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More to science than war

Yesterday evening, Niall Ferguson presented the second part of Civilization on Channel 4, a companion to his new book of the same title. Starting in the 15th century, when the Asian countries were much more developed than those in Europe, he focuses on what he terms six killer apps that brought the West to its position of global dominance, and why the development, or downloading, of these apps elsewhere more recently will likely mean the decline of this dominance, to be passed out particularly by China.

Ferguson could possibly be described as a Westernist, and in its broad scope, it is an ideology that I could comfortably identify with. But it has two strands, two ways we can emphasize its value. I see the Enlightenment project that slowly led to the growth of free inquiry, individual ingenuity and self-government, against subjection to the general will, as something to be proud of, while cognisant of the difficulties in achieving this along the way. It is also something we should be happy to export, because of our sense of common feeling for our fellow man. Unfortunately, as Ferguson presented the case, its value seems to rest in the case that one of our own, a Western country with individualist values, whether it be Prussia, Great Britain or the United States in a given century, is number one.

Yesterday’s segment was ostensibly on the subject of science. I was looking forward to an expostulation of the development of the scientific enlightenment, the great stories of the correspondence between scientists across the Continent, and the series of their inventions and discoveries. We could follow through to the wonders of the modern world, how much our standard of living has improved through a series of inventions, even how much we can do with a small handheld device these days, and how that depended on a culture of discovery through the centuries. Though I have had no education in science beyond taking physics and chemistry for the Leaving Cert, it is something I maintain a small interest in. My idea of a date has been to go to an amateur production of the life of Galileo.

Instead, Hooke, Newton and Wren got no more than a cursory mention from Ferguson. What science seems to mean for him was the military advantage one nation had over another. He ended, with very little segway, with praise for the development science and innovation in Israel, besieged by its backward neighbours. Whatever positive developments in the country, the state of Israel cannot be seen as the epitome of Western civilization today. The rights and wrongs of this question could not have been explained in the ten minutes he had left for himself, but the situation there is tied to one of the negatives of Western civilization, the idea that those in more nomadic, less technological societies, without our concept of property, can be relocated without compunction. This was true before of the Enlightened Revolutionary American colonists, most of whom felt free to relocate native tribes further west, not to mention the stain of colonization throughout past centuries by Europeans.

Not that we should feel obliged to continually apologize for a whole list of grievances when we devote books and programs on great historical developments, but to touch on a continuing part of the harmful part of the legacy and assume Westerners must be on the side of Israel shows poor judgement in trying to convince viewers of the value of Western dominance.

He also glosses over the difficulties scientists had at times faced with a comment that religion was by then less of a obstructive force. Just as in the history of political liberty, part of the glory is in the struggle. To appreciate the historical importance of the era of the Royal Society, we should be conscious of the execution of Giordano Bruno in the 16th century and imprisonment of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century for their work on the cosmos.

Let us celebrate the developments of science, for its practical impact on the daily lives of so many across the world, and for the glorious fact that we know so much about the world, from the working of an atom to the development of species and the nature of far-off galaxies. We do need to guard ourselves against undue skepticism of science, and reminding ourselves of this legacy is dearly valuable. But the noble part of this legacy is the increase of our knowledge, not national advantage.

Great speech on being raised by lesbian parents

Iowa is one of five US states where gay and lesbian couples can marry, since a ruling of the Iowa State Supreme Court in 2009. As in most of these, it is still not firmly settled law, and is for the moment under revision.

Below is a speech by Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student speaking about his family during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives, which seeks to end recognition of marriage. In the words of Tom G. Palmer on Facebook, “A truly remarkable speech. The young man who gives it would have been a success in the Roman Senate, or the British Parliament, or the U.S. Senate. His moms must be very proud.” Those opposed to marriage equality must be able to present an identifiable harm strong enough to counter the benefits it brings to gay couples and their families. It’s not good enough to say that it is good policy to support male/female marriage as if that is diminished by also supporting gay marriage.

As an aside, Tom Palmer, from whom I got this link, and is gay himself, is one of the libertarian scholars I most admire because of how he puts his beliefs into practice. As well being a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, he spends much of his time travelling to developing countries, creating links between those seeking greater freedom. A reminder that what little grievances we grudge in western countries, real liberalism should have an international outlook, where individuals’ daily security and survival are at stake.

His blog and Twitter feed are worth following for those who like links on the free market and cats.

Difference of opinion in a free society

6 September, 2010 Leave a comment

I instinctively feel my political views rooted in the liberal tradition, in matters of both politics and economics. I identify with historic liberal politics, and in most countries would support a party clearly identified as liberal. In economics, I believe the progress in societies that openly trade with others in goods and services, without barriers, restrictions or envy, in undeniable, and that because of the dispersion of knowledge at a local level, the market mechanism is far more efficient at pricing goods than any state-controlled system would be. I also have a passing interest in science, having taken two science subjects for the leaving cert and I still like to keep in touch with developments, if at a popular level.

So it was was nice to see these combined as one outlook, the dispersion of power, in Jonathan Rauch’s defence of the expression of unpopular viewpoints in academia, speaking to the conference of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Jonathan Rauch – FIRE’s CFN 2010 from The FIRE on Vimeo.

Rational optimism

7 June, 2010 5 comments

Last week, I attended a lecture by geneticist Matt Ridley, hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society. I have before read his books The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue, explaining the genetic origins of human instincts and society. Politically, he is a proponent of free trade and small government, having written for The Economist from 1984 to 1992, and he served as non-executive chairman of Northern Rock from 2004 to 2007. His understanding of science and human nature leaves him open to the accusation of an attempt to justify his politics, but it is not with Ridley that we’ve first seen a convergence in views on the market and evolution. Charles Darwin saw the parallels between the simplicity of natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, while Friedrich Hayek saw the same processes of emergent order in nature as in many human endeavours such as the market, language or societal customs, none of which were ever formally instituted.

Ridley’s thesis is that what makes homo sapiens fundamentally different from all other species is our capacity to trade. Recent studies in the genome code have shown that even our closest relatives, homo neanderthalensis, probably had language, and excavations have shown that they had burial customs, but no neanderthal tool has been found more than two hours from where it was made. Of course, even if we have been trading as a species for 120,000 years, the acceleration of the benefits of trade only began to take off in the relative recent past, some time in the mid-eighteenth century. As a sign of the improvements to the common man from trade in those years, Ridley compared the situation of Louis XIV of France, who had nearly 500 people to prepare food for him, to any of us today, who have hundreds of people working for us, if we want to think of like that. Once we pay them for what we want, what difference is it to us that they’re also working hundreds of other people too?

Read more…

How libertarian is the new cabinet?

Before the election, Liberal Democrat Voice, a blog site of LibDem supporters, compiled a ranking all members of the last Parliament by how libertarian they were based on their votes on a variety of votes relating to freedom of speech, trial without jury, ID cards, a national DNA database, and other similar civil liberties issues. The most authoritarian on these issues were ranked 100, those most libertarian ranked 0. It is by no means a precise rank, because of the difficulty in scoring votes missed by MPs, but with IDS ranked most authoritarian of the new cabinet, Huhne ranked most libertarian, it seems to be a reasonable guide. Particularly welcome are the low scores from Home Secretary Theresa May and from Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, in the most relevant positions to civil liberties.

Position Minister Rank
Prime Minister David Cameron 12
Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council Nick Clegg 9
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne 9
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs William Hague 6
Secretary of State for the Home Department Theresa May 3
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke 3
Secretary of State for Defence Dr Liam Fox 12
Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable 3
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith 15
Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne 0
Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley 3
Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove 9
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles 9
Secretary of State for Transport Phillip Hammond 6
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman 3
Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell 3
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson 9
Secretary of State for Scotland Danny Alexander 6
Secretary of State for Wales Cheryl Gillan 3
Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt 6
Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws 3
Paymaster General Francis Maude 9
Minister of State in the Cabinet Office Oliver Letwin 6
Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts 9
Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons Sir George Young, Bt 6
Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin 6
Attorney-General Dominic Grieve 3

A liberal on trade

In The Storm, Vince Cable, Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Liberal Democrats, outlines the bizarre Alice in Wonderland nature of trade negotiations argued on protectionist assumptions.

The main trading countries have been locked for several years in negotiations that centre on the following proposition: you agree to stop shooting yourself in the foot by paying out subsidies and hurting your consumers through costly import restrictions, and we shall, reluctantly, do the same. Or, more accurately, if you refuse to stop shooting yourself in the foot, we shall also refuse to and, indeed, shoot ourselves in both feet, just to show that we are more serious.

A liberal on taxes

13 January, 2010 Leave a comment

A liberal should never forget that whatever justification given for taxes, to fund justice and security, public services, social welfare, or certain macroeconomic aims, they come from the people. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP, Germany’s liberal party, in coalition with the Angela Merkel’s CDU, expressed this view well.

What kind of decadent understanding of the state is it that sees tax cuts as a gift? Citizens give the state their taxes, not the other way around.

(As reported by Derek Scally, The Irish Times, 8 January 2010)