Robbie Hance the missing hero

© Baily Rae Weaver

The tramp’s suit was a mass of careful patches on a cloth so stiff and shiny with wear that one expected it to crack like glass if bent; but she noticed the collar of his shirt: it was bone-white from repeated laundering and it still preserved a semblance of shape. He had pulled himself up to his feet, he was looking indifferently at the black hole open upon miles of uninhabited wilderness where no one would see the body or hear the voice of a mangled man, but the only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train.

It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions – the gesture of a sense of property – that made her feel an emotion like a sudden burning twist within her. “Wait,” she said.

“When did you get aboard the train?” she asked.

“Back at the division point, ma’am. Your door wasn’t locked.” He added, “I figured maybe nobody would notice me till morning on account of it being a private car.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.” Then, almost as if he sensed this could sound too much like an appeal for pity, he added, “I guess I just wanted to keep moving till I saw some place that looked like there might be a chance to find work there.” This was his attempt to assume the responsibility of a purpose, rather than to throw his aimlessness upon her mercy – an attempt of the same order as his shirt collar.

This is an excerpt from Atlas Shrugged, the part where we are introduced to the character Jeff Allen, a former workshop foreman of the Twentieth Century Motor Company and the source of John Galt’s back story. In the piece, Rand gives us little clues as to his character inviting our inductive faculty to work in reverse upon her deductive process. She deduced, from her philosophy, how the character would act in the company of someone more fortunate than themselves. The character was in desperate need, but had integrity and an independent spirit that Rand wanted to show.

Because Rand gives Allen some positive virtues, it is fair to call him a minor hero, not just a device to carry words but someone who acts according to a principle and produces a positive outcome in the book. I have seen the same, if not less, of Robbie Hance than any viewer but it seems to me that the X Factor contestant  is as much a Randian hero as the tramp Jeff Allen or the wealthy steel magnate Hank Rearden. I want to talk about some of the little things that made me like him.

The first was the shyness with which he revealed he was homeless. It seemed he was shy, just as Jeff Allen was, because he did not want to place his needs upon the judges or the audience. It became quite clear he wanted to be judged on his music, but there is more, he did not say he lived “nowhere”, he said he lived “everywhere”, as if it was natural for him that with no fixed home of his own he would exploit any place he wished for his purposes.

Second, in the interview package, he revealed the constraints under which he lived. These were not financial constraints but points of principle. His mother worked three jobs to maintain her family and he knew he was burden. He left rather than impose his needs upon his loved ones. The same applied to his friends, with whom he only stayed two nights a week. One assumes the reason he does not stay more with friends is the same as why he doesn’t return home to his mother. It was when I heard this that my mind flashed back to Atlas Shrugged and Jeff Allen and the line about burdens.

He scrubbed up. Exactly like Jeff Allen, he was wearing clothes that concealed the difficulty of laundry and did not appear at all in need in that respect. In fact, there was another contestant, Adam Burridge, that was dressed very similarly and who was not homeless as you can tell from photos of the evening.

The video of him in the dressing room showed he suffered from nerves, quite rationally, but the way he sat apart from the others showed that he had no need of them at all. He did not look at them, yet seemed comfortable that they were there.

His performance was amazing, but there are a couple of details of interest philosophically. First was the introductory instrumental section that seemed to go on a second longer than necessary. He was making you wait to hear his voice, confident enough in his vocal abilities to know for certain that you’ll like it. He also strummed well, to my ear, and showed off his talent with the guitar.

This contrasted sharply with the end of the performance. Rather than lengthening the performance by emoting, or making melodic noises, he stopped quickly and thanked the audience simply and plainly. He had delivered musically and just wanted to get on and hear the feedback.

The reaction of the judges though was frankly bizarre. The only footage that showed of any fear or apprehension was from before he was on stage. When talking to the judges before and after the performance he stood confidently, slightly stooped as a lanky man will, but making eye contact and speaking without hesitation. He was a confident man on stage.

Why then did at least two judges mention a lack of confidence? That he “just needed a break” etc. Their self-righteous pity for him was utterly unrelated to the confident performance he gave. It was as if they expected a homeless person to be needy and lack self-worth and this is what they projected onto him. If that was how he was going to be packaged and sold by ITV, with non-existent needs pushed onto TV audiences for him in the most insincere way, then no wonder he’s gone AWOL.

I hope he turns up in a pub somewhere singing his heart out with a copy of Atlas in his pack. Not so that he can defiantly claim the role of Randian hero but so that he can know – quietly, privately, but in full – how much better he was than the ITV judges.


UPDATE: perhaps a touch of Gail Wynand’s back story about him.


UPDATE 2 : He has a YouTube channel of his own.

Pro Liberty Announcement

Those who use bus services will be familiar with the scenario: You wait ages for a bus, and then three come along at once. The same happens to be true of libertarian political parties in the UK.

Last night at the Rose & Crown in Southwark, Pro Liberty was founded. This is a political party which is being registered with the Electoral Commission to fight elections in England and Wales. The party aims to spread the libertarian message within the media – both traditional and social – and through think tanks, the political system and wherever else we can reach a wide audience.

Not only is the party about promoting libertarianism, it is itself designed to be libertarian. There are no restrictions on membership such as forbidding simultaneous membership of other political parties. Nor will there be membership fees until and unless they can be justified. There is also no restriction on what members can or can not say in the media or elsewhere. Members may not state that they are speaking on behalf of the party, but apart from that anything goes. If we are to promote libertarianism to others, we must be able to at least demonstrate our libertarian credentials in the way we organise our own party.

A party constitution is being submitted to the Electoral Commission. This is a legal requirement. We have designed the constitution to be basic and to last for a year. We want the views of libertarians on what the constitution should contain for future years. There are some very basic legal requirements, but the remainder of the party’s constitution is flexible. And it will be down to you, potential member, to help shape the party to be something that you will be happy to support.

The party will begin a series of debates shortly to help with the process of creating a party that most libertarians can support. We also plan to engage with other libertarian organisations and sympathisers, to have candidates stand for elections, to make a noise in the media, and generally to get the message out there and wake this country up from its century-long sleepwalk.

It won’t be easy. But as Confucius say, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so get on with it’. We’ve taken such a step, and I hope many of you will join us.

Clarissa, James, and Richard

Several people have been involved with advice, ideas, money, and the hard work required to get things moving. I don’t want to mention them by name because I’m bound to miss someone out. But if you discover yourself talking to someone and they mention they were involved, buy them a drink, they’ve earned it. Three interim officers are being formally registered with the electoral commission. These are: James Rigby – Party Leader; Richard Carey – Party Treasurer; and Clarissa Clement – Nominating Officer.

Going back to where this article started: Lovers of analogies who are also aware of libertarian political parties may wish to ponder whether there was a bus that either crashed or veered off the road a year ago and is still limping along. Maybe you were on it. We hope you weren’t too injured. We can assure you of a safer journey on the Pro Liberty express.

All aboard. Hold on tight. Next stop Corby?

Capitalism and love

Yesterday’s talk at the IEA was presented by Steven Horwitz. He argued that capitalism freed and empowered women to marry according to their own economic choices and, later, purely for love.

This is an amazingly important observation and was well argued by Steven. He did not deny that feminist ideas, literacy and formal education played their parts (though he did dispute that the 60s wave of feminist popularity had significant effects), but instead of decrying capitalism as a component of the old order and an instrument of oppression, he showed how the free-market, private ownership of capital, and the distributed means of production actually removed key barriers to marital happiness:

  • The necessity of a joint family enterprise with congruent economic interests (e.g. families of literal millers, carpenters, fletchers and smiths) centred within the household.
  • The necessity, for survival, of specialisation between gender roles, that is, to learn skills for use within the household and within the market place.
  • The incentives to breed, even to breed continuously, to ensure an adequate supply of child labour, to overcome infant mortality, and to some extent to ensure old-age care.
  • And finally, the massive time savings afforded by electrical washing machines, dryers, dishwashers etc – the inventions of entrepreneurs.

Of these the first three, at least, paved the way for the happy outcome where women are now able to marry for love and children can be afforded a childhood in which they are sheltered from adult concerns.

Sometimes fools choose to disagree that happiness is actually what we all aim for, but for those that want it, these are universally held to be profoundly happy outcomes. Others, and we all hear it, bleat that revolutionary “progress”, an endless march away from tradition and toward authoritarian revolutionary policies is the only way to get happy. But on Steven’s view, marriage for love and a decent childhood are not ancient traditions but revolutionary consequences of agricultural, and industrial development and the spread of the free-market. This not just a strategic strength for pro-liberty activists but a warning to authoritarian environmentalists and economic planners: your path is not a happy one.

The fourth argument is more obvious, but I wondered if the invention of the washing machine and dishwasher was repeatable. I attended Steven’s talk with my fiance, as we had argued about the relative importance of education vs the division of labour and we wondered whether the fourth force would continue to have an effect now. What else will continue to reduce the time requirements of domestic chores?

© Ian Muttoo

Then I remembered how my spell commuting to Watford was made tolerable by outsourcing my ironing to the local laundry, a phenomenon Steven had explained by giving restaurants as an example. (Steven, shirt services are a better example). Traditionally the burden of ironing shirts ready for the early morning commute would have fallen onto wives, but the free-market and the division of labour brought about the wonders of the “shirt service”, an invention my fiance is most grateful for. Then, in some kind of pre-ordained twist, we found a pack of boned and skinned chicken thighs (much tastier than chicken breasts) in Sainsbury’s on the way home. 50p bought us a saving of 10 minutes skinning and boning, important after 9pm, and 20g more meat. What made us laugh at this was that actually the division of labour by gender had existed in our household until that moment: if I try to skin and bone chicken it can take 30 minutes. We decided the division of labour and entrepreneurial invention are both hard at work making the domestic scene happier, even today.

Before all that, Steven went on to argue that the household is no longer a unit of production (of baking, tailoring, thatching etc) but a unit of consumption (books, TV, holidays, spirituality). I wondered at this point whether Steven would agree that inflation is therefore an enemy of a happy marriage because the accumulation of a surplus to invest in capital goods (houses, cars) particularly for retirement is undermined by inflation at a steady percentage rate. He didn’t agree, feeling that his argument about consumption far outweighs any such effect, that is, that marriage is now so much about love that the economics matter little and that actually the fact of having a dual income is much more important than what retirement together might look like. I’m not so sure, in a world without inflation big houses and flash cars might become more strongly associated with married couples. I guess we will have to wait to find out.

Meanwhile, the future of marriage looks rosy. Because child labour is not an economic necessity and marriage is about love, same-sex marriages are now possible. The Q&A brought up the issue of longevity as well: is a 70 year marriage something most of us really want? What about 140 years? Marriage is now open for gay participation, which should strengthen it, but will medicine and life extension technologies make it paradoxically more transient and not more permanent as we would expect?

Who knows what will happen. For now living in a somewhat capitalist economy and knowing how unpleasant marriage used to be, I have one more reason to remember how lucky I am.



Self-Defence: the most basic right of all

The shooting of two suspected burglars in a Leicestershire farmhouse has yet again exposed the hostility of the state to that most fundamental of human rights: the right to self-defence. Tonight the police have charged two out of four men arrested following the incident. The other two have been released on bail, and the two householders have finally been released, but also only on bail. No doubt the police will make them sweat for a few weeks or months before telling them that no charges will be made.

No one is denying the necessity to properly investigate such matters, but something is clearly wrong with police procedures, if they routinely hold for days on end those victims of crime who have the guts and the wherewithal to defend themselves. Unless there is something more to this story than first appears, the victims have been treated appallingly.

The notion of individuals defending themselves against aggression seems to bother the statists far more than crimes like burglary.  If they really cared about dealing with crime, they’d be handing out shotguns to householders, and pinning medals on those who bag a burglar, but they prefer us passive and dependent. For this reason, even though they grudgingly concede to our right to self-defence, they have done all they can to take away the means to exercise this right.




The illustration depicts another farmhouse, photographed by K H Rawlings and edited for tone.

Bitcoin: a protocol for the distributed maintenance of a ledger?

When I finally found my way to Brian Micklethwait’s Pimlico pad on Friday evening I was in for a few surprises. The biggest visual surprise was Brian’s amazing collection of books and CD’s. The amount knowledge there, in one home, is staggering. I enjoyed running my eyes over the titles and trying to notice whole areas of expertise I might have missed out on. The real surprise was that I had arrived thinking I was to hear about a revolutionary communications protocol for the distribution of digital money. I was going to get a talk about the minutiae of digital accounting.

I was also pleasantly surprised to be joined by several of Brian’s Samizdata colleagues, who’s excellent work over many years got me, and no doubt countless others, into libertarianism and so it was an honour to meet them. Brian’s chief guest, Frank Braun was an IT security professional with an interest, and a small income stream, in Bitcoin and was there to explain how it worked and what the advantages were for freedom loving libertarians. Frank explained that he is a fan of “freedom technology” because rather than changing a culture to value and understand freedom, a difficult and uncertain process, building a new peice of technology is a smaller problem with a faster and more certain pay off. If you are reading this thinking you have found the software hacker you are looking for, move along, but Frank was merely an admirer of the work of pseodonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin.

The following explaination is based on my notes and is therefore mostly pointless, I’m sure better explanations exist, but I am interested in sharing it as a snapshot of my understanding. If I’m seriously wrong, it would help if you left a comment. If I’m right then hopefully there is some value in the way I explain it.

The major feature of the Bitcoin protocol is to effect transfers of wealth, but it’s primary domain object – the primary noun of importance in the system – is not coins or vouchers but an accounting ledger. The maintenance of that shared public record is the primary task and the competitive challenge addressed by the participating nodes, the computer systems owned by users and service providers who take part. It’s like one big trackerless BitTorrent, a network with no centre and no boundaries, co-operating to store copies of some data to which new blocks are conststantly added. The content of these blocks, the ledger, is not something you would be familiar with. I understood it by analogy: if the Dollar were only handled by a single Federal bank, and there was no cash, then the Fed would need to record the transactions of every US citizen and every other user of the currency in perfect detail. As Frank put it, trying to do something illicit in such as system would be “dumb”. This perfect transparency was the opposite of what I had understood to be the point of digital money and of Bitcoin.

Of course, a degree of privacy is acheived by the use of pseudonymous cryptographic identities, and your privacy is dependant on how much personal data gets linked your digital fingerprint. Your public key is your bank account and your bank balance is merely the sum of the values of every transaction involving that public key. As you might have computed, your private key is your means of accessing your money.

In economic terms Bitcoin is non-State fiat money, and the unit for numeric values in the ledger. From the users perspective, the advantages were given as:

  • The system is able to clear transactions (store them in a ledger-block) within 20 to 30 minutes
  • Transactions are reliable, businesses do not suffer the expense or risk of payments being charged back by the credit card company.
  • It is not possible to have your account frozen.
  • Possible to work under a pseudonym.

The disadvantages, as I touched on above are:

  • No anonymity, flows of money can be traced and tracked.
  • (I got the impression later that in order to take part, you are forced to download enough data to calculate every participants bank balance, illustrating how little privacy there is)
  • Very few tax implications, that is, you should expect to be taxed.
  • Somewhat smaller risks for people who want to protect their earnings from tax enforcement, since there is no current enforcement.
  • Needing to hold state fiat money to pay state taxes mean you cannot trade soley in Bitcoin.

Despite the high degree of transparency the “eBay for drugs” known as Silk Road appears to be the killer app. Bitcoin reached notoriety when a US senator triggered the Streisland effect for Slik Road by talking to the media about shutting Silk Road down. Silk Road was an existing site for traders that lacked a payment system, and whcih adopted Bitcoin.

The combination of Silk Road and Bitcoin has already made drug users safer and more free. Allowing them to easily purchase drugs and have them shipped in the mail rather than visiting dark urban corners.

Braun spoke about how the Governemnt might choose to attack Bitcoin:

  • Attacking the exchanges affecting people’s ability to buy into and out of Bitcoin. This is important as the price of Bitcoins is very unstable and holding Bitcoins long term amounts to currency speculation.
  • Attacking the pricing, so that people loose faith in the currency, e.g. by conducting a pump and dump in which large volumes are bought until the exchange rates rise then are sold again forcing a sudden price drop.
  • Braun provided an anecdote regarding the analogous EGold system which had a central technical and legal point of failure. The EGold system was prosecuted and shut down.
  • Similarly, IceGold the eGold broker shut down when threats of prosecution were made against the founder, essentially extending “Process as punishment” to “Process as threat”.
  • Technical attacks could be addressed at the “Bootstrapping” phase or via deep packet inspection, though these were not covered in depth as the main threat is clearly to exchanges.

Frank identified some important lessons for the development of future freedom technologies:

  • People will be less obedient of Government when they have practical options available that flout authority.
  • The technology’s originator stayed anonymous which was a smart move for him and for the network. Counter example: Julian Assange.
  • Very few people were needed to affect change, in this case they created a $60m economy.

© IK

We went on to discuss market opportunities for Bitcoin in replacing Hawala and Western Union money transfer systems and whether Bitcoin might remain a “wholesale” form of money with retail users accessing it via human contact points. We also identified potential business opportunities for individuals setting themselves up as Bureau de Change in retail settings e.g. at the shop where you get phones unlocked.

I want to end with Bitcoin’s monetary policy. Large chunks of the libertarian community are motivated by one primary economic problem caused by the states domination of currency: inflation. Currently hovering around 5%, depending on your definition, inflation is the process of granting invented “fiat” money to banks and other major instutions and deliberately increasing the number of units in circulation and devaluing the currency. The effect on savers, which I don’t need to explain here, is that they are ripped off at a rate of 5% per year, and the effect over time is compounded year on year in a sick mockery of compound interest. That this deliberate policy is morally repugnant is an excercise in subtle understatement.

Bitcoin is a new system, and it is a type of fiat money whose value, like state fiat money, does not relate to anything real. It could collapse tomorrow. But it is a currency that directly protects people from inflation – in fact Bitcoin is limited by a resilient technical and democratic cap of just 21 million units – ever.

Video: Democracies, Republics and other unnecessary evils

Two hundred and thirty six years after a democratic republic called the United States of America was signed into existence by its founders we assembled to consider what our present systems really look like in practice, and discuss some alternatives. Jan C Lester provides his definition and commentary and sets out why he thinks we’re better off with nobody at all in charge.

As a good open minded objectivist (and “closed system” advocate) I should really register my disagreement at this point but I found Jan Lester’s argument for complete Anarchy quite persuasive. Rand’s main objection to anarchy was founded on the idea that, for an individual, having multiple Governments meant that they could not know how a dispute was to be adjudicated and any serious dispute would escalate to into a de facto war between private enforcement agencies.

One illustration will be sufficient: suppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

However, Frederick Cookinham seems to reconcile Anarchism to Objectivism in his book The Age of Rand, believing Rand to be labouring under a misunderstanding of the anarchic system. He points out that the competing sources of justice in the proposed system are not Governments have different powers and incentives and could not or would not fight such a war.

Rand also wrote:

even a society whose every member were fully rational and faultlessly moral, could not function in a state of anarchy; it is the need of objective laws and of an arbiter for honest disagreements among men that necessitates the establishment of a government.

During the Q&A on Thursday I was asked “so are you suddenly an anarchist?” Of course, anarchy is a political theory, not a metaphysical, epistemological, ethical or aesthetic theory so it is much narrower. If I were persuaded that anarchism was a better political theory than an objectivist minarchy then I would still be an objectivist, I would simply see myself as differing from other objectivists in the area of politics.

So, am I persuaded that anarchy is a better political theory than objectivist minarchy? No, for the reason that an individual is only free when he knows in advance where his freedom ends and the rights of others begin, and that is what laws should be set down to decide. I have no doubt at all that a company could produce a document containing such a set of laws, but how would they be circulated and enforced in an anarchic society such that every individual knew what choices were open to him and which closed?

The Olympic Park – Anti Market, Pro Corporate

I’m not that much into sport, so my visit to the Olympic Park on Sunday was a social occasion for close friends but – heroically, and so that you don’t have to – it was  a chance to see for myself what £11 billion of taxpayers money buys you in terms of sporting venues. The park is basically everything the Government and the mainstream media says it is. It’s big, it’s new, it is finished on time and to a high standard, and it is peppered with massive arenas.

Approaching via a bridge from Stratford station I was immediately impressed. There is so much retail space. So many tall glazed edifices to prosperity, emblazoned with big bold life affirming advertisments with pictures of beautiful toned athletes. You felt as if some decent equipment and a proper committment of time you could actually have a body like that, and not like mine which is more suited to the Casino above Westfield. The view as you approach is of a highly developed and aspirational commercial centre. This place means business.

Security was a bit of a drag. “Belt?” “No, Sir that’s fine”. Beep. “Shall I take my belt off?”, “No mumble mumble”, “Huh?”, “We just need to search you”, “Oh okay”, “What’s that in your pocket?”, “That’s a nutri-grain bar”. “Excuse me sir, is this your bag…?” I was expecting nothing less than this, and having decided to go I was willing to comply. I had deliberately taken as little as possible, I even left behind my umbrella. Thankfully we were in inside 15 minutes.

Then, you see it, a massive couldron or crown like arena ringed with politically correct lighting powered, laughably, by the kind of vertical wind-mill that only works in a stiff breeze. Actually, I suppose there are batteries and costs can be offset over time, but the point is that nowhere else has these windmill topped lighting rigs. If they actually made economic sense every council in London would have them. They do not. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the sole purpose of these windmills is to look politically correct.

It doesn’t stop there.

The next thing to hit you is the stuff that’s missing. There are vast open spaces so that really large numbers of people can move around comfortably, there is mature planting, and a decent selection of practical artificial surfaces, street lights, bins, there is even a a little stall set up where you can buy fresh olives. And that is it. I don’t know what they intend to do with all the space after the Olympics, which barely fills it, but for now you can walk along for ages thinking, “there could be a Banger Brothers stand, right there, and I would buy one”.

All the commerce and bustle and aspiration that was so evident outside is banished on the inside. Far from being a brash advertising emblazoned hell of silly promotional guff, the IOC have acheived the precise opposite. The ultimate reflection of their anti-profit ethic is a barren desert of concrete lacking in the essential vitality and convenience of real commerce.When it rained, the under provision of seating and awnings become more than apparent as people of all ages and classes sheltered in the toilets. Umbrella-less we resorted to a tree and pulling jackets over heads. When the sun came out gangs of volunteer entertainers tried vainly to create an atmosphere. Two MacDonalds and two big “experiences” for Panasonic and Acer did nothing to help you feel looked after.

By contrast Silverstone, the F1 Grand Prix venue, is packed with stalls selling all sorts of merchandise, and vans offering different styles of hot food and drinks. Like at other events, prices at Silverstone are fixed to avoid accusations of gauging, but the competition is apparent as neighbours do vary by quality. Also, there is music, trade stands,  childrens entertainment, and rides of different sorts. At the Olympic Park, there isn’t much on offer at all. There is probably just enough catering to feed the majority just adequately. In fact, barely adequately as by 3pm they had run short of some items.

Speciality Coffee from nowhere in particular, and identikit catering

The stalls seemed so uniform that I assumed they were all run by one contractor, and if so then the badges at the Fish and Chip stand revealed the contractor to be Sodexho Prestige, a firm I know best from visiting the staff canteens of listed corporations.

The Cadburies stand for chocolates and ice creams had been euphemistically labelled “Treat Stalls” or some such.

The corporations were there alright, but they were hiding, and the vulgar capitalism that could have provided a much more vibrant, more varied experience had been excluded.