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Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie



Articles by Madsen Pirie

The significance of Labor Day

11 days ago

US Labor Day, September 6th this year, honours the works and contributions of labourers to the development and achievements of the United States. It is a Federal holiday and comes on the first Monday in September after a Labor Day weekend, a time of picnics and some parades. It marks the unofficial end of summer as the Northern hemisphere moves into autumn, and a time to enjoy the diminishing opportunities for outdoor barbecues. Most European countries celebrate their Labour Day on May 1st, or on the nearest Monday to it. It cannot escape notice that the European Labour Day comes in Spring, at a time of planting and promise, whereas the US Labor Day comes in the Autumn, when the harvest is in. It highlights the difference between hope and achievement. The difference between the two Labour

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Madsen’s Intelligence Squared Speech on Karl Marx – April 2013

25 days ago

Like many public figures who leave a legacy, either in their writings or their deeds, Karl Marx was sometimes right and sometimes wrong.  I concentrate on some of the things about which he was wrong.He was wrong to predict that history would take us to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat and then stop.  History shows no signs of doing either.  Marx was also wrong to suggest that this would happen first in the most advanced economies as the final stage of capitalism.  In fact such revolutions as came took place in less developed economies such as Russia and China.  It has not happened in the advanced economies, and this could be because Marx was wrong about something else.  He predicted that capitalism would drive down wages to survival level before its final denouement.  In fact as

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The Berlin Wall at 60

August 10, 2021

This week’s diamond jubilee is not one to be celebrated, but grimly noted for the lessons its event taught us. It was 60 years ago this week that construction of the infamous Berlin Wall began. It was a concrete barrier erected to seal off the Western half of Berlin from the East. The barrier included guard towers with machine guns, anti-vehicle ditches and beds of nails. Its purpose was to imprison East Berliners by preventing access and possible escape to the West. The East German Communist puppet regime ludicrously claimed it was built to keep out “fascist” infiltrators who might try to sabotage their attempt to build a socialist paradise in the East. No-one was killed trying to cross the wall into East Germany, while estimates of the number killed trying to leave it range from 140 to

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Declaring class war

August 3, 2021

An extraordinary document has appeared from a group at the London School of Economics calling itself “LSE Class War.” It puts forward a series of “demands” which reveal a totally misguided view of what the world is actually like.Number one on their list is the installation of a David Graeber lecture series to honour the memory of a left-wing and anarchist activist who died last September aged 59. He seems to have been more of a political activist than an academic, helping to establish the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and enthusiastically supporting Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 election, despite being a US, rather than a UK citizen. This gesture to honour him is coupled with a demand to cease honouring the ex-LSE Nobel Laureate economist and philosopher, Friedrich Hayek. They want the LSE

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The next billionaires

July 29, 2021

Most of us have taken on board the coming reality that will involve such technologies as self-driving electric cars, people-carrying drones, lab-grown meats and artificial intelligence, and we fully expect that some people in the forefront of these developments will become billionaires, if they are not already. It is worthwhile, however, to look beyond these innovations to speculate what might be the next breakthroughs that could generate a subsequent crop of billionaires.One approach is to look at the problems that afflict some people’s lives, and which they would happily pay to resolve, or which others might pay for on their behalf. Malaria, for example, kills an estimated million people each year, a majority of them being children under five years old. Its fatalities have been reduced

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Decolonization

July 15, 2021

There is a current trend by people in education or in our institutions to “decolonize” the culture they work within. It is quite an amorphous project, and it is quite difficult to focus on what the term actually means. One of its exponents put into words what its programme entails. “Decolonizing the curriculum means, first of all, acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone. It is a cumulative and shared resource that is available to all.” Does anyone suppose that knowledge is owned by anyone? Most people would probably think that knowledge is already a cumulative resource available to all. People can access it because it is not hidden and restrictive but open to all. Delving more deeply into what “decolonizing” the culture might entail, we are confronted with the notions that

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Rule by scientists

July 14, 2021

H G Wells wrote prophetically about a world ruled by the dictates of science. His book, “The Shape of Things to Come” was published in 1933, and he collaborated on a movie version released as “Things to Come” in 1936. In Wells’ futuristic vision, the world undergoes a long and debilitating war, and humanity enters a new dark age. The world’s cities are in ruins, their economies destroyed by hyperinflation. The only technology that survives is a primitive military one. As tribes fight turf wars, a new aircraft lands to proclaim that the last surviving engineers and mechanics who control global transport have taken over the world. They are called “Wings Over the World,” and are rebuilding civilization anew. Their leader declares, “And now for the rule of the Airmen and a new life for

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Do we save the high streets?

July 13, 2021

The traditional High Street with its row of small shops was already in decline before the pandemic and its associated lockdowns came to put more of its businesses in jeopardy. Changing demographics and changing lifestyles had led to changed behaviour. More women went out to work and no longer had the time to shop locally each day. Visits to the out of town supermarkets, partly made possible by higher car ownership, led the big shopping trip to replace the many smaller ones. The changing face of High Streets was evident four or more decades ago. As businesses closed, charity shops often replaced them, having the advantage of lower business rates, sometimes with up to 80 percent discount on what commercial premises would incur. After the wave of charity shops the High Street businesses that

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The billionaire boys and their toys

July 12, 2021

On July 11th Richard Branson flew to the edge of space, just shy of 53 miles up, just short of the internationally recognized Kármán Line (62 miles) that marks the point where outer space begins. On July 20th Jeff Bezos hopes to reach space itself in his New Shepherd capsule.A handful of rich people are driving technology forward at a faster pace than it might otherwise develop.  They are the billionaire boys, who use money made elsewhere to aim at the cutting edge of innovation.  They push technological advance at a faster pace than it would achieve if left to straightforward commercial development.They are all well-known for the products and processes they introduced to make their first fortunes. They enriched us all with search engines, home delivery and electric cars. Many of them

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The view from the bubble

July 9, 2021

There is an old proverb that tells us, “Never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” The corollary is that you are therefore a safe mile away when you voice your criticism, and you have his shoes.The humour notwithstanding, it can spread understanding if people try to see how the world looks from someone else’s point of view. Analysts sometimes speak of the “Westminster bubble,” named after the Westminster centre of government and administration. It includes Parliamentarians, political staffers, those employed by NGOs, civil servants, broadcasters and academics. It is alleged that they share a common standpoint, and rarely encounter the views of those outside their mindset. They live, it is said, in an echo chamber in which they think the views they hold in common with

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Green capitalism

July 8, 2021

Although many environmentalists say that socialism must be introduced to solve environmental problems, the environmental record of socialist counties has been very poor indeed. Other environmentalists blame capitalism for degrading the environment and call for it to be replaced without specifying what is to replace it. Green capitalists, on the other hand, say that where capitalism has degraded the environment it is because natural resources such as the atmosphere and the oceans have not been costed. It is the tragedy of the commons that people are motivated to overuse resources that add value but cost nothing. They further say that if externalities are properly costed, people will have an incentive to use them efficiently and sparingly. They support the notion of internalizing these

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The latterday Malthusians

July 7, 2021

Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is very much alive and well and living among us. His 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” made the point that starvation must come because population multiplies geometrically and food supply does so arithmetically. When a nation’s food supply increases, so does its population, until it reaches back again to subsistence and famine. In the future, said Malthus, there would not be enough food to sustain the whole of humanity, so people would starve. By a coincidence, it ceased to be true the moment he published it because the world was on the cusp of a shift to the mechanized mass-production that characterized the Industrial Revolution’s bridge to the modern world. Those innovations extended to agriculture and expanded food production. The modern

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The treason of the intellectuals

July 6, 2021

The phrase “La Trahison des Clercs” was the title of a 1927 book by the French Philosopher Julien Benda (1867-1956). It was published in translation in the US as “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” and in the UK as “The Great Betrayal.” Its theme was that the European Intellectuals of the 19th and 20th Century had abandoned their duty to judge political and military events from afar, bringing the light of reason and understanding to interpret the developments of their day, and had instead chosen to take sides with the less desirable and less humane ideas of their times. Instead of exposing and opposing populism, nationalism, crude racism and the military adventurism that swept across various countries of Europe, they had, in effect, chosen to endorse such developments and become their

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New millionaires

June 25, 2021

Credit Suisse has just issued its Global Wealth Report, which showed that 5.2 million people became dollar millionaires in 2020, despite the economic damage caused by responses to the pandemic. In 2020, more than 1% of adults worldwide became millionaires for the first time, taking the world total to 56.1 million people. Total global wealth, which took a hit at the start of the pandemic, had recovered by the end of the year to record an increase of 7.4%. Nannette Hechler-Fayd’herbe, chief investment officer at Credit Suisse, said: "There is no denying that actions taken by governments and central banks to organize massive income transfer programmes to support the individuals and businesses most adversely affected by the pandemic, and by lowering interest rates, have successfully averted a

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Understanding conservatism

June 24, 2021

The same term “conservatism” is applied to both a temperament and a political tradition, with a distinction that the former is usually spelled with a small “c,” whereas the latter usually merits a capital “C.” The temperament was described by Lord Hugh Cecil as “a disposition averse from change.” Those who share this preference like to keep things as they are because they feel comfortable with the familiar, and think that change might put at risk the value they derive from them. The status quo that “conservatives” seek to preserve can vary widely from culture to culture. One can be a “conservative” ayatollah in Iran, or a prince in Saudi Arabia, or a trade unionist in the United Kingdom. It simply denotes a preference for keeping things as they are.The Conservative political tradition has

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Funding residential care

June 23, 2021

Roughly 1 in 25 of the total population aged 65 and over live in care homes, a figure that rises to nearly 1 in 7 of those aged 85 years and over. Residential social care is expensive, though most people will not need it. The majority of those who are in care homes suffer from dementia or severe memory loss.As people are living longer, there is pressure on governments to ensure that it is adequately funded, and several different approaches have been suggested to achieve that to ensure that everyone who needs residential care will receive it.One proposal is to copy the NHS, and have a state-run service paid for out of taxation and free at the point of consumption. A problem with this is that the cost in higher taxes might be more than people are prepared to pay, and more that they are

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Cutting the regulatory deadwood

June 22, 2021

It was Milton Friedman who told us that nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme. The same can be said of government regulations. They accumulate as new ones are added and the old ones stay in place. This is often true even if the old ones have been rendered obsolete by technological developments or changes in practices.Regulation is a cost, even when it is a worthwhile one. It makes production more expensive and often reflects itself in increased prices. In many cases the tight regulations imposed on one country can make its goods unable to compete internationally against those from countries with more sympathetic regulatory regimes.As the UK government seeks to take full advantage of its new status outside the EU and not having to accept regulations imposed from afar,

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Recovering freedoms

June 21, 2021

The recovery of freedoms for the people of the UK was to have been June 21st, but now is put back possibly until July 19th. There will undoubtedly be people after that date who will attempt to keep some of the restrictions in place simply because they like to tell people what to do. They will be egged on by self-styled scientists making spurious claims. We must be vigilant and determined if we are to reacquire the freedoms we enjoyed prior to the pandemic, and which the vaccine programme makes possible again.We want the freedom not to be ordered what to wear, not to be confined indoors or only allowed out under limited circumstances. Nor must we be prevented from receiving visitors into the home without limit on numbers or on relationships.We wish not to be prevented from travel, nor

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Deregulating properly

June 18, 2021

The task force for innovation, growth and regulatory reform, led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, reported last Tuesday. It was welcomed by the Prime Minister, which suggests that its general approach might find support among the Better Regulation Cabinet Committee. It sets out a blueprint with over 100 recommendations on how the UK can grasp the opportunities that Brexit brings to reshape its whole approach to regulation. Its proposals include initiatives to allow greater freedoms to pension funds, to encourage investment in “sunrise” technologies and business start-ups, and to give greater flexibility to the financial sector, while retaining “prudent” regulatory protections.Our departure from the EU allows us to change three restrictive EU approaches and to replace them with ones that are more

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Making farmers into free trade winners

May 28, 2021

The advent of free trade deals agreed between the UK and Australia, then New Zealand and Canada, and subsequently others, raises the prospect of cheaper food in the shops for UK customers. The economies of scale made possible by the larger farms that tend to dominate the ex-dominions, combined with their efficiency, mean a potential bonanza for UK shoppers. That is the point of a free trade deal. Each side receives what the other does competitively, and trade between the two expands.The UK was previously tied into the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the Common External Tariff. These were specifically intended to “protect” European markets from the cheap foodstuffs produced outside the EU that would otherwise have been accessible to their citizens. They raised the prices to European

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Reasons for optimism – housing

April 13, 2021

That anyone in the UK could be optimistic about the future of housing there would be remarkable if it were not in the process of change and with a high likelihood of more changes to come. The problem is that there isn’t enough of it, and that causes it to be unaffordable to large chunks of the population.The villain of the piece is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which was ostensibly designed to protect green spaces around towns and cities. What it achieved in practice was never envisaged. It empowered home owners against would-be home-owners. It empowered incumbents against newcomers, residents against immigrants, the haves against the have-nots, and the old against the young. It enabled those who owned homes to restrict the building of new ones, and thus to raise the value of

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Reasons for optimism – Space

April 6, 2021

In 1956 the then Astronomer Royal, Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, was widely quoted saying, “Space travel is utter bilge.” When the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched a year later, he was asked if he stood by his remarks and replied, “It depends what you mean by utter bilge.” I forgave Sir Richard when he taught me to play croquet three years later, but I’m not sure the space industry ever did.The conquest of space has enabled us to do things that were impossible or at least very difficult to do on Earth. Communication satellites that beamed television from fixed geostationary orbits were among the first big money-spinners. Although still classified to some degree, military reconnaissance satellites have given each side detailed information about the other, and have

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Reasons for optimism – population

March 30, 2021

Some commentators, famously including Sir David Attenborough, are pessimistic about the world’s population, especially about what they see as its likely future population, and think the planet is headed for a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich led the charge with his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” in which he predicted worldwide famines in the 1970s and 1980s because we’d be unable to grow enough food to feed the rising population. This is the argument by which Thomas Malthus predicted recurring world famines as food supply would necessarily fail to keep pace with rising numbers of mouths to feed. Paul Ehrlich in April 1970 predicted that: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during

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Reasons for optimism – nanotechnology

March 22, 2021

Nanotechnology has already transformed many materials, and is in the process of tailor-making many more to our specifications. It is a reason to be optimistic that newly developed materials will be enabling us the achieve things thought impossible less than a generation ago.It is basically a technology that manages to manipulate the molecular structure of materials to alter their properties. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, about 80,000 times thinner than a human hair. This is the scale on which atoms and the molecules they make are measured, and technology at this level involves controlling individual atoms and molecules. It has already enabled revolutionary applications. New forms of carbon have been developed, including nanotubes and nanopillars that are used to make solar

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Reasons for optimism – Ageing

March 15, 2021

While we can be optimistic that advances in medicine and healthcare could enable us to live longer, healthier lives, we eventually come up against the lifespan barrier that limits the number of years before the body’s deterioration with age finally ends its life. The indications are that many more people will live to pass the 100-year milestone, and some suggest that perhaps 120 years might supplant the traditional biblical “three score years and ten.” But some researchers are looking into ways that might delay, or even reverse, the ageing process to the extent that people might live for hundreds of years, not aged and relatively helpless years, but vigorous, youthful years.There are several approaches that show promise, including ones that have lengthened the lifespan and apparent

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Reasons for optimism – regulation

March 10, 2021

Given the tendency for regulation to increase remorselessly, especially in protectionist blocs, there seems at first glance to be little cause for optimism concerning its future. Regulation is used by some countries and trading blocs to raise non-tariff barriers to foreign imports. Where tariff barriers are not allowed under international agreements such as the WTO, use is sometimes made of regulation as the alternative. Goods are kept out because it is alleged they do not met the ‘safety’ standards required, or are produced with insufficient ‘consideration’ of the workers, the environment, or any animals engaged in their production. One ground for optimism is that there is a distinct trend for protectionist blocs to be superseded by genuine free trade areas, in which countries agree to

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Reasons for optimism – invention and innovation

March 8, 2021

Ten years ago, Tyler Cowan published “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-hanging Fruit,” arguing that the US economy since the seventeenth century enjoyed free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies, the “low-hanging fruit.” He argued that since 1970 the fruit tree became bare, and the easy access to growth gradually disappeared.His book became a best-seller and stimulated much debate, but events since its publication have combined to cast doubt on its central thesis. Uber and Airbnb had started before he wrote it, but had not by then revealed the massive economic effect they were to have by lowering the cost of travel and accommodation and bypassing the entrenched dominant city transport and accommodation systems.Similarly, the CRISPR gene-editing technology

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Reasons for optimism – trade

March 4, 2021

Free trade had a good run with first GATT and then WTO, and has brought a very large part of humankind unparalleled prosperity, enabling people in poorer countries to sell their labour and its products on the world market. But there has recently been a return to a degree of protectionism, and some observers predict that economic nationalism will come to dominate, meaning that trade will be much less free than it has been, and that the prosperity that it brought might prove transient.President Trump in the US renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement so that its replacement incorporated fairly onerous rules of origin and minimum wage requirements. Some critics have described it as “government managed trade policy,” and Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “if a

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Reasons for optimism – wealth

March 1, 2021

Some commentators suppose that following the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the current worldwide pandemic that world output will never regain its previous levels, and that people in the future will have a lower standard of living than their predecessors did. Others allege that such increases in wealth as have happened have been concentrated in the hands of the super-rich, leaving poorer people worse off.Neither of these somewhat pessimistic views appear to be justified. Periodic shocks such as the Financial Crisis and the pandemic happen from time to time. They provide a shake-up and a reallocation of capital and resources. Some businesses go to the wall, but they free up space into which new business can move. The wealth-creating process picks up the slack, and new products and processes

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