A blog by Patrick Crozier

First Principles

August 01, 2004

The state almost always fails
Patrick Crozier

The belief that the state is not very good at, well, anything, is pretty implicit in my piece over on Transport Blog on bus deregulation. It is also one of the primary reasons why I am a libertarian, though, there are others.

I believe this mainly because there is no shortage of state failures. Of course, you can debate precisely what it means to fail but I can think of few state services which I would rate as more competent than, say, the average supermarket.

Why is this? I have to say I am very shaky on the theory (cue a rude comment from Andy Wood, to the effect that I really ought to go and read something sometime) but I was very impressed by something that Brian said in a comment to another posting I wrote sometime ago:

Markets enable knowledge to be found. Price signals enable lots of people to discover what punters want…

And so when price signals dry up (as they do when the state gets involved) organisations no longer know what the punters want and so service almost always suffers.

July 21, 2004

Examples of freedom working
Patrick Crozier

Or, perhaps that should read "Examples of freer situations working better than less free situations" - though I accept that that is a bit clumsy.

Whatever the case may be it's actually easier said than done. It is not possible to create true scientific comparisons in the political and economic spheres. There's always something (geography, demographics, external factors) to skew the comparison.

So, we have to settle for close (though not exact) comparisons. The closest I can think of are: the West v the Soviet Bloc; South Korea v North Korea; Taiwan v China. I hope those are fairly uncontroversial but then again there is always the black-is-white tendency to contend with.

Other examples closer to home? Well, there's BT. Older readers will remember all too well how long it used to take to get a phone installed in the days of nationalised monopoly. Nowadays it is possible to go into a store and walk away with a fully working phone 20 minutes later.

"Oh, but that is all to do with technology." Well, that may be true. But then again similar technological advances have appeared in the health and education sectors.

"Oh, but they were underfunded." Well, maybe. But if that is the case isn't that just another example of state failure?

June 19, 2004

All restrictions on freedom have bad effects
Patrick Crozier

I do not tend to distinguish between the various methods that government has of coercing us be they levying taxes, imposing bans or imposing regulations. But I appreciate many people do.

So, why don't I make much of a distinction? Firstly, because they are all restrictions on freedom and my empirical observation is that freedom works much better than unfreedom. Secondly, it is my observation that none of the restrictions on freedom (in whatever form they might take) that I have ever studied in any detail could be said to work particularly well an so, therefore, I tend to assume that none of the other ones work particularly well either.

June 16, 2004

The questionable assumption behind safety regulations
Patrick Crozier

Whenever a politician (or other) proposes or defends a safety regulation he is essentially making the statement that the safety level achieved by the free market is insufficient and that, therefore, the state must intervene.

To which the question ought to be: how would he know?

Safety is an individual thing. We all have our own individual idea of how much safety we might want. The peculiar thing is that this seems to vary according to time and circumstances. Young men, it would appear, have very little concern for their safety - why else do so many of them succeed in killing themselves in road accidents? Many of us seek out potentially risky activities like sky-diving simply because they are risky.

And because safety is an individual thing it is quite impossible to state that one level is the right level. It will be right for some and wrong for others.

The other point to make is that safety (like most other things) is a relative and not an absolute. We compromise our safety when we take into account other factors such as cost and usefulness.

Having said that, it is still perfectly possible for the market to get it wrong and find itself providing a service that might be biased towards cost (or some other factor) at the expense of safety when in fact people would be quite happy to pay more.

But if that is the case then it is likely that the market will fill the gap.

June 14, 2004

The market will provide
Patrick Crozier

No, that's not quite right. The market is likely to provide. Why? Because, if there is a better product ie compromise out there, given all the factors, then people will buy it. And whoever provides it will make money.

June 09, 2004

In search of bad regulations
Patrick Crozier

Can anyone out there think of any good examples of regulations buggering things up? What I am looking for is clear examples of regulations doing harm rather than examples of regulations where we think they did or are doing harm.

I ask because so far I've drawn a complete blank. So far the only decent one I have come up with is Portuguese rent control which has had a disastrous impact on the housing stock. The only other example I could come up with was the 5mph limit in the UK which effectively killed off the British motor industry before it even got started. But I don't really want to use that one because that gets into the whole "car is evil" debate which I don't really want to enter just yet.

I am also not looking for outright bans like Prohibition as I think in the eyes of the general public and the neutrals who might read this site that there is a distinction.

Surely, there are a few more out there?

June 08, 2004

How do you know if something is a problem?
Patrick Crozier

I know that sounds like a really weird question but bear with me. Let me give an example. A couple of weeks ago I was watching some TV programme and it mentioned the "problem" of overcrowding on the railways. Now, at the time I wrote an article criticising the use of the word "overcrowding" especially the "over" bit. My point, then, as with so many other things is that passenger comfort is a factor relative to others and not absolute. I have made this point more generally elsewhere.

Having said that I still feel that passenger space is a "problem". But how do I know that? Because people complain? They're always complaining. I could say that death is a "problem" but what's the point? It's (so far, at least) inevitable. Right now, even if I lived in the best possible human society imaginable I would still expect to die.

But my sense is that in the best possible human society imaginable people do not have to be crushed - err, that's another absolute; I mean have so little space - on their way to work. But how can I possibly know that? Who is to say that what we have right now isn't the best in the best of all possible worlds?

It's pretty important for me. If I can't identify "problems" that could be rectified or moderated by my all-singing, all-dancing libertarian philosophy then I've, err, got a problem.

At this point I can almost hear the voice of London libertarian Paul Coulam telling me that in a truly free market things are so darned close to perfection (by definition) that it would be impossible to be sure that anything could be any better. Or, if it could that the costs wouldn't outweigh the gains. Which may be true but doesn't help expose the inadequacies of the current set up.

June 03, 2004

All things are relative
Patrick Crozier

I've recently noticed that I have either been writing (or thinking about writing) a lot of posts entitled things like "Safety is not the only thing" or "Pollution is not the only thing" or "Overcrowding is not the only thing". In other words that all things (or rather, almost all things) are relative and that, therefore, there are trade-offs between them.

Are there some absolutes out there? Actually, a couple spring to mind. The first is the threat of mass murder (you know, London being nuked) or invasion by a tyranny. The second is the threat of the extinction of life on Earth while there is something we can do about it (not much point in worrying about what happens when the Sun enters its Red Giant phase.)

Mind you, there are probably some trade-offs here too.

May 21, 2004

What I mean by “libertarian”
Patrick Crozier

Others may have different definitions but this is mine:

Over his body and justly acquired property man is sovereign

Update 08/06/04

It occurs to me that that is actually a definition of freedom or the free market (I don't really distinguish). A libertarian is someone who happens to believe that people should have as much freedom as possible.

Update 19/06/04

I really ought to point out some of the implications in living in a libertarian world:

  • no taxes, so no spending, so no state healthcare, education or welfare
  • the privatisation of everything currently owned by the government including roads and railways.
  • no bans
  • no regulations (including no safety regulations)

Does this mean no army, no police, no law courts? OK, you've got me there. In principle: yes. In practice: probably not. I just don't see how they can be got rid of without jeopardising peace (which I am all in favour of).

Does this mean the legalisation of murder and theft? No, because these are violations of the individual's rights (see above)

Why I am a libertarian
Patrick Crozier

I am a libertarian because I believe it comes closest to delivering what I want from a political philosophy.

But what’s the evidence?

It comes in two parts. First of all, there is the empirical side. It seems to me that those countries that have closest to abiding by libertarian principles have also come closest to delivering what I want from a political philosophy.

But there’s also the theoretical side on which, I am afraid, I am a bit shaky. Although I am sure great writers like Adam Smith, von Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Friedman (both Milton and David) and Block have covered this in exhaustive detail for the most part I have never read them, or, if I have, have long since forgotten what they said.

However, one thing does strike me. In a libertarian world the individual can only make his world a better place either by doing it himself ie making things out of his own property or by swapping his property for someone else’s. That means that someone else has to be willing to swap and the only way that that swap can take place is if both parties feel that they are better off as a result. In which case the world is (if in a very small way) a better place.

Update 21/05/04

What doesn't come across here is how deeply sceptical I am about the state. I am deeply sceptical about the ability of the state to achieve anything. That is why I started compiling a list of 100 State Failures.

Update 19/08/04

The ASI have a posting on wealth and freedom. Seems the freer you are the wealthier you are - though they do point out there is something of a chicken and egg situation here.

May 08, 2004

What I want from a political philosophy
Patrick Crozier

I spend a lot of time talking about libertarianism, applying libertarian principles and generally turning out libertarian propaganda of varying quality, the assumption being that libertarianism is best. But is it? And if it is how would I know? What am I measuring it against? What, in other words, do I want from a political philosophy? What do I want it to deliver?

I should point out that this is very a personal question. And this is a very personal answer. This is what I want. It will differ in degrees small and large from what every other person wants. But nevertheless it is, I think, a worthwhile exercise.

So here’s the list:

Prosperity. In all its forms. It’s not just Mars Bars but things like clean air and clean water, culture etc.

Sustainability. The ideal system should not be doomed to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

Peace. A political system is pretty useless if it cannot defend itself from its enemies both internal and external

Freedom. Freedom is an end in itself as well as being, I think, a means to an end.

Equality. I don’t want to see people denied healthcare or an education because they are poor. Mind you I am not going to demand perfection in this area: partly because it contradicts the effort and reward item.

Effort being matched by reward. Assuming that that effort’s towards something sensible. Not jazz or opera etc.

Progress. The idea that things will get better.

Social mobility. Is it possible to rise from the bottom to the top?

Clear rules. Knowing what you can and can’t do and what the likely consequences are if you break the rules.

Variety. Having lots of things to do. Lots of interesting places to go on your hols.

OK, that’s the wish list. But what if I can’t have all of that? What if I have to compromise? If the choice is between, say, freedom and equality which should win through? I suppose I would have to say that if there were one factor above all others it would be sustainability. After that peace and after that prosperity.

[It occurs to me that this exercise is not unrelated to Rawls’s idea of the Veil of Ignorance .]