to take here. There does not seem to be a libertarian option in this conflict. Personally my biggest concern is that western governments, under which I am unfortunate enough to have to live, will get very involved in this conflict and therefore drag me into it. Why on earth do western governments think that it is any of their business what is going on in Ukraine? The country is not even part of the EU. However, it seems to be a fact that these governments are deeply involved in the situation. Even worse, they seem to have had their fingers in this game from quite early on. While the conflict between the Russian and the Ukrainian part of the country seems to be quite old and not an invention of the west, western governments have systemically supported the Ukrainian part of the conflict. The picture that is presented in our 'independent' media is that of the west caring very much about freedom, democracy and human rights. However, it very much looks to me like the major reason why there is so much outrage about the Russians is that their move has caused a major defeat of the west. How dare those Russians disobey the western empire.

Everyone who believes for one minute that the major motivation for western governments is human rights, disqualifies for a serious political dialogue right there. It is these governments who are currently supporting Al Qaeda in the fight against Assad. They are a dear ally of the tyrannical Saud monarchy in Saudi Arabia selling tons of weapons to them. They turned their eyes away when Bahrain's governments brutally crushed a pro democracy movement, although they would have had the power to stop it. They found it very hard to condemn the brutal military coup in Egypt last summer, in which over 1000 peaceful protesters where shot by snipers from roof tops and so on and so on. Most importantly of course they are operating their own secret torture prison empire and an outside of every law concentration camp in Guantanamo. No, there is no fight for freedom here, just nasty geopolitics in which ordinary people have nothing to gain and much to loose.

But let us have a look at Ukraine itself. The conflict there is a typical statist conflict. Different groups of people with different ideas of how to live their lives and with some hostility towards each other are being put under one government monopoly that tries to create a 'one size fits all' solutions. Instead of letting everyone have their way of life, they are now trapped in a game in which they are essentially have to fight for all or nothing. And like all 'all or nothing' fights, they have a tendency to get rather messy very quickly. But in the heated debate about this conflict, everyone seems to agree on one thing. You must not question the 'all or nothing' game. We are told that getting rid of the monopoly, or at the very least create a few more so that more options exist, is the one outcome that is absolutely unacceptable.

It is therefore an unfortunate fact that any solution for this mess has to be within the idea of a power monopoly, even though it is clear that it is this idea that is the main problem. It should be clear from this that from a libertarian point of view, it is wrong to look at governments from a perspective of legitimacy. Unless of course we are talking about a night watchman state, which we cannot find anywhere in the world, governments are never legitimate. They are a fact that you have to deal with. Thinking of governments in terms of legitimacy is like thinking of cancer as being just or unjust. But cancer is never just or unjust, it is a fact that you unfortunately have to deal with sometimes. Not that I want to trivialise governments by comparing them with cancer. Governments are of cause causing a lot more harm than cancer, but legitimacy has nothing to do with it.

So having come to the conclusion that we need to look at the situation purely pragmatically, what choices do we have on offer. We have a totally corrupt and brutal government in Kiev on the one hand and a totally corrupt and brutal government in Moskau on the other. Given these choices, it is hard to see why libertarians should care about which of them is controlling Crimea. However, we do know that the majority of people in Crimea are more hostile to the government in Kiev than the one in Moskau and the people in west Ukraine are more hostile to the government in Moskau than the one in Kiev. It is clear that if nothing happens, the Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine will likely get at each other violently to fight out who wins the 'all or nothing' game. This would definitely be the worst possible outcome for freedom. There is only ever a chance to improve freedom in peacetime. Given that we know this, Russia annexing Crimea looks to me like the better option. It comes a little bit closer to the 'everyone do as they please' option that libertarians would like to see. Russia is essentially putting a military wall between the two fighting parties so that they cannot get at each other. And this has so far been very peaceful. This does not seem like the worst outcome. Indeed given the choices that exist realistically, this is probably one of the best. That is why I am reluctant to join the Russia bashing crowd, even though I have little sympathy for the government in Moskau. In the meantime let us work to persuade people of the real solutions for these type of problems.







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