28 November 2009

Richard Murphy Doesn't Like It When You Agree With Him

Something which has amused me when I've posted on Richard Murphy's blog recently is that he seems to get more ill-tempered when I agree with him than when I disagree with him. I think it's an indication of the narrow world view he has, where you're either pro-big state, in which case you are good and you will invariably agree with everything he says, or you're a market fundamentalist, in which case you are bad and will invariably disagree with everything he says. He seems to have put me firmly in the second pigeon-hole, so when I disagree with him, it gives him an opportunity to throw his typical insults my way, but when I take a position which is comparable to his, it seems to really infuriate him because it challenges his simplistic assumptions and usually results in him blocking my comments.

The latest incident occurred during comments following a post about the theology of taxation. Another commenter questioned the ability of businesses in common ownership to deliver, to which Murphy replied:

"Try John Lewis

Try the Cooperative Bank - which has not needed bailing out

Try Coop farms - the biggest and some of the best in the UK

Try any coop

Try the building society movement - which showed better robustness than the banks except when subverted by management"

A debate developed from that point when I highlighted that John Lewis is in effect a workers co-operative and the others are consumer co-operatives and any in-depth analysis should treat them separately. Another commenter, a self-confessed Marxist, took a general position that worker ownership was the only broadly acceptable business structure and ended up suggesting a regulation which would require all businesses with 30 or more employees to be worker owned. My response was:

"So, at a stroke, you would outlaw:

-The Co-operative Bank

-Building Societies

-Larger Credit Unions

-Co-operative Insurance

-Co-op Supermarkets

-Co-op Travel

-Mutual Insurance

Essentially, the whole of the co-operative movement would be declared illegal. I think the co-operative movement is one of the nations great success stories and something to be proud of. I’d need a very, very good reason to even begin to consider its prohibition."

At this point, Murphy reared his head and posted:


I guess I could leave you and Carol to slug this out forever

But candidly you are proving yourself to be a boring pedant with no contribution of worth to add to debate - like Worstall et al

So I am drawing his debate to a close


He had a similar temper tantrum when I took a position which didn't fit into his stereotype on the subject of empty houses. In the original post he suggested levying a tax on empty houses in order to bring them back into use. I commented that I though that approach would be unworkable, but something similar could be achieved fairly easily by adjusting the Council Tax system, such that, among other things, the owner pays, there are no exceptions for unoccupied property and the tax is used to collect a greater proportion of local government revenue. A fairly typical straw man argument came my way from Murphy, along with some reasonable comment from other posters. The exchange was going fairly predictably, until I responded to a comment from other poster who had said that he didn't believe any political party would be brave enough to introduce laws with the intention of causing a drop in property prices. My response, which was blocked, was:

"Unfortunately, I think that's true. At the moment, on one hand, we have the Tories committing to freeze Council Tax and portraying it as the worst tax we currently have according to their ideology, on the other we have people like Richard, who usually claims to oppose everything the Tories stand for, accusing me of trying to hit the worst off when I suggest increasing Council Tax, which he portrays as the worst tax we currently have according to his ideology.

It's an unholy alliance which, unfortunately, is not uncommon."

I think this must have infuriated him even more because his instinctive rush to argue against my position left him in the "increasing tax is bad" position which he tends to vilify others for and finding himself arguing in favour of the Tory party line most definitely wouldn't have been to his liking.

I find it astonishing that somebody can be so dogmatic that they would rather you disagree with them than agree with them.

20 November 2009

Two Approaches to the Internet

So, which government's approach to the internet domain name system would you rather have,

The US:

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body that oversees some of the core mechanisms of the Internet, has been granted independence from the U.S. government.

On Wednesday, ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that they had signed a new agreement that states the Internet body is "independent and not controlled by any one entity." It also commits ICANN to remaining a private, not-for-profit organization.

or The UK:

Following Ministerial changes, today the government has set out the future governance arrangements and overall programme plan for the delivery of the actions contained in the Final Digital Britain Report (released in June).

The Implementation Plan clarifies that in the Digital Economy Bill, which is planned as part of the next legislative programme, subject to parliamentary time, the Government will seek reserve powers to regulate the distribution of domain names in the UK.

16 November 2009

19th Century Responses to 21st Century Realities

From The Register:

A man who served 15 years for the gruesome murder of a famous German actor is taking legal action against Wikipedia for reporting the conviction.

Attorneys took the action on behalf of Wolfgang Werlé, one of two men to receive a life sentence for the 1990 murder of Walter Sedlmayr. In a letter sent late last month to Wikipedia officials, they didn't dispute their client was found guilty, but they nonetheless demanded Wikipedia's English language biography of the Bavarian star suppress the convicted murder's name because he is considered a private individual under German law.

Werlé's "rehabilitation and his future life outside the prison system is severely impacted by your unwillingness to anonymize any articles dealing with the murder of Mr. Walter Sedlmayr with regard to our client's involvement," they wrote. "As your article deals with a local German public figure (such as the actor Walter Sedlmayr), we expect you are aware that you have to comply with applicable German law."

They go on to say they are currently taking legal action against Wikipedia in the trial court of Hamburg. And according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Werlé's attorneys have also gone after an Austrian internet service provider that published the names of the convicted.

This is ridiculous on so many levels. When crimes and convictions occur today, they will be reported on news websites and blogs, which will be available in perpetuity. Even if this kind of action were successful, it would be pointless unless there was a worldwide requirement to purge all news sites of old stories, or retrospectively delete names. In essence, it would require the recording of history to be outlawed.

This kind of action also increases the chance of the plaintiff getting exactly the kind of publicity they are trying to avoid (ironically, as a result of the action, he now has his own Wikipedia entry). I certainly wouldn't have been aware of the case or the people involved if it hadn't been for the efforts of the killer trying to stop me becoming aware of it.

Some cases make the law look stupid. This one just makes it look irrelevant. I really don't think it matters what the outcome is. Even if the action is successful, the page will continue to be accessible from servers outside German and people will be able to search for the name of the victim and find the names of the killers on countless websites.

07 November 2009

Quote of the Day

I've seen the section of this letter from Thomas Jefferson which says "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me," quoted numerous times in debates about copyright and patent laws, but it's only quite recently that I've come across the letter in its entirety. I find the way that Jefferson addresses the validity of property in ideas and the basis of property rights as a whole quite brilliant:
It has been pretended by some, (and in England especially,) that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But while it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all, it would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors. It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

Considering the exclusive right to invention as given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society, I know well the difficulty of drawing a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not. As a member of the patent board for several years, while the law authorized a board to grant or refuse patents, I saw with what slow progress a system of general rules could be matured.

Creative Commons License The
photo of the Jefferson Memorial can be re-used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence.

02 November 2009

Around Manchester - Richard Cobden

Something that often strikes me when I travel is that, when I go somewhere new, I make the effort to look around me and take in the history and detail of the place, but at home, I tend to get from place to place without paying much attention to what's around me every day. Given that I live in Manchester, arguably the world's first industrial city and the heart of the battle to move from mercantilism to free trade, I've started to feel like I've been wasting an opportunity, so I've decided that in between my usual posts, I'll post some photos of the local sites of political interest. To start, here's a photo of the statue of Richard Cobden:

It is in St Ann's Square, an area I've commented on previously because of it's use of shared space principles.

Cobden was a Liberal MP for Stockport and Rochdale, but it was his position as a leading figure in the Anti-Corn Law movement for which he is most renowned. He campaigned extensively for the repeal of the Corn Laws both inside and outside parliament, eloquently setting out the advantages of free trade over protectionism. Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister when the laws were repealed, gave Cobden the credit for bringing about the change.

A few of my favourite Cobden quotes are:

Peace will come to earth when the people have more to do with each other and governments less.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is—in extending our commercial relations—to have with them as little political connection as possible.

I warn ministers, and I warn landlords and the aristocracy of this country, against forcing on the attention of the middle and industrial classes, the subject of taxation ….. If you were to bring forward the history of taxation in this country for the last 150 years, you will find as black a record against the landowners as even in the Corn Law itself.

I warn them against ripping up the subject of taxation. If they want another league at the death of this one – if they want another organisation and a motive – then let them force the middle and industrial classes to understand how they have been cheated, robbed and bamboozled …..

For a period of 150 years after the conquest, the whole of the revenue of the country was derived from the land. During the next 150 years it yielded nineteen-twentieths of the revenue. For the next century down to the reign of Richard III it was nine-tenths. During the next 70 years to the time of Mary it fell to about three-fourths. From this time to the end of the Commonwealth, land appeared to have yielded one-half the revenue. Down to the reign of Anne it was one-fourth. In the reign of George III it was one-sixth. For the first thirty years of his reign the land yielded one-seventh of the revenue. From 1793 to 1816 (during the period of the land tax), land contributed one ninth. From which time to the present one twenty-fifth only of the revenue of the revenue had been derived directly from land.

Thus, the land, which anciently paid the whole of taxation, paid now only a fraction, or one twenty-fifth, notwithstanding the immense increase that had taken place in the value of the rentals. The people had fared better under despotic monarchs than when the powers of the state had fallen into the hands of a landed oligarchy who had first exempted themselves from taxation, and next claimed compensation for themselves by a corn law for their heavy and peculiar burdens.

Creative Commons License The
photograph of the statue of Richard Cobden can be re-used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence.