Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Should Bansturbation Be Allowed?

A wild monkey.  By Chris huh at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic Licence. Bansturbation, n. (1) That form of social self-abuse whereby a society's prominent members seek to ban everybody from doing everything which they assert to be undesirable. (2) The pleasurable stimulation obtained by such members in the process. (3) fig. The self-pleasuring contemplation of all the things one would ban, if everybody had their rights and one was therefore the biggest member of all.

- Concept due to Harry Haddock; much popularized by Tim Worstall; definition by Guess Who.

I work in a school, and I read the press, and I get quite unspeakably tired of the following ubiquitous and quietly aggressive question:

"Should $THING be allowed?"

It is frequently framed as neutral, which the hell it is. It sneakily puts the possibility of banning $THING on the table as the default action, when the reverse is logically and morally the case. To allow something is, in most cases, to do nothing at all. To ban something requires active effort and coercive force. Somebody who thinks that this is the default response to anything set before them, is probably not a very nice person.

So why is such a question so commonly put, "Should anchovy-eating be allowed?" rather than the more appropriate, "Should anchovy-eating be banned?"

Why, for no reason other than to make the 'action' of allowing anchovy-eating something that requires an active defence, when it is the preposterous suggestion of banning it that has yet to justify even the effort of considering it. If the stunned target cannot immediately unpack an explanation of why this random emission is toss, the bansturbator claims a cheap victory by default.

I do understand there is a concern here. Lord help us - if we recklessly allow anchovies without stopping to think about it, next thing we'll be allowing biltong and celeriac and Danish blue, and before you know it we'll be so busy allowing stuff, we won't have any time or resources left to do anything else. Oh, the humanity!

But let it never be said that I am a mere doctrinaire libertarian, incapable of understanding that some sacrifices of personal freedom must be made for the greater good. I hereby reach out to the paternalist and the professionally outraged by offering them a brand new ban that will stimulate all our spirits nicely.

I propose to ban the question, "Should $THING be allowed?" in any case where 'allowing' $THING does not, in fact, require any action whatsoever.

This will still allow them illegitimately to imply that the allowing of $THING is a dubious case which the permissive party has the onus of proving - given only that some bansturbating bastard has successfully prohibited $THING already. That would be a rhetorical disgrace, yet an improvement on the present state of public discourse.

In a few cases, "Should $THING be allowed?" is the reasonable form. If Mad Axe Molloy were to inquire of me, Whether murder ought to be allowed, I should call that a much more sensible question than, Whether murder ought to be banned. Indeed, the most reasonable riposte to it seems to be, "Can murder be allowed?" I don't see how it even could, since victims and their associates are so reluctant to play their parts in these affairs peaceably, that not even the full majesty of the law can reliably compel them to do so.

Most things are not murder. Most things do not need to be 'allowed'. And most of those other things should not be banned.

Not even public exhibitions of bansturbation, in a perfect world. But I like to think of myself as a reasonable fellow, always ready with a neighbourly compromise.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Balls and Chains

A golden ball and chain - public domain.Iain Duncan Smith - the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and founder of rightist anti-poverty thinktank the Centre for Social Justice - has noticed one of the ways in which his and previous governments keep people unemployed against their will:

"Often they are trapped in estates where there is no work near there and - because they have a lifetime tenure of that house - to go to work from east London to west London, or Bristol, or whatever is too much of a risk because if you up sticks and go you will have lost your right to your house," he told the paper.

"The local council is going to tell you that you don't have a right to a house there, the housing association is not going to give you one.

"We have to look at how we get that portability, so that people can be more flexible, can look for work, can take the risk to do it."

Very good. The gamble, especially for people with family commitments, is patently skewed and insane: maybe a little extra money for a while, or possibly actually less money, in return for a certainty of losing one's most valuable resource. So what is he going to do about it?

He did not spell out exactly what sort of commitment would be offered on rehousing, but an aide said ministers would provide incentives for people to move, rather than force them to do so.

Ah. Much cry and little wool. Now, if 'incentives' meant some form of property right for current council tenants which was portable so that they could safely choose to take up a job elsewhere without life-changing losses being imposed in punishment, that would be very good news.

If it meant that some form of pressure, short of actual force, will be used to evacuate them from areas where they are not wanted and relocate them to others chosen by their betters, that would be very bad. It would also be an extremely difficult central planning problem, as unpopular in the destination areas as in the source, so it is probably not going to happen in any big way. But the fact that ministers talk of 'providing incentives' rather than removing their artificial disincentives and letting human nature do the rest, suggests that there is a weasel under the cocktail cabinet somewhere.

Nonetheless, absent weasels, the main idea would be an honest and humane one, yes?


Specifically, Ed Balls, whose considered response for the Labour Party is as follows:

"The Tory-Liberal government is doing this at the same time as cutting investment in jobs and industries and communities with a budget that will increase unemployment by 100,000 a year.

"That's why this policy is so profoundly unfair. We should be investing in jobs and growth to boost employment in our regions, not cutting it back and effectively abandoning high unemployment areas while telling people they should move house to get off the dole."

Yes, Ed, it is cutting investment in &c. by no longer spending on it all of the money which government does not in fact have, but which if it had it would be taking from &c. in the first place. Yet let us grant that your previous policy of investing in smoking wardens and crony capitalists was actually of benefit to poor areas like mine, or at least that it did no harm. After all, it isn't like the new boys are going to change it all that much anyway!

Why is it profoundly unfair to let people move from their current lord's estate without punishment, Ed? Why should people not leave crappy areas if they can make a living in better ones, Ed? Why would anybody want to keep large, generational concentrations of voters chained by the terror of lasting homelessness to posts where they depend upon your faction's policies for their bread, Ed?

This is so hard a question that my plebeian brain cannot cope with it, and I must turn it over to you as a member of our elected elite to enlighten me.

Bah. Had the Orchid of Westminster only waited for the actual proposals to emerge from the Cabinet, no doubt he would weaselly have found something we could all join him in booing. But no: his conscience bids him fire off at the very principle, for in his world jobs are just another handout from your lord, to be assigned or withheld as his whim and competence dictate. To entice his villeins to desert village and allegiance, when in hard times they are already well-cherished with the scraps and wise sayings from his table, is most monstrously unfair to all concerned.

Especially to their lord!

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Fairfields Wassail

So of course it is midsummer, and therefore I must needs do a wassail posting!

This is a Kateverse folk-song that is actually sung about the present point in Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, though in order to prevent an epidemic of book-wall moments I don't there stop the story to quote it. It is quite closely modelled on traditional English wassail songs, including my favourite, the Gower Wassail above.

The similarities tell you a good deal about my bolshy Lothlórien, my mortal peasant-founded Fairfields. The differences, though relatively few, may convey rather more.

One non-explicit difference from our traditions is that the wassail-song is sung in a full village gathering around a fire, as the year-ale is passed around. The door-to-door wassailing is reserved for the sick and the infirm (who are brought ale and gifts rather than being solicited for them), and for the various real and suspected spirits of place and boundary. These customs are likely local innovations for the most part.

The Fairfields Wassail

Wassail! drink hale! and pass the bowl round.
Our cakes they are white and our beer it is brown.
In good faith and good fellowship gather we here
And together join hands at the dark of the year.
Joy and love be unto you
And to you a wassail too,
And drink wakemead for the dying of the year.
Wassail the white bowl! Drink hale!

We are friends and no strangers who gather along
Nor is black night so hardy as threaten us wrong.
We will make such a noise as the woods never heard
For we roar like the lion, but we sing like the bird
With joy and loving unto you
And to you a wassail too,
And sing lusty at the turning of the year.
Wassail my neighbour! Drink hale!

But to strangers who find us by grange or by hold,
And to all of you wood-wights out there in the cold,
Here is beer and salt cake, here is fleet and here fire,
And it all do await if your heart do desire
Joy and loving unto you,
And to you your wassail too,
And bring comfort at the changing of the year.
Wassail the stranger! Drink hale!

To the earth and brave beasts and the trees we do keep,
Be awake for our blessing, and lie back to sleep.
We will hail you and watch you, by hand and by mind,
And we hope when you wake you'll be kindly inclined
For joy and loving unto you,
And to you your wassail too,
And sleep soundly through the dreaming of the year.
Wassail our fair fields! Drink hale!

To my lover, my elf or my lad or my lass,
Let us warm by our hearth till the winter do pass.
Let us quarrels and coldness forget and reprove:
Let us dance like the dragon, and kiss like the dove,
For joy and love I bear to you,
And to us our wassail too,
And burn ardent for the getting of the year.
Wassail my love-light! Drink hale!

Wassail! drink hale! drink deep and drink long!
Our cakes they are salt, and our beer it is strong.
In good mirth and good merriment gather we here,
And we'll sing and we'll dance till we see the new year.
Joy and love be unto you,
And to you a wassail too,
And drink kindly for the borning of the year.
Wassail a good year! Drink hale!

The wassail opens the wider year's-getting festivities, which take place on Midwinter's Eve, and combine sundry features of our familiar yule-feasts Christmas and Hogmanay.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Set Subsidy to Love

Now it's time to push on from my post on pro-freedom attitudes towards the family. There, I argued that ideological attempts to control the shape and dynamics of other people's families have no honest warrant and yield evil consequences. That was setting out my own view of a genuinely family-friendly policy, i.e. that the friendliest policy was for people to mind their own business about other people's living and child-rearing arrangements as far as humanely possible.

Today I want to carry the play into my opponents' half of the pitch, and argue that inasfar as their own objectives are credible, 'family friendly' economic policies must still tend to subvert and frustrate them.

'Family friendly' policies fall into two linked classes: those that promote marriage, and those that promote childbirth and child-rearing. For this post, I shall consider the former.

There are four typical pretexts for encouraging people to marry. These are: the promotion and rationing of approved sexual relations; the intrinsic benefits of marriage to the couple; the wider economic efficiency of marriage; and the promotion of child-rearing in a 'stable' home background. Here I'll look at the first three. What effect will economic incentives for marriage have on each?

The idea that people's sexuality will be affected by a tax break or benefit tweak is, to put it mildly, ludicrous even were its desirability granted. The idea that their fidelity or monogamousness - by no means the same thing - can be so constrained, is even more ridiculous. If the spouse is at least tolerant of extra-marital sex, the incentive has no effect; if they are not, then I would humbly suggest that the loss of a transfer payment will barely register on the horizon of Costs Of A Potential Break-Up. We can flush this turd right down the Toilet of Debate without more ado.

Alas, it is a floater. Back it comes bobbing up when we look at the other Number Two: the intrinsic benefits of marriage to a couple. According to this argument, marriage makes people happier, longer-lived, more virtuous, and quite possibly stops hair growing on the palms of their hands. However, it requires at least some sacrifice. The weak-willed may not be able to steel themselves to it; the indigent may simply not be able to afford the investment. A cheap and gentle boost over this hump may greatly increase the sum of human weal. So why not?

Remember, I am not this time concerned with whether romantic heterosexual monogamy (my private preference), or shacking up with one's closest possible cousin to produce a race of kings, or a cold-blooded rationalistic choice of the partner who promises the most future profit and pleasure, are good or bad things for anybody or everybody. I am only concerned with whether their advocates can buy with economic incentives what they think they are buying.

I say they can do no such thing.

Let us presume that, whatever the form of marriage favoured, it has the supposed benefits. For whom has it been observed to have such benefits? For the population of those who have hitherto chosen to marry.

Furthermore, by universal observation, not all marriages are equal. Some are very good partnerships indeed. Others are so bad, and so intimate and thorough in their badness, that at least one partner will kill themselves suddenly or by degrees to be shot of even the memory of them.

Those who are most inclined to marry, from amongst the pool of potential partners who will actually have them, are by definition those who have already done so. Whatever the intrinsic benefits of marriage may be, these are those who value them most for their own sake. Those who need an economic nudge will clearly be drawn from amongst those who value either marriage itself, or the specific partners whom they can woo into it, to a lesser degree. Thus, any material incentive can be expected to reduce the average quality of marriages. As the incentive increases, the initial quality of each new marriage added at the margin must decrease correspondingly, until at some point each new marriage becomes an actively destructive one.

Further, it is not clear that such secondary material benefits as more robust mental and physical health could possibly inhere in marriage itself. If they are the products of mutual support and affection, then bad or merely insincere marriages engineered to obtain them are likely to prove grievously disappointing in their fruits.

The level at which incentives to marry become destructive of marriage's non-mercenary purposes, cannot possibly be extracted a priori from any honest value system. It may be zero. It may even be negative - that is, it is logically possible that only a marriage-fine (a custom with plenty of historical precedent) can possibly weed out mischievous marriages contracted idly, wantonly, and without the slightest intention of fulfilling any of the commitments involved.

Since there are costs involved in all involuntary financial transfers, as well as injuries done to the unmarried individuals from whose labours any marriage premium must be funded, the default assumption about that premium ought to be that it is zero.

All this holds true whatever the nature and benefits of marriage are supposed to be, provided only that marriage is not being promoted solely on the grounds that it increases the partners' economic efficiency, and that the results are positively correlated with the partners' free mutual choice of each other.

What about that third possibility - that marriage promotes economic efficiency, and is therefore a utilitarian candidate for funding?

If the gains accrue to the partners, then there is no case for subsidy at all - that would just be taking from those who have not, and giving to those who have. If they accrue to others, who are those others, and why should couples or n-tuples be paid to serve their interests?

The usual answer is 'children', and I will defer responding to that one.

Another credible possibility is that some class of rent-takers are able to extract special gains from the efficiencies produced by combining other peoples' households, and possibly to exploit marriages by other means as well. If these panders are in or close to positions of power, this would explain much about the 'family friendly' cant pervading the modern rent-taking policy-making community.

And, what do you know, I see several clear opportunities for just such enterprise!

I will inspect these in my next family friendly post.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

"The Horned Moon in Her Hair"

Roman statue of Luna, by antmoose@flickr.com - released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence The latest chapter of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland just closed. I still haven't got up to the Wassail: some stuff previously placed after it came forward and changed the central conversation. Wassail this time! There is nothing but Yule-night in the new chapter, so it should have a harder job getting away from me.

Part of the difficulty of spinning this yarn lies in its internal logic. If my protagonists were just old villains turned heroes at last, it would be easier to tell of them. But this tale is in large part about heroism, and even true individual greatness, as a mutual venture between a whole bunch of collaborators. That needs a lot of differentiated characters putting their oar into the mix, without diffusing the focus on the people the tale is about. This is hard for the same reason it is worth doing, which is another reason that this middle section is going to need a lot of pruning before I'm done with it.

That's my dilemma. My principal non-protagonist character - the Founder of Fairfields - has her own, which has grown out of these exploratory chapters. On the one hand, she is much more powerful, reverend, and (in some ways) wise than any of her comrades. On the other, she believes much more strongly than almost any of them in the root equality of human beings. How far can she use her extraordinary ability and reputation to advance this cause, without fatally undercutting her own point? Conversely, if she avoids dominating the discourse, how far can she fend off people's natural tendency to set up heroes and hierarchies, or her community's understandable inclination to set her and her talented household at the top of the tree?

Whenever she escapes one horn, she inevitably gets tossed on the other. This was the chapter where the depth of her frustration, and the shape of its necessary workaround, came clear to me at last. And boy, what a workaround it will be if I can work it! She's seemed somewhat less than herself in many of her scenes so far: this resolution, I think, is heroic in the sense I want, and a defining moment for her character within the present story. Here is one of the big lights by which I'll want to do my rewrite.

The Kateverse is a fantasy setting, of course, on whose enchanted margins abstractions can turn suddenly and shockingly concrete.

I wonder how the same dilemma has been resolved, here in the fields we know?

And I wonder how often a gifted leader can bring themselves to attempt the feat? For real, I mean, and no bull!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Political Pudding

In today's Metro, chef Simon Hulstone offers a recipe for tansy pudding. There are eight needful ingredients and one optional. The optional one is the tansy!

These puddings must immediately run for public office. The Tansy Pudding Movement will go far. Hail to the Chef!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Benball Stair

Another Kateverse folk song! This one is Ewan MacColl's fault, the result of my needing to exorcise the diabolical earworm that great man made of The Bonnie Banks of Airdrie. It is sung to the same tune, though it is not about the same thing. Internal evidence suggests that it was written some time after the events of The Deed of Katy Elflocks, and that the original narrator was confused or fibbing or both.

External evidence suggests that I've been reading entirely too many Child Ballads lately.

The Benball Stair

As I came down the Benball Stair,
Lynx she slinks through heather, oh,
I met a maid beyond compare,
Cally cat a basie, oh.

Her hair was tangled like the brakes,
Her face was such as man's heart breaks.

"Oh will you have a pedlar's son
That never yet did harm to none?"

"If you will pledge me first in wine
That ripened by the cold moonshine."

"A kiss is vintage of moonshine,
And you may drink your fill of mine."

"If you will pledge me in a word
That never yet was spoke nor heard."

"A lover's look spoke never lies,
So all my word read in mine eyes."

"If all you have, you'll give me thrice,
Then this shall be my bridal price."

"My body only I do own,
So three times claim your bridal crown."

We loved so long on ling and stone.
On Benball Stair I woke alone.

What kisses crave I 'neath the Sun,
Who drank her nectar ere his noon?

What light seek I in maiden's eyes,
Who sees her wink from starry skies?

What body shall I hold now fair,
Who held the world all tangled in her hair?

When you shall riddle all these three,
Lynx she slinks through heather, oh,
The pedlar's son shall wed with thee,
Cally cat a basie, oh.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Bureaucrats Rule!

The young Franz Kafka, upon beholding his first Paperwork Reduction Act form - via Wikimedia Commons - public domain Of course they do. That is why their office has a -crat on the end. As a class they are exceptionally and justifiably unpopular, especially but not exclusively amongst the libertarian-minded. Very few people, except in self-deprecation, are so brave as to claim 'bureaucrat' for their trade. When we see an official with the heart and nous to face down the little tin gods and cut through the winding red tape in order to get make the system do something vaguely related to its ostensible purpose, it is hard to think of them as a bureaucrat at all.

And yet large, bureaucratic organizations dominate modern societies. Is this really just a case of every functional organization being eventually colonized by the maximum number of parasites it can bear, with a violently empowered state bureaucracy making sure that nobody gets to scrape off its brother barnacles, or operate neatly and nimbly without them? Or is it, perhaps, that bureaucracy really allows such extraordinary efficiencies in its normal unshowy mode, that it more than repays the cost of its rent-seeking abuses and Kafkaesque excrescences?

The latter possibility is so uncongenial to my prejudices and tastes, I find myself obliged to take it seriously.

Let us begin with an immediate distinction between administrators and bureaucrats. It is easy to call all paper-pushers and regulators bureaucrats, especially for somebody like me when my spleen is exploding. It is also completely unhelpful. By 'administrator', I mean anybody whose job is principally concerned with the organization's internal functioning rather than the direct accomplishment of its external purpose. There is no possible way for a large organization to exist without some such specialists, even if the specialization is only a part-time one carried in addition to other duties. Assuming effective organization to be a nontrivial problem, the need for full-time specialists is apt to increase with the scale and elaboration of the enterprise.

This administrative pool can be quite small. When my father began in the NHS, about 1960, a major teaching hospital had one chief clerk with a small number of clerical assistants. Today in 2010, certain of my clan still work in a somewhat larger teaching hospital. It cannot even ration itself to one personnel department - two separate departments exist for the hospital group, each of which must approve every person employed by a member hospital. Hospitals are, admittedly, larger concerns now than in the past. They are not as much larger as all that, nor is it clear that their mushrooming administrative establishment has served any good purpose whatsoever. What rational purpose is being followed here?

Dad's experience of hospital clerks in the old days was that they were extraordinarily useful and widely competent persons. They and their staff added, in fairly simple and transparent ways, a great deal of value to the work of the various medicos and auxiliaries who 'did the job' of actually healing and helping patients. Now when somebody takes boring and onerous chores off one's hands, and does them better and more cheaply, it is not unreasonable to want more of such assistance. This is particularly true when said assistants always seem to have their hands full. An under-administered place will then, reasonably, buy in more administrators, until the marginal value added by the last administrator no longer exceeds the cost of hiring them -


The economic logic works right up until we remove the implicit assumption that administrators are robots. In an organization where admin specialists are few and of only moderate status, they will indeed be valuable contributors to the direct purpose of their organization. Their self-interest will exist, but it need not particularly dominate.

However, when their numbers and/or influence increase - and the two usually go together - administration itself becomes an increasingly dominant end within the organization. Beyond a certain point, a phase change can be expected - from the administrators' tending to serve the organization's external functions, to the external functions' tending to serve administrative convenience.

I predict that where this critical point is well-defined, it can be identified by a sharp acceleration in the rate of administrative hirings and expenditures. The diminishing external returns from more administration were formerly providing net negative feedback. At the critical point, this is overwhelmed by the positive feedback from increasing internal returns for the decision-makers, until external constraints dominate again at a much higher level of administrative cost.

I further suspect that there are only two kinds of administered organizations - those which have such a critical point, and those which cannot sustain the weight of enough administration to reach it.

A post-critical organization is actually ruled by, and for, its now-dominant administrative institutions. It is utter folly to consult its ostensible purpose as a guide to its actions, and then declare them crazy. They are not crazy. They are mostly adaptive behaviour under a particular bureaucracy, which is to say ruling administration. Intelligent people who wish to prosper within a bureaucratic organization know this, and tailor their thinking accordingly.

A naïve view of the free market would suggest that this is not a problem, except by government interference. After all, when an organization reaches the point where it can no longer act rationally, it should then be outcompeted by less barnacled rivals, not so?

Not necessarily! If economies of scale are large enough, or entry barriers high enough, it is easily possible to imagine a field where the barely-tolerated functional behaviour at a bureaucratic organization's periphery can still outcompete any organization small enough to operate continually below the Bureaucratic Critical Mass. In this view, the essentially parasitic bureaucratic core is simply a necessary overhead of competitive production, and will not bring down the firm until and unless it becomes so grossly irrational as to no longer tolerate even peripheral functionality. It is an overhead defined by human nature (which will not change) and technologically and politically determined economies of scale (which may change, though not in a good way if self-interested bureaucracies have anything to say about it).

Further, the productive periphery of the organization will itself be adapted to bureaucratic rule. Simply 'cutting useless bureaucracy', if this can be imposed at all from outside, may not directly free the 'good' parts of the organization to work well. Someone who is genuinely good at expediting production by skillful bureaucrat-wrangling may not be at all a good performer in the absence of the obstacles they have - rightly! - concentrated their talents upon overcoming.

In the gloomiest view of this, bureaucratic capture and resultant decay may actually be as inexorable a limit on human institutional activity, as senescence is upon individual life. Virtuous bureaucrats and institutional cultures might stave the worst off for a while, but the Great Leveller will not forever be denied. Reformers might then do better attacking the technological basis of the economy of scale, making bureaucracy objectively less adaptive in their field, rather than zealously searching for their organizational Philosopher's Stone.

My main reason for describing this view as gloomy is not just the human waste and cost incurred when a big institution falls over, taking its members' life-niches with it. Worse is the identity of at least one class of obviously vulnerable organizations. The supply of coercion has a few economies of scale in it here and there, and governments invented bureaucracy in the first place. If I am right about rational producer adaptation to bureaucracy... then even a hypothetically libertarian government might find itself merely accelerating the functional decay it sought to arrest. We may have got ourselves into a position where most of our skill-sets are reasonably maladaptive to freedom - libertarians, for all we know, included. A grim thought, but not a wholly implausible one.

What counter-technologies might undercut the government economies of scale? What social inventions? How can total or partial government-crash be cushioned? Can bureaucrat-wrangling productive skills be co-opted as assets for non-bureaucratic organizations? Is it even possible to become familiar with, and accepting of, the process of institutional rot in general, without cynically becoming a fungus? There are more questions teeming here than even my nosy spirit can readily encompass, let alone solve.

Over to the Bureau of Debureaucratization, who are even now beginning work with a consensus summary report on their mission statement schema brainstorming protocol. They will get back to us when they have devised an appropriate presentational timeframe.

Administrators merely administrate, but bureaucrats rule!