"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Gaeilge and schools

Richard's post regarding the Irish language and the Leaving Cert received some sceptical comments. Instead of commenting at Sicilian Notes, I'll say my piece here.

At present, unless one has an exemption (for example because of past residence outside the country) an examination in the Irish language is a compulsory component of the Leaving Cert. However only a small and shrinking minority speak Irish as their first language; outside a small number of places, few speak it with any degree of aptitude. It is never used in commerce, education or daily life. For most Irish citizens, most of the time, it is to all intents and purposes a foreign tongue, in the sense that we cannot understand it. Personally I had a good standard of Irish when I left school. If there were no subtitles, I could understand the gist of what was being said on An Nuacht or TG4. I have no antipathy towards the language. That said, I have practically never had recourse to it since school.

It would not be a good thing if our national language went the way of Latin. Much of our heritage is locked up in literature and writings as Gaeilge. When compared to most countries who have an indigenous that has survived into the 21st century (and languages are dying out all the time), our competence at our own tongue can fairly be described as pitiful. It's funny to use it to confuse foreigners but ultimately it is black humour. We are not a credit to ourselves linguistically; it was shown recently that we are at (or near, I cannot recall precisely) the bottom of the EU table for speaking (any) second language: Monoglots are we.

I would like to see Irish revived. I think it is possible, but that current policies are not moving matters in that direction. This debate entered the political sphere as a result of a speech given by Opposition leader Enda Kenny in November when he argued that the language should be optional at Leaving Cert level. I heard Kenny speak on the point here at U.C.C. in January. He is fluent Irish speaker; I think therefore it should be accepted that he has a genuine affinity for the language and is not approaching this from a party political angle. In any event, his arguments are cogent. As Eoin Ó Murchú wrote in Village at the time:
The main point that Enda Kenny is making is, however, unanswerable. Despite the average pupil having over 1,500 hours of tuition in Irish spread over 14 years, the vast majority of students leave our schools completely unable to hold a simple conversation, or even spell Irish names correctly. This is a sorry commentary on the Department of Education and on teachers.
Ó Murchú goes on to argue that Kenny's conclusion from those facts is incorrect. I would disagree. The reality is that a small number of students (probably one in five) takes Irish at honours level for the Leaving Cert. With all due respect to the students and teachers involved, the lower level paper is a joke. It demeans the Irish language and wastes time, energy and resources. In effect, therefore, probably 80% of students leave school already with a level of Irish that is of no use or benefit to them or society. The only issue is whether politicians are prepared to say that coercing the unwilling to take the language is an intelligent method of ensuring it has a future. I think the Government should say this is not so. Every year thousands of students spend thousands of unproductive hours rote learning irrelevantly basic constructions, in order to repeat them one day in June, so that they won't fail their Leaving. They could be far more usefully and enjoyably study something else.

The most vibrant part of the modern Irish movement, after all, is the Gaelscoileanna where all subjects are taken through Irish. Parents opt to send their children there; the schools tend to be highly regarded. Experimentation is the way to solve the Irish problem. The current compulsory system is a facade. It does the language no service. Clearly much more needs to be done than simply revoking the compulsion at Leaving Cert (the honours course, for one thing, should not have such an emphasis on poetry and literature; instead the time and weight given to speaking the language should be increased, preferrably by 100%), but it would be a start.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Riots in Dublin

There can be no reasonable prospect of a peacefully united 32-county Ireland for the foreseeable future. It seems SF/IRA thugs cannot even stomach a few unionists on a rather harmless "Love Ulster" parade around Dublin. Instead they caused full-scale riots, in which 14 people, including six policemen, were injured and millions of euro damge was done to property. I hope prosecutions are forthcoming swiftly and these wretches are punished severely. This is not the way we behave in democracies. If this is what is taken to be legitimate expression of historical grievance, I don't want the Six Counties back. The Taoiseach reacted as follows: “There is absolutely no excuse for the disgraceful scenes in Dublin today. It is the essence of Irish democracy and republicanism that people are allowed to express their views freely and in a peaceful manner. People who wantonly attack gardai (police) and property have no respect for their fellow citizens.” Here is what Jeffrey Donaldson had to say: “We have received a warm welcome from ordinary Dubliners. But it's clear these republicans have come from north of the border and other areas intent only on causing trouble.”

For a lucid account of the trouble from the perspective of an unaware bystander, see Kevin Breathnach's story at Disillusioned Lefty.

Saint at Dossing Times has an excellent piece also, beginning:
"As the dust settles (pun not intended) on what has to be the worst riot in Ireland in over 20 years. It is time to take stock of what happened and figure out what the consequences of this are. In my piece on the Love Ulster parade I said that the “biggest and hardest test for Irish society is not seeing can we accept Poles or Nigerians but can we accept Unionists.” It looks very much like we have failed that test."

Saint also makes an important about RTE's failure, as public service boradcaster, to take the lead in reporting on what was a very serious incident.

Another account worth reading comes from Backseat Drivers.

Last, but by no means least, there is an excellent roundup at Slugger O'Toole. I defy anyone to look at the picture of O'Connell Street at that link and feel anything other than revulsion.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Guardian on Communism: Why not be so fair-minded to your own side?

"For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment, captured even by critical films and books of the post-Stalin era such as Wajda's Man of Marble and Rybakov's Children of the Arbat. Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination."

Seamus Milne, editor of The Guardian, defends Soviet Communism against what he describes as a "determined rewriting of history since the collapse of the Soviet Union that has sought to portray 20thcentury communist leaders as monsters equal to or surpassing Hitler in their depravity - and communism and fascism as the two greatest evils of history's bloodiest era". He seems sceptical of a Swedish MEP's description of Communism as an "evil ideology". He writes that: "The fashionable attempt to equate communism and Nazism is in reality a moral and historical nonsense. Despite the cruelties of the Stalin terror, there was no Soviet Treblinka or Sobibor, no extermination camps built to murder millions." Milne demonstrations no equivocation in condemning European colonialism, to which he attributes a "far bloodier record" and describes as a "system of racist despotism, which dominated the globe in Stalin's time." He then proceeds to say that European colonialism had much more in common with Nazism than Soviet Communism did. He also, for some reason, casts aspersions on a recent biography of the Chinese dictator Mao, whose regime killed more people than either Hitler or Stalin, including three million of his own people in the crazy collectivisation known eerily as the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961.

The Left really needs to move on. No one who talks such nonsense about Communist tyranny can have any credibility. This piece is moral relativisim at its most base: "No major 20th-century political tradition is without blood on its hands." Yes, the parliamentary democracies of the West, got "blood on their hands" in the 20th century, and not always for the right reasons. But they also fought and won two world wars against totalitarianism. Then, for 40 years, the United States and its allies stood up to the Soviet Union. America put its own civilians in danger of nuclear retaliation in order to help reassure those same allies. Milne's attempt to demonstrate moral equivalence between such diametrically opposed "political traditions" as the free West and the totalitarian Soviet Union is disgraceful.

It is difficult to contemplate why an educated Englishman, nearly two decades after the collapse of Soviet tyranny, should write such unutterable stupidity. There are important new policy battles to be fought; the 21st century has presented serious policy challenges for Western democracies, at home and abroad. In the important debates of our time, an intelligent, thoughtful Left is as necessary as ever. The Guardian, it seems, is being run by a man more committed to the lunatic fringe.

P.S. See the post on the same topic, with more detail, at Atlantic Blog.

Update 1: (2.55pm) See this discussion of seven letters written to the Guardian, four of which supported Milne. The letter due most attention is that by Krzysztof Mularczyk of Warsaw.

Update 2: (3.10pm) While comfortable throwing a protective arm around various Communist tyrants, Milne clearly exercises little comparable restraint or equivocation when discussing Britain's past: "Britain's empire was in reality built on genocide, vast ethnic cleansing, slavery, rigorously enforced racial hierarchy and merciless exploitation. As the Cambridge historian Richard Drayton put(s) it (in June 2004): 'We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress -the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings.'" Nothing there about "idealism" - contrast the quote at the top about Soviet "idealism". Nothing about the colonial empires bringing some of the benefits of western development to some very undeveloped parts of the world. I'm not suggesting colonialism didn't have its brutal side; I am merely pointing out Milne's inconsistency.

Update 3: (3.20pm) Unconnected I know, but remember this piece when discussing Seamus Milne. Within 48 hours of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, he had published an article condemning U.S. "popular ignorance [and] self-referential rhetoric". He also insinuates "racism and hypocrisy" and takes America to task for its "record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world's population, for whom there is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and power". He smirked that if it turned out bin Laden was behind 9/11 "the sense that the Americans are once again reaping a dragons' teeth harvest they themselves sowed will be overwhelming." He criticised the Bush administration for "assembling an international coalition for an Israeli-style war against terrorism, as if such counter-productive acts of outrage had an existence separate from the social conditions out of which they arise." He concluded, pathetically, that "for every "terror network" that is rooted out, another will emerge - until the injustices and inequalities that produce them are addressed." One need only ask what poverty or inequality "drove" a rich Saudi playboy like bin Laden to assault America. But such obvious points were not presented by Milne. Meanwhile in New York the search for survivors continued in the rubble of the World Trade Centre. Whereas his recent article on Soviet Communism might be dismissed as a misguided or ignorant political and historical view, his article of September 13th 2001, one suspects, has an altogether different basis.

Update 4: (3.30pm) Read this powerful counter-relativist response from blogger Norman Geras.

Weighing risks in counter-terrorist operations

This story, though by no means a new one, should be borne in mind in debates about collateral damage, or, in plain English, civilian casualties in war. It dates from the 1998-9 and has been in the public domain since at least the publication of the 9/11 Commission report. The facts, in brief, are these: In February 1999 U.S. intelligence had solid information that Osama bin Laden was at a particular training camp in Afghanistan. Preparations were made for a possible strike, but no strike was launched. The intelligence could not specify bin Laden's quarters; there was also a concern that official visitors from the United Arab Emirates were present and would likely suffer. The UAE is an important and close ally of the U.S. in the Gulf region. Fear of a diplomatic incident swayed president Clinton against ordering the strike. Richard Clarke was one of the U.S. intelligence officials involved in the decision; he seems to have been sceptical of the merits of such a strike. On February 10th Clarke detailed to deputy national security advisor Donald Kerrick intelligence placing bin Laden in the camp, and informed him that the Pentagon might be in a position to fire the next morning.

But, consider: If the opposite decision had been taken, a critical blow might have been dealt al-Qaeda's leadership. The attacks on Washington and New York might never have come to pass. It would certainly have been open to the U.S. administration to defend such an operation by replying that, while it regretted the non-target casualties, officials of a close ally should not have been in secret discussions with bin Laden at one of his terrorist training camps. There was also no reason why the intelligence linking the UAE officials need have been publicly acknowledged at the time. In any event, one need only contrast the strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan across the Pakistani border. 18 people are believed to have been killed, including several civilians, and associates of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It has been reported that Midhat Mursi, described in the media as "al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert" and "of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola", was among the casualties. Intelligence, we are told, placed Zawahiri and a number of key associates in a particular house at a particular time. An opportunity presented itself to deal a serious blow to the terrorist network. Given the 1999 bin Laden episode, it should at least be accepted that this issue is not black and white. It is difficult and complex. The civilians who seem to have been killed in Pakistan were probably less morally blameworthy than the UAE officials in bin Laden's Afghan camp. But the real question is whether a better opportunity was likely to present itself. Al-Qaeda is, of course, a clandestine, stateless network. The next time Zawahiri might have been seen by U.S. officials might have been on an al-Jazeera video celebrating the next terrorist attack. And the next investigating Commission would later ask the same questions the 9/11 Commission did.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Thanks to those of you who have taken the time thus far to comment on any of my pieces. For the record I have disabled comment moderation. Not being very technically aware, I didn't realise it would stop comments going up straight away. As of a few minutes ago, comments will appear automatically.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Not-So-Free Speech in Europe

The trouble with laws like this is that they criminalize misinterpretation. This is not to say that historians, newspaper editors or anyone else should make false statements, but is it reasonable to make being wrong a criminal offense? Emily Messner, The Washington Post

Liberal democracies can't afford in today's world to create a crime of political heresy. Insult to religion and to the feelings of groups of people ought to be incorporated, albeit with accompanying debate and protest, as part of the dialectic of freedom. Farrukh Dondy, The Asian Age

I read somewhere recently that comparisons with Hitler tend to obscure more than they illuminate. I think the same about descriptions of political views as "Orwellian". But I can't help referencing Orwell's Animal Farm, on hearing that historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years' imprisonment in Austria for denying that the Holocaust took place: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." Coming so soon after the newspaper cartoon debacle, this decision makes European protestations about free speech look hollow hypocritical. For example, European states have been prevailing upon the Turkish government to introduce liberal democratic reforms, before its wish to see its country join the European Union can be granted. One of the objections was to the Turkish law banning denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Austria's law is no better than Turkey's. However, it must be said that such laws are the exception rather than the norm in the Western world. Across much of the world, political speech is rountinely restricted and suppressed.

Roger Boyle of the New Statesman has written in favour of Irving being sentenced to imprisonment. Boyle writes that: "Irving may not have a hook but there is not much else to distinguish him from other hate preachers who are being put behind bars." In my opinion there is a distinction. It is this: Irving's speech is deliberate historical mendacity; Hamza's crime was to incite violence against his fellow citizens - he was, after all, convicted of soliciting murder.

It cannot be justified to make factual error, political heresy or historical inaccuracy (even on such a large scale and of such a bizarre nature) illegal. This is especially so today, when it has never been more important to impress upon the non-democratic world the value of democratic freedom. Today is not a good day for that cause.

Cultural equivalence?

I attended a talk last night given by Senator David Norris to the Law Society here at UCC. He is a most articulate, humourous and charming fellow (not to mention well-dressed). I enjoyed listening to him. He is one of the few genuinely charismatic and unpredictable Irish politicians. His main topic was the civil partnership legislation he introduced in the Senate. However, as his wont, his speech (and his responses to questions) roamed considerably. Among some rather predictable remarks about Shannon, Iraq and so on (and an interesting anecdote about him verbally castigating Tariq Aziz in Baghdad), he made one rather curious remark. Question ended too soon for me to raise it the point with him. I am paraphrasing, but these were more or less his words: "Asked to choose between Islamic and Western cultures today, I confess I would find the choice a difficult one." He said this in the context of remarks about the decline in (religious) spirituality in Europe.

Now, admittedly, the question his remark raises is something of a loaded one. For one thing, in comparing Western and Islamic values we should be careful to distinguish between the values of citizens of Islamic countries and their governments. It would seem fair to say, however, that the oppression of women in much of the Middle East, to take one example, is culturally accepted. Women are usually second-class citizens. For example, honour killings are practiced in certain states; forced marriages are common; the disgraceful practice of female circumcision (i.e. genital mutilation) is widely practised; Sharia law allows women to be legally beaten. The example of Afghanistan suggests as much. Even though the Taliban regime is now defunct, women remain in largely the same position in that society. Admittedly a number have been elected to the new Afghan parliament, but theirs is a difficult (and sometimes dangerous) career. In many such countries homosexual relations are punishable by death. Senator Norris referred to the recent case where two Iranian teenagers were hung in public for the crime of having had a homosexual relationship. One might equally refer to the reactionary nature of the criminal punishments handed out in, for example, Saudi Arabia. For centuries Western culture has required that the punishment should fit the crime and that punishment should be at least roughly proportionate to the offence.

Western culture professes a belief in parliamentary democracy and pluralism. Can we justifiably say that this culture is superior to a culture that allows (or requires) some of the brutal treatment of women and others that Islamic cultures seem to sanction? I think we can. To quote Ibn Warraq, the (pseudonymous) Muslim dissident (I suppose he could be called a lapsed Muslim), who was educated in and now lives in the Western world:
"On the world stage, should we really apologize for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch? Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and Darwin? Penicillin and computers? The Olympic Games and Football? Human rights and parliamentary democracy? The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty,political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience."
Of course, Western societies do not always act as those values might require. But we do believe in them, and have engrained them in our laws. I think that suggests that our culture is a more developed and a better one. I think it is legitimate to make such choices, in a way that would not be the case where race or religion is involved. I would be interested to hear readers' thoughts.

P.S. For the sake of balance, I should refer to "Trends and Flaws in Some Anti-Muslim Writing as Exemplified by Ibn Warraq" by Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D, which is linked to on the wikipedia profile of Ibn Warraq.

Sinn Fein and government

I'm opposed to Sinn Fein governing the state for the foreseeable future. The IMC report has made it plain that the Provisionals retain weapons and that their criminal activities have not ceased. Respect for the rule of law is not optional for a party thinking of government. We should recall (as we were reminded by Toireasa Ferris' recent comments) that this party sees no crime in the deliberate and premeditated killing of a police officer of this State. For the same reasons, I do not believe the unionists of Northern Ireland should be pushed into consenting to Sinn Fein running their government. Such coercion as the British and Irish governments have attempted to apply to date on Paisley's DUP seem to have failed quite completely. I do not think I would easily trust Sinn Fein today, were I a unionist. It can only be for the good, then, that the delgates to Sinn Fein's party conference at the weekend seem to revolted on their leadership, by making the repeal of the Offences Against the State Act 1939 a condition of their entrance into government after next year's election. From yesterday's Irish Times:
"Sinn Féin Ardfheis delegates have insisted that the Offences against the State Act must be repealed before the party will enter a coalition government, despite the strong wishes of the party's leadership, write Mark Hennessy and Gerry Moriarty. During a difficult weekend for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, delegates were persuaded not to vote for a blanket ban on entering power in the Republic, but rather to leave the issue aside until a post-election special conference, if a coalition option was available. The 1939 legislation has been the main legislation used by the State in its fight against the IRA and includes powers to set up the non-jury Special Criminal Court and to jail people for five years for IRA membership on the word of a Garda superintendent."
This will clearly be an issue in the election. The constitutional parties will be asked whether they would repeal the Act after the election. I can see no other answer being forthcoming than an uncompromising "No". Fianna Fail seemed to underplay the required fiscal cutbacks in 2002. Over the next year they will have to be crystal clear. Were they to show anything other than utmost good faith on this question, the electorate's reaction would make the post-2002 public dissatisfaction with the government seem short-lived and shallow.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

Thus did Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Baylor University entitle his book, published last December. In an adaptative summary published in that month's Chronicle Review Stark attempts to explain why capitalism thrived in Europe (and its descendants) and not elsewhere. Why, Stark asks, if the "material conditions needed for capitalism existed in many civilizations in various eras, including China, the Islamic world, India, Byzantium, and probably ancient Rome and Greece as well" was it that "none of those societies broke through and developed capitalism"? The answer, he contends, is that none evolved ethical visions compatible with that dynamic economic system.

By contrast, Europe's Christian dedication to reason, which was influenced by Greek philosophy, offered such an ethical vision. He writes: "While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth." He goes on to argue that "from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past." Incidentally, Stark treats Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with disdain, treating it as conclusively refuted by the evidence that "rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries." (For a study that reaches conclusions more in line with Weber's thesis, one might consult Inglehart and Baker (2000) American Sociological Review Vol.65 p.19 - available here)

Christianity was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the development of capitalism in Europe. Freedom from "greedy despots" was also required. On the question of "what is a just price for one's goods" Stark traces the answer to the "the immensely influential St. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280)". For Albertus Magnus, the just price is simply what "goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale." Augustine, Aquinas, and other major theologians counselled that the state must allow private property and individual freedom to pursue virtue. (Indeed one can go back to the statement of Jesus that Christians should give unto God that which is God's, and give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.) Christian doctrine also taught that material inequality was as nothing compared to the equality all enjoyed in the eys of God. From the seventh century, the Church in Europe articulated theological opposition to slavery and by the 11th century had ensured the demise in Europe of that dreadful institution. Free labour, thus encouraged, was central to Europe's capitalist success.

Stark's is a fascinating thesis. The immediate question that comes to mind is what (if any) implications it has for Europe in the early 21st century, so commonly referred as having reached a "post-Christian" stage of evolution.

The Great Gulf War of 2007?

I've only just come across this now, but it's a chilling and important enough piece to warrant re-reading. Last month in the Daily Telegraph, Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, wrote from the viewpoint of a hypothetical future historian of a great conflict in the Middle East, beginning in 2007 and involving nuclear weapons. The proximate cause was Iran's successful development of workable nuclear fuel for its missiles. The history of the Cuban missile crisis did not repreat itself. Instead, Ahmadinejad's Iran struck Tel Aviv; Netanyahu's Israel struck Teheran. The future historian wonders whether a preventive strike in 2006 might have forestalled this dreadful consequence. The responsibility of world leaders today must be to prevent at all costs such a catastrophic war. If (and I do not claim to know whether) a military strike on Iran's nuclear programme is the only way to prevent such an outcome, who would say it was wrong? Who would say it would not be a lesser evil? These are difficult and disturbing questions. We live in dangerous times. (Ferguson's piece can be read here.)

Milton Friedman interview

The Spring 2006 edition of National Perspectives Quarterly contains a fascinating interview with Milton Friedman, the economist credited with influence (by admirers and opponents alike) over the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Friedman offers interesting views on, among other things, Iraq, the need for economic reform in Germany, the prospects for China's "authoritarian free-market system", the U.S. fiscal deficit, globalization, the Internet, and the idea of the End of History. Take, for example, the exchange on the latter topic:
NPQ: In the end, your ideas have triumphed over Marx and Keynes. Is this, then, the end of the road for economic thought? Is there anything more to say than free markets are the most efficient way to organize a society? Is it the “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama put it?
Friedman: Oh no. “Free markets” is a very general term. There are all sorts of problems that will emerge. Free markets work best when the transaction between two individuals affects only those individuals. But that isn’t the fact. The fact is that, most often, a transaction between you and me affects a third party. That is the source of all problems for government. That is the source of all pollution problems, of the inequality problem. There are some good economists like Gary Becker and Bob Lucas who are working on these issues. This reality ensures that the end of history will never come.

Friday, February 17, 2006

James Q. Wilson on the dangers of polarisation

Ireland's politics are notoriously, for some lamentably, predominantly non-ideological. The largest party in the State for the last three-quarters of a century, Fianna Fail, has been often ideologically ambivalent. Its defining mode is pragmatic populism. There is of course a fine line between this and unprincipled chicanery, or the type of politics that sees power as an end in itself. Consensus, too, as symbolised by social partnership and the relative Oireachtas unanimity over Northern Ireland over the last decade or so, tends to be valued, at least by the politicians. Consensus, however, is a double-edged sword: It breeds complacency.

One place where political consensus has been in notable decline over recent decades, while political polarisation has increased, is the United States. The political culture there is divided into two hostile camps, which routinely engage in bitter rhetorical debate. The level of partisanship and mutual distrust between the two parties in Washington D.C. is at dangerous levels. It is a danger outlined by the inimitable James Q. Wilson in a piece in the February edition of Commentary, republished at OpinionJournal. His thesis is that polarisation on the scale witnessed in America in recent years can seriously undermine a nation's resolve and sense of purpose in time of war. The fact that the United States is the world's pre-eminent democracy and sole military superpower makes the consequences of such effects global in nature. I will quote only the final paragraph:
"Denmark or Luxembourg can afford to exhibit domestic anguish and uncertainty over military policy; the United States cannot. A divided America encourages our enemies, disheartens our allies, and saps our resolve--potentially to fatal effect. What Gen. Giap of North Vietnam once said of us is even truer today: America cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but it can be defeated at home. Polarization is a force that can defeat us."
I commend the entire piece to readers. Wilson is a distinguished academic who writes in a detached and fair manner. His writing is consistently enlightening and insightful. For that he is one of my favourite public intellectuals.

Preventive and pre-emptive force

Via Uncommon Knowledge, I would direct readers to an engaging debate about the role of pre-emptive and preventive force in international affairs, featuring Anne-Marie Slaughter, Victor Davis Hanson and Stephen Stedman. The debate is considered in tone and balanced in composition.

The important distinction is this: pre-emption uses force to interrupt a threat that is in motion. Preventive force is against threats that are latent, not imminent. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, I would argue, was preventive rather than pre-emptive, Blairite rhetoric notwithstanding. The concept of imminence is much less useful today than in the past. The most deadly threats confronting states are, and will continue for the foreseeable future to be, clandestine. A pre-emptive strike, in the correct meaning of that phrase, requires knowledge that one's adversary is about to strike. During the debate, Anne-Marie Slaughter offers the following rationale for preventive force:
"take what happened 9/11 or take you think that some country is about to get nuclear weapons and they are funding terrorists and they are - so imagine the Taliban was about to go nuclear. Well at that point, you know that if you wait till the threat is imminent, it's too late. By then, you're not going to--if they've got a nuclear weapon, you're not going to wait around wondering when they're going to use it. So you have to strike beforehand. " (my emphasis)
The italicised words represent, in my view, the strategic merit of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Slaughter's thought experiment also illustrates why the Pentagon is updating the logistics of a strike on recalcitrant Iran's nuclear programme. On that subject, France's foriegn minister, Philip Douste-Blazy made the following comments yesterday: "Today it is very simple: no civil nuclear programme can explain Iran's nuclear programme. So it is a clandestine military nuclear programme." This mirrors German prime minister Angela Merkel's statement in Washington last month that Iran's recent behaviour had "crossed a red line"; it also follows Tuesday's joint statement from the prime ministers of France and Russia, Messrs Villepin and Putin, calling on Iran to halt uranium enrichment. The Iranian crisis was up for discussion between British prime minister Blair and Ms. Merkel in Berlin today, but no significant public development emerged.

The likelihood of force being used against Iran by the United States, within the next three or four years at the outside, is, I suspect, quite considerable. The prospects for such an action gaining approval at the UN Security Council, as currently constituted, seem slight. China's energy ties with Iran, as well as its seemingly impenetrable policy of non-coercion in international relations suggest as much.

Fear rather than principle?

A letter to today's Irish Times makes an interesting argument relating to that newspaper's (and others') refusal to publish the cartoons purporting to depict Muhammad:

Madam, - You did not publish the contentious cartoons that offend Muslims. However, you regularly publish pictures of a female pop singer who has adopted the title of the most revered saint in the Catholic Church, Madonna. She performs sexual gyrations in front of audiences under the name of someone who to Catholics is the very epitome of sexual purity and innocence. I suggest the difference is that you are confident Catholics will not react violently. I don't think that respect is the guiding principle in not publishing the cartoons. I think it is fear.

- Yours, etc, KEVIN COOPER

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No need for a triple lock referendum

Rinceoir is quite right to say that John Gormley TD's call (in today's Irish Times) for a referendum to enshrine the so-called "triple lock" policy into our Constitution is misguided. Quite apart from the likely ensuing divisions between the Greens and their possible senior coalition partners, Fine Gael, over the issue, the suggestion is wrong in itself. It seems like a kite Mr. Gormley has decided to fly in an attempt to grab some of the political spotlight. As a small party often overlooked by current affairs programmers, his motivation is comprehensible. The Greens have the added to difficulty of being in opposition.

But to the subtance of the point. The triple lock is a policy requirement that before Irish forces can be committed overseas, the Government, legislature and the United Nations Security Council must sanction the mission. There are clear arguments from sovereignty and independence against imposing such a policy restriction in the Constitution. It is one thing to have such a requirement as a matter of policy (although given the complacent attitude of Irish public opinion to the UN's ability to act as arbiter of legitimacy and efficacy in security matters, it is a relatively rigid requirement i.e. not easily abandoned by a government committed to it), it is another to crystallise it in our founding charter in a way that will be very difficult to remove.

Instead, Irish policy should be moving in the other direction. The triple lock is an unnecessary encumberance on Irish foreign policy. It overly constricts our Government's options. It substitutes a tenacious belief in an outmoded institutional model (that is provided the UNSC ever worked as it was supposed to) for legitimate discretion in foreign affairs. It can lead to absurd results. Why should the veto of China or Russia (or for that matter any of the other permanent Security Council members) dictate as a matter of constitutional law or otherwise how Ireland must decide every time there is a crisis in the world where Ireland's well-respected and experienced (but grossly underfunded) armed forces could intervene justly and effectively, as part of a coalition of the willing? We should keep our options open. My argument here is not with the idea of international rules on the legitimate use of force per se but rather with the idea of Ireland's future policy options being restricted in this manner, to this institution.

Freedom of action in Irish foreign policy must be maintained and expanded on. Mr. Gormley's suggestion should be treated for what it is: an unjustifiable political stunt. I hope the Government see it that way too.

Tories go to Washington

"You can forget about meeting the president. Don't bother coming. You are not meeting him," or so Karl Rove is said to have told Michael Howard, the last leader of the British Conservative party, in a February 2004 phone conversation. Apocryphal or otherwise, the quote summed up what had became a frosty relationship between the Bush administration and the Tories. The deterioration in traditional Republican-Conservative ties (symbolised by the close relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980's - however different those two may have been in character) can be dated to at least the last U.K. election campaign and to the fallout from the Iraq war. The Tories (admittedly under a previous leader) supported the prime minister over the war. Then, last spring, Michael Howard began to criticise the prime minister's alleged malfeasance regarding intelligence and the handling of the occupation. The first criticism, particularly, struck the incumbents in Washington as opportunistic and disloyal.

Today, William Hague, George Osborne, and Liam Fox, three of David Cameron's chief lieutenants, depart London for Washington and a series of meetings with, among others, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Bernanke and John Snow. Also scheduled is a meeting with John McCain, probable candidate for the presidency in 2008 and senate majority leader Bill Frist; Madeleine Albright and a group of Democrats are also to receive the Tory contingent.

Well, what of it? This isn't Nixon going to China. The Tories hype that this is "government-to-future-government" stuff is appealing on the surface but can be discounted for analytical purposes. The Tories have, after all, something of a mountain to climb to be elected next time out. Seemingly Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will be on the menu for discussion. Mr. Fox, shadow defence secretary and arch-neo-conservative (whatever merit that term has), will doubtless impress on his hosts that the Tories view the emerging crisis of Iran's nuclear ambitions as gravely as Washington hawk's seem to. Mr. Cameron has spoken of the need to promote democracy in Iran, but Ben Hall (in yesterday's Financial Times) was probably going a little far to describe him as a neo-conservative. Events and decisions have been too minor and too few in Cameron's time as leader for much of a pattern of thinking to emerge. It is unclear with which - if any - foreign policy inclination with the Conservative party is most aligned. (He voted for the Iraq war, which is something of a bellwether. That puts him firmly in the majority of his parliamentary party colleagues.) Of course Mr Blair had little by way of clear foreign policy expertise or inclination when he assumed the Labour leadership. But he has since worked well with U.S. presidents of different parties and temperaments. That observation reminds us that so much of political relations is personal.

One discordant note may come tomorrow Thursday. Mr. Hague is due to make a speech pressing for American "global leadership" on the issue of climate change. This follows Mr. Bush's State of the Union admission that the U.S. (or perhaps more particularly its economy) is "addicted to oil". Given the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto protocol and binding emission targets more generally (I use the term binding advisedly), Mr. Hague may be well advised to couch his language in vague and aspirational terms, preferrably emphasising the technology- and market-led approaches that have found favour with Mr. Bush and, especially, Messrs McCain and Lieberman.

If the delegation are successful, Bush will meet Cameron later this year or in 2007. By then we may have a clearer idea of the substantive policy ideas behind Mr. Cameron's "compassionate conservative" self-description. The print media headlines regarding are all about "building bridges" and "mending fences". The policy landscape on the Conservative side of the bridge/fence is in something of a transition at present. The most interesting questions, for now, in the Republican-Conservative relationship relate to the Conservatives and the development their policy agenda under their dynamic new leader. The Washington meetings this week are mostly for the cameras and for personal relationship-building.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization

Will Wilkinson (Feb. 4th) has a fancy name for what I was warning against last week. He calls it "the Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization". This fallacy is committed in either of two ways: by comparing a perfectly competitive market and the (presumptively relatively inefficient) state; and, conversely by comparing a non-ideal market and a Panglossian government

His blog and the piece in question are interesting - worth a look.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Surveillance: strategy and law

"We exist in a political culture that distrusts two things most of all: power and secrecy. "
"This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with al Qaeda."
Gen. Michael Hayden, Jan. 23, 2006

"Sire, it was worse than a crime. It was a mistake."
Talleyrand to Napoleon

Power and secrecy must characterise intelligence agencies, in order for them to be effective. The more of each, the better. This, of course, is provided such power is used only as it ought. Secrecy necessarily prohibits public accountability providing a check on intelligence agencies. Instead preventing misuse of power is carried out by government oversight. The degree and process of oversight must be a function of the nature (and development) of the threats on which intelligence is sought. The key question in the U.S. debate over president Bush's avoidance of the requirements of the surveillance statute is whether the statute is relevant for its purpose in the context of the new war. This has been lost in the partisan exchanges.

The facts are straightforward. In 2001, after the attacks on New York and Washingon D.C., Bush secretly authorised the NSA to monitor and target communications between suspected al-Qaeda agents and others when one party to the communication was in the U.S. and the other abroad. This avoided the administrative and judicial review requirements in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The statute requires that a secret federal court grant a warrant if "probable cause" is shown that a person to be monitored is foreign agent or a criminal. The effect of the president's actions was to - secretly and unilaterally - lower the threshold for monitoring conversations of persons suspected of plotting terrorist attacks. It is an important early-warning against al-Qaeda, but it is in breach of the FISA. The administration claims this breach is valid because of the inherent constitutional power to defend the nation. Such claims are legally dubious. The authorization was, however, reviewed by lawyers at the NSA, the Department of Justice and the White House and was approved by the attorney general. It was also made known to the congressional leadership.

Some recent commentary has put the issue in perspective. In the speech from which I take the quote at the beginning of this post, Gen. Michael Hayden, America's deputy director of national intelligence (and previously director of the national security agency (NSA) - the agency at the centre of the phonetapping debate) discussed the NSA's work:

"NSA intercepts communications, and it does so for only one purpose -- to protect the lives, the liberties and the well-being of the citizens of the United States from those who would do us harm. By the late 1990s, that job was becoming increasingly more difficult. The explosion of modern communications in terms of volume, variety, velocity threatened to overwhelm us."
"Gone were the days when signals of interest -- that's what NSA calls the things they want to copy -- gone were the days when signals of interest went along some dedicated microwave link between strategic rocket forces headquarters in Moscow and some ICBM in western Siberia. By the late '90s, what NSA calls targeted communications -- things like al Qaeda communications -- coexisted out there in a great global web with your phone calls and my e-mails. NSA needed the power to pick out the one, and the discipline to leave the others alone."
"You know, the 9/11 commission criticized our ability to link things happening in the United States with things that were happening elsewhere. In that light, there are no communications more important to the safety of this country than those affiliated with al Qaeda with one end in the United States. The president's authorization allows us to track this kind of call more comprehensively and more efficiently. The trigger is quicker and a bit softer than it is for a FISA warrant, but the intrusion into privacy is also limited: only international calls and only those we have a reasonable basis to believe involve al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.

The purpose of all this is not to collect reams of intelligence, but to detect and prevent attacks. The intelligence community has neither the time, the resources nor the legal authority to read communications that aren't likely to protect us, and NSA has no interest in doing so. These are communications that we have reason to believe are al Qaeda communications, a judgment made by American intelligence professionals, not folks like me or political appointees, a judgment made by the American intelligence professionals most trained to understand al Qaeda tactics,
al Qaeda communications and al Qaeda aims.

Their work is actively overseen by the most intense oversight regime in the history of the National Security Agency. The agency's conduct of this program is thoroughly reviewed by the NSA's general counsel and inspector general. The program has also been reviewed by the Department of Justice for compliance with the president's authorization. Oversight also includes an aggressive training program to ensure that all activities are consistent with the letter and the intent of the authorization and with the preservation of civil liberties."
"Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such."
Hayden's speech provides an insight into the constraints and challenges currently facing intelligence agencies. By quoting his view that he believes the secret unilateral avoidance of the fISA would have led to the 9/11 conspiracy being uncovered and his view that the oversight regime was rigorous, I do not seek to defend the fact that the president has omitted to bring the matter before congress so that the statute could be amended. I merely hope to illustrate the necessity of such amendment. Strategic realities dictate it. That is not to say that the president's failure to have the law updated was wise. Law and strategy must march hand in hand. Otherwise the system of public consent is undermined as is public trust in the sensitive and crucial work being done by the NSA and other such agencies. Bush's was right to identify that the FISA had become defective, wrong to act as though it could remain disregarded indefinitely.

Philip Bobbitt, historian, law professor, author and former director of strategic planning at the National Security Council, recently summed up the issue as follows:
"If we agree that the National Security Agency now needs to trace and analyze large volumes of phone and Internet traffic looking for particular patterns and to cross-reference leads, then it seems clear that traditional, specific warrants may sometimes not be appropriate. Furthermore, not only are there presumably conspirators within the United States, but conversations between two foreign persons could be routed, via the Internet, through American switches to give the appearance of a domestic-to-international connection. It is difficult to imagine getting warrants now in such situations, because the standard of probable cause to conclude that the target is a terrorist cannot be met. "
But he says, importantly, that:
"This is not to play down the damage done to our war aims by the executive branch's repeated appearance of an indifference to law. A president does have an obligation to assess the constitutionality of statutes, but when he secretly decides a measure is unconstitutional and neglects to say so (much less why), he undermines the very system of public consent for which we are fighting. Having said that, we also must not be so absorbed by questions of statutory
construction that we ignore the revolutionary political and technological events that are transforming the world in which our laws must function."

Dynamists v Statists

Political prejudices, in the sense of the way we tend to approach policy questions, are inadequately characterised by a left-right dichotomy. Left and right have been stretched and tangled beyond use. Similarly, descriptions such as liberal and conservative (especially when preceded by "neo-") are also of limited descriptive merit. Likewise 2-D models.

Virginia Postrels' book The Future and Its Enemies puts forward a more interesting (but inevitably incomplete) distinction, namely between statists and dynamists. The former favour central control, the latter more open societies, in which economic and political decision-making is decentalised. Dynamists, she argues, welcome the future; statists are wary of it:

"How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

"I think there's a personality that goes with this kind of thing," says economist Brian Arthur about the emerging science of complexity, which studies dynamic systems. "It's people who like process and pattern, as opposed to people who are comfortable with stasis....I know that every time in my life that I've run across simple rules giving rise to emergent, complex messiness, I've just said, 'Ah, isn't that lovely!' And I think that sometimes, when other people run across it, they recoil."

The future we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, like all futures left to themselves, "emergent, complex messiness." Its "messiness" lies not in disorder, but in an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting, a pattern created by millions of uncoordinated, independent decisions. That pattern contains not just a few high-tech gizmos, but all the variegated aspects of life. As people create and sell products or services, adopt new fashions of speech or dress, form families and choose home towns, make medical decisions and seek spiritual insights, investigate the universe and invent new forms of art, these actions shape a future no one can see, a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable.

That instability, or our awareness of it, is heightened by the fluidity of contemporary life: by the ease with which ideas and messages, goods and people, cross borders; by technologies that seek to surpass the quickness of the human mind and overcome the constraints of the human body; by the "universal solvents" of commerce and popular culture; by the dissolution or reformation of established institutions, particularly large corporations, and the rise of new ones; by the synthesis of East and West, of ancient and modern—by the combination and recombination of seemingly every artifact of human culture. Ours is a magnificently creative era. But that creativity produces change, and that change attracts enemies, philosophical as well as self-interested.

With some exceptions, the enemies of the future aim their attacks not at creativity itself but at the dynamic processes through which it is carried. In our post-Cold War era, for instance, free markets are recognized as powerful forces for social, cultural, and technological change—liberating in the eyes of some, threatening to others. The same is true for markets in ideas: for free speech and worldwide communication; for what John Stuart Mill called "experiments in living"; for scientific research, artistic expression, and technological innovation. All of these processes are shaping an unknown, and unknowable, future. Some people look at such diverse, decentralized, choice-driven systems and rejoice, even when they don't like particular choices. Others recoil. In pursuit of stability and control, they seek to eliminate or curb these unruly, too-creative forces.

Stasists and dynamists are thus divided not just by simple, short-term policy issues but by fundamental disagreements about the way the world works. They clash over the nature of progress and over its desirability: Does it require a plan to reach a specified goal? Or is it an unbounded process of exploration and discovery? Does the quest for improvement express destructive, nihilistic discontent, or the highest human qualities? Does progress depend on puritanical repression or a playful spirit? Stasists and dynamists disagree about the limits and use of knowledge. Stasists demand that knowledge be articulated and easily shared. Dynamists, by contrast, appreciate dispersed, often tacit knowledge. They recognize the limits of human minds even as they celebrate learning.

Those conflicts lead to very different beliefs about good institutions and rules: Stasists seek specifics to govern each new situation and keep things under control. Dynamists want to limit universal rule making to broadly applicable and rarely changed principles, within which people can create and test countless combinations. Stasists want their detailed rules to apply to everyone; dynamists prefer competing, nested rule sets. (Disneyland's rules may be good for the park, but that doesn't make them the right rules for everyone else.) Such disagreements have political ramifications that go much deeper than the short-term business of campaigns and legislation. They affect our governing assumptions about how political, economic, social, intellectual, and cultural systems work; what those systems should value; and what they mean."

Are we to tolerate aggressive intolerance?

Some of the Muslim protests against the Danish newspaper cartoons purporting to represent Muhammad turned nasty. The violent protests in the Middle East are clearly far beyond te realm of legitimate protest. The more interesting question concerns those protesters in London who carried placards, reading variously "Islam will conquer England"; "Slay those who insult Islam"; "Europe you will pay, extermination is on the way"; "Butcher those who mock Islam"; "Prepare for the real Holocaust"; "Massacre those who allow free speech", and so on. (Scott Burgess at Daily Ablution has collected some of this material and reaction to it here and here.) At one such protest (at the Danish Embassy in Knightsbridge), hundreds chanted “UK you must pray, 7/7 is on its way”; others carried banners praising the London suicide bombers as the “Fantastic Four”.

When should such statements be regarded as actionable?

The first point to make is that free speech cuts both ways. In my opinion, free speech should allow a paper to publish insulting cartoons, such as the ones published by Jyllands-Posten. They are defensible as provocative artistic expression. I would consider it wrong for the Danish authorities to legally sanction the newspaper. That is not to say the decision to publish was a particularly bright one. Ben MacIntyre of The Times quite right to say that anyone who pokes cruel fun at religion is a fool. The cartoons were meant in a humourous fashion. I haven't seen them; they don't sound very funny to me. But no one's safety was harmed by publication. I would consider the cartoons to be on the same side of the line of free speech legitimacy as historian David Irving's bizarre Holocaust denials. (Any alternative approach would be no better than Turkey's law banning discussion of the Armenian genocide in the First World War.) Indeed I believe the House of Commons' decision to reject the incitement to hatred bill (even though it came aboutin faintly comical circumstances) was probably correct. No one has the right to legal recourse against having their feelings hurt. This gives licence to essential discussion and criticism, but also to what most fair-minded observers would regard as the expression of cruel or bigoted opinion. So be it. As Der Tagesspiel has written:
"When a society allows itself to be guided only by the 'feelings' of a group of people, then it is no longer free."
It seems to me, however, that incitements to violence are of an entirely different order of seriousness. As The Guardian has written:
"For centuries, English law has been crammed full of legal powers to arrest people who threaten violence or murder in public, or who go around terrifying ordinary people. On Friday, dozens of prima facie examples of such offences were committed during protests against Danish cartoons which offended Muslims by depicting the prophet Muhammad. One man was dressed in the garb of a suicide bomber, arguably an overt attempt to terrify of the kind that has been illegal in this country since at least the Statute of Northampton in the time of King Edward III, in the 14th century. Others carried placards demanding 'Massacre those who insult Islam', 'Butcher those who mock Islam', 'Europe you'll come crawling when Mujahideen come roaring', 'Britain you will pay: 7/7 on its way', several of which appear to breach the law dating from Victorian times that outlaws soliciting to murder. A toddler on the march was dressed in a hat that said: 'I love al-Qaida.' Many adults on political marches over the years have been convicted of breaches of the peace for much less than that."
Similarly, Martin Wolf of The Financial Times (Feb. 8th) put the point thus:
"Those who threaten violence put themselves outside the sphere of civilised discourse. There must be no equivocation over this fundamental principle.Expressions of opinion that some groups regard as intensely offensive are quite a different matter. These may be impolite, even disgracefully so, but that is not sufficient reason to make them illegal. The indiscriminate use of the law against every activity or expression that some group dislikes is a route to the disappearance of freedom of expression altogether."
Against this, there is the argument that we are better off knowing about such views. Unfettered free speech, it is argued, is thus in our interests, because ignorance of such sentiment not only would leave us uninformed and no more safe. If such statements were likely to lead to prosecutions, then they might not be made. Driving such sentiment "underground" would not enhance the security of the general public. At least sight and sound of this evil might militate against complacency.

On the whole though, I would accept that persons who threaten those who disagree with them with massacres and beheadings should be held to have crossed the line of what European democracies should tolerate. Prevention of direct incitement to violence or intimidation is a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression.

Friday, February 10, 2006


The word prejudice has come to mean irrational bigotry; it tends to be employed as a synonym for unsavoury, reactionary or regressive views. To described as holding prejudices is usually meant disparagingly. But in a much less pejorative sense, we are all prejudiced, as essayist Paul Greenberg today reminds us:
"Among the many wise things in Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" is a subtle and insightful defense of prejudice in human affairs. By prejudice, he didn't mean what the word has come to mean - a stupid bigotry. He was referring to the customs, traditions and feelings that we acquire almost instinctively.

No wonder Burke foresaw early on what a bloody experiment the French Revolution would prove, for it was not moored in the natural affections and experiences, but in abstract theories about society - theories that inevitably prove tyrannical when humans set out to remake the species according to some revolutionary's plan. Burke saw that we don't reason our way to our best and deepest beliefs any more than we talk ourselves into love or patriotism. We don't love a country or a painting on the basis of some theory. We just do. Call it a prejudice."
There is nothing wrong with prejudice when it means only that. And prejudice can also mean one's basic political touchstones. I favour democratic states, market economies; I am suspicious of centralised regulation if there is a viable decentralised alternative; I am what might be a called a fiscal conservative; I tend to support the notion of American leadership in world affairs; I have supported a lot (but not all) that George W. Bush has done in prosecuting the war against terror; I see free trade and globalisation as the paths out of poverty for developing states. At home, I favour the approach taken to date regarding immigration from the new EU accession states; I see social partnership as having outlived its usefulness; I am opposed to Sinn Fein involvement in government; I am not supportive of the planned military parade commemorating the 1916 Rising. These are my prejudices. The challenge for democrats is to constantly challenge one's own prejudices.

The market and the state need each other

"The market is ... among the most sophisticated products of civilisation. It requires for its successful working a complex mixture of constraints, both internal and external to the market itself." (Martin Wolf, Why Globalization Works, Yale Nota Bene, 2005; p.12)

We should be careful not to present the relationship between state and market in purely oppositional terms. The constraints to which the above quote refers include the rule of law, property rights (including intellectual property), financial markets, laws of contract (and a relatively honest and accessible judicial system), as well as more indirect contributions like the education and health of a population. Markets only work, in other words, when they are civilised. Those who advocate the market economy are therefore put in the prima facie awkward position "of demanding some sort of state monopoly to enforce the rights that make a decentralised economic system possible." Indeed "voluntary transactions and private property take place on top of a social infrastructure that no market can supply."* In other words, markets operate on the basis of a social, physical and legal infrastructure that only the state can provide.

It is necessary for the state to intervene in what would otherwise the realm of free choice and voluntary exchange in certain instances. Most of those instances are contestable, such as the modern state's involvement in organising the schooling, pensions and healthcare of its citizens. The most elegant reforms proposed today often involve, not the complete withdrawal of the state from such areas (allowing them to be organised in an unregulated manner) but to switch the direction of the intervention: Let the market intervene in the domain of the state. This mechanism - the harnessing of private interest (through incentives) for public benefit - is the logic of the market and provides the theoretical underpinning for, among other things, copyright and patent law. The same means can and should be used to improve education and healthcare in this country - to let the markets for healthcare and education correct themselves. For an example, one need only observe howin Britain private providers have been allowed by Tony Blair's government to treat public patients to reduce waiting lists.

The question is not whether we favour the market or the state per se but how to correctly design and alter the institutional and regulatory borders between free exchange and state control. The less intrusive the intervention, the better, ceteris paribus.

*Richard A. Epstein "Free Markets Under Siege : cartels, politics and social welfare"; thirty-third Wincott Lecture October 13th, 2003 (London : Wincott Foundation, 2004; pp.30-31)

States and markets: the cardinal choice

The cardinal choice, as Charles Wolf Jr. termed it, is whether the state or the market should be the regulator of social/economic activity. Making the correct choice in particular cases, Wolf argued*, required an understanding of the limits of each. Wolf's central thesis is a compelling one, namely that policy choices will always be between imperfect alternatives. He contended that in making such choices we would be aided by a theory of "non-market failure" to correspond to the highly developed theories of market failure (instances where the pursuit of private interest does not result in an efficient allocation of resources, or to results objectionable on grounds of fairness) that had been articulated with the growth of welfare economics. This would describe how non-market institutions (not just governments) "fail", in the sense of producing undesirable results. Policy would benefit from such an increased range of analytical tools. Public choice theory; the work of scholars such as Oliver Williamson and Douglass North on transaction cost economics; and the so-called new institutional economics have gone some way in this direction. Problems of market distortion, imperfect information, regulatory capture, rent seeking and so on sometimes make the state an unnecessarily clumsy and inefficient way of solving problems. Government action needs to be finely calibrated if it is to avoid worsening the problem it sets out to solve.

The issue of government intervention is best viewed as "largely empirical rather than theoretical" (p.5). Comparative analysis of the costs and imperfections of state and market approaches is essential. The point I have in mind has been well made by Richard Craswell, currently of Stanford Law School, in a piece on freedom of contract**. The logic of his argument transfers quite neatly to the issues I have in mind, like healthcare and schools policy. He has written that it is essential:
"(a) to recognise that markets generally entail frictions or costs; (b) to recognise that the alternatives to markets ... also have costs; and (c) to begin the inquiry into the exact nature and extent of those costs, in order to figure out where and when each regime would minimise the total costs."

Later in the same piece he continues:

"In short ... both markets and their alternatives have imperfections, and ... the most interesting questions concern the nature and degree of the imperfections of each. ... If one starts with the premise that markets are always efficient, the inquiry will be over as soon as it is begun, and any analysis of the comparative efficiency or inefficiency of judicial and regulatory regimes will never get off the ground. If we instead recognise that markets may not always work perfectly, and we also recognise that this conclusion is not itself sufficient to justify legal regulation of contract terms [government intervention], we can then proceed to the questions that are really worth studying."

*Markets or Governments: Choosing between Imperfect Alternatives, 2nd ed. (MIT Press, 1993)
**See the collection entitled Chicago Lectures in Law and Economics, edited by Eric Posner. (New York: Foundation Press, 2000)


You are very welcome to my new blog. My name is Karole Cuddihy and I am a final year law student in University College Cork. Apart from introducing myself biographically (as to which see the profile linked to on the left) I want to use this first post to set out here a snapshot of how I think.

I believe that the most important contribution we can make to thinking about politics, policy and (my own area) law, is to develop a new way of talking. We need to look at the big picture - at how the very notion of the nation-state has come under increasing strain; at how our international institutions have fared; and at what choices and opportunities we face, in a manner conducive to respectful and honest dialogue. Far more unites those who disagree about politics and policy in Western democracies than divides us from those who profess intentions to destroy us and our way of life. Simplistic left-right, liberal-conservative dichotomies are of little use. I'm interested in finding the best (or least bad) solution to the challenges we face. In that regard I hope my blog adds a different voice to the world of the Irish "blogosphere" as it is sometimes called.

Policy should be debated on its merits; the (supposed) motivations of political actors are of secondary importance. A policy is either wise or it is not. Blogs serve a useful purpose in allowing varying views and degrees of interest to come to bear on events. They are a useful addition to the traditional media, being far more agile and informal than newspapers. But their impersonal nature allows for misrepresentation, evasion and a disingenuous style of argument that is ultimately not worth the effort. Open debate is at the core of modern democracy and we should exercise it to the best of our ability. We have the right to insult, mock and misrepresent others' views, but we also, I believe have the duty to exercise caution and show respect for the legitimate views of our fellow democrats. We should also realise that every discipline has its own contribution to make. No one discipline has the full answer to the problems with which we have to contend. And neither, for that matter, does any universal theory or (political) philosophy. Personally, I favour an open market economy and see globalisation (in the sense of integration of markets across borders) as a great - though not unqualified - opportunity of our time. But I realise these convictions offer no real answers. They are but a starting point. How to better society in practice is a question with an empirical answer only reachable through constant re-assessment and questioning. This is the spirit in which I propose to approach discussion on this blog.

The blog's name comes from a description I read of the thought of Karl Popper, published in 2000 in the Hoover Digest. It reads in part:

"Popper was a fallibilist, one who perceives great error and danger in any theory of knowledge—or regime—that claimed to offer certain truth. In such a system, there would be no incentive to establish social and political structures that promote learning or the free exchange of ideas; truth is already at hand. In the name of historical progress, the regime may then justify the squelching of human freedoms and even atrocities on a grand scale. Consequently, Popper fought against those who claimed to know the historical laws of change, a false doctrine Popper called historicism. Historicist prophecies were a threat to the open society, and, indeed, both nazism and Soviet-style totalitarianism alike produced unimaginable horrors."

Later it goes on to argue that:

"both Marxism ("scientific" socialism) and Freudianism were purported to be scientific theories by their proponents, who seemed able to interpret every possible circumstance as confirmation of their theories and thus insulate themselves from criticism. Although these verifications carried little weight, they tended to produce convictions of certainty. In contrast, Popper argued that what made theories scientific was their falsifiability, or their possibility of being refuted. Only when a theory could be wrong is it impressive that it survives testing and criticism. Popper therefore sought to delineate the philosophical underpinnings that distinguish natural sciences such as Einstein’s physics from the pseudosciences—Marxian "scientific" socialism, psychoanalysis—he had come to reject. His political and scientific philosophies are thus deeply connected through his early experiences with Marxism and psychoanalysis. Popper argued that progress requires a critical structure within which competing theories can be tested. Popper captured his philosophy, called falsificationism or critical rationalism, with the motto "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." Instead of attempting futilely to verify or justify our theories, Popper claimed we should try to falsify them since we need only a single negative instance to refute a universal theory. Consequently, what matters in rational debate is that different positions are open to criticism, which becomes the engine of progress by removing from consideration false theories, leaving only the provisionally best theories behind. The "best" theories could still not be verified or justified, but since they had not been falsified either, they would be preferable to falsified theories. The rationality of holding a particular position would be granted to the extent to which the theory is open to criticism. This makes possible not only progress but also optimism, which is for Popper a moral duty."
If we, on all sides, can accept that "convictions of certainty" are an inferior method to the type of constant re-assessment Popper had in mind, we will, I believe, be on a better path.