Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago

Have you ever had someone tell you that Vladimir Lenin was a pretty decent fellow and that the great Soviet experiment had gone fairly well until Stalin took over the reins. The best antidote to this dangerous misconception is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago 1918 – 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. In this three volume work, Solzhenitsyn tells the story of the Soviet prison camps from their beginnings under Lenin, their heydays under Stalin, and their continuation under Krushchev. In addition to his own experiences as a former Gulag inmate, The Gulag Archipelago is based on hundreds of testimonies of former inmates and tells the harrowing story of their arrest, interrogation, transportation, prison life, and release into exile.

The Universe has as many centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”

When people get arrested by “the organs”, they usually think that some sort of mistake has been made. After all, they are innocent, so surely someone down the line will notice the error and correct it. What they fail to understand is that, as Solzhenitsyn explains, being arrested need not have anything to do with guilt. The organs care nothing about punishing the guilty or sparing the innocent, they simply have to meet a quota. And if they haven’t been able to arrest enough people, they seize on any opportunity and any pretense to arrest someone, anyone. Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a woman who came to the authorities to inquire what was to be done about the hungry infant of her neighbour after the neighbour had been arrested. This woman, whose only crime was showing some human decency and concern for the suffering of an innocent child, was promptly arrested. After all, the quota had to be fulfilled, so why go out to look for someone to arrest when this woman was right there?

After someone has been arrested, they are manipulated, pressured, and tortured into confessing their crimes, real or imagined. And ideally to implicate some friends or other relatives (those quotas need to be filled somehow). Solzhenitsyn describes a great variety of methods used in interrogation. What is both fascinating and horrifying is how creative the organs are in their torture. Even though simple beatings might easily do the job, they came up with a whole array of unorthodox and ingenious ways of breaking a prisoner. Evidently they were making a kind of sadistic game out of the whole process.

After a detailed discussion of the history of criminal law tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, Solthenitsyn turns to the process of transporting prisoners to the various prison camps. Since Russia is such a vast country, the distances which need to be covered are immense. The trainride typically takes several days and all this time the prisoners are locked up in tiny compartments: it is not unusual to have as many as 22 prisoners crammed into a compartment which, under normal circumstances, feels quite crowded with just four people sitting in it. Often they aren’t even given anything to drink during lengthy journey. Solzhenitsyn sarcastically adopts an understanding tone to explain:

And, of course, it is not for the purpose of intentionally torturing the prisoner that (…) he is given neither hot water (and he never gets that here in any case) nor even plain, unboiled water. One has to understand the situation: The convoy staff is limited; some of them have to be on watch in the corridor; (…) And the third shift is sleeping. They insist on their full eight hours – for, after all, the war is over. And then, to go carry water in pails – it has to be hauled a long way, too, and it’s insulting: why should a Soviet soldier carry water like a donkey for the enemies of the people? (…)

But the convoy could have borne with all that, hauled the water and doled it out, if only those pigs, after slurping up the water, didn’t ask to go to the toilet. So here’s the way it all works out: if you don’t give them water for the day, then they don’t ask to go to the toilet. Give them water once, and the go to the toilet once; take pity on them and give them water twice – and they just go to the toilet twice. So it’s pure and simple common sense: just don’t give them anything to drink.

After all, the guards are already working hard enough. Expecting them to guard the prisoners twice a day while they line up in a long procession to use one little toilet is really asking too much.

And in spite of that, you still couldn’t make [the prisoners] happy. In spite of that, some old sandpiper or other would begin to cry half an hour later and ask to go to the toilet, and, of course, he wouldn’t be allowed to go, and then he would soil himself right there in the compartment, and once again that meant trouble for the private first class: the prisoner had to be forced to pick it up in his hands and carry it away.

Naturally, conditions didn’t exactly improve once the prisoners had arrived at their destination. In the camps, prisoners were forced to work such long hours that they frequently didn’t even have enough time to sleep. The pitiful food rations might have been barely sufficient for people living a sedentery life, but were totally inadequate for people who spent all day doing hard physical labour. In the harsh Siberian winter, they often had to make do with thin, threadbare jackets.

The death-toll was enormous, but that was all right with the Soviet officials. After all, what does it matter if some enemies of the people and some common criminals die? What does matter is getting all you can from their labour power. As Naftaly Frenkel, one of the chief architects of the Gulag system put it: “We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months – after that we don’t need him any more.” The goal was not to reform prisoner, but merely to exploit them as slave labour. And in the process, they were far crueller than any supposed capitalist exploiter, or even the slavemasters of old. An ordinary slavemaster would at least treat his slaves well enough to preserve their capital value for many years, but the Gulag system had no such compunctions.

What makes this all the more tragic is that the Gulag system never managed to operate cost-effectively. Although many projects and products we accomplished with this great force of slave labourers, the costs of transporting, guarding, supervising, housing, and feeding the prisoners greatly exceeded the value of what they produced. It would have been cheaper – and perhaps less inhumane – to just put a bullet through the heads of those suspected of ideological dissension.

The Gulag Archipelago is not a fun book. Reading it is a tour de force of the ugliest aspects of human society. At the same time, it is a compelling read and I found myself driven to read on, both by Solzhenitsyn lively prose (he didn’t win a Nobel Prize in Literature for nothing) and the weight of the subject matter. Unlike when Solzhenitsyn was writing, the Gulag system no longer exists today, but that doesn’t mean that something like it – or something even worse – can’t arise in the future. The Gulag Archipelago is not just a document about the past, it is also a warning to the future. And if keeping alive the memory of this book makes the return of a Gulag-like system even slightly less likely, reading The Gulag Archipelago will have been worth it.

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Cleverness Is Overrated

The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.

Mark Twain – A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

What a clever thing to say! Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. The second best swordsman in the world has a decent chance of beating the best swordsman. Someone who has never held a sword in his hands will get eviscerated. The greatest swordsman in the world has doubtless seen hundreds of people flailing around without any technique. None of the clumsy attempts of an amateur are likely to be surprising, much less threatening to him. If you have no idea what you are doing, unpredictability is not much of an asset. The second best swordsman, if he knows that he is going up against the best swordsman, however, can deliberately employ faints and unorthodox techniques to throw off his superior adversary. Unlike the amateur’s inept attacks, his tactics are deliberately designed to surprise the master swordsman and are backed up by technical mastery and physical strength.

Aside from the specific context of swordfighting, the general principle espoused by Mark Twain’s quote does not seem to apply to much of anything. Put Magnus Carlsen against another top chess player and he will often draw and sometimes lose. Put him against someone who has never played chess before and Carlsen will win with ease. If you have Anthony Joshua go up against some random person who has never boxed before, he will K.O. his unfortunate opponent without breaking a sweat. Any punches the other guy manages to throw might be unpredictable, but will be totally ineffectual due to a lack of technique and physical strength. Perhaps the best case for Twain’s swordfighting analogy can be made in a game like poker, which has large elements of randomness and deception. It is indeed true that a completely inexperienced poker player is hard to predict, but there are still patterns of common mistakes that new players make and which experienced players know how to recognise and exploit. Moreover, high level players are also very difficult to predict and unlike novices, they actually understand the maths underlying poker, so their unpredictable moves are calculated rather than merely random. Due to the randomness inherent in poker, a novice might be able to beat the best player in the world if he gets particularly lucky, but the second best player will certainly have a much higher probability of winning.

I’ve now shown that the best competitors in a range of fields will have an easier time defeating random scrubs than their fellow professionals. Hardly a particularly noteworthy insight. And yet people a hundred years from now will still be quoting Mark Twain’s line about swordmen, while no one will be quoting this article. Nor is this just a function of Twain being a famous writer and me being unknown. The problem is that Twain’s statement is clever, while mine is merely common sense. This is why cleverness is dangerous: it can make an obviously wrong statement more attractive than an obviously true, but boring one.

This problem is exacerbated by fiction. When you’re writing a short story, a novel, a play, or other fictional work, having clever statements and clever actions will make your audience more interested in your story. The protagonist solving a problem through straightforward application of tried-and-true methods is rather boring. It’s much more interesting if he has to come up with some clever plan that is so crazy, it just might work.

Or consider the example of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” which revolves around the police searching for a stolen letter, which they know must be hidden in a particular hotel. Despite repeated searches examining every nook and crany, looking for hidden compartments, etc., the letter remains elusive. The solution to this mystery turns out to be that the letter is in fact just a crumpled piece of paper lying around in plain sight, which the police have ignored because they were expecting the letter to be carefully hidden. A clever solution to hiding something, but one which in reality rarely works. As any security expert will tell you, security through obscurity is very unreliable.

This is not to say that cleverness has no place in the real world. When you are in a desperate situation where none of the standard approaches works, resorting to a clever strategem might be your only hope. A good example is the empty fort strategy: Suppose you’re an ancient Chinese general in command of a small force holding a fort which is about to be attacked by overwhelming enemy force. The difference in strength is so great that any conventional military tactics are hopeless, so in a desperate gamble, you remove all sentinels from the ramparts and open the gates. If you are very lucky, your enemy will see this bizarre act as indicative of a trap and halt the attack. An exceedingly clever ploy for getting out of a sticky situation, but obviously unreliable.

This is the problem with clever ideas: unlike in fiction, they usually don’t work in the real world. This is why you should reserve cleverness for situation where you are desperate and for low-risk, high-reward opportunities. But nine times out of ten, you’re better off relying on common sense, prudence and sound principles.

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The Voice of Europe – Episode 163 – Too Clever for Reality

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include the German election, further inroads against circumcision, more false rape allegations, an update on the woman who was deemed too smart for jail, and prostitutes losing their jobs to automation. Also in this episode: women who can’t find the right man because they are a) too smart and educated, or b) insufferably smug and obnoxious (you decide). And of course we have some news from the silly place, such as a piece about Swedish bitches oppressed by the dog-patriarchy.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part 3: The True History of Slavery

For previous parts of this review, see Part 1 and Part 2.

In the Western world, and in America in particular, slavery is a widely misunderstood phenomenon. When people hear the word “slave,” most Americans think of blacks enslaved by whites, and in particular of plantation slaves in the American South. In “The True History of Slavery,” the third essay in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell responds to this impression with the following:

No other historic horror is so narrowly construed. No one thinks of war, famine, or decimating epidemics in such localized terms. These are afflictions that have been suffered by the entire human race, all over the planet—and so was slavery. Had slavery been limited to one race in one country during three centuries, its tragedies would not have been one-tenth the magnitude that they were in fact.

He argues that this “provincial view of a worldwide evil” has been perpetuated as a means of denigrating Western civilization. “Often it is those who are most critical of a ‘Eurocentric’ view of the world who are most Eurocentric when it comes to the evils and failings of the human race.”

Sowell then gives a broad overview of the long history of slavery, pointing out that for the most part, slavery had nothing to do with race. People enslaved whoever was vulnerable and available, which before the modern era usually meant people of their own race. Even in the American case, slavery was not an outgrowth of racism. Rather, a particularly virulent form of racism arose there in order to justify the continuation of slavery. Outside of the Western world such a justification was not necessary as slavery was never questioned. In the US, however, slavery stood in stark contrast to the liberal values of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Viewing blacks as essentially subhuman provided a convenient excuse to keep them in bondage.

Far from slavery being a particular sin of the West, slavery was practised across the globe. The only thing in which Western civilization is unusual when it comes to slavery is that they were the first to abolish it. And not only did they abolish it in their own societies, they also used their great power and influence to put pressure on non-Western countries to end this institution. The various Western powers, first and foremost the British, expended a considerable amount of treasure and human lives on the thankless task of stopping slave trading, but these heroic efforts are just passed over in silence by contemporary critics of the West.

Although I strongly agree with most of what Sowell puts forth in this essay, I have a few nitpicks. Sowell makes the common mistake of claiming that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. I’ve written about this misconception before.

Elsewhere, Sowell says that slavery died out because “Europeans had gunpowder weapons first,” so they had an advantage against the non-Western defenders of slavery. This claim is quite frankly bizarre. Gunpowder weapons were invented by the Chinese and made their way to the Middle East before they came into use in Europe. All of this is beside the point, however, as Europeans only became invested in stamping out slavery in the 19th century. By then, gunpowder weapons had spread far and wide, so talking about any kind of first mover advantage is nonsense. Europeans of that age were technologically and economically more advanced than non-Western peoples, but that had little to do with the mere possession of fire arms.

But these are fairly minor quibbles. Overall, “The True History of Slavery” is a great essay and ranks very closely behind “Are Jews Generic” as my second favourite essay in Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

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Queen Angela’s Reign Continues

As was widely expected, and as I predicted in my previous post on the election, Merkel’s Union has emerged as the strongest party from Sunday’s Federal Election in Germany, and there is no realistic way of forming a coalition that does not include the Union. This means that Angela Merkel is almost certain to remain Chancellor. While she won the election in this sense, her party also lost a great deal of votes compared to last election’s strong performance. As a result, a black-yellow coalition between the (allegedly) conservative Union and the classically liberal FDP is not possible. The only realistic options for forming a government are a continuation of the grand coalition between the Union and the social democratic SPD, or a so-called Jamaica coalition between Union, FDP, and the Greens (black, yellow, and green, as in the colours of the Jamaican flag). Since SPD leader Martin Schulz has taken an emphatic stance against continuing the grand coalition, the latter option now seems most likely. Here are the detailed results for the election, including the change compared to 2013’s election:

Union:  32.9%  -8.6%
SPD:    20.5%  -5.2%
Left:    9.2%  +0.6%
Greens:  8.9%  +0.5%
FDP:    10.7%  +5.9%
AfD:    12.6%  +7.9%

As you can see, the two major parties suffered harsh losses, while the classical liberal FDP and the national-conservative AfD were the biggest winners. The losses for Union and SPD are widely interpreted as being a symptom of people’s dissatisfaction with the ruling grand coalition, and this idea is cited by Martin Schulz as the reason for rejecting its continuation and taking his party into the opposition. However, given that he has been at the helm of the campaign that yielded the SPD its worst result in the history of the Federal Republic, it is quite likely that he will be replaced as party leader. Under a new party leader, it’s entirely possible that the SPD will agree to another grand coalition after all.

As things currently stand, however, a Jamaica coalition is the expected outcome, despite tremendous differences in these parties’ respective ideologies and policy preferences. While the Union and the FDP have proven to be compatible and the CDU and the Greens could certainly work out their differences, the Greens are sure to clash with the FDP and the CSU (CDU and CSU are the two sister parties that make up the Union). If no agreement can be reached and the SPD remains standfast in its refusal to enter a coalition with the Union, things will get interesting. In that scenario, we would most likely either get a minority government consisting of Union and FDP and tolerated by either the Greens or the SPD, or we would get a re-election.

Aside from the difficulty of forming a new coalition, the big story is the success of the AfD, which went from narrowly missing the five per cent threshold in 2013 to becoming the third largest party in the Bundestag. This has caused widespread concern and outrage as the party is perceived by many to be filled with neo-Nazis and comparisons to the early history of Hitler’s NSDAP abound. Personally, I think such concerns are vastly overstated and I do not think that the AfD poses a particularly great threat. However, there are certainly a number of individuals within the party who have made very questionable statements that seem to be designed to appeal to neo-Nazis. Take for example Alexander Gauland’s statement that “we have the right to be proud of the accomplishments of our soldiers in two World Wars.”

When the AfD was founded in 2013, it was a conservative, classical liberal, and Eurosceptic party. It was a party of economists who took a stand against the madness and the illegality of the Euro-bailouts. I strongly considered voting for them in the 2013 election, although I eventually decided against it. Since then, however, the party has jettisoned its liberal elements and has marched ever further in a nationalistic direction, bordering on outright xenophobia. Its founder and original leader, Bernd Lucke, was given the boot because he was too much of a liberal. He was replaced by the much more conservative and much less liberal Frauke Petry. When she proved to be insufficiently nationalistic to appease the increasingly rabid base, she was relegated to the sidelines and has now announced that she, too, is leaving the party. There are still some sound policies and some reasonable people left in the AfD, but if the party has changed so much over the last four years – and changed very much for worse in my opinion – where will it be in another four years? Although the current hysteria is overblown, this trend is worrying and the AfD is definitely a party that we should keep an eye on.

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Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part 2: Are Jews Generic?

Part 1 of this review can be found here.

The second part of Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals bears the delightful title “Are Jews Generic?” and takes the reader on a tour across several continents and millenia to examine the phenomenon of “middleman minorities”.  These are minority groups who are known for engaging in middleman occupations such as merchant and money lender. Besides Jews, who are of course the prototypical case, examples include the Chinese in Malaysia, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Ibos in Nigeria, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the Japanese in Peru, and the Indians in Burma.

What all these middleman minorities have in common is that they were frequent targets of not just ressentment and discrimination, but also outright violence. The scale and scope of such violence tends to be much greater than that against other unpopular minority groups. As Sowell puts it,

All the blacks lynched in the entire history of the United States do not add up to as many people as the number of Chinese slaughtered by mobs near Saigon in 1782, or the Jews killed by mobs in central Europe in 1096 or in the Ukraine in 1648, much less the slaughters of Armenians by mobs in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Sowell locates the main reason for the intense animosity that middleman minorities face in their misunderstood economic role: Middlemen seemingly produce nothing, so to the casual observer, the wealth acquired by middlemen seems to come from thin air, so something fishy must be going on. This of course is a very distorted picture of how the economy works. In fact, middlemen are no less productive than people who work in agriculture, manufacturing, or service jobs. As Sowell points out, no one

create[s] or destroy[s] matter, except for a few nuclear physicists. Turning iron ore into steel products is not creating a material thing but only changing its form to something that people want more. That is precisely what middlemen do when they make goods or money available earlier than otherwise through retailing, credit, or loans.

Economic value is not tied to physical objects, but to people’s subjective valuation of them. People value their time, so having a variety of goods available at a local store is far more convenient than having to drive to numerous factories and farms to pick up various consumer goods. Thus, a dozen eggs at a nearby grocery store are more valuable to the average consumer than the same dozen eggs at a distant farm, which is why it is entirely reasonable to pay a small premium for the convenience of being able to buy many different products at the same nearby location.

Failure to understand this basic economic principle has led to middlemen being widely resented even when they belong to the same ethnic group. When, in addition to that, the middlemen belong to a different ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race, this bias against middlemen is reinforced with the natural suspicion toward outsiders, often with the violent consequences tallied above.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals is an excellent book and “Are Jews Generic?” is my favourite part of it. Although the concept of middleman minorities is not new (see for example “A Theory of Middleman Minorities”), Sowell’s treatment was my first contact with the term and the concept. It explains cogently why numerous ethnic minorities have become the targets of hatred and violence not just in spite of, but because of their thrift and hard work and the great contributions they have made to the societies around them.

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An Introduction to German Politics and the Election

In a little over a week, on 24 September 2017, Germans will vote in the Federal Election to elect the 19th Bundestag, which is essentially the lower (and more important) house of parliament. All eligible voters can cast two votes. The first is for a direct candidate. Whoever gets the primary votes in a given district is elected to the Bundestag, while runner-ups getting nothing. Essentially primary votes work just like the general election in Britain. The second, more important vote is for a party. All parties who get at least five per cent of the total votes are represented proportionally in the parliament (more or less; it’s complicated).

Once they have been elected, the members of the Bundestag elect the new Chancellor. Because party representation is, roughly speaking, determined by a proportional, national vote, it is very rare for any party to get an absolute majority (the only time that happened was in 1957), which means you need to have a coalition government. Currently there are four parties in the Bundestag, and there are another two parties that narrowly missed the five per cent threshold in 2013, but will almost certainly make it this time. In this post, I will go through all six relevant parties, as well as discuss coalition options and predictions. With each party, I will give you the lowest and highest recent poll results (in per cent) according to

Union (CDU/CSU): 36.5 – 38.5

The Union is actually a permanent coalition of two parties (hence the name). The CDU is on the ballot in all German Bundesländer other than Bavaria, while the CSU is only on the ballot in Bavaria. The Union is currently by far the strongest party and is the party of the reigning Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Under Merkel’s leadership, the Union, formerly a conservative party, has moved more toward the centre, essentially becoming a party that stands out only through its extereme moderation. They are luke warm supporters of capitalism, moderate proponents of law and order, they are more or less on board with environmentalism, are kind of, sort of in favour of feminist measures such as a women’s quota for the advisory board of publicly listed corporations, and have reluctantly agreed to legalise gay marriage. The one thing they have taken a firm stand is on keeping a balanced budget, in large part due to the influence of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Social Democrats (SPD): 20 – 24

The SPD is a former socialist party that has gradually transformed into a moderate centre-left party. In particular, the party moved toward the centre under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, although it has shifted somewhat to the left since his days. The SPD is the second of the two major parties and has historically been somewhat less successful than the Union, and this is true especially in recent years, with the SPD only getting 23.0 and 25.7 per cent in the last two elections. The SPD is part of the current coalition government and counts the Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, among its members. The SPD is basically a carbon copy of the Union, shifted slightly to the left. If you’re looking for a party that is more boring and bland than the Union, the Social Democrats are your best bet.

The Greens: 6 – 9

The Greens are a left-wing environmentalist party, which is currently part of the opposition. The so-called “Realo” or realist wing of the Green party is essentially a slightly greener version of the CDU, while the idealist wing of the party is fairly radical in its environmentalism. The Greens (and in particular the idealists) are anti-war, tend to view business with suspicion and tend to be fully on board with feminism to the point of massively discriminating against their male members.

The Left: 8 – 10.5

The Left is a socialist party which emerged as the result of a merger of the PDS, the successor party of the GDR’s socialist ruling party, and the WASG, a left-wing splinter group of the SPD that split off in response to Gerhard Schröder’s centrist course. Accordingly, party members range from disgruntled social democrats to old-school communists. The Left is currently part of  the opposition and hasn’t yet participated in any government at the federal level.

Free Democrats (FDP): 8 – 10

The Free Democrats are a moderate classical liberal party, which tends to favour free enterprise, lower taxes, less surveillance, and less governmental interference with people’s personal lives. They narrowly missed the five per cent threshold at the last election, but have been represented in every Bundestag except for the current one. Despite always being a minor party, they have been part of as many governments as the Union. This is because they often played a kingmaker role by deciding which of the two major parties to form a coalition with.

Alternative for Germany (AfD): 8 – 12

The Alternative for Germany is a conservative, nationalist, and Eurosceptic party. It is the youngest of the six relevant parties, having been founded in 2013. The AfD has been very critical of the government’s permissive course toward asylum seekers, which in turn has led to the AfD being attacked as racist and xenophobic. The AfD narrowly missed the five per cent threshold at the 2013 election, but is almost guaranteed to make its Bundestag debut after this year’s election.

Possible Coalitions

Since it is very unlikely for any party to reach an absolute majority, we will almost certainly see a coalition government. In the past fifty years, there have been four different kinds of coalitions: 1) Grand coalitions between the two major parties, Union and SPD, as we have currently. 2) Black-yellow coalitions between the Union and the SPD, as we had from 2009 to 2013. 3) Red-yellow coalitions between the SPD and the FDP, as was the case during the 1970s. 4) Red-green coalitions between the SPD and the Greens, which we had from 1998 to 2005.

Of these options, only 1) and 2) are realistic, as the numbers for the other two simply aren’t there. If a black-yellow coalition is possible, that is probably what we will get. Otherwise it will likely be another grand coalition. Since the other parties do not want to work with the Left and the AfD, the number of possible novel coalitions is low. The only really realistic scenario is a coalition between Union, FDP, and the Greens. Three party coalitions are difficult to make work and the ideological distance between the Greens and the FDP is likely too large.

So what things come down to is whether the Union and the FDP have a majority. According to most recent polls, they have a slight majority, so at this point it is impossible to predict whether the numbers for a black-yellow coalition will be good enough. If they are not, a grand coalition is much more likely than a three-party coalition. Note that in all of these scenarios, the Union will be part of the government as the biggest party. This means that Angela Merkel will almost certainly continue being Chancellor. And even though I disagree with Merkel on quite a number of issues, that is perhaps not such a bad thing.

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Quote of the Week: John Maynard Keynes on Pragmatism

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Pragmatism is a very attractive philosophy, but it is important to realise its limitations. It is quite simply impossible to do economics, political philosophy (or anything else) without some theoretical background. As Keynes aptly points out, those who think they can do away with theory are still implicitly using some theory. Since they have never stopped to critically reflect their implicit theory and are not conscious of its shortcomings, they end up the slaves of some defunct theorist. In other words, it pays to be pragmatic even in your application of pragmatism.

When people expostulate on economics without bothering with economic theory, they frequently resort to mercantilist ideas, which where thoroughly refuted two centuries ago. Take for example a recent video by Youtuber Lauren Southern, in which she criticised a number of developments in the libertarian movement. Most of her criticism is quite reasonable and I agree with much of what she has to say in the video, but then she gets to the issue of trade policy (timestamp). Her argument for protectionism is that free trade is only beneficial from a particular country’s point of view if other countries are also engaging in free trade, but since most countries have protectionist policies and some engage in “currency manipulation,” unilateral free trade is not beneficial to your country. What she does here is to cast libertarians as blind ideologues who are too caught up in the beauty of their theoretical constructs to properly deal with the real world.

Of course this criticism completely ignores the actual arguments libertarians (and really anyone who’s economically literate) are making in favour of free trade. The argument does not rely on other countries having free trade. See for example this overview of the case for free trade by Alan S. Blinder. Although it would be great if other countries enacted free trade, it is still generally in any country’s best interest to unilaterally enact free trade, no matter what the other countries do. There may be some exceptional circumstances where some protectionist policies are beneficial (see for example the optimum tariff) from the point of view of the country enacting them, but in general free trade is the optimum position. And this is not just some fringe libertarian view, but has been the overwhelming consensus view among economists of all stripes for many decades.

Theory matters. The only way we can make sense of the world is by viewing it through the appropriate theoretical lenses and using the right models. By being supposedly pragmatic and ignoring theory, you don’t get practical solutions for real problems. All you get is bad solutions based on bad theory.

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Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Thomas Sowell’s 2006 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals is a collection of six long-form essays about history and the relationship between different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. The eponymous first essay argues that contemporary black American “ghetto culture” is not genuinely black, but a continuation of “cracker culture” which American blacks picked up from Southern whites, and that many of the problems American blacks face today stem from this pernicious culture. The second essay, Are Jews Generic, examines the history of Jews and other “middle-man minorities”. The Real History of Slavery dispells the myth that slavery was primarily an American or Western phenomenon and highlights the heroic role of Western civilization in general and the British Empire in particular in ending slavery. Germans and History paints a rather flattering picture of German culture and argues that National Socialism was an aberration, rather than a logical continuation of Prussian militarism. Black Education – Achievements, Myths and Tragedies examines the success of the all-black Dunbar High School in the first half of the 20th century and argues that educational success among American blacks was largely achieved by casting off “cracker culture” and embracing the culture of Northern whites. The final essay, History versus Visions, argues that perceptions of history are too frequently distorted by trying to fit facts into a pre-existing narrative.

In this first part of the review, I will focus on the eponymous essay, which opens up with a description of negative attitudes Northern whites in the US had about Southern whites in the mid-20th century: they are lazy, they are criminals, they neglect their children, they have low moral standards, and are uncivilised. Sowell argues that the similarity between these stereotypes and the negative stereotypes about blacks are no coincidence. He sees those characteristics of American blacks and mid-century Southern whites as being part of a shared culture, which blacks picked up from their erstwhile slavemasters.

Leaning on the work of Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Sowell traces this shared culture back to the Celts who lived in the border region between England and Scotland, the Scottish highlands, and Ulster County in Ireland before the 19th century. These people, variously called “Scotch-Irish,” “borderers,” “rednecks,” or “crackers,” lived dangerous and relatively uncivilised lives, which is why it made sense for them to develop a culture that emphasises aggressiveness and assertiveness, as well as a tendency to prefer short-term pleasure over long-term planning. When large numbers of “crackers” emigrated to the British-American colonies, they brought that culture with them. The crackers happened to settle in what came to be known as the American South and made up the majority of its white population.

According to Sowell, American blacks, who also mostly lived in the South, adapted this cracker culture. Thus, today’s black ghetto culture is not originally black, hence the term “black rednecks”. While Southern whites have, for the most part, cast off cracker culture, many blacks have retained it. They were “assisted” in this by white liberals who defended what they saw as a genuine expression of African-American culture, and who attacked those criticising “ghetto culture” as racists. Thus, Sowell thinks that white liberals, regardless of their intentions, share a significant part of the blame for American blacks still doing considerably worse than American whites.

What Sowell isn’t quite clear on is the process by which American blacks adopted cracker culture. After all, most major slave owners in the South were not (to use Fischer’s terminology) borderers, but rather Cavaliers, another of the four major groups of British immigrants identified in Albion’s Seed. This is a criticism also picked up in Steve Sailer’s review of the essay:

In reality, slaves tended to be owned mostly by big slaveowners in the Southern lowlands, who frequently had aristocratic pretensions. Lowland Southerners tended to be descended from Southern England’s landowning and servant classes, not from the Scotch-Irish (…) I think it would make more sense for Sowell to point to blacks inheriting lowland Southern quasi-aristocratic prejudices, such as for grandiloquent multi-syllabic words (e.g., Jesse Jackson’s style of speaking) and against manufacturing and shop keeping, as for them inheriting Scotch-Irish redneck populism, with which they had limited contact.

For example, free slaves who were sent to Liberia reproduced the Southern lowland social structure, just with themselves as the slaveowning aristocrats and the native blacks as the slaves.

While Sowell’s theory of ghetto culture being an extension of redneck culture is not fully convincing, his account of blacks succeeding when they adopt “New England values” is quite persuasive. Contrary to what cultural relativists would have us believe, not all cultures are equal. Some cultural practices are superior to others, and casting off pernicious cultural practices can greatly improve the prospects of a community. American blacks are ill-served by those who insist on preserving “authentic” black culture. Obviously there are many aspects of black culture that are beneficial or harmless, but if they want to catch up to their white countrymen, American blacks need to discard those aspects of their culture that are holding them back. Working hard in school, speaking standard English, being polite to authority figures, and bringing up children in two-parent households might be perceived as “acting white,” but so what? If it works for whites, why wouldn’t it work for blacks? And if your answer is racism, then what about Asian-Americans? They are even better at “acting white” than white Americans, and suprise, surprise, they are also economically more successful than whites.

Especially if you have never read a Thomas Sowell book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals is well worth picking up. Sowell’s clear and elegant style makes for pleasant reading as he takes you on a tour through American and world history. Whether you ultimately agree with him or not, reading Thomas Sowell is always an enlightening experience.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and decide to buy a product, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.)

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The Voice of Europe – Episode 160

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s main topic is the fallout from the BBC scandal about female talent being allegedly underpaid. In other news, we cover a German blacklist for those who refuse to bow to the feminist orthodoxy and a new law in Rotterdam makes any interaction with a woman potentially illegal.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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