Category Archives: General Politics

Silk Road’s Closure – The Latest Depressing Chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ Epic

Recently, the powers that be flexed their muscles and shut down the online black market the ‘Silk Road’. Its alleged founder Ross William Ulbricht aka the online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested earlier this month and faces some hefty charges against his name including drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking and money laundering. Silk Road has been around for over two years but it has only really been getting mainstream news attention for the past month or so. Following this spike in interest, Silk Road and the technology associated is getting a bad rep and an unfairly negative image due to misinformation and fear mongering. As well as this, its closure marks another depressing chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ epic that keeps getting longer and keeps making less sense as it goes along.

Silk Road was most notorious for being a marketplace for those wanting to do their illegal narcotics shopping from the safety and comfort of their own home instead of having to venture to the wrong side of the tracks. It was the black-market-Amazon; you could get what you wanted when you wanted it, delivered straight to your door. It featured an eBay style interface of buyers and sellers with their own individual feedback ratings, so that you could be rest assured whatever narcotics you purchased would be better and safer than whatever that guy that always wears a North Face jacket and apparently never sleeps was selling in your local area.

Items listed on Silk Road were not limited to just drugs and included books, clothes, computer equipment, collectables, fireworks and forged documents but the vast majority of items were of the illegal nature. As it was illegal goods that most people searching down the Silk Road were after, the website was hidden away as part of the ‘deep web’ with the only way to access it being through anonymous browsing clients and the only way to purchase items being crypto-currency.

Media attention has broadly mentioned two legal technologies that are crucial for anyone’s journey down the Silk Road – Tor and Bitcoins. Tor is software that enables online anonymity by relaying online net traffic so that it is hidden away from the Internet’s many all-seeing eyes. Bitcoins are an open-source, peer-to-peer electronic currency purchased using traditional currencies and is free from a central issuing authority and transactions bypass financial institutions. The media’s spin on these innovations has largely been negative, with headlines along the lines of ‘look at all the real bad things this technology is being used for!’ – this smear is unfair and ill-informed. Tor and Bitcoins have more uses beyond shady transactions and they benefit millions around the world and the number of people using them both continues to grow.

The majority of the world doesn’t live in a position of freedom or privilege and Tor helps level the playing field. It allows users to communicate freely when in the web space of restrictive regimes, it can evade monitoring by those using 1984 as a guidebook and as well spread information to citizens that are otherwise restricted. The other key ingredient to the Silk Road experience is Bitcoins, an ever-growing crypto-currency. Bitcoins are popular as they are free from third-party mediators and domestic economic problems, which means that costs are kept down and transactions are easier to do and are more secure. They are being used to pay for all sorts of goods and services online with more retailers signing up to them by the day.

Aside from the misinformation about the technologies involved, the closing of Silk Road is just another chapter in the epic tome of the failed war on drugs – a costly war that has raged for over 40 years and has perpetuated many social ills that it apparently aims to prevent. There is a growing consensus around the world from medical experts, politicians and former legislators that the war on drugs is as useful as pissing into the wind. The deep web is vaster than the ocean floor and already other black markets are up and running, taking Silk Road’s place and evidencing the failings of current drug legislation. Drug dealing is a dangerous world because of its illegality; Silk Road created an environment that removed a lot of the potential high-risk perilous situations and scenarios associated with the drugs trade. The middleman was taken out, so was the shady back alley and the potentially hazardous batch. With Silk Road there was no threat of violence and little chance of being ripped off – when the US government shut down Silk Road it forced users back onto the streets and in to the criminal underworld.

Voices against current drugs legislation are growing louder and change could be soon around the corner; the closure of Silk Road is definitely something that more voices should shout louder about.

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Syria – Considering the Basics

After David Cameron’s historic slap down from the House of Commons last week, the wheels seem to be coming off the intervention in Syria bandwagon altogether. Whilst some policy makers in the West are still adamant intervention is necessary in order to stop the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, the case for military action is fundamentally flawed. Going back to the basics of information gathering – who, what, where, when and why? – the shortcomings of the interventionist argument become clear.

Map of Syria, showing its adjacent location we...

First of all – it is yet to be confirmed who is responsible for the attacks? The current evidence is shaky and reports from the ground are contradictory – conflicts such as this aren’t a simple case of good vs. evil. Whilst the Assad Regime is deplorable, the Rebels are no knights in shining armour. As well it should not be forgotten that the justification for the Iraq war was based upon ‘unimpeachable’ evidence that Iraq possessed WMD’s, which of course turned out to be a lie. David Cameron’s initial gung-ho attitude risked history repeating itself.

Secondly, what will an intervention look like and where will it target? It’s been stated that an intervention would be made up of ‘strategic military strikes’ and its been promised there will be ‘no boots on the ground’ – however many analysts have doubted the effectiveness and coherence of this strategy. It’s never been articulated how the desired outcome of ‘ending the slaughter’ will be achieved through the proposed military action.

Thirdly, when would said intervention be deemed a success? What if the proposed strategy fails in its goal? Do we just keep rolling the dice until we get the result we want? UN estimates over 100000 Syrians have died in the conflict; will it be deemed acceptable for this bloodshed to continue just because chemical weapons are no longer being used.

Finally and perhaps the most important question, why is military intervention the first go to option? There is little appetite from the public for an intervention based on current evidence and its effectiveness is highly doubtful for a number of reasons. Its goal has never been clearly articulated nor has conclusive evidence been used to back up its justification. Going to war is a course of action that requires a detailed plan scrutinised at every level, not a decision made on a whim that ‘something must be done.’ David Cameron has since announced he envisions the UK to lead the world in getting humanitarian aid to Syrian Refugees – it’s unfortunate that this has been considered the lesser option to an escalation of violence.

Perhaps a military intervention in Syria should not be ruled out entirely, but as things stand – where there are more questions than answers – it would be wrong for the UK to commit to a military intervention in a volatile region that would lead to more bloodshed.

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Nelson Mandela – Enemy of the (Worst Kind of) State

Regardless of Mandela’s past activism, his legacy to South Africa speaks for itself.

Nelson Mandela is a unique contemporary political figure insofar as anyone that believes in democracy and equality before the law should admire him irrespective of their political allegiances.

Often his legacy is smeared through the shutting down of discussion about Mandela by dismissing him as nothing more than a terrorist. It should sadden anyone who believes in the equality of people regardless of race that the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent end of Apartheid is still seen as debatable and even as negative to some.

The definition of a terrorist is always subjective and the word is always used pejoratively.  In South Africa, Mandela alongside communist sympathisers, helped co-found Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘MK’) and became its chairman soon after. The group is infamous for its bombing campaigns against the Apartheid government that consequently also led to the deaths of innocent civilians.

When using ‘terrorist’ by its literal definition, “a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims,” the evidence is clear; Mandela did establish an organisation that is guilty of committing acts of terrorism. However it is important to remember that Mandela was imprisoned for life one year after the group’s founding and he was incarcerated throughout the period when the MK committed their most notorious attacks.

It is easy to slur Mandela from ivory towers when devoid of a real understanding of the situation in South Africa. The Apartheid government had taken away all forms of political representation for black people in South Africa and aggressively discriminated against them through legislation. When you leave people without democracy or even the basic of rights then you leave them with no choice but to resort to extreme, non-protest methods to achieve liberation.

Mandela outlined the reasoning behind the formation of the MK: “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle… We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice.”

Reducing discussions about Mandela to a dispute of definition is fruitless. It implies a disdain for him that does not objectively view him within the historical context and ignores the rightful cause he stood for. It should speak volumes that someone like Nick Griffin recently described Mandela as a “murdering old terrorist”.

The real enemy of freedom and democracy in this scenario was always the Apartheid South African government that was guilty of state terrorism and its actions are wholly indefensible.

Mandela was an enemy of the worst kind of state and this should never be forgotten. The National Party governments that ruled South Africa throughout the latter half of the 20th century pursued racial segregation enforced by legislation. It actively disenfranchised an entire race of people by creating two classes of citizen and restricted freedoms of all its citizens with the implementation of illiberal policies, influenced by restrictive, socially conservative values. The horrifying repression that Mandela was fighting against should never be ignored.

Mandela’s struggle and the rights he fought for embody the values that we hold dear as the fundamentals of a liberal democracy in the west. Mandela envisioned a South  Africa based upon western democracies; he was not a tainted revolutionary like Castro that wanted to impose a dictatorship or like Che Guevara who was a racist homophobe. He held views that are constants across the political spectrum in liberal democracies and he should be applauded for his efforts to change South Africa.

Another charge against Mandela points to the economic decline and relative instability in South Africa since the fall of apartheid. Mandela liberated an entire race of people from a vulgarly constructed, over powerful state and laid the foundations of democracy in the country. To imply the world would have been a better place without Mandela suggests that what he fought for is wrong. What has happened since he stepped back from politics is irrelevant to his legacy and it is lazy to blame him for the failings of his successors.

With his condition worsening it is likely that Nelson Mandela will pass away soon. He should, however, be remembered for his achievements in bringing freedom and democracy to South Africa. The world could do with more individuals like Mandela that are able to unite people from across the political spectrum.

Although a huge cliché, the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” could not be truer when applied to Nelson Mandela and I know which man I would rather be.

@harry_fraser

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Republicans Must Lose the Nasty Party Tag to Win 2016

The Republican Party remain unelectable with socially divisive policies

The 2012 presidential election exposed how deeply divided America is, with,  historically the popular vote results being one of the closest. Gone was Obama’s rhetoric from 2008 of a ‘United States of America’ as America proved to the world that it was still a collection of ‘Red and Blue States.’

On divisive issues such as welfare, the economy and social legislation Americans are firmly in either the Red or Blue camp. Granted, Romney and Obama are notorious flip-floppers and there is a compelling argument both candidates stood for ‘business as usual’ on many issues. On the economy & foreign policy, differentials in position were in the detail. However on divisive social issues such as gay rights, women’s issues and immigration the split is clear, Democrats remain the progressively liberal party whereas Republicans are firmly rooted as not.

For the Republicans to have a stronger chance of winning in 2016 they clearly need to increase their support base, one way of doing this would be to become more open to socially liberal ideas.

The Conservative Party in the UK faced a similar problem following the landslide defeat to Labour in 1997, calling for a detox of the brand and to remove the tag of the ‘nasty party’. Cameron’s relatively successful modernising project was rewarded by more success in the 2010 election. If the GOP undergoes a similar venture, they too may fare better at the polls.

Romney was a candidate prone to gaffes, jumped on by the media for sound bites such as ‘I am not concerned with the very poor’, ‘corporations are people’ and his awkward anecdotes about ‘binders full of women’ and the ‘irrelevant 47% of voters’. Romney truly earned the tag as the ‘nasty’ candidate, and if the Republicans want to win again, they need to remove this reputation.

The social conservative message, especially on women’s issues and equal marriage, turns off young voters. In 2012, 19% of those that voted were under the age of 30, and that demographic itself voted strongly in favour of Obama (60%). To win the White House the support of the youth is necessary: worryingly for the GOP, coinciding with this is a trend of their voter base getting smaller and older.

However the disposition of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) shows that there are promising signs of the GOP addressing these issues.

A straw poll of younger conference attendees found that only 15% saw their most important goal as ‘promoting traditional values by protecting traditional marriage and the life of the unborn.’ Compared to the 77% who stated that their ‘most important goal is to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government.’

This is by no an indication that the social conservative’s influence has been significantly marginalised within the party. LGBT groups still found themselves excluded from CPAC and the response to Republican Senator Rob Portman’s endorsement of Gay marriage from an older generation was unfavourable, to say the least. However with a younger generation of Republicans coming through, the rhetoric is clearly smaller government in all aspects of political life, social and economic

The Republicans consistently define themselves as the party of ‘small government’, yet the reality is they are currently in favour of big government legislation and are fiscally irresponsible. Only if they choose a candidate that truly confronts these problems can they attract a youth that grows ever more sceptical of government.

Following CPAC, the Republican National Committee produced a 98 page report detailing where the GOP needs to focus to win the next election.  The report identifies that the GOP appears out of touch and must be more inclusive to win in 2016 instead of just ‘preaching to the choir.’

What is significantly lacking in the report is the discussion of fundamentalist Christian principles on abortion and homosexuality that turn off floating voters. This willingness of senior Republicans to change course is encouraging, but not without limits. It does not recommend any specific policies to win over voters, yet it has still led to attacks from the Christian Right of the party. Religious voters are worried the party is undermining their principles for cheap political gains.

On the surface the Republicans appear to be in a catch-22. They can’t afford to exclude their traditional base but at the same time, if they don’t change their stances they cannot win over voters. However, in the post-Bush era the evidence suggests the religious right is gradually losing its influence on the party. The Republicans no longer have to be the party of religious fundamentalists; it is not permanently ingrained into their ideology.

Romney successfully became presidential candidate on a fairly non-religious platform compared to his opponents and the party’s youth are focused more on libertarian values as opposed to traditional ones:  the path to the White House is clearly in this direction as the Religious Right become more marginalised.

Following 2012 the Republicans have nothing left to lose and their party is seen as growing in irrelevance; this is their chance to incorporate more socially liberal values in order to win in 2016. Instead of being tarred as the socially ‘nasty party’ they can win the election based on being fiscally responsible and more inclusive.

@harry_fraser

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Young People Identifying more with Libertarian Positions?

There is arguably a much more sympathetic view amongst students towards state intervention to solve problems facing society. With this in mind I recently attended the recording of BBC 3’s current affairs program Free Speech in Liverpool.

The panel consisted of contemporary pop star Kate Nash, Conservative MP for Glamorgan Alun Cairns, Liverpool Council’s spokesperson for young people Stephanie Till and finally Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.

Viewers at home could interact by tweeting either #Yes or #No followed by a panelist’s name to cast their vote of approval or disapproval to what they were saying, the results of this represented on a ‘power bar’. By the end of the night, interestingly it was Sam that was the decisive winner.

The first question posed to the panel was, “Should the government subsidise housing payments for first time buyers?” Alun did argue for more liberal planning laws and less restrictions on banks lending money, however the crux of his argument was that the state should do more in terms of building affordable housing. He made the case for the government’s Social Housing Guarantee, to replace any sold off social houses in the hope of keeping housing affordable.

Stephanie championed Liverpool City Council’s policy of derelict properties being sold off for as little as £1 to developers to replenish the housing stock. As well, she promoted the Council’s scheme of providing money to first time buyers to underwrite mortgages. The consensus from the two was that the government should do more to solve the issue.

Sam offered an alternative to this narrative by focussing on freeing up the planning system, and as well making the case that a lack of supply could be solved through a market auctioning system, rejecting the use of the state as a solution to this problem. He added the point that government benefits have had the unintended consequence of acting as subsidy to landlords thus driving up the costs of housing and rent further, an argument not often found in mainstream politics. The audience liked what they heard and in contrast to the others, applauded Sam’s message.

When asked to respond to the British Medical Association’s proposed solution to the obesity crisis – a ‘fat tax’, Sam again rejected any state intervention on the matter. Citing results from Denmark and the US, he took apart the argument for ‘fat taxes’. Using evidence that shows the policy to be ineffective at curbing obesity and simply acts as a regressive tax, he argued that it is cheaper to eat healthily and ultimately it was down to individuals to control their diet.

The audience again approved this message, but what followed was a fruitless ill-informed  debate over the costs of food, highlighting the real fundamental problem at the heart of the obesity issue, a lack of education. The consensus amongst the audience agreed with Sam that a tax would not work, however the argument put forward by Stephanie to have subsidised healthier food also had approval. A score draw between the market and state intervention approach.

When the panel were asked, “Is drug addiction a medical or criminal issue?” Sam took the lead and argued that it is an addiction and to treat it as criminal is counterproductive. He reasoned, drug addictions tear individuals apart, and then the state escalates the problem by putting people that need help in to prisons, an environment in which their problem will only get worse.

Using Portugal to illustrate his point, a country that does treat it as a medical issue and has legalised drugs. Sam pointed out this has led to a decline in crime, addiction levels and health complications related to drugs. Current legislation means the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are criminal gangs just as they were in the age of prohibition.

Encouragingly, Sam received overwhelming approval for his argument and agreed that criminalisation is hurting those that need help. Stephanie’s rebuttal was incoherent and appeared out-dated. Wrongly stating that legalisation will lead to problems such as increased drug cutting and giving more power to dealers, which are already symptoms of the current legislation situation. Alun also appeared out of touch by trying to rationalise an addict’s behaviour so that it should be treated as criminal. This authoritarian position did not sit well with the audience.

The only answer from the panel that really addressed a concern expressed by many in the audience over funding for treatment was from Sam who argued with less money spent on imprisoning users, then more can be spent on rehabilitation. The power bar following this discussion showed that Sam was way ahead compared to his opponents.

Granted the topics discussed only scratched the surface of market solutions to society’s problems. It is fair to question if the audience and viewers responses would have been as approving if libertarian stances on the minimum wage, banker’s bonuses or welfare were discussed. It is hard to say, but if more people like Sam argued for the market in an articulate and reasoned manner backed up with evidence then minds can be changed.

The program format is no formal evidence and discussion fell victim like all shows of this type to at times populism, not helped by the anecdotal ramblings of Ms Nash. However it did display that the ideas put forward by Sam Bowman were as a whole being understood better and seen as more relevant to the young audience than the solutions put forward by the other members of the panel.

I never thought I’d sit in an audience of students and watch them clap hardest at free market individualism, this can only be an encouraging sign for supporters of greater individual liberty to solve the problems we face today.

@harry_fraser

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