How’s this for bad incentives?

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila… The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

The Italian scientists who said “there probably won’t be a big earthquake” before a big earthquake are going to be sent to prison. This is because in this region of Italy, a small tremor isn’t normally a warning sign of a larger quake, it is just a small tremor, nothing more, nothing less. They said this, and now face jail.

The problem with this should be obvious, the incidence of predicted earthquakes that never happen will now go up. This won’t make anybody safer, in fact, evacuations are dangerous, so this will make the world a more dangerous place not to mention ruining the lives of seven innocent men.

 

An Open Letter to Libertarians and Socialists

A spectre is haunting the blogosphere – the spectre of Libertarianism.

Nothing would please me more than to give in to its haunting charms. Libertarianism is neat, it is consistent and it is beautiful. Its economics are marvellously simple; a tidy web of self-interested individuals reaching an equilibrium and prospering.

People can exchange what they have earned for what others have created, and through this voluntary exchange everyone ends up even more prosperous than before. Ad infinitum.

When pure, Libertarianism is consistent too; drugs are yours, as is sex and smoking indoors, so long as you don’t coerce anyone to get hold of them.

Those “without” go with what charity can provide. Those “with” keep it, because there are no grounds for removing it; you own yourself and what you produce. Because when people are free they produce fabulous wealth those without become less and less numerous, and the burden on charity becomes less and less burdensome.

However, like a rubber sheet loaded with a lead ball, Government distorts and tangles this beautiful web, drawing prosperity towards its own centres of gravity and will eventual tear a hole in it.

The only thing that’s warns me away from this beautiful web is the overwhelming body of evidence in favour of Socialism.

Libertarians

Now that I’ve set up the straw man, it is time to flesh him out so that I can explain what I really mean.

As mentioned at LibCon, some people really don’t get Libertarianism and I don’t want to talk about morons like Roger Helmer – Bella Gerens explains what a real Libertarian is to her. No, it is Charlotte Gore, our humble Devil, Mr Eugenides, Tim Worstall and The Economist that I need to challenge.

First things first

The economics of Libertarianism are not what got us here. The world is fabulously but it isn’t the free market that got us here, it was a hobbled, chained and unfree market.

England, Hong Kong, Singapore. I’ll admit that these are the places which got to where they were mostly by the free market, however each is unique in its own way and has little to teach us.

Germany, America, South Korea – in fact, the rest of the rich world – got to where it is today by ignoring Libertarian fantasies and by embracing some form of blatant non-market intervention. This is where there are lessons for those that really need them.

Germany didn’t lead the second industrial revolution when the state “got out the way.” It became an industrial leader when state created entrepreneurs set up businesses and state sanctioned banks created credit for strategic industries.

America is not a free trade nation and never has been, it is the home and bastion of protectionism. It built up its industries not in competition with Britain, but with intense protection from her output.

South Korea’s firms did not compete against each other under the careful eye of a night-watchman state. These firms were arranged into giant chaebols, they were infected with nepotism and were deep in the pockets of Government, yet it produced one of the great miracles of the 20th Century.

Property Rights

In an argument atypical, perhaps anathema, to some Libertarians Tim Worstall argues that…

…creators have rights over their creations because we want to encourage the next creator to create. Nobody gives a damn how much effort goes into creating something, the labour used or indeed any other resource used. All we actually care about is encouraging more people to create more things: and to do so we reward those who have created.

In essence, Tim’s argument is that intellectual property rights – and by extension, all property rights – need to be protected because they make us all better off. By working backwards from results to the system which yields them, Tim gives us the classic Libertarian argument that respect for property makes us richer.

This argument is well worn, although usually presented in a completely different. For most Libertarians property rights are sacred because what you produce is yours, and what you buy with that is as much yours as if you produced it yourself. Tim inserts the proviso that it is also the best way to get the results we all want.

However it is not nearly this simple, sometimes property rights can get in the way of wealth creation, no simple Libertarian rationale will cure what ails us.

Enclosure involved stealing land from those who owned it in common. Yet it helped kick start the greatest wealth creation in human history.

Ignoring or not granting patents on medication has helped increase the quality of life for millions of Indians, and others around the world. The research into treatments and cures continues.

Directing tax revenue towards strategic industries can be beneficial. When the tax revenue of South Koreans was directed towards the manufacture of Microwaves it was neither an area they specialised in nor one which returned a profit. However, they soon became market leaders and the welfare of all was increased.

Property rights don’t need to be treated as a sacrament, in fact it can be damaging to do so.

Beyond Economics…

… Libertarians are generally right.

  • Huffing on a crack pipe? Your choice, a drug’s illegality only makes it more harmful.
  • Girls Aloud murder porn? Your choice, banning it only drives it underground.
  • Smoking in a pub? Your choice, surely this one doesn’t need an explanation.
  • Want a divorce? I won’t force you into a “cooling down period.”
  • Fancy a pint or ten? Sod it, I’m heading to the bar myself, I’ll get them in.

So long as you don’t hurt anyone else, do as you like. But for not one second does the evidence suggest this is a good guiding principle when it comes to economics.

The evidence around us in  points to a system of economics and a vision of the good society that is markedly differnt from that presented to us by Mises or Hannan.

And the Socialist shall lie down with the Lambertarian

Socialism as I understand it, is the only way to a better material existence and a more free life for all of us. A smaller state can be compatible with Socialism, and social liberalism has long gone hand in hand with the left, Socialism is not anathema to what Libertarians want. So join us.

This is our rallying cry. Bloggers have nothing to lose but the chains of an ideologically consistent viewpoint. They have evidence based policy to win!

EMPIRICALLY MINDED SOCIALISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Socialists

Mr Eugenides, Devil’s Kitchen, Tim Worstall (you’re a classical liberal, I know, but sadly there’s no CLPUK), Charlotte Gore, Thomas Byrne, Dave Semple, Chris Dillow, Paul Sagar, Paul Cotterill, A Very Public Sociologist, Will Straw, Paul Krugman and Steven Levitt you are my favourite Socialists and Libertarians and this letter is directed towards you. Discuss.

Further Reading: A Memorandum to Libertarians and Socialists: Part One

Even Further Reading: A Memorandum to Libertarians and Socialists: Part Two

Beware the Spinal Trap

Simon Singh, a well know science writer, is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Below is the article which has provoked this case.

I would like to follow those at Shiraz Socialist, The Ministry of Truth, Jack of Kent, (who has some fantastic coverage on the case) and all the others who have republished this article in solidarity.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Read the uncensored article here.

sciencelibel