Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Magna Carta Myth

Robert Tombs puts it this way:

"For me the problem was to understand the difference between cultural attitudes in Britain and the continental countries to the idea of being led towards European union. What I called a Magna Carta myth is the idea that in Britain it is the people who decide, and the politicians have to acquiesce. Whereas in France, Italy, Germany and some other countries, there has often been a sense that a vanguard of politicians or intellectuals have decided on the country’s future, and the mass of the population has sooner or later followed. It’s a certain conception of history; one gets it very clearly in Italy with the Risorgimento, and to some extent with France, when you think of how important Napoleon or the French Revolution − the Jacobin dictatorship − has been in creating the modern state. I think of this as a ‘vanguard myth’: ordinary people don’t know and can’t decide what the destiny of the country is, and they have to be led. I don’t think that’s the way people in Britain imagine politics. I was talking about myth: how people, deep down, see political legitimacy.

It is rooted in our political culture that it is right that the people should take these decisions. Of course, not everyone agrees with that; there are plenty of people who said the whole idea of a referendum was bad. But it’s interesting now that very few politicians contest the result. ‘The people have spoken …’ is a phrase that has a lot of weight in British political logic; it might not necessarily be the same in all countries, if what the people have said is thought to be stupid or impossible, or against the course of history.
" (Emphasis added.)

There's definitely something to it. Here is Lord Finkelstein, i.e. a member of an unelected part of our Parliament (and a Remainer), on Brexit.

"There’s a Jewish story of a man who goes over a precipice and, tumbling into the ravine, manages to grab hold of a solitary branch. As he swings there, slowly losing his grip, he shouts: ‘Oh Lord, is there anyone up there? What should I do?’ And a voice comes out of the heavens. ‘Son, let go of the branch. Let go of the branch.’

The man swings a moment more, staring into the unknown as he ponders the advice. Then he shouts: ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

We’ve asked the question. We’ve had the answer. There isn’t anyone else up there. We have to let go of the branch. Brexit means Brexit.

Vox populi, vox Dei - in Britain at least.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Good reads (but you'll have to take my word for it) [UPDATED]

Just that - a list of good stuff to look at. Despite what it sounds like.

1. Scott Alexander on cost disease. Ok, I grant that that does not sound at all interesting. But it is. Honest.

2. Alistair's Adversaria. This guy says a lot of interesting things and has lots of interesting links. Give him a go.

3. How politics works: how Sadiq Khan's amazing announcements could have been Zac Goldsmith's.

4. Ollie the bobcat and the Washington Bubble.

5. A long Dominic Cummings post about how Brexit happened. "Why is almost all political analysis and discussion so depressing and fruitless? I think much has to do with the delusions of better educated people. It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery." It would be worth testing that kind of thesis. Political innovations come in the good (universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, privatisation) and the bad (fascism, communism, Jeremy Corbynism). Presumably all of them start off more strongly amongst the well-educated than amongst the less well-educated - not knowing stuff like that is part of what we mean by less well-educated. But are the less well-educated better at spotting when the Emperor has no clothes on? Anecdotes of 20th century British political history are pretty supportive of that thesis (not a lot of fascist or communist MPs), but maybe that's just because the 20th century came up with a lot of really bad political innovations.

6. In praise of the analogue: "one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”"

7. Cockfosters (photos).

8. Obituary of JSG Boggs.

9. A wonderful hatchet job.

[UPDATE] 10. A second-wave feminist's critical take on trans-activism: "Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, decided not to produce a play about women and their vaginas because some audience members who identify as women—but don’t have vaginas—would feel excluded." For a not unconnected bonus, here is a pretty forthright chap who says that children are being taught lies. He makes a similar point along the way: "These people [advocates for multiple gender identities and laws to protect them] claim that identity is a social construct, but even though that’s their fundamental philosophical claim, and they’ve built it into the law, they don’t abide by those principles. Instead, they go right to subjectivity. They say that your identity is nothing more than your subjective feeling of what you are. Well, that’s also a staggeringly impoverished idea of what constitutes identity. It’s like the claim of an egocentric two-year old, and I mean that technically."

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"For the West, “what is” has become increasingly difficult to disentangle from “what ought to be.”"

So says Viktor Orban here. He continues: "By contrast, our [i.e East Central Europeans'] perception of the real remains as sharp and cold as common sense. We have learned that the real is that which refuses to disappear even if we have stopped believing in it."

That's the best bit of his piece. But it's often worth reading people in their own words to see what their own concerns are - and to see where their popularity comes from. Who would vote for X?, you ask yourself. The answer is always: someone a bit like you. Listen to X and you'll start to see why.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

What's going to happen with Trump?

With my stunning betting successes behind me (well, two out of three ain't bad), you are no doubt gagging to know what I predict for the future of the Trump presidency. Well, my view is that it's too early to tell. But here are three people with much more interesting views - and you should read them all.

First, here is Ross Douthat on how populism stumbles, not least by triggering "an unusual level of solidarity among elites, who feel moved to resist on a scale that they wouldn’t if similar policies were pursued by normal political actors". Tyler Cowen mostly agrees with him.

Second, by contrast, here is David Frum on how Trump could build an autocracy, in the Turkey/Hungary sense at least. It is what the magazine would no doubt describe as an 'important' piece, but do not let that put you off as it's well worth a read.

Douthat and Frum are both literate, humane intelligent writers. Their theses are both worth your consideration.

On the other hand, here is Scott Adams, who really did predict the Trump presidency (strikingly unlike Douthat), setting out where Trump will end up on immigration and how you can spot it happening.

I would say that you pays your money and you makes your choice, but that's the wonder of modern international capitalism - it provides so much, of such high quality, entirely for free.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Democracy, eh?

That's from Parliament's petition page.

Laughter, lies and the War

1. Economists should try to make us laugh ...

2. ... after all, "Laughter is the ultimate psychosomatic symptom", says an interesting article here.

3. Why Trump's people lie.

4. Why do we keep mentioning the War? In summary: in England we love to talk about "the War", i.e. that entertaining/depressing/glorious construct we see in war films, 'Allo 'Allo, Fawlty Towers and so on. It's an endlessly charming little topic, full of dastardly Nazis (aka "Germans"), plucky "Brits" and a host of other entertaining characters who go by names such as "French", "Americans" and so on. Unfortunately, we use a set of very similar words to describe a real historical event and real people who live in real countries. That means that sometimes people get confused about whether we're talking about the sort of "German" who might say "vor you, Tommy, ze vor is ofer" or the real sort of German who might say "we would welcome a constructive negotiation about economic policy". You can see how people might get offended. Probably best to be more careful.

5. Don't let's forget the real War either. E.g., Eichmann, very interestingly discussed here (which includes this: "when a Nazi named “Baron von Killinger” is horrified by your brutality, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether you may have crossed a line").

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

That Brexit case (2)

The Court's own summary of the judgment is here. I told you so here.

My "probably" was a good indication that it would not be all one way, although I should confess that I only correctly guessed one of the dissenters.