The First Priority

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Everything flows from the first choice. The first choice is between liberty and politics. You cannot have it three ways: liberté! égalité! fraternité! It’s liberty, or a utopian fantasy morphing into a tyranny.

The logic of liberty is: “Leave me alone.” The logic of equality is: “Interfere with me; confiscate my privileges; steal my house.” How can you enforce equality without invading a lot of people’s liberties? Liberty says, “You will not impose your political ideas on me.” Equality says, “Our idea is much more important than leaving you alone.” Nobody is safe from equality. The martyrs of the last hundred years keen in their millions. Tens of millions. Yes, really – tens of millions.

Outskirts of Harbin 5 April 1968

What is liberty? It is the two legal rights established in Magna Carta. The rulers cannot steal your house (because courts will uphold your property rights); and the rulers cannot arrest you without producing persuasive evidence against you in front of an independent court, within two days, and holding a fair trial in front of twelve of your peers and an independent judge.

Party chiefs in Harbin are denounced in front of a large crowd in April 1967. Photo: Li Zhensheng (The Chinese University Press)Party chiefs in Harbin are denounced in front of a large crowd 1967. Not a proper trial with legal counsel, impartial jury and independent judge, but a ‘struggle session’

It would be nice to have more equality and fraternity as well, of course, and we can move towards that ideal once liberty is firmly established as the bedrock, but anyone who prioritises equality over liberty is going to steal your big house in the name of the people and end up shooting you if you object. And anyone who idealises the virtues of the so-called “collective” over the despised “individualistic” will justify the murdering of you. Of course they will – regretfully, maybe – because the logic dictates it. Prioritise the collective and the individual will have to suffer if she objects. The martyrs to collectivisation in the last hundred years are also legion.

Li Zhensheng, Public shaming by the Red Guards in front of the masses, 1966. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016. ‘Public Shaming by the Red Guards in Front of the Masses.’ Struggle session, 1966.

How is it that so many of my educated friends, including several historians, people who have lived through many decades of the last hundred years, have not noticed these obvious truths? Do they imagine that the inexorable logic will not work when someone well-meaning implements it? The earlier generations of socialists were also well-meaning. Do they have some cognitive trick that fools them into believing that their form of socialism has nothing to do with communism, although it has the same ideals and priorities? Theirs will end in joy, this time, following the same principles that ended in horror last time: ‘equality’ and ‘the collective’? History does teach one lesson: anyone who has a bigger political idea than liberty is a terrible danger to you. For all her good intentions  and moralistic fervour, she will end up terrorising you in the name of equality, or race, or religion.


Ren Zhongyi, the former party chief in Harbin city, wearing a dunce’s hat and being publicly humiliated, in a ‘struggle session’ when people were shaved, forced to wear tall hats [of humiliation], had their homes searched, and were executed .

What about “democratic socialism” – surely that is harmless? Yes, if it prioritises democracy and its liberties as we in the United Kingdom understand them, it will serve a very useful function in administering the state more fairly. But, if it prioritises socialist ideals, it will invade your liberties to further its political agenda of establishing a millenarian vision of a perfect society of equals. This will not be popular, so those in charge – regretfully, maybe – will never let you vote again. It is not an accident that socialist societies have denied you your liberties and your democracy and devoured their own children. If you think that has nothing to do with your beloved socialist ideals you are fooling yourself. It is the inevitable logic of prioritising equality over liberty. 

All photographs of the Cultural Revolution by Li Zhensheng from Red-Color News Soldier Phaidon 2003


Fishy Economics

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The unintended consequences of Labour’s price-capping policy will be shortages, corruption and widening inequality. This outcome is inevitable. It is clear the moment you work out what will happen to a fish dealer.

Alfie Bass is a Portsmouth fish-dealer employing a dozen or more people. He is squeezed from below by fishermen who want the best price for their fish, and from above by wholesalers at Billingsgate market, and restaurateurs buying in bulk, who want the lowest possible prices. Alfie has only remained in business for forty years by being very clear about negotiating price. He has to acknowledge the fishermen’s right to a margin, and explain to the wholesalers his need for a small margin, and still arrive at a competitive price in a market where the other South coast fish dealers and those in Normandy and Brittany vie for business. He has a good reputation and is trusted by all parties. You can’t fool any of them anyway, as they all talk to each other. If he wasn’t honest and clear he would not have lasted.

Price is the key mechanism. It changes hourly sometimes, according to the weather, the tides, the movement of shoals of fish, the size of catches, and the euro exchange rate. It is a delicate, and sensitive instrument at the heart of all that makes the business swing. The competition, and the incentives built into the price negotiation, keep Alfie Bass honest.

Now suppose that a well-meaning Labour minister of Food in Mr Corbyn’s government decides to price-cap fish, so that poor people can eat more cheaply. (Price capping is Labour’s manifesto policy in the energy market and in the rental housing market). The first consequence of the price cap reducing the price of cod will be that Alfie Bass sends all his cod to the markets in Normandy and Brittany where he will get the proper price. Before half a day has gone by, the Minister has achieved shortages in the shops, and turned an honest man into a criminal smuggler.

Only the worst fish will be sold at the fixed price – fish that a week before he would have thrown away – and within a week or two a black market will develop at Alfie’s back door, selling good fish to rich customers. The poor get rubbish, if anything, after queuing, and the gap widens between the privileged and the poor. Alfie is now a black marketeer.

Ah, but Alfie and his employees and his dependent fishermen will be compensated by subsidies, I hear you cry! Maybe, depending on how Labour intends to pay for the cheap fish. If they just intend to force Alfie to sell cheaper, the consequences will obviously be shortages, dangerously poor quality and a black market. If they fund it through subsidies the consequence for Mr Bass and his business is that instead of concentrating on fishing, keeping the fish fresh and getting it to market as soon as possible, his main job will become claiming subsidies. If he turns over £200,000 worth of fish a week, and half of that is subsidy, then snaffling subsidies will be the way to earn a living for his family. He will fill in forms for an ignorant bureaucrat in Whitehall, who does not chat with fishermen and restaurateurs on the dockside, and does not understand tides, and fish. Just like all the other fish-dealers, Alfie will be tempted to weigh all his stock twice, or thrice, for inflated claims, to claim for rotten fish, which on paper looks as good as real fish, and to game the system.

When it becomes clear that the market is no longer honest an inspector will be sent down to the fish dock to check the catch weights as trawlers come in. But £200,000 a week is a goodly amount to split between claimants and the temptation to collusion and corruption with a little double-claiming will be very strong.

And how are the fishermen paid? If through general taxation, then everyone is paying for the fish anyway. We are not avoiding the cost. Using bureaucratic subsidy-claiming is the worst possible way of getting good value for money, so in the end we will all pay more. We will be weighed down by taxes, vegetarians as well as pescatorians.

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If you insert an expensive bureaucracy between the fishermen and the fish-eaters you incentivise corruption, inefficiency, and turn everyone involved at every stage into cynics. Give the poor money so that they can afford good food, by all means, but don’t bugger up the price mechanism that keeps everyone honest and keeps the market in fish lean and fit.

Those notorious East German shortages, long Polish queues for basic goods, all that notorious Chinese corruption, the thriving Soviet black markets for the elites, characteristic of all socialist economies, are not some weirdness attributable to nasty Communists (nothing to do with us Socialists). They are the inevitable results of price-capping, and will be playing on a street corner near you very soon.

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