Experiment in Basra

(A follow-up to When to Leave Iraq)

It is a couple of months since the British army withdrew from the city of Basra.

The question which I asked in March about the occupation of Iraq is to what extent the soldiers were preventing violent disorder by force, and to what extent they were provoking it by being a foreign army.

There was an early impression that the handover to Iraqi security forces had reduced violence. Iraqis say Basra quieter after British troop pullout

Looking at this month, it’s not so clear:
Iraq’s Basra police chief escapes assassination bid.
Gunmen clash with security forces in Iraq’s Basra

I think that as long as withdrawal (partial or full) isn’t catastrophic, then it’s a good thing. The kind of power struggle that is going on in Basra now is inevitable, and can only be postponed, not prevented, by hanging on longer. It may reach a stalemate or equilibrium, from which peaceful politics can continue. It’s the kind of conflict that exists in many countries. The presence of an occupying army, on the other hand is an irritant, perhaps minor at times, but one that can always get worse but is not likely to ever go away while the occupation persists.

What is hardest to remember is that, even if the politicians and generals want nothing but peace and prosperity for the country they occupy, it is very very hard to convince the people of that. When the subject comes round to the distrust of the occupying force, there is a temptation to dismiss the distrust, merely because it is unjustified. But that doesn’t make it go away.

There will be trouble when British and American troops leave Iraq, or any part of it. But there is trouble already. Unless the trouble after leaving is very much worse, then it is better to leave, because the conflicts that happen between locals move towards a solution, and the conflicts against the occupiers don’t.

More explosives manuals

As I said in my earlier piece:

.. recipes for explosives first appeared in this country 750 years ago. High explosives have been manufactured since the 1860s. Anarchists all over Europe were successfully constructing bombs around 1900. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

The immediate context was the conviction of Ahmed Patel for the ludicrous crime of “possession of information likely to be of use to terrorists”. But also in my mind was the equally asinine initiative of the European Commission to outlaw publication of explosives-making instructions on the internet, which I somehow forgot to mention.

It’s easy to assume that this attempt to ban from the internet information easily found in chemistry and history textbooks is another “myth” made up to discredit the EU and spread around by those who are willing to believe anything about the EU that makes it appear stupid. But then, so much of what the EU does looks like that.

Franco Frattini
European Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security
“EU counter-terrorism strategy”
European Parliament
Strasbourg, 5 September 2007


…The benefits of e-learning have also not escaped the attention of terrorists – you can find detailed instructions on all kinds of terrorist tactics, including the production of explosives, on the internet. The proposal I mentioned just now will aim at ensuring that these forms of behaviour will be made punishable across the EU.

Using daylight

One aspect of my twice-yearly ranting against the insanity of changing the clocks that I haven’t mentioned here before is the oddness of fiddling about one hour either way, when most people get up around 6 or 7 in the morning and stay up to getting on for midnight.

Mid-night. It’s the middle of the night. If we gave a crap about daylight, we would do our sleeping around the middle of the night. We would go to bed around 8pm local time and get up around 4am. We could get our work done by 2 in the afternoon and have hours of daylight left even in winter.

John Kay raises the same point, but he’s stuck in the same old rut of trying to fix things by government blundering around with the clock. The problem is that it’s so hard to predict the outcome. There may even be a good reason why we do things so late in the day, that neither he nor I have thought of. I think there is an opportunity, as more work becomes more independent, for experiment in working hours. If getting up in the early hours is as good an idea as it appears to Kay and to me, then those least constrained to fit with other peoples’ hours might be expected to try it and stick to it.

I haven’t seen any sign. From what I read of the working lives of writers, for instance, it seems more common for them to sleep even later and stay up even later than those on fixed schedules. If that makes them happier or more effective, perhaps it’s a signal that we all should go that other way.

Free Abdul Patel


Sentencing Patel, Judge Rook said that the jury had cleared the teenager on the more serious charge – but that he had “no reasonable excuse” for possessing documents that were “obviously likely to be useful to a terrorist”.

If being 17 isn’t a reasonable excuse for possessing explosives manuals, then the terrorists have won.

The earlier report which notoriously included “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” as the “material likely to be of use to a terrorist”, said there were two teenagers remanded to appear today. Perhaps more ordered facts will emerge if this second trial is concluded.

This being 2007, Patel or the mysterious friend of his father probably obtained the Anarchist’s Cookbook from this sinister internet thing I keep hearing about. Back when I was a teenager, I had to actually buy it with money from Waterstones (or Dillons, I can’t remember) in Charing Cross Road. Among the instructions for getting high on bananas and the photographs of 50-year-old rifles are indeed bomb-making instructions, badly drawn and widely reputed to be suicidally inaccurate.

Now of course the inaccuracy isn’t really the point. There is an obvious flaw in the idea of banning only high-quality terrorist literature. However, recipes for explosives first appeared in this country 750 years ago. High explosives have been manufactured since the 1860s. Anarchists all over Europe were successfully constructing bombs around 1900. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

One might object, that if the necessary knowledge is so widely available that there is not point restricting it, how is it that actual terrorists are so incapable of actually making working explosives?

Firstly, I think there is a strong correlation between wanting to advance the cause of radical Islam in the UK by violence, and being mind-bogglingly stupid. This is not a global phenomenon. In some parts of the world, Islamism is a serious political movement, capable of attracting intelligent and practical activists. Here, it is an exclusive club of morons that makes Fathers 4 Justice look like a serious political force.

Secondly in terror alarmism, the question of quantity or scale tends to be ignored. To shoot a lot of people, you need a lot of bullets, that weigh a lot, and take a lot of carting around. To blow up a lot of people, you need a lot of explosive, which requires a lot of raw materials, which are not easy to gather. To use chemical weapons effectively, you need tons of the stuff, which is beyond the capability of any conceivable home-grown terrorist organisation.

There are many obstacles to the would-be terrorist. The idea that all they need is “the secret” is Hollywood thinking. There is no secret, there’s just a lot of hard work and risk.

But back to young Abdul. I don’t directly think it is a particularly bad thing that he is in prison. But I would happily let him go in exchange for getting rid of the horrific 1980s law under which he was convicted. “Information likely to be of use to terrorists?”. How about a road atlas? It’s carte blanche for the state to lock up anyone they think is up to no good. In this case they may be right, but if that’s a justification then we should just let them lock up whoever they want. I prefer the rule of law, and law should draw a line between the guilty and the innocent, and this law plainly fails to do anything of the sort.

Virtual Worlds

Lord Puttnam says that we may be damaging children by allowing them to grow up in virtual worlds.

I agree entirely. Childhood is where children learn to be adults. Putting them in a fake environment away from real adult humans denies them the chance to adapt to the real world.

However, Puttnam seems to be hung up on something to do with computer games. I’m much more concerned about schools.

Rather than inflict my own clumsy prose on you all, here’s Paul Graham:

If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I’d tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn’t really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

Read the whole thing. I want to rant on about this, but there isn’t a single thing I can say that Graham doesn’t say better.

See also Robert Epstein’s book, which I haven’t read, but I listened to this podcast with Epstein from the Glenn & Helen show.

Corporations and Governments

Lawrence Lessig praises a book “Supercapitalism” by Robert Reich:
Reich and Lessig count it a mistake that We push for “corporate social responsibility” and praise corporations who agree to do the “good” thing, imagining that this means something other than the “money making” thing. We know a song about that, don’t we children?… government is pretty good at forcing internalization when it benefits strong special interests (again, copyright), and not when it harms strong special interests (again, carbon). Here, and in a million contexts, the government is coopted by the powerful influence of powerful interests.Phase 2 of Lessig’s journey will be when he realises that, just as a corporation exists to create profits, and cannot reasonably or usefully do anything else, a government exists to serve powerful interests, and cannot reasonably or usefully do anything else.Lessig’s article is fascinating, and I’m not doing it justice, because of the completely alien worldview it exhibits.
We’ve now … Reich says, entered a period of Supercapitalism — a time when competition has grown dramatically, and when half of us (meaning half of each of us, or at least half) more effectively demand lower prices in the product and service market place and higher returns in the investment market place.The problem, from Reich’s (and my) perspective, is that the other half of us – the part that thinks not as an actor in a market, but as a citizen – has atrophied. That is, the half of us (again, of each of us – Reich’s point is that each of us has these two parts) that demands that government set sensible and efficient limits on private action has atrophied.That division – between “market actor” and “citizen”, is not one that it would have occured to me in a hundred years. “citizenship” in the sense he talks about means nothing to me but busybodying: interfering with people who have nothing to do with me. Does that mean I am half a person – a “market actor” only? I don’t think so. If I help someone up the steps at the station, (or for that matter kick them down those steps for fun), I am not a “market actor”, but neither am I being a citizen in the political sense that Lessig seems to mean. I am interacting with those around me. I do not draw a sharp distinction between those I work with (or “interact in the labour market with”), and my other circles of neighbours and friends.

There is a danger of treating libertarianism (in the broad sense) as being entirely about markets. This mistake can be made by supporters as well as opponents. Markets are not the point; freedom (and particularly free association) is the point. People should be free to associate and co-operate in whatever manner they wish. Often that co-operation have the structure of a market, but frequently we can do better than the market (particularly at small scales). The significance of the market is that if we are free to market, then we might do better than we would by market, but we need not do worse. If we are prevented from using a market, then there is no limit to how ineffective our co-operation can be.

At one point there I had to use “market” as a verb. Trading or “marketing” is something that people do, and markets are an emergent property of that action. Without wanting to get too hung up on parts of speech, it’s a bit awkward to have to talk as if the market is primary, and people acting in a market secondary, when the opposite is the case.

In essence, then, we have three categories of interaction. There is market interaction. There is other voluntary interaction outside of markets, which I might call “citizenship” but which Lessig apparently doesn’t, and there is politics, or achieving goals through government action, which Lessig considers “citizenship”, and which I consider almost entirely harmful.

(As an aside, I have written previously on why we choose to clearly separate market interaction and other voluntary interaction).

The history is what I find interesting here. Lessig has long been arguing that we need government to control the excessive power of corporations. That is a reasonable argument in vacuuo, but suffers from the observation that in the real world government almost always intervenes on the side of the corporations. Having noticed this, Lessig now turns his attention to it. I am being serious when I suggest he may reach the stage where he recognises that the problems of corrupt government are not fundamentally fixable, only containable (by restricting government).

Richard Brunstom

Is the North Wales Chief Constable calling for the legalisation of drugs.

While I agree with him, I have my worries about government bodies, such as police forces, campaigning for policy. The idea is that the people campaign, and the government responds. I find it idiotic when government-funded “charities” spend their money on campaigns aimed back at the government which funded them, and it is not really any less idiotic just because I agree with the campaign.

Of course, the question of whether Brunstom should express is personal views is a different one. That’s really between him and his employers — if they attempt to be too restrictive they may find it hard to get good people. It is probably best that he is allowed to speak out.

The Police Authority, indeed, is his employer. It consists of 9 councillors, 3 magistrates and 5 appointed members. The councillors have other venues in which to put forward their political views. Rather than calling for change in the law, they would be better making decisions genuinely within their province as to the North Wales Police. I imagine it is beyond the scope of their discretion to decide not to enforce laws they disagree with, but priorities to a certain extent must be down to them. Let them combine their wisdom with their responsibility.

Fixed Term Parliaments

What do I think about fixed term parliaments? Since I’ve been recently considering whether I would prefer to continue with democracy at all, this is a slightly odd question. I think it relates to my previous examination of the length of the term between elections. The advantage to the incumbent of choosing the date is not necessarily a problem, if a balance is needed between stability which increases the time horizon of the government, and the opportunity for change which discourages insurrection. Effectively shortening the campaign is an advantage. If we know now that election will be on particular date in 2008, everyone — government and opposition — will be organising around that date. We’ll have 3-year election campaigns. And I’m coming to the conclusion that politics is bad for government.It could be argued that the mere possibility of an early election caused extra politics in the recent past, but that’s a rare occurence, and likely to become even rarer in future as a result of the points Brown lost over the whole thing.
Also, unlike, for instance, the US federal system, we have a system where the executive requires the support of the legislature. If it no longer has that support, and no other government can get support, we need to have an election. Currently, it is up to the government to resign and call an election when it no longer has support. With fixed term, it would require a formal no confidence vote, and you can get some weird games, such as a government actively seeking passage of a vote of no confidence. Something of the sort happened in Germany a year or two ago if I recall correctly. So, I’m against fixed term parliaments (at least as a single reform in the context of the current UK system).

Tax and Democracy

chris dillow is ready to give up on democracy, based on observations that cutting inheritance tax, paid only by the rich, is more popular electorally than cutting income tax, which is paid by the poor.

I’m not here to cheer for democracy, but his explanation, that the low expectations of the poor lead them to accept being victimised by the tax system, does not seem to me the most likely one.

For me, the key fact is that PAYE income tax is the ultimate stealth tax. If someone pays £100,000 in tax on inheriting a £500,000 house, that is seen as a huge blow, but I have never heard anyone ask what difference it would make to someone on £20,000 a year if they weren’t paying £3,500 of it in income tax (and, while we’re at it, another £1,500 or so in VAT).

Evidence for this is articles like the one I picked on in 2005 , which claimed that transport was the average household’s biggest expense, ignoring the fact that taxation added up to as much as transport, food and housing put together.

Further, it is still widely believed that higher taxes help the poor. Helping the poor by cutting income taxes would generally be looked at as an absurdity. The same goes for inheritance tax, of course, but that is more likely to be seen, probably correctly, as a fringe issue. Therefore cutting inheritance tax wins votes of those who pay it, but does not lose many from the rest.

The fact is that when government took 10-20% of the economy, it could be funded mainly by taxing the rich. As the figure has grown to 40%, the tax burden has fallen far more heavily on the poor, despite the widening of the franchise. To me, the obvious explanation is that government has for a long time been extracting as much or nearly as much from the rich as it practically can. If that is correct, then the only way to achieve genuinely redistributive taxation is to drastically shrink the state.

If I’m right (and I admit I’m asserting a few controversial things here without much in the way of evidence), then the problem isn’t any fundamental conflict between democracy and equality as chris fears, but a single mistaken view which might possibly be reversed.

Help the poor – cut taxes.

"The computer did it"

In The Register, the story of a man who got 7 days because when he signed up for facebook, it sent an invitation to “be his friend” to every facebook member whose email address was in his address book — including his ex-wife, whom he was under a court order not to attempt to contact.

He might of course have been lying, but if not he has been punished for what his computer, and facebook’s computers, did on his behalf.

The point is that the law has to decide how much responsibility a person has for what their computer decides to do.
Up till now, the assumption has been that whatever your computer does, is done at your request, and you are wholly responsible. This despite the fact that that has never been true, and is getting further from the truth every year.
There is no legal tradition to apply here. The nearest analogy to the relationship between a person and his computer is the relationship between a man and his dog.
People have kept dogs for thousands — most likely tens of thousands — of years, so everyone has a rough idea what the deal is. The general legal view is that you have a duty to keep your dog from causing harm under foreseeable circumstances, but there is a distinction between what your dog does and what you do. If your dog attacks a child, you are not guilty of Grievous Bodily Harm, but you might be guilty of keeping a dangerous dog. If your dog craps on the street, that is different than if you crap on the street, but you might still be fined.
If you are found guilty of not properly controlling a dog, you can be banned from keeping one. If your dog causes harm and is considered not to be controllable, the court can order it to be destroyed.
(If you deliberately cause your dog to kill someone, that is still murder of course, but your intention is crucial)
This is the only rational legal framework for crimes committed by a computer without the intention of its owner.