Britain’s Pornographer and Puritan Coalition

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Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.

Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.

Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.

Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.

On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.

Afternoon Tea: Isaac Newton (1795)

From the British artist and poet William Blake:

NOL art Blake newton 1795
Click here to zoom

I’ve never been a huge fan of English art, but Blake is an obvious exception to the rule when it comes to art out of England. If you expand British art to include its imperial domains, then British art is spectacular, but as for England itself, meh. (William Blake excepted, of course.)

Middle-class: questioning the definitions

  Vestis virum (non) redit

                                                                                    ~ Latin proverb

As Brexit drags on, there is a reassessment occurring of Margret Thatcher and her legacy. After all, in addition to being a stalwart defender of free markets, free enterprise, and free societies, she helped design the EEC, the precursor to the EU. So in the process of leaving the EU, there is a lingering question regarding whether the referendum is a rejection of Thatcher’s legacy. Those who equate the referendum with a repudiation of Thatcher offer explanations along the lines of: “Thatcher destroyed the miners’ way of life [NB: this is a retort spat out in a debate on the freedom-vs.-welfare split in the Leave faction; it has been edited for grammar and clarity.].” Sooner or later, Thatcher-themed discussions wend their way to the discontents of capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety, in society, and the complaints are then projected onto issues of immigration, sovereignty, or globalism. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker Carlson’s January 2 polemical monologue contained similar sentiments and provoked a response that proved that the same issues have divided America as well. Much of Carlson’s complaints were predicated on the concept of “way of life,” and here lies a dissonance which has meant that swaths of society talk without understanding: merely possessing a way of life is not equal to having values. In all the discussion of the “hollowing out of the middle-class,” one question is never raised: What is the middle-class?

It is only natural that no one wants to ask this question; modern society doesn’t want to discuss class in a real sense, preferring to rely on the trite and historically abnormal metric of income. To even bring up the C- word outside of the comfortable confines of money is to push an unspoken boundary. Although there is an exception: if one is speaking of high-income, or high-net-worth individuals, it is completely acceptable to question an auto-definition of “middle-class.” Everyone can agree that a millionaire describing himself as middle-class is risible. 

It is the income dependent definition that is the source of confusion. The reality is that modernity has conflated having middle income with being middle-class. The two are not one and the same, and the rhetoric surrounding claims of “hollowing out” is truly more linked to the discovery that one does not equal the other. 

In his The Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg wrote on the subject of the back history of the Founding Fathers:

[….] British primogeniture laws required that the firstborn son of an aristocratic family get everything: the titles, the lands, etc. But what about the other kids? They were required to make their way in the world. To be sure, they had advantages – educational, financial, and social – over the children of the lower classes, but they still needed to pursue a career. “The grander families of Virginia – including the Washingtons – were known as the ‘Second Sons,’” writes Daniel Hannan [Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2013)]. [….]

In fact, Hannan and Matt Ridley [The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper, 2010] suggest that much of the prosperity and expansion of the British Empire in the eighteenth century can be ascribed to an intriguing historical accident. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the children of the affluent nobility had a much lower mortality rate, for all the obvious reasons. They had more access to medicine, rudimentary as it was, but also better nutrition and vastly superior living and working conditions than the general population. As a result, the nobility were dramatically more fecund than the lower classes. Consequently, a large cohort of educated and ambitious young men who were not firstborn were set free to make their way in the world. If you have five boys, only one gets to be the duke. The rest must become officers, priests, doctors, lawyers, academics, and business men.

Goldberg concisely summarized the phenomenon which Deirdre McCloskey argues created the original middle-class. But more importantly, Goldberg’s history lesson emphasizes that the origins of America, from an idea to a reality, have a deep socio-cultural angle, one that is tied to status, property rights, and familial inheritance, that is often lost in the mythology.

As Goldberg explained, the complex, painful history of disenfranchisement due to birth order was the real reason the Founding Fathers both opposed the law of entail while simultaneously focusing almost myopically on private property rights in relation to land. As Hernando de Soto studied in his The Mystery of Capital, George Washington, who held land grant patents for vast, un-surveyed tracts in Ohio and Kentucky, was horrified to discover that early settlers had established homesteads in these regions, before lawful patent holders could stake their claims. Washington found this a violation of both the rule of law and the property rights of the patent holders and was open to using military force to evict the “squatters,” even though to do so would have been against English common law which gave the property to the person who cleared the land (Washington was no longer president at that point, so there was no risk that the aggressive attitude he expressed in his letters would lead to real action.).   

Before repudiating Washington for his decidedly anti-liberty attitude on this score, we should turn to Deirdre McCloskey and her trilogy – The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of CommerceBourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, and Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions Enriched the World – for an understanding on why this might be important, and why conflating way of life with social standing and identity is both fallacious and dangerous. 

Part II coming soon!

Nightcap

  1. The art of bullshit detection, as a way of life Joshua Hochschild, First Things
  2. On the mind-body and consciousness-body problems Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  3. Lost innocence: the children whose parents joined an ashram Lily Dunn, Aeon
  4. Polish mayor, a centrist, was just stabbed at a charity event Jan Cienski, Politico

Nightcap

  1. Losing the House may actually help Trump more than it hurts him James Rogers, Law & Liberty
  2. Tyler Cowen on the elections Marginal Revolution
  3. Clifford Geertz, radical objectivity, and elections Timothy Taylor, Conversable Economist
  4. Not wearing a poppy Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

Nightcap

  1. American Nightmare: the story of a prime FBI suspect in 1996 Atlanta Marie Brenner, Vanity Fair
  2. The disappearing conservative professor Jon Shields, National Affairs
  3. Why the British love the oak tree Philip Marsden, Spectator
  4. Russia, Turkey, and the fate of Idlib Ömer Özkizilcik, Cairo Review

Doctor Who – a commentary on Brexit?

The Doctor has always had a special preference for the Brits. They flit in and out of the wondrous and often alien-infested towns of England, woo them with their British (briefly Scottish) accent and manage to introduce to the kids (it was originally intended to be an educational program for the kids) some moral propositions. The last few seasons have been famously against war and violence of any sort. The regenerated Doctor retains the abhorrence for violence as a means for conflict resolution. And it is conflict resolution that the Doctor sees as their purpose of life. To find out who, in the big, vast universe, needs help and to give help whenever asked for.

The latest season is iconic. The Doctor is a female for the first time. The Doctor has reached the end of their regeneration cycles. This is to be the last and final life of the alien problem solver who seems to love humanity more than they ever will. But in the two episodes that have been released, the Doctor has also thrown sufficient shade at Brexit and the events that have unfolded since. The first episode contains a superbly written but not so subtle speech about evolving while retaining past identities. With their signature kindness, they try to convince the villain that change is possible, and it does not require jettisoning who we were to become a better version of ourselves. The second episode reinforces the importance of sticking together. The moment where the Doctor triumphantly yells ‘Stronger Together!’ is especially noticeable. Many see the message of diversity in the inclusion of a female ethnic companion (although the Doctor has previously had POCs as companions), the dynamic between the two male companions (a white male step-grandfather and a black male step-grandson) mirrors the generation gap that was evident in the Brexit vote.

The symbolism is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, the Doctor has not displayed political undertones previously. The change reflects how the creators and possibly the entertainment industry views their jobs. Perhaps the seepage is unintentional. It must be difficult to disentangle oneself from the events unfolding all around you. Secondly, and most importantly, as a series that has come to be a part of the British culture, the Doctor wields considerable power. The Doctor represents England in science fiction. The Doctor promoting teamwork sends a powerful message about inclusion (albeit with not much debate, but we have a season left for that!).

The timelessness of the series is both a gift and a curse. Just like the chauvinist Doctors of the past have been judged harshly (by the new-age Doctor them self), the latest Doctor too runs the risk of judgment from future generation. Or maybe they will be revered and celebrated for being so sure of their position. Just like Brexit, we won’t know. For now, let us travel across time and relative dimension in space and hope for the best, just like the Doctor.