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March 14, 2008

Is 95% still crap? Crap: A Guide to Politics - Terry Arthur

Posted by Elaine Sternberg

Crap: A Guide to Politics
by Terry Arthur
London: Continuum, 2007
Paperback, 9.99

This book is an updated version of Terry Arthur's 1975 book, 95% is Crap: A Plain Man's Guide to British Politics. This new edition is expanded to include examples of governmental ignorance, idiocy and ineptitude not just from the United Kingdom, but also from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations (p. 2):

This book is a plea against both [Left and Right]... and the damage caused by Big Government.... Big Government is bad for everybody - except for the political class, referred to in this book as politicos.
Despite its demotic title and style, Crap has a serious purpose: to expose the duplicity and confusion that typically characterise public pronouncements.

In this context, CRAP might well be an acronym for Calamitous Resistance to the Autonomy of the People, Collectivist Rubbish Announced by Politicians, or a Call for Rejection of Accepted Platitudes. Many of the examples it offers of the incompetent in pursuit of the indefensible are so egregious, that they would have had to be rejected as unbelievable by satirists.

Linking the examples of political discourse are snippets of insightful analysis. According to Arthur (p. 56),

There is a great deal of similarity in the way the politicians treat environmentalism, war and terror, the underlying tactic being to create fear and dependence.
He criticises the precautionary principle, and exposes the controversial nature of global warming (p. 66):
There is a political consensus, alongside much scientific opposition...
He identifies the connection between the welfare state, protectionism, and war. And most significantly, Arthur correctly affirms that liberty and private property are more fundamental and valuable than democracy.

Amongst the book's gems, are the epigraphs, especially the excerpts from R. W. Grant's The Incredible Bread Machine which ironically illustrate typical governmental misrepresentation of market forces:

The Rule of Law, in complex times,
Has proved itself deficient.
We much prefer the Rule of Men,
It's vastly more efficient!

"Now let me state the present rules,"
The lawyer then went on,
"These very simple guidelines,
You can rely upon:

You're gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it's unfair competition if
You think you can charge less!

A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion...
Don't try to charge the same amount,
That would be Collusion!

You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do you see,
Then the market would be yours
And that's Monopoly!

The contempt with which politicians of all stripes hold their electors is revealed through the twelve types of crap that Arthur illustrates, many of which overlap.

Newspeak crap exposes modern examples of the power of language to control thought, and particularly its use to impede clear thinking; classic methods include obfuscation and redefinition. In the political context, words are sometimes used to mean things quite different - and even diametrically opposed - to their ordinary meanings: consider "sustainable" and (an example not offered by Arthur) "industrial action".

Contradictory crap identifies examples of politicos contradicting themselves through inconsistent pronouncements and/or through policies that undermine or belie their declared objectives. Meaningless crap is (p. 25):

...a less harmful version of Newspeak, not so much to control as to obscure, distract, or keep a rival off the podium, by doodling with words and their order in any manner of ways.
It is political performance as "pure evasion theatre". (p.28)

The chapter on Statistical crap starts with a declaration that its "main purpose... is not to spout figures that refute those of the politicos", but rather "to question the purpose of the statistics quoted" (p.37), and to challenge the appropriateness of their being compiled by politicos. Not only does the gathering of statistics cost taxpayers' money, but their compilation presupposes both definitions and methods which are seldom disclosed and are often highly questionable. Thus, the numbers on "waiting lists" are reduced by transferring patients to uncounted "queues"; "full employment" is assured by redefining it as "employment opportunity".

Cheeky crap identifies instances where, having no grounds with which to support their proposals, politicos rely instead on audacity and attack. One of the most egregious - and widespread - examples, is the indefensible reversal of the attributes of Big Government and the free market. All too often, the market is denounced and/or rejected as the source of all evil, while the spontaneous order the market creates and the wealth it generates are wrongly attributed to government acts which typically undermine or destroy both.

Illogical crap focuses on (p. 64):

Three major topics [which] were barely political issues in 1975: the environment, war and terrorism. (Actually the environment was an issue in one respect: global cooling!).
Advocates of government regulation to prevent global warming and to protect the environment systematically ignore the value of private property in protecting both liberty and the environment, and confuse its achievements with those of government.

Similarly, much of Misleading crap concerns (p. 79):

...tax-and-spend, with the politicos referring only to the 'benefits' of the spend and forgetting all about the adverse effects of the tax, which of course removes spending or investment which would have otherwise taken place.
Attempting to remedy a defect of Arthur's 1975 book, this chapter also calls attention to the previously ignored extent to which internal taxes represent tariffs on internal trade.

Ideological crap starts with another of Arthur's poetic epigraphs, a quotation from David Friedman's "Anarchy is not chaos" (Part III, The Machinery of Freedom):

In Washington there isn't any plan
With "feeding David" on page sixty four;
It must be accidental that the milk man
Leaves a bottle at my door.

It must be accidental that the butcher
Has carcasses arriving at his shop
The very place where, when I need some meat,
I accidentally stop.

My life is chaos turned miraculous;
I speak a word and people understand
Although it must be gibberish since words
Are not produced by governmental plan.

Now law and order, on the other hand
The state provides us for the public good;
That's why there's instant justice on demand
And safety in every neighbourhood.

The chapter illustrates Big Government's expression of collectivist and egalitarian ideologies, and the ways in which Big Government is necessarily imperialistic, both domestically and internationally. Governments protect their unaccountability by eschewing the benefits of double-entry bookkeeping, recognised c. 1795 by Goethe as "one of the finest inventions of the human mind". (p. 106)

One Rule for Them Crap illustrates widespread politico contempt for the basic principles of the rule of law. The rule of law requires that both the benefits and burdens of law apply to all, and that a law exist "as a general rule before any case to which it is applied" (p.108). Politicos prefer the "Rule of Men", which says that "government is always blameless" (ibid) and that it need not comply with the rules that apply to others. Thus, extracting money with menaces is called "extortion" when conducted by private citizens, but is deemed "taxation" when performed by governments. Offering products or services at less than cost is called "predatory pricing" when undertaken by private firms, but is considered laudable when done by state schools or the NHS.

Fashionable crap identifies "widely held belief[s] or practice[s] with no inherent virtue". (p. 120) Examples include environmentalism, ways of dealing with crime, educational methods, and multiculturalism.

Economic crap "is political crap under a pseudo-economic cloak". (p. 137) Many of the chapter's examples show how the rhetoric of free trade and free enterprise is belied by policies that instead reflect beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism and government intervention. Workers of the world who were once exhorted to unite, now cry "don't come here and take my job" (p. 141), in large part because of what Arthur terms the "welfare-warfare state" (p. 141):

Much of the anti-immigration feeling in the UK is caused by access to the welfare state, not access to the UK itself.
He rightly points out that:
Rich immigrants can hardly fail to be a net benefit, whether the riches are brought with them or left behind.
Though taxed on their British incomes, rich immigrants are seldom users of state services; they typically send their children to fee-paying schools, and protect their health with private medical insurance. Recent bi-partisan proposals to tax non-domiciled residents of the UK on their world-wide incomes were announced too late to feature in the book, but are a prime example of a short-sighted and Costly Reversion to Anti-Foreign Populism. Foreign residents may not vote in parliamentary elections, but they can and do vote with their feet - to the cost of, inter alia, local vendors of goods and services... and the property markets in foreigner-favoured locations.

The final chapter, Prolific Crap, offers examples of political policies that involve multiple forms of crap. A dramatic example of governments' making things worse is provided by New Orleans, both before and after hurricane Katrina: governments at all levels not only helped create the problems, but actively prevented markets from effecting efficient solutions.

Though the book's targets richly deserve criticism, the serious message is not altogether well-served by Arthur's exhortatory style. The constant, condescending use of derogatory nicknames and diminutives for politicians, and persistent references to the populace as "sheeple", do more to undermine the seriousness of Arthur's thesis than to alleviate its gloom. Moreover, systematically referring to the welfare state as the "Farewell State" is both inaccurate and misleading. Neither it nor its subjects fare well; it is unlikely to take its leave. But these are quibbles. This is a Compendium of Reality-free All-party Pronouncements which provides Compelling Reasons Against Politicos.

2008 Elaine Sternberg. All Rights Reserved.

Dr Elaine Sternberg is the author of Just Business: Business Ethics in Action, Oxford University Press, 2000.


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It's disappointing that Elaine Sternberg supports immigration when one considers the amount of "crap" NuLabour, merd-masters supreme, have used to justify their criminal folly about it. Their lies are now crumbling, and I hope her support for it will too.

Posted by: Earlyking at April 3, 2008 06:12 PM
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