Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Brian Micklethwait on Miguel aligns his message with his van
Natalie Solent on Miguel aligns his message with his van
Brian Micklethwait on Tate Modern is now fighting with its neighbours about privacy
Michael Jennings on Cyclists
Michael Jennings on Tate Modern is now fighting with its neighbours about privacy
Brian Micklethwait on Tate Modern is now fighting with its neighbours about privacy
Michael Jennings on Tate Modern is now fighting with its neighbours about privacy
Patrick Crozier on Cyclists
Brian Micklethwait on M20 bridge destroyed by passing digger
rob on M20 bridge destroyed by passing digger
Most recent entries
- John Croft: Composition is not research
- The cuddly killer
- Strand Palace Hotel footbridge
- Harley Davidson - woman playing gramophone records
- Wooden Citroens and black baby dolls
- Brittany lighthouses
- Citroen correction
- When the people are the Art
- Ghost Bus
- Cats don’t smile
- Just the top of the BOT … but still instantly recognisable
- How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party
- Six dials at Seven Dials
- Miguel aligns his message with his van
- Another illustrated van
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6000 Miles from Civilisation
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Category archive: Economics
Nowadays, footbridges tend only to spring to life and to try to be entertaining to walk across, rather than just functional, when water is involved. But as the world’s economy slows and big new bridge projects become scarcer, I believe we can expect many more smaller and hitherto more mundane bridges to be similarly “designed” rather than just built. Like this one in Beersheba, which is over some railway tracks.
LATER: I was, see below, tired and tipsy when I did this posting. By the above title what I meant was it was a brilliant talk, not that the talk was given by “Brilliant Brian”, aka me. So, to continue ...
And here is the guy who gave it:
I usually forget to take photos at my Last Friday of the Month meetings, but this evening I remembered, and took that photo of my speaker, during the socialising afterwards. I am too tired and too tipsy to say much about the talk, but it was indeed brilliant, and Anthony J. Evans is a real rising star. I’ve heard him talk before, but this was something else again. Basic message: Yes, national crises do create opportunities to insert “neo-liberalism” into countries, and a good thing too. Persuading a political tyranny to liberalise on the economic front often leads on to political liberalisation. Example: Chile. “Neo-liberalism” has good outcomes. Unlike the policies favoured by the people (Naomi Klein, George Monbiot) who complain about neo-liberalism, which only unleash disaster.
Libertarian Home needs an intro for Mark Littlewood, for a publication they’re doing. Here is a quick profile of Littlewood by me, which I hope may be of some use to LH.
Mark Littlewood is the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. There was a time, not so long ago, when the IEA seemed doomed to obscurity or worse. But Littlewood has put in place and now leads a strong team of free market activists, strong on both the academic and media fronts, thus raising the profile of free market ideas both now and in the longer term future.
That may suffice, but here is more, if needed, of a slightly more personal sort.
Of particular note is Littlewood’s appointment of Stephen Davies and Christiana Hambro, in the area of student and young academic outreach. (Stephen Davies addressed Libertarian Home not long after his IEA appointment.)
When Littlewood was first appointed, I was not optimistic about the IEA, but then I heard him speak about his new job, and I became much more hopeful about the IEA’s future. That optimism has not abated.
Hope that helps and is not too late.
Today I attended Deirdre McCloskey’s talk for the Adam Smith Institute. I know what you’re thinking. Okay, okay, photos, as per usual. But: What did she say? Fine. Go here, and you can find out. What I can find no link to is any information about the event – when, where, and so on. It’s all now gone. Maybe it was never there in the first place.
But the Man from the Adam Smith Institute told me to send in some of my snaps, and these are the ones I sent them:
McCloskey’s basic point was what is rapidly becoming the libertarian orthodoxy, to the effect that (a) the world started getting humungously rich in or around 1780 (Yaron Brook‘s preferred date for this is 1776 (to coincide with America starting and Smith’s Wealth of Nation’s getting published)), and (b) we did this. Our enemies tried to stop us and they failed. We know how to make poor people rich, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Our enemies only know how to make rich people less rich and poor people more poor. Bastards.
My recent favourite example of enrichment is a very tiny one offered at today’s talk by McCloskey, which is that you can now use your smartphone as a mirror. Better yet, McCloskey said, before the talk she was giving, she spotted Steve Baker MP doing this exact thing with his smartphone, while perfecting his appearance prior to doing his MP socialising bit.
The reason I particularly like this is that I just recently learned about this trick myself, when I saw someone doing it, and took a photo of it:
If you photo someone looking in a mirror, they can see their face, but you can’t. (Unless it’s a crap movie, in which case the audience sees the face and the person with the face doesn’t. I know. Ridiculous. But this is truly what often happens.) But, if you photo someone using their smartphone as a mirror, both you and they can see their face.
McCloskey’s point was that enrichment doesn’t only come in the form of more money, but also in the form of the ever more amazing things that you can buy with your money. Like a phone that is also a NASA circa 1968 supercomputer. And a face mirror.
Finally, here are a couple more photography-related photos. On the left is the official photographer for the McCloskey talk:
And on the right there is a photo which I also took at the venue for the McCloskey talk, which I will not name, because the people in charge of this place might then learn of this blog posting and see this picture and then who the hell knows what might happen? Are you wondering what I am talking about? Click on the picture and work it out. I only realised what I had photoed after I had got home.
Today I attended the Libertarian Home Benevolent Laissez-Faire Conference. Here is the text of the opening speech by conference organiser Simon Gibbs. And here is a selection of the photos I took, of the event and of the speakers:
Conference programme here.
1.1: An attender. 1.2: The venue, very good, with a big side window looking out to a small basement level garden. 1.3: Syed Kamall. 1.4 and 2.1: Janina Lowisz and one of her slides. 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4: Julio Alejandro. 3.1: Simon Gibbs and Yaron Brook. 3.2: Brook. 3.3: Kyril and Rob helping with the books. 3.4: LH info, lit up by the afternoon sun through the window. 4.1: Anton Howes. 4.2: Howes and Brook. 4.3 and 4.4: Gibbs, Alejandro, Howes, Brook.
Pyjama bottoms have a way of disintegrating. And just lately I have been having other problems (I will say no more than that) with pyjama bottoms. The night before last I had to wear short pants in bed, like an American sitcom actor just after having had sex, and last night I cranked up the hot water bottle. It’s amazing what a difference just swapping proper length pyjama bottoms for the same thing but with no legs.
So the question was: laundrette, or Primark. Wash the two remaining pyjama bottoms, one of which had gone missing, or: buy some more pyjamas at Primark. I couldn’t face laundretting, so Primark it was. Earlier this evening, I staggered forth to Oxford Street.
In the tube on the way, I grumbled to myself about how I would be obliged to purchase yet more pyjama tops, to add to the already absurd number of such garments that I already possess.
Instead I encountered this:
A pair of pyjama bottoms, as in two pyjama bottoms, and no pyjama tops. I bought two large (L) and two extra large (XL). The XL ones fit fine and I am wearing one of them now. Extra large my arse! Well, apparently so.
I feared that the merely large ones would be far too tight, but they’re okay. I’m now wearing one of them. A bit tight but okay, and the good news is that elastic expands when you wash it.
And all this for just twenty quid. And no, I don’t feel bad about the terrible wages paid to the people who make such garments. I remember winning this stupid argument way back in the seventies, when I was accused of keeping Hong Kongians poor by buying their cheap stuff. What I was actually doing, as I knew at the time, was making them rich (which they now are), by bidding up the price of their labour. And now I’m doing it again.
I tried to find these garments on the internet, but failed. So I just did a photo.
Modern life is good in so many ways, but I really did not see this particular item of goodness coming.
I’ll add that the new Primark at the Centre Point end of Oxford Street, which I was sampling for the first time, was agreeably uncrowded, and generally less of a mad down-market scrimmage than the one near Marble Arch, at least whenever I’ve been there.
The above link gets you to a place that says it isn’t open yet, but it was open enough when I visited. Maybe the fact that it was open but not yet Open explains why it was so quiet. Maybe when these places officially Open, pandemonium rules from then on.
Getting properly out and about again after my winter hibernation, as I did earlier this week to Victoria Park (it’s easier to scroll down past yesterday’s Gulf Stream posting than to follow those links), reminded me that there are other major viewing spots in London I have yet to check out.
Such as, for instance, this Big Thing:
Yes it’s Anish Kapoor’s Big Olympic Thing. Now that all the Olympic fuss has died down, and most of the people who fancied visiting this Thing have visited it, and they’ve finally finished making it as good a Thing as they can, getting into this Thing and up this Thing and to the top of this Thing may finally be a buyer’s market, rather than a hell of queueing and crowding and barging. I tried the website, to see if I could buy a ticket remotely. But as so often with me, I couldn’t make it work. So, I will go there this afternoon, and see if I can buy some kind of ticket, from a person. If that doesn’t work, then I think I recall seeing a phone number I could ring. I also seem to recall the webiste mentioning an Old Git season ticket for an entire year that costs hardly more than a single visit. That would be great. I do love to go back to places, after I have looked at the first lot of photos and worked out what I was actually photoing.
Whether they will sell me a ticket face-to-face or not, I will still get to check out the fascist expanses of the Olympic Park, or whatever it is they call the big pointless spaces outside the Olympic Stadium.
Part of the top of which is visible in the above photo, which I took from the footbridge at Hackney Wick Overground Station, on my recent trip.
I like to photo the covers of newspapers and magazines. Such snaps can be very evocative, when looking back at them.
One of the more memorable of such snaps recently was this:
The whole Brexit argument seems to be turning into a clash of pessimisms. Which would be more ghastly? Britain staying in or Britain getting out?
Here is a piece that argues that Brexit would be ghastly, for the EU. As well as all the hoo-hah about refugees, there’s also the little matter of the EU economy collapsing. If Brexit happens, so might that.
So, will the Remainiacs argue, come the Referendum, that we must stay in, to save EUrope? Could be. The argument will be: if we leave, that will wreck EUrope, and that will wreck Britain.
And the Leavers will say: well, if EUrope is a wreck waiting to happen, we’d do better to get out. Whatever happens, the immediate future looks terrible. If we get out, at least we could then look toward our own longer term future with a bit of optimism. We will save ourselves by our exertions, and then EUrope by our example, bascially by turning EUrope back into Europe. Brexit will be like Dunkirk.
There has for some time now, I think, been a breed of “national” politician – Cameron and Osborne are such – whose first loyalty is to the global elite and to such enterprises as the EU, rather than to their own mere countries. They are not really our leaders anymore. They are more like District Commissioners for The Empire.
Personally, I do not oppose The Empire just because it is an Empire. I oppose The Empire, now, because I don’t think the Imperialists are running it very well. And I favour Brexit now both because I think that, on balance, Brexit will be better for Britain, and because the Imperialists need a good kick up the bum. More politely, I think these people should stop being so “anti-patriotic”. They need to stop regarding patriotism as their enemy.
More exactly and less windily, the Imperialists also need to follow better financial policies. I think they are more likely to do this if Britain competes with EUrope than if Britain is a province of EUrope. And what might these policies be? Well, the world needs competing currencies, both because the best of these will be quite good, and because they will stir the world’s fiat currencies into being better. That’s more likely to happen if the world consists of a looser affiliation of semi-sovereign states than a tight Empire of provinces, ruled unchallengeably by Cameron, Osborne, and their gaggle of rich, powerful, and actually somewhat stupid, friends.
3D printing is not the replacement of factories by homes. It is manufacturing in factories only more so. Making stuff is not, as of now, getting less skilled. It is getting more skilled ...:
Most ceramic 3D printing uses complex techniques to deposit layers of the material on top of each other, and as a result have to use materials with relatively low melting points. The techniques can also only be used to create fairly simple shapes.
But a team from HRL Laboratories in Malibu, California, has developed what they call a pre-ceramic resin, which they can 3D print much like regular polymers into complex shapes. The process, known as stereolithography, fuses a powder of silicon carbide ceramics using UV light. Once the basic shape is printed, it can be heat-treated at 1,800°F to turn the pre-ceramic resin into a regular ceramic object. In fact, this is the first time silicon carbide ceramics have ever been 3D printed.
… which is very good news for the rich world economies.
Says a commenter:
So 2016 opens with YAAI3DP (Yet Another Advance In 3D Printing.) and some point all these breakthroughs are going to add up and utterly transform manufacturing.
The way he then goes on to say that it will transform manufacturing is that we may eventually get stuff made whenever and wherever we want it made. In homes and shopping malls, in other words. Maybe eventually. In the meantime, cleverer stuff is getting made in the same old places, and then transported to where it is needed.
When I transport blogged, one of the constant themes I found myself noticing was how people regularly thought that transport would be done away with, but it never was. The main notion was that people would communicate so well that they’d never want to meet face-to-face. Now, it is being speculated that stuff will be made so cleverly that it will be makable anywhere. Maybe so, but that isn’t now the smart way to do it, and it probably never will be.
Consider the reform of China’s economy that began under Dfen Xiapeng in 1978, leading to an economic flowering that raised half a billion people out of poverty. Plainly, Deng had a great impact on history and was in that sense a ‘Great Man’. But if you examine closely what happened in China in 1978, it was a more evolutionary story than is usually assumed. It all began in the countryside, with the ‘privatisation’ of collective farms to allow individual ownership of land and of harvests. But this change was not ordered from above by a reforming government. It emerged from below. In the village of Xiaogang, a group of eighteen farmworkers who despaired at their dismal production under the collective system and their need to beg for food from other villages, gathered together secretly one evening to discuss what they could do. Even to hold the meeting was a serious crime, let alone to breathe the scandalous ideas they came up with.
The first, brave man to speak was Yen Jingchang, who suggested that each family should own what it grew, and that they should divide the collective’s land among the families. On a precious scrap of paper he wrote down a contract that they all signed. He rolled it up and concealed it inside a bamboo tube in the rafters of the house. The families went to work on the land, starting before the official’s whistle blew each morning and ending long after the day’s work was supposed to finish. Incentivised by the knowledge that they could profit from their work, in the first year they grew more food than the land had produced in the previous five years combined.
The local party chief soon grew suspicious of all this work and this bountiful harvest, and sent for Yen, who faced imprisonment or worse. But during the interrogation the regional party chief intervened to save Yen, and recommended that the Xiaogang experiment be copied elsewhere. This was the proposal that eventually reached Deng Xiaoping’s desk. He chose not to stand in the way, that was all. But it was not until 1982 that the party officially recognised that family farms could be allowed - by which time they were everywhere. Farming was rapidly transformed by the incentives of private ownership; industry soon followed. A less pragmatically Marxist version of Deng might have delayed the reform, but surely one day it would have come.
From Rob Fisher, who knows my interest in 3D printing, incoming email entitled:
It’s no longer a rare feat to 3D print blood vessels. Printing vessels that act like the real deal, however, has been tricky… until now. Lawrence Livermore researchers have successfully 3D printed blood vessels that deliver nutrients and self-assemble like they would in a human body. The key is to print an initial structure out of cells and other organic material, and then to augment it with bio ink and other body-friendly materials. With enough time, everything joins up and behaves naturally.
Right now, the actual structures don’t bear much resemblance to what you’d find in a person - you get a “spaghetti bowl” of vessels. Scientists hope to organize these vessels the way they exist in nature, though. If that happens, you could one day see artificial tissue samples and even transplants that are about as realistic as you can get.
A while back, I worked out that 3D printing was going to be just as huge as everyone is saying, but that it was not going to get “domestic”, in the manner of like black-and-white laser printers for instance, in the foreseeable future (with the possible exception of certain kinds of food preparation). 3D printing is a vast range of specialist manufacturing techniques, and it will, for that foreseeable future, be used by people who already make specialist stuff by other and clumsier means, or who would like to make particular specialist stuff for the first time, of the sort that only 3D printing can do. See the quoted verbiage above.
This is why I receive emails from Google about failing 3D printing companies along with other emails about successful 3D printing activities, mostly by already existing companies. 3D printing is best done by people who already know a hell of a lot about something else, which they can then get 3D printed. Like: blood vessels.
The principle economic consequence of 3D printing will be to provide an abundance of jobs for people everywhere, but especially among the workers of the rich world, who, during the last few decades, have been famously deprived of many of their jobs by the workers of the poor world.
Prediction/guess. Because of things like 3D printing, schools in the rich world will soon become (are already becoming?) a bit more successful, back towards what they were like in the 1950s. This is because, as in the 1950s, there will again be an economic future for everyone in the rich countries, the way there has not been for the last few decades. For the last few decades, in the rich countries, only the geeks (in computers) and the alpha-male super-jocks (in such things as financial services (and in a tiny few cases in sports)) and posh kids (whose parents motivate them to work hard no matter what (this is a circular definition (posh kids are the ones motivated by their parents))) have had proper futures to look forward to. (These three categories overlap.) Accordingly, they have been the only ones paying proper attention in school. The rest have not been able to see enough point to it.
My spell of education blogging taught me, among many things, that when it comes to schools being successful, teacher quality is absolutely not the only variable. Good teachers can get bad results, if the kids just can’t doing with it. Bad teachers can preside over good results, if parents and helpers-out, paid or unpaid, after regular school supply good supplementary teaching, or if the kids were highly motivated and determined to learn despite their crappy teachers.
The one exception to the rule about 3D printers not becoming meaningfully domestic is that they have a big future as educational toys, training kids to go into the bouncing-back manufacturing sector.
I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Early signs: brilliant. I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:
A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky. The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer. He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.
The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning. Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.
But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little. From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them. As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms. Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.
Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive. But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome. Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’. Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after. Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him). His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth. It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.
As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity. He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance. He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive. He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival. He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist. In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean. Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators. How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well? Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing. It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too. Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.
I say new. New for me. Old and superfluous to requirements for the people who were getting rid of them.
Audiences for regularly repeating events tend exactly to fill whatever comfortable spaces and places are offered to them. Given that my speakers tend to be pretty good, the single best way for me to persuade more people to attend my Last Fridays of the Month meetings (there will be another such meeting tomorrow evening) is to improve the seating arrangements. More and more comfortable chairs are the best way to make these events better.
When these meetings resumed, in January 2013, there was a rather ungainly sofa, which seats two in comfort and three in discomfort unless all three are very thin, and one other comfy single chair. The rest was all stools and upright chairs and old loudspeakers and suchlike.
Worst of all there was this:
That picture having already been shown here, here.
But, to replace the above abomination, there is now this:
Despite appearances, these two beauties work very well as a three seat sofa. Better yet, they cost me: nothing. I went out shopping a few months back, and Goddaughter 2 happened to be with me. We saw these two semi-sofas being inserted into a skip. So we skipped the shopping and grabbed them, all this being only a couple of dozen yards from the front door of my block of flats. Moments later, and they’d have been covered in subsequent rubbish. No Goddaughter 2, and I don’t know how I would have managed. Almost certainly, not. Amazing.
And then, about a week ago in a charity shop I encountered these two little numbers, also very comfortable:
I had to pay a few bob for them, and some more bob for a taxi to get them home, but it all added up to far less than I was thinking of paying for something similar, singular, new, to see if another similar, singular, new, would be worth a further quite large outlay.
The above improvements may not seem like much, but they increase the number of truly comfortable seats at my evenings from three-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half. So the chance of a comfy seat have now more than doubled.
All I need now is to replace that goofy original sofa, with its goofy great arm rests that take up about one and half people’s worth of space, and things would be looking even better.
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
This posting is not so much me passing on advice as me seeking to solidify some ludicrously overdue advice from me to myself, about how to photograph speakers.
Don’t try to do it when they’re speaking.
Last night I took about two dozen photos of Dominic Frisby, who was addressing the Libertarian Home crowd at the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster. Almost all these photos were useless. This was because Frisby was talking, and when people talk, they move. The indoor light was very scarce, so the slightest motion meant a blur, and a succession of blurs was accordingly all that I got. My only photographic successes during the Frisby talk were when I switched my attention to the people listening to him. They were keeping still.
People like Richard Carey:
I think Rob clocked me, don’t you?
The only half-decent Frisby photos I got were during the Q&A, when, just like the two persons featured above, he too was listening rather than talking:
Doesn’t he look adorkable.
As to what Frisby said (on the subject of Bitcoin), well, it was all videoed, although the video camera was being hand-held, as this further snap of Richard Carey, helping out with that, illustrates:
I include that snap also because of the John Lilburne reference, Lilburne being a man whom we libertarians should be bigging up every chance we get.
Finally, a book photo. On account of Frisby’s talk beginning a few minutes earlier than I had been expecting it to, I arrived a few minutes late, and the only seat I could find was the one with Frisby’s books on it, which he had presumably earlier been sitting at. That explains the odd angle of this photo:
Both books highly recommended. More about Frisby by me (+ further links) in this Samizdata posting. In this I mentioned that Frisby was working on a Bitcoin book. As you can see, that book has now materialised.
It helps that books, like people who are listening, or for that matter doing photography, and unlike people who are talking, do not move.