In 2014, sailing back from the Philippines to Hong Kong, we were sucked into a lightening storm. We were on the open sea, defenseless in a boat that suddenly seemed very small. Bolts of lightening as thick as an oak plunged from sky to sea; the night became day for seconds at a time. And I was at the helm of a glorified lightening conductor. For the only time in my life, I thought: “This is it.”
It wasn’t. The thought that followed was that, if this was it, I was going to go down as a sailor. We punched through the storm and made it home unscathed. But the experience brought to mind the Buddhist aphorism that life is short and the time to death uncertain: whatever time one has, use it well. And, as a result, all of those projects I’d been putting off took on a new urgency.
The foremost and most conscious of those was writing. But another crept up on me: mountains. At the time, I was spending a lot of time in Tehran, which is situated on the lower slopes of a mountain called Tochal. I’d stumbled across the access path on my first visit. On a second recce, I made it as far as the Shirpala hut, at about 2,600m (Tehran rises from about 800m in the south to about 1,300m in the north, whence the jump off point). On the third attempt, I summited at 3,900m. I’d met friendly (most people everywhere are) people on the way, and I had the immense satisfaction of finding my own way up.
It was also a week before I could walk without pain.
So, having got the bug, when I and the owner of that boat decided to go trekking in the Himalaya, I decided that I didn’t want to be one of the many who, when asked if they enjoyed it, reply “I’m glad I did it…” as they hobble along. I trained like mad.
It paid off. We spent eight days trekking in Sagarmatha National Park, and not an ache or a strain to show for it. Here, courtesy of my fellow trekker’s photographic talent, are some shots.
This is the mountain from a distance, on the way up:
And this is what it looked like when we got to base camp:
That’s a whisky flask in my mouth, my trekking companion (also on the yacht), and was taken from the base camp (4,600m, though we went a little higher).
Ama means “mother” and “Dablan,” necklace, and here’s a photo that shows why:
Here’s Lhotse, with Sagarmatha (Everest) peeping out at the back:
And here are some of random mountain shots:
These birds are Danphes – Nepal’s national bird – to see one was lucky, but to see three at the same time was extraordinary.
This goat appeared when I wasn’t looking – I only saw him when I saw the photograph.
Here’s the view from a rope (okay, they’re steel cables, not ropes) bridges. Not for those with no head for heights:
The photo in the bottom right shows a mule train crossing the bridge, and this brings me to the down-side.
All of us middle-class folks from the wealthy part of the world have a devastating impact on the local ecology. It’s not only the erosion shown in the two pictures above, and the garbage and the sewage that goes unseen (and untreated). Nearly all the stuff that we consume – and we consume heaps – has to be flown to Lukla and carried in by mule and yak trains and porters. Yes, this creates a livelihood for the local Sherpa people and, yes, this has alleviated the poverty. But the pristine air is filled with the buzzing of helicopters ferrying around supplies, not to mention those too lazy to do it the hard way.
I walked, but it was with the uncomfortable feeling that my self-indulgence came at a very high cost to others and to the environment. When I started planning this, Ama Dablan was to be the first of a series of treks to ever-higher places. These are all in poor countries – Nepal, Tanzania, Argentina – and the next step is to work out if I can visit these places without messing them up. Not an easy one.
One of the good things about airport bookshops in strange places is that they often stock books that I wouldn’t otherwise come across, and my two picks – from Dubai – were both worth the price.
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan is a fun read. Set in Mumbai, the premise is pleasingly absurd. The British crown jewels are exhibited in India, and not only is the crown stolen, but with it the Koh-i-Noor, the diamond whose name translates to Mountain-of-Light, claimed by Britain as a spoil of war in the 1942 Punjab War. In steps Detective Inspector (Retired) Chopra, with his baby elephant, Ganesh, to solve the crime.
He does, albeit on the back of rather too many faces he can’t quite place. But what makes the book worthwhile is the happy dust that’s sprinkled over it. Mumbai is a vast metropolis teaming with poverty and corruption. These are not glossed over, but Chopra’s indominatable optimism sweeps both him and the reader through this. Even the bad guys aren’t evil, just misguided. And, without giving the ending away, the diamond is acknowledged as a symbol for both nations.
And, while I wouldn’t rate Khan’s depictions of Mumbai on a par with Chandler’s of LA, he comes pretty close.
The protagonist of the The Sand Fish, by Maha Gargash of Dubai, is also a Noora – in this case, a common girl’s name in Arabic, meaning brightness. We start with her in her younger years in the Musandam, a little visited promontory that extends into the straits of Hormuz. The book is set in the 1950s, when people in this area lived as they had since the dawn of history.
I haven’t been able to read much fiction by Arab women (because there’s so little, at least in English). Although Gargash’s book is not as vibrant as Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, what it lacks in pace it makes up for in the depiction of life in that place and time. The Sand Fish makes it clear how limited the options for women (and indeed, for men) were; it depicts the power dynamics between wives of polygamous husbands, and it hints at the changes that were to sweep that part of the world from insignificance to global fame.
And yet, at the end of the book, it’s the author in her notes, not the protagonist Noora in her internal life, who tells us why the book ends the way it does. That does not ruin the book, but it does make the end of the story anti-climactic. And I still have no idea what a sand fish looks like.
I’ve just spent a week in Andalucía in Spain, not boozing it up at the Costa del Red Barrel but in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada with a bunch of other aspiring writers, at a literary retreat (organised by The Literary Consultancy, and conducted by Lesley Glaister). It was a joyous week for me, though very hard work, and I’d recommend any aspiring writer to go on a similar course.
One thing it brought to mind was how far off-course this blog has drifted. The blog was supposed to be about reading and writing, about books that I like and why I liked them, and about writing techniques that I’d stumbled across and how they improved things or didn’t. Perhaps an occasional political post, but just now and then.
What it’s turned into has been quite different: a third-rate political blog, one that echoes the dismal spirit of politics in Britain and the US but without adding any originality of perspective to what’s already out there.
I don’t have the time or inclination to go the extra yard to provide that. So I’m canning the politics. Those who want to read about politics in Hong Kong will find a most excellent blog here, and the Rude Pundit in the US has a depth to which I can only aspire. Or Breitbart, if your politics are that way inclined. As to the slow-motion train crash of Brexit – well, who needs a blog?
So, adios politics, bienvenido books!
Imagine if Hilary, when being stalked by Trump during the second presidential debate, had said what her book says she wanted to. Imagine if she’d lost her composure, rounded on him and said: “Back up, you creep.” Imagine how many of her supporters would have thought At last. At last she showed some spunk, at last she showed a real person, not another bland political mask so polished and so hooked on polite deliberation as to come across as void of character or conviction. Imagine how many undecided voters would have gone out to vote for her.
It was not to be. And, yes, she won the popular vote. But set that to one side. My point is that this points to a central flaw in political discourse on the left: the obsession with never offending anyone. Sure, the nine Trump supporters interviewed by The Guardian will probably support him no matter what, as will these folks. But I’m not thinking of people who believe in walls, or white supremacists who think they aren’t white supremacists. I’m thinking of the maybes, those who sat on the fence, and I’m not only thinking of Trump.
Farage is no different. Forget about his policies, his hazy grasp of facts. The reason that he was able, almost single-handedly, to get Brexit through was because he had one or two core beliefs which he expressed in simple terms that resonated with the man on the street. He connected in a way that no other contemporaneous politician did – not Cameron, and certainly no one in the then Labour party. He attacked distant bureaucrats for attacking Britain’s democracy, he appealed to the concerns of a crowded island about the hoardes poised to invade. What he meant, or at least what many people wanted him to mean but believed he was unable to say it in this politically correct climate, was “kick the wogs out and keep them out.” That won the Brexit referendum.
Few on the left – few commentators and no mainstream politician – cut it this clean. There is no black and white, only ever shades of grey. On the right, there is no grey. Trump has spent the last eight months calling Clinton a “bad person” and Democrats “obstructionists.” Those memes stuck. On what occasion, during Obama’s six final years, when the Republicans voted down every single important legislative initiative, irrespective of its merits, did he label them thus? The only occasion that comes to mind is climate change, when he declared “we don’t have time to convene a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” That was as close as it got. How many of us would have loved him to say “Stop playing politics with people’s lives and do your fucking jobs.” And ultimately, what did his decency get him? Certainly not a hint of cooperation from the GOP.
So shouldn’t Hilary have let rip?
The problem with a black and white judgement is that it’s a blunt weapon. Once we’ve categorized a person or a group of people as “bad,” “a creep,” or whatever, it’s very difficult to retreat from that label. There’s a loss of face, a serious reconsideration. Disagreeing with someone’s policies is one thing – we can agree to disagree or inch closer to agreement – but a creep is a creep and that’s that. (The converse is not true – Trump had no problem backing down from his pre-candidacy praise of Hilary.)
So labeling political opponents in moral terms makes it all the more difficult to move on. And moving on is what polities have to do to remain polities. Neither the US nor Britain are moving on: while Trump has passed far more Executweet Orders than any preceding president in the same period, and while his administration has simply chosen to ignore its constitutional duty and instructed bureaucrats to ignore inconvenient laws, the battleground he’s created is such that no legislative achievement looks possible. The Tin Lady, May, who has to live with Farage’s legacy, does not seem to be taking positive steps to come up with a Brexit that a majority of Britons can live with. Rather, she seems stuck in a self-reifying fantasy that she can have her cake and eat it – with a hard crash-out Brexit as the only realistically possible outcome.
But in Hilary’s case, it was different. While Democrats dislike Trump, Republicans despise him. “Back up, you creep!” would have done her no harm and much good: had Trump lost, he would have been consigned to history’s dustbin, and most Republicans would have applauded her forthrightness. As it was, her failure to blast Trump came across not as composure under fire, but weakness. That cost her dear.
Upper Albert Rd
What a super start my one-and-only has got off to! Not only has she sorted out the logistical issues with toilet roll supplies, but she’s also dealt with those awful scruffs infesting Lego. Or LegCo. I can never remember.
Just in case you don’t remember, in 2014 the government rightly decided that civic square, outside the legislature, which was put there in order that civilians could applaud the government’s bold initiatives in – well, I’m not quite sure as I wasn’t here, but there must have been something – so was not to be abused to express civil discontent. A rabble of malcontents, pseudo-intellectuals and human-rights types thought otherwise, and were duly arrested and convicted but with a mere slap on the wrist as punishment.
They learnt their lesson this week. No mere slap on the wrist, but a good purgative stretch in prison. You’d think it would be as simple as that, but the bleeding hearts are at it, whinging about the legal technicalities of punishing people twice for the same crime. Well, I’ve always believed in giving people a second chance. The first judge, who handed down those ludicrously lenient sentences the first time round, got it so wrong. Of course the judiciary should be allowed a second chance to allot the correct sentences. And a third, a fourth. Until the miscreants have been appropriately hung, drawn, quartered and their heads put on stakes.
While my one-and-only is a little disappointed that even the second judge stopped short of those richly deserved capital sentences, she can at least face her electorate with pride and say “Promise kept”. She did, after all, promise to heal the divisions in society. As you know, set theory isn’t my thing but if one has a barrel containing both rotten apples (set A) and good eggs (set E), the way to create a single, undivided set is not to mix them all up, which would create the abomination of a rotten egg omelette, but to remove set A leaving only set E. This, she has now done with singular, mathematical precision.
Others whine that the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP – or the C2P (pronounced C-squared-P of course) as I prefer to think of them – is behind this. What nonsense. She’s never taken so much as a word of advice from me, and I’m married to her. In any case, my one-and-only can barely understand Mandarin well enough to mind her Ps and Qs, let alone be fluent enough to take an order.
But 2014 was only the start of the divisions. Last year, some of these miscreants’ associates were elected to the legislature. Well, you can imagine where that lead. I mean, turning up to make the laws of the land wearing clothes that most of my students would be ashamed to be seen in – ill-fitting T-shirts, jeans, un-combed hair and the like – it wouldn’t have been allowed in my undergraduate years in Cambridge, I can tell you. Not that plaited ties and tweed jackets were de rigeur, but a certain sense of sartorial appropriateness was called for. A straw boater while punting on the Cam, a dinner jacket in the college refectory, that kind of thing. Not undergarments, working man’s trousers and sporting footwear while debating matters of state.
But their arrogance was such that they flouted the laws they were elected to uphold, and have been ejected to much approbation. Of course, the mob from whom they drew their support have harped on about it, but one cannot have twenty-year-olds making law. Goodness knows, they may even have brought new ideas.
Ah, breakfast has arrived, and I see Thomas the butler has arrived with my preprandial rum. Must go,
Part of me wishes the whole Russia thing would just go away. Yes, Russia interfered. Yes, Trump and his hideous brood, even if they weren’t active in soliciting Russian help, did nothing to stop Russia’s interference by, for example, making it public that Russia had offered help. And nobody cares. Trump’s supporters don’t care. The Democrats are nowhere to be seen. If they’re giving Trump and the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves, they should be tugging the other end of the rope. But all we have is their silence and that silence, right now, looks very much like not caring. If they don’t care, why should we?
Part of me also wonders if the whole Russia thing is a useful distraction from the real damage that the Republicans are doing. The Muslim ban has distracted from zillions of administrative hurdles that have been placed in the path of Muslims (and everyone else – my nephew is struggling to visit as a student) who apply for visas. The Keystone XL authorization, which did nothing more than remove one of the many obstacles to the project, distracts from the systematic dismantling of environmental protections; the Paris pull-out from executive fiat that is being used to side-line qualified scientists and civil servants whose work goes against the agenda.
Yet instead of using these as headlines, the newspapers headline ExecuTweets and ignore blatant lies such as “clean fossil fuels” (Note: all fossil fuels contain carbon and burning those fuels amounts to adding oxygen to carbon thus producing carbon dioxide: there is no such thing as a “clean” fossil fuel).
So part of me thinks that the Russia thing in particular, and Trump’s public idiocy in general, are welcome distractions from what’s going on behind the scenes: the fulfillment of the Tea Party agenda – for which Russia itself is a model. Putin’s politics are, like the Tea Party’s, divisive and xenophobic; he has no coherent vision other than clinging on to power, and milking the structure for as much as he and his family and cronies can get out of it. In his fifteen-odd years in power, has done nothing to fix Russia’s broken economy, nothing to control the oligarchs, and has hidden his inaction behind a series of distractions including the wars in Chechnya and the Crimea. He won’t pay the price for this: millions of disenfranchised and impoverished Russians (not to mention Syrians and Chechens) pay that price.
But part of me is an entrepreneur, and that part says “bring it on.” As Trump leads his country backwards into the 1950s of his imagination, he vacates a world of opportunity for those of us moving into the 2050s. Yes, the rest of us will have to try a little harder on climate change than we otherwise would. Yes, sooner or later he’ll go to war with someone because – well, that’s what embattled autocrats do. Yes, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. But as Trump renders America irrelevant on the world stage, he makes that same world an oyster for the rest of us.
Last Friday, another four of Hong Kong’s democratically elected legislators were booted out of Legco on technicalities. The technicality is that, under Article 104 of the Basic Law, the lawmakers are required to take an oath. Thus far in HK’s Legco, the taking of oaths has been regarded as something between a formality and a joke, and has been used by incoming legislators to score some cheap political points. This time was no different, with over a dozen incoming lawmakers scoring points one way or another. But, with Beijing increasingly insecure, it pulled out all the stops to have undesirable lawmakers removed. Appealing to – with a certain irony – the feudal and anachronistic ritual of oath-taking, Beijing has now had six lawmakers thrown out for not following the exact form and not being solemn and sincere, with at least another two in the pipeline.
Central to the judgement is Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104. This was handed down on 7 November, 2016, and sets out the standards for solemnity and sincerity in taking oaths. This interpretation was rushed through in order to be available for the judgement to be handed down a day or two later for the two lawmakers who were first ejected. As it happens, that judgement relied on the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance rather than the interpretation, so the rush was unnecessary.
It may also render the interpretation invalid.
(You don’t have to be a lawyer for what follows – it’s in plain English.)
Article 158 sets out the means by which the NPCCC may interpret the Basic Law and the law. I’ve highlighted the relevant passages in bold:
The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall authorize the courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to interpret on their own, in adjudicating cases, the provisions of this Law which are within the limits of the autonomy of the Region.
The courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may also interpret other provisions of this Law in adjudicating cases. However, if the courts of the Region, in adjudicating cases, need to interpret the provisions of this Law concerning affairs which are the responsibility of the Central People’s Government, or concerning the relationship between the Central Authorities and the Region, and if such interpretation will affect the judgments on the cases, the courts of the Region shall, before making their final judgments which are not appealable, seek an interpretation of the relevant provisions from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress through the Court of Final Appeal of the Region. When the Standing Committee makes an interpretation of the provisions concerned, the courts of the Region, in applying those provisions, shall follow the interpretation of the Standing Committee. However, judgments previously rendered shall not be affected.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall consult its Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region before giving an interpretation of this Law.
On each of the previous four occasions on which the Hong Kong Government has sought an interpretation, it followed the above procedure. The cases went through the lower courts, the CFA referred the matter to the NPCCC, and the NPCCC’s interpretation was applied in forming the final, non-appealable judgement.
On this occasion, in its rush to deliver an “Interpretation,” the NPCCC simply discarded due process. The interpretation was handed down by the NPCCC, unasked for by the CFA or any other court in Hong Kong.
The absence of due process completely eludes the judge and counsel, but is surely very relevant. It would invalidate the 7 Nov interpretation.
Then we have the timing. The final clause of Article 158 (italicised by me) states that “judgments previously rendered shall not be affected.” The oaths were taken on 12 October, 2016. The Interpretation came out on 7 November, 2016 (see para 19 of the judgement). This means that, even if the interpretation is valid, the judge’s conclusion in para 22 that “true and proper meaning of BL104 and takes effect from 1 July 1997” is in direct violation of Article 158.
Again, I would have thought that Senior Counsels would have spotted this.
Constitutional law aside, the larger picture is grim. The government seems prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to win. Hence, it seems to have given itself an unlimited budget for doing so. And while the government is under no legal obligation to recover the huge legal costs it is racking up, it has made it clear that it intends to do so. At millions of dollars per legislator, this will push many into bankruptcy.
That threat will yield the compliant Legco that government so wants. But the price is huge. Dissent, no matter how theatrical and no matter how offensive some people find it, so long as its expression is not violent, is the hallmark of a healthy body politic. Suppression is the hallmark of authoritarianism. That’s the essence of two systems, and the essential difference between rule of law and rule by law. It’s clear which direction Hong Kong’s government has set.
Lower Albert Rd
I know it’s been a while, but the past few months have been awfully exciting, what with God summoning my one and only to CE-ship of Hong Kong, she hearing his call, and having 777 of the election committee answer His summons. Though I’m not a number theorist, I can’t help but observe that 777’s prime factors are 3, 7 and 37, so lots of 3s and 7s no matter how you cut it. The Holy Trinity and the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations all rolled into one, if you go for that kind of thing.
It would be remiss of me not to tell you of the Inauguration, though I was somewhat relegated to the sidelines. Between you and me, I found President Xi (I was told “x” is pronounced “sh” in their language, so his name is pronounced “she”) a little brusque. When I told him I study algebraic topology, he seemed non-plussed so I explained, as I often have to, that I study mathematical doughnuts. He responded by introducing me to a business magnate who operates a supermarket with a bakery chain, saying that we should “get connected,” whatever that means.
Anyway, Xi went on to give what sounded like a fine speech which confirmed that two systems supervenes on one country. All very fierce and I only wish my Mandarin was good enough to have understood any of it. My one and only, however, seemed quite bouyed, and was quick to point out that her predecessor didn’t receive the honour of a state visit. After that and the tea and biscuits, it was off to look at half-finished roads, bridges, tunnels and what-not. I didn’t quite see the point as most of them go from nowhere to nowhere, but President Xi seemed duly impressed.
Then of course came the removal to Government House. I feared it would be haunted by the ghosts of dead governors but, to the contrary, it’s been quite pleasant, not least because, with my one and only’s limitations regarding domestic stock-keeping arrangements and the consequent lack of toilet paper, I’d become rather fed up with having to clean up down below with kitchen paper, old newspapers, government gazettes, policy documents and whatever other scraps I could find lying around. I wouldn’t say it’s quite the same as our modest semi-detached in Cambridge, and the assorted lackies can get under one’s feet, but it’s an improvement over the nondescript days of serviced apartments.
As soon as the move was over – well, if China treats all its Nobel Laureates like that, no wonder it has so few of them. I mean, they seem to be have thought that stage four liver cancer is akin to a head cold, and that a hot water bottle and an aspirin will see it off and poor old Liu back in comfortable solitary confinement in two shakes. And then he goes and carks on them. All the more surprising as, aside from a surprising innuendo to the effect that my son’s rather well-remunerated position at a Chinese Internet company was secure only for so long as my one and only resolved Hong Kong’s internal contradictions, Xi had seemed the decent type.
Of course, as Legco amply demonstrates, in logic one can prove anything from a contradiction. With Liu keeping the international press distracted, they didn’t notice my one and only’s alacrity in having the courts toss out another four of those contradictions, with the rest of the so-called pan-democrats on final notice. As my sweetness and light says, the way to heal a divided society is to remove the dividers.
Interesting times, and it’s a curse to live in them. But, the butler’s arrived with a fresh toilet roll, so I must be off,
For those who saw my article in HK Free Press and wonder how to take it from speculation to realisation, the answer is something along the following lines.
First, the idea needs to be refined by people who’s job it is to know about such things. Urban planners, traffic specialists, infrastructure architects and civil engineers. The idea would be to come up with two or three fully-fledged scenarios.
The next stage would be to gauge public acceptance. This needs to go further than setting up a website. 3-D models, artist’s impressions and so on would have to be exhibited and feedback sought from the community.
If there’s enough groundswell support, the next step is to present it to government, probably via the District Council, in such a way that they can think they thought of it. As government will first push the idea out to a consultancy, it would be important to make sure that the Terms of Reference for the consultancy are favourable – i.e., not whether, but which option.
After that, who knows.
I don’t have any of the skills needed, but I’d be happy to coordinate if enough people are interested in being part of this. So leave a comment on the blog if you are, and we can take it from there.
The Great Confusicator brought to mind, after his speech in Poland, one of the reasons I ended up in Hong Kong.
…on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger… . the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.
When I left Scotland, it wasn’t because I had given up in the face of a vast pile of regulations. It was more that I never even tried to get started. The doing of simple things was just too daunting. The company at which I worked, a company of three partners and four employees, had just applied for a some government innovation grant and received a stack of paper a foot tall to complete. The principals decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Add to that the statutory reporting, taxes and the rest, and starting my own business was just too hard.
I was, in short, pretty much on the same side as those Brexiters who hate Brussels, and the Tea Partiers who hate D.C., in part because of their distance and apparent unaccountability, but in part because they don’t like regulations in principle.
I saved up, travelled the world, and a year and a half later wound up in Hong Kong. I had the clothes on my back. I knew nothing of the place. But I soon worked out that starting a business was simple and inexpensive. So I did. And, in my line (IT consulting), Hong Kong remains a great place to do business. I interact with the tax department once a year and get pestered by the occasional government questionnaire, but that’s the limit of the regulatory burden.
I’m lucky. In other areas, Hong Kong has become a nightmare of red tape. An acquaintance represents a global MBA programme that needed a building here. The building they were given had to be inspected by not one, not two, but 17 government departments. It can take months for a restaurant to get a food license, and even longer for a liquor license. Although Hong Kong has a severe shortage of housing, providing bed-sit style accommodation here is economically infeasible if done legally. A bus company tried for years to run electric trolley buses only to give up in the face of bureaucratic obstructionism, and Uber runs only by staying under the radar. Hong Kong, in short, is not the free-wheeling place it once was.
These regulations have come into being in two distinct ways. Both are related to protection, but the protections are of different types.
Take restaurant licensing. I am a great believer in caveat emptor, but that applies to the quality of the food, not the safety of dining. If I cook a friend a meal, I take extra care over the ingredients I purchase, over the hygiene and preparation, and so on. But a chef in a restaurant cooks for strangers, he’s rarely the person who purchases or prepares the ingredients, and he unlikely to wash the dishes or mop the floor. He is certainly not the person who maintains the fire protection.
Having government regulations that enforce hygiene and fire standards therefore leaves me free to concentrate on the thing that matters: the quality of the dining. Yes, the regulations increase the cost of doing business and restrict the freedom of people to enter that business, but those same regulations also increase my freedom because I’m not constrained to spend my time checking stuff that I’m not qualified to check and don’t want to have to check.
So, although Hong Kong’s process needs streamlining, the principle of licensing restaurants is to protect patrons – and I’m in favour of that. Being burnt to death or spending a week in a hospital recovering from dysentery is not the way I want to use my freedom.
The reason Uber fell foul of the Hong Kong authorities was also protection. The law in Hong Kong says that insurance will only apply to fare-paying passengers in licensed vehicles. Uber vehicles don’t have licenses, so the passengers were uninsured.
But that law is a construct. The only conceivable reason behind it is to restrict passengers to using licensed vehicles – taxis – and with a taxi license going for almost USD800,000 (yes, almost a million US dollars, almost half a million pounds sterling), the taxi owners have a strong vested interest in maintaining their monopoly. They, not concerned passengers, were the ones who pushed the government into taking action against Uber.
These two cases seem quite clear cut: the first protects the public from unscrupulous or careless operators; the second protects a vested interest. Not all cases are as easy. I was once told that fire-proof paint used in restaurants had to meet a certain specification, and that paint of that specification was available from one and only one company, which happened to be owned by the fire chief’s brother (or something). Whether or not the story is true, there are cases where the public is being protected, but someone gains. But in general some regulations protect the public and some regulations protect vested interests, and while the former very often make us free to act without fear, the latter restrict the economic freedom of others to compete.
I think we can agree that regulations of the second type should be abolished, or at least modified in such a way that it does not restrict the freedom to compete. But what about the first type, that protects the public from unscrupulous or careless operators?
The alternative is litigation: if I go to your restaurant and you poison me, I sue you.
It seems to me that the acceptability of litigation depends on the type of society. The U.S., with class action cases and contingent legal fees, encourages it, (and some of it is quite frivolous). The British system, in which class actions are difficult and legal fees always up front, discourages litigation. It comes down to a societal choice: risk-averse societies prefer regulation because the cost is predictable; risk-tolerant societies prefer litigation as the upside is higher.
So, you can be free to chose with a certain assurance that minimal standards are enforced, or free to sue if it turns out they weren’t.
But the context of Trump’s remarks suggest that none of this is germane to, or even part of his and the right’s attack on “bureaucracy.” Both Trump and the British Conservatives have committed that for every new regulation introduced, two (or three in the UK) should be removed.
This is so arbitrary that it may as well be random. The scientific way forwards would be to classify regulations into those that increase freedom and those that are monopolistic, clarify and streamline the former and abolish the latter. But without at least a semi-scientific approach – say a random sample of a few hundred – there is no basis for assuming that a half or a third of regulations restrict freedom.
Indeed, Trump’s Executive order has nothing to do with freedom. Not once is the word “freedom” even used. And the criteria by which regulations are to be judged? Here’s the text (Executweet Order 13771, 2(d)):
The Director shall provide the heads of agencies with guidance on the implementation of this section. Such guidance shall address, among other things, processes for standardizing the measurement and estimation of regulatory costs; standards for determining what qualifies as new and offsetting regulations; standards for determining the costs of existing regulations that are considered for elimination; processes for accounting for costs in different fiscal years; methods to oversee the issuance of rules with costs offset by savings at different times or different agencies; and emergencies and other circumstances that might justify individual waivers of the requirements of this section. The Director shall consider phasing in and updating these requirements.
To the extent that this isn’t gibberish, it’s cost, cost, cost. Not a single mention of freedom. But only costs to the federal government rather than the freedom of business or actual people. (And, as to the UK, we don’t know because the link above points to a page here which was withdrawn – although it’s notable that what’s there was a 90-page regulation about removing verbose regulations. Perhaps even its authors realised the self-parody.)
So I can only assume that the real target of the Tea Party and Conservative rhetoric is neither quotidian protection of the public nor the feathering of nests, but a third type of regulation. Here’s an example.
In the early 1970s, scientists spotted a large and growing hole in the Ozone Layer. Unchecked, this was an existential threat not only to humanity, but to life on this planet: the Ozone Layer keeps out ultraviolet radiation that is deadly to many life forms. The cause was a type of chemical known as a CFC and the result was the Montreal Protocol, that banned them. This treaty was successful: the Ozone Layer is on its way to recovery.
The Montreal Protocol was implemented by creating regulations in every signatory country. So what type of regulation resulted? The protocol feathered nobody’s nest, and it was to protect the public, so it would seem to fit into the first of the two categories I proposed. But the fire and hygiene regulations I mentioned above protect the public from identifiable others. In the absence of regulation, victims (or their survivors) can sue identifiable others.
The Protocol protects individuals – all of us in this case – from an identifiable threat. But there is no identifiable other, no one I can sue. And in this respect, it is quite different to dining regulations. There is no alternative, there is no identifiable other to sue.
Regulations such as those in support of the Protocol are, rather, an expression of a common goal – in this case, survival of our species. And this, given the political context, is the type of regulation that’s under attack. And it’s under attack precisely because there exists no legal alternative to regulation. I can sue a power plant for poisoning the ground water and giving me cancer, but I cannot sue an entire industry no matter how egregious their injuries: regulation is the only protection.
This is not freedom, but licence. Licence to act as irresponsibly as you please. And of course, the underlying target is environmental protection in general and climate change in particular. (And to those who argue that climate change has nothing to do with the fact that humanity has dug up 100 million years of sunshine and spewed it into the atmosphere in 0.00002% of that time – well, to put it as politely as I can, the burden of proof falls on you.)
But there is one other type of regulation, and one that lays bare Trump’s own hypocrisy: the Executive Order. Trump’s been in power for less than six months, and has now passed 38 Executive Orders – more than Obama (at 37) did in his entire first year. The Tea Party and the British Conservatives have no problem with regulations as such. Their problem is with protecting the dying and desperate carbon industry to which they’re beholden, and the out-moded economic model that goes with it.
Streamline regulations that protect individuals from the unscrupulous, rescind those that create monopolies. But the primary duty of government is to defend the realm, and the type of regulations under attack, that defend our very existence from the threat of climate change, exist to defend the realm from an existential threat. Those who would abolish such regulations are therefore, by definition, traitors. So the president of the US is a traitor. That’s the depth to which it has sunk.