State's role in providing access to electricity?

I’ve been watching a documentary on the history of the British power grid. You can see the first 15 min here.

Synopsis: Reeling from the rise of the Communists in Russia in 1913, the British of the 1920s were deeply suspicious of centralized state authority. Lenin had remarked that Communism was just the power of the people “plus electricity”; this prompted even deeper suspicion about expanding the role of the state into the world of electricity.

Thus England largely refrained from regulating electricity. As a consequence, in 1920 most of the nation remained without. And where electricity was available, rival providers would string competing lines down the streets, providing service at a variety of voltages. Thus, if you moved across the street, you might find that none of your electrical appliances would work. Also, the failure of any one supplier would result in blackouts for customers; there was no interconnection to provide back-up service.

One final consequence: The centralized governments of Germany and France had directed the rapid deployment of electricity throughout their nations. Due to economies of scale, electricity in those countries proved to be cheaper than in England. This gave a competitive advantage to firms operating in those countries.

Confronted with these facts – and the fact that expanding the electric grid would be politically popular -- England’s otherwise laissez faire Conservative government created the Central Electricity Board in the 1920s and launched into a process of centralized planning and construction of the electric grid -- the greatest program of government expenditures in the nation’s history to that time.

The project was opposed by many -- including luminaries such as John Maynard Keynes, Rudyard Kipling, and John Galsworthy -- on grounds that it would be ugly and required the condemnation of private property.

The project was completed on budget, ahead of schedule, and succeeded in expanding the availability of electricity and reducing its price. Among other results, this expansion would prove to be vital during WWII -- to power production, to enable production in rural areas, and also to provide reliability; the German Blitz would destroy England’s power plants, yet electricity would continue to flow in from Scotland and Wales.

England’s choice to establish the CEB and accelerate the expansion of the power grid: good, bad or indifferent? You make the call.

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Interesting as the history of

Interesting as the history of the British power grid is, it means little to the issue of decentralization. Creating a region of deregulation within an already existing market place which suffers greatly from imbalance and intervention is hardly a case worth citing. The pre-existing market bias (thanks democracy...) towards centralization is firmly entrenched and reflected by the level of access to capital that the average Briton possessed during the same time period.

Color me disinterested.

Please elaborate

Are you saying that the British would have fared better without state intervention in the electricity industry in the 1920s if only the British marketplace had less imbalance and intervention? I'd like to hear that scenario.

So, you watched a BBC

So, you watched a BBC documentary and it made the British government's actions look good.

Yup

But the point is not to say that the government looked good or bad; the point is to question what realistic alternative would have looked better.

But there's really not enough

But there's really not enough to go on if all we have to go on is a BBC documentary. Imagine you're on a jury, and it's a very strange trial because all you have heard from is the defendant's own lawyer and his hand-picked witnesses. And then you, the jury, are asked to decide, to "make the call" about the defendant's guilt or innocence. You are asked what the defendant could possibly have done better.

You're not at a point at which you can seriously expect to answer that question. If the lawyer was competent, then based on everything you have seen and heard at the trial, the defendant is a saint and could hardly have acted better than he did.

Perhaps, perhaps not

Constant_'s answer already indicates something noteworth, at least with respect to Constant_'s thinking: Whether or not the British government acted appropriately is a function of FACTS, and cannot be determined a priori. This seems to imply that Constant_ is open to the possibility of concluding that the British government did act appropriately.

As for the state of our info, I'm happy to share what I've found. If someone has other info to share, I'm happy to consider what they have as well.

Well, not quite, though I may

Well, not quite, though I may have misspoken. What I say cannot easily be determined is the overall consequences of the government action. Maybe government created a stronger, cheaper, higher quality electrical system than otherwise and maybe most any full account of cost and benefit will conclude net benefit. Or maybe not. But that is not the same as thinking that it was moral, that they had any right to do it.

What you say - that morality is a function of facts - is true, but the facts deciding morality are easier to determine than the facts deciding overall consequences.

Revisionist History

There was a nice podcast from the Mises Institute I listened to in the past year that was an introduction to revisionist history. I couldn't find it for you, though I did find an introductory book on the topic here.

The point it made was that much of written history is a transcription from the claims politicians make for their actions to the newspapers and from the newspapers to the history books. The field of revisionist history attempts to research events independently to present facts and interpretations outside of mainstream views.

Constant challenged the facts as they were presented to you via the BBC on similar grounds. Another challenge is similar to my comment on megaprojects--if value is subjective, how do you determine that the outcome of an electric grid was "better" than whatever unseen alternatives may have been created by those same resources? Since you had to use force to make people give up their preferred alternatives in favor of the government grid, you will need to have a definition of value that gives government planners a greater perception of value than the individuals they are robbing.

Logically, it doesn't make sense that forcing people to give up their preferred visions of the future would produce a better outcome for them. But, we hear often enough that we should be forced to do something for our own good, that it doesn't hurt for you to examine different episodes from history in enough detail to convince yourself that the logic holds.

On epistemology

I can’t envision any point in time when I know all that there is to know about ANY subject. If I were to adopt the practice of abandoning all beliefs until I know EVERYTHING about them, I’d have no beliefs at all.

And, insofar as I can manage it, I strive for precisely this ideal. I strive to have no beliefs, only working hypotheses.

Based on the information I have yet amassed, I have a working hypothesis which tells me that the British government acted optimally when it decided to create a national transmission grid in the 1920s and 1930s. I acknowledge that the history I receive may be biased; there are even systemic reasons to suspect that it is biased. But what is my alternative: To reject all of history? Is that really a better means for avoiding error?

Or is the alternative to consider alternative understandings of history? Great; thus far I haven't received any. In the absence of a denial of the facts alleged, or an alternative explanation of the facts, I'm left with my current working hypothesis.

[I]f value is subjective, how do you determine that the outcome of an electric grid was "better" than whatever unseen alternatives may have been created by those same resources?

A fine question. Ideally, you find out by relying on perfect markets with no transaction costs, no externalities and no strategic “hold out” behavior. Absent a perfect market, we rely on substitutes. Politics is an imperfect substitute. But so are imperfect markets.

So let’s consider an alternative usage of resources: The British government does not create the grid, and by the 1930s private forces have not done so either. When the Nazis knock out the British power grid, the British war effort fails. Churchill is hanged from London Bridge, and the Nazis subordinate all British private property and labor to the promotion of the interests of the Master Race.

Who would say that, because this scenario does not involve the British government coercively imposing an electrical grid on people, this represents a superior allocation of resources? Honestly, I remain open to the possibility. (As I’ve noted previously, I don’t know that the predations suffered by the people of the Iron Curtain would have been any worse had they succumbed to the Nazis instead.) But I must confess, this is not my current working hypothesis.

Or is the alternative to

Or is the alternative to consider alternative understandings of history? Great; thus far I haven't received any.

Acting like a plant waiting to passively "receive" information is terrible science.

We can predict ahead of time that the BBC will attempt to amass facts and arguments to make the government look good whether or not it deserves it. We know ahead of time that the world is so complex that a biased documentarian can easily "prove" anything he wants to "prove". From these two points, we can predict ahead of time that the BBC will succeed in making the government look good whether or not it deserves it. Since the observed event (a BBC documentary making the government look good) is what we would have predicted in either case, we should be reluctant to draw any conclusions from it.

You apparently fail to properly factor in the bias of your source. Your method makes you vulnerable to propaganda. Your method, which would have worked fine if your source were unbiased (such as your own eyes), does not work fine when your source is biased. Your method reliably fails, reliably makes you a dupe of whoever happens to make a documentary. The BBC and statists generally make a disproportionate number of documentaries, so your method will reliably turn you into a leftist statist, to the extent that you actually practice your method.

I have other things I need to do, so I am not going to produce a counter-documentary that highlights the costs and harms of government action to fill in the gaps of a BBC documentary. You should not take my failure as evidence that there isn't a case to be made against government, because my failure is caused by my priorities, not by the state of the evidence.

You wrote a comment on epistemology, and I am replying about that. If you genuinely want to know the truth, then you need to properly factor in such things as biases and incentives when assessing the pre-digested evidence you have thus far largely passively received. Your method as described is appropriate only to evidence much more raw, unbiased, unpredigested and preferably actively acquired by your own person.

On espistomology and irony

If you genuinely want to know the truth, then you need to properly factor in such things as biases and incentives when assessing the pre-digested evidence you have thus far largely passively received. Your method as described is appropriate only to evidence much more raw, unbiased, unpredigested and preferably actively acquired by your own person.

I’m reminded of the distinction I draw between science and scientism. By science, I mean learning via the scientific method. By scientism, I mean learning based on revelation that purports to be based on science – or, at least, on evidence. That is, it refers to ideas that I might subject to test, although I generally don’t.

Bottom line: Almost none of my beliefs derive from science. I pretty much never develop conclusions based solely on data I accumulate myself, analyze myself, and publish for public comment. I don’t deny the value of this kind of analysis; I just deny that the precision generated by this kind of analysis will often prove to be worth the cost. The closest I come on any regular basis is the publish ideas on the web and see how people react.

So, with respect to the vast majority of ideas I put into my head, I rely on others. For better and worse.

Contstant_ says that this makes me prey to propaganda. I agree; anything short of a perspective of absolute skepticism makes me prey to propaganda. Constant_ says I should be mindful of the bias of my sources. And I should; but what sources are NOT biased? If the BBC cannot be trusted to give a fair review of government actions, can the Mises Institute?

Given a choice between building hypotheses based on nothing other than facts that I have personally verified, and building hypotheses based on the best evidence I currently have, I tend to adopt the latter strategy – with all the weaknesses that strategy entails. Moreover, while I aspire to review new sources as they come to me, and even to seek them out, I must also acknowledge that Constant_ is not the only person with other things to do.

Having gotten this far, I should acknowledge my own duplicity here. Once again Constant_ and I discuss epistemology, predictable bias, and burdens of proof. But the last time we discussed this, each of us advocated the opposite side.

You [acknowledge that you] are ignorant. How convenient it is, then, for you to be skeptical of whether these things that you are ignorant of are important. You know who else thinks that way? A know-it-all teenager who doesn't actually know very much but who is convinced that the stuff that he doesn't know doesn't matter.

Alas, we are all ignorant of various things to varying degrees, and must muddle through as best we can. In the absence of adequate evidence, I tend to refrain from adopting new conclusions. This heuristic creates its own biases, I admit, but it has proven reasonably serviceable so far.

Almost none of my beliefs

Almost none of my beliefs derive from science. I pretty much never develop conclusions based solely on data I accumulate myself, analyze myself, and publish for public comment.

Exactly. And yet your method is adapted for just such sourcing. You are drinking coffee from a tennis racket. My method is adapted for the following:

So, with respect to the vast majority of ideas I put into my head, I rely on others. For better and worse.

Indeed. And so do we all. My method - which is to (attempt to) properly factor in the source when considering the true import of evidence - is adapted for this, which is why I recommend my method. Your method is not. Your method is adapted to a laboratory but you are using it outside a laboratory. You describe your method as follows:

Based on the information I have yet amassed, I have a working hypothesis ... In the absence of a denial of the facts alleged, or an alternative explanation of the facts, I'm left with my current working hypothesis.

That is your method. You add the following acknowledgment:

I acknowledge that the history I receive may be biased; there are even systemic reasons to suspect that it is biased.

But you fail to do anything with this acknowledgment, you fail to adjust what you glean from your information. In fact you invent excuses for doing nothing about the bias. As a matter of fact we know in which direction the bias lies, but in your own comment you avoid any mention of such specifics, the better to ignore the bias entirely. You say,

But what is my alternative: To reject all of history?

And so, having given your excuse, you treat your information no differently from how you treat unbiased information - because your acknowledgment that it "may be biased" is not followed up by actually doing anything about it.

Contstant_ says that this [relying on others] makes me prey to propaganda.

No, I do not say any such thing, unless by "rely on others" you mean "exercise no common sense or ordinary judgment but behave as gullible as child who still believes in Santa, as naive as the proverbial purchaser of the Brooklyn Bridge". But if by "rely on others" you mean "make judicious use of what others say, without being anybody's fool", then I fully support relying on others.

More on Epistomology

But what is my alternative... ?

Besides observing facts, one also compares these to the current theory one has for explaining how the world works.

I have a working theory that goes more or less: "Individuals are self-directed; they act independently to increase their personal comfort or decrease their personal discomfort according to their own perception of the world."

According to this theory, individuals living in Britain in the 1920s would each seek to use the resources at their disposal to live their lives as fully as they could imagine. If they were offered access to electrical power at a given cost, they would weigh this against their other needs and desires--food, shelter, medicine, transportation, education for their children, making themselves attractive, spiritual salvation, national pride, what have you--and choose to spend their limited resources in a manner they thought optimal.

If taxation is used to remove their resources against their will, they are clearly not able to live their lives optimally. I use the word "optimally" in the only sense that I can understand, which is optimal for the person who is judging their own choices and the results on their own life.

The set of facts you report from the BBC documentary appears to contradict this theory. That is why I (and I imagine Constant, though he is more than capable of speaking for himself) am suspicious of that set of facts. Moreover, there is a alternate process which I can imagine that does explain the facts and is still consistent with my theory: An industrialist thought it would be profitable for himself and perhaps beneficial to the community to provide an electric grid to portions of Britain, but his prospective customers were unwilling to pay the price at which he could offer it. So he approached the State and made a case for using tax money to fund the project. There was resistance to using the State for such projects, so this industrialist, and his investors, and some who were willing to be his customers but at a lower price, and agents of the State wishing to expand their personal empires, and modernists excited about the future of electricity, and journalists wanting to report on the thrill of such monumental decisions, all coordinated to justify using the enforcement powers of the State to collect resources from the populace against their will to fund the project. This was not only notable as a technological watershed, it was notable as a propaganda watershed that expanded the British State into the role of providing industrial infrastructure. The history of the campaign for State funding survived, while the history of the losing campaign against funding was ignored. Modern proponents of British State expansion (such as the BBC--the communication arm of the British State) have an interest in trumpeting the past successes of State expansion, and can draw on the large body of propaganda generated during the electrification campaign to make their case.

Now, as you, I, and Constant recognize, there is hubris in my believing my alternative theory without studying the facts of this case, or even watching the documentary. I will make the decision whether to examine the details of British electrification based on my expected cost (in time) of research, weighed against the expected benefits of improving or confirming my theory. Frankly, I am quite happy with my theory--it has served me well across several diverse cultures and areas of study. On the other hand, information is so accessible these days--maybe I'll follow your link, add the documentary to my Netflix queue, and do some wikipeding and googling for more info on British electrification. Decisions, decisions!

That is why I (and I imagine

That is why I (and I imagine Constant, though he is more than capable of speaking for himself) am suspicious of that set of facts.

Yes, though (a) my suspicion is not central to the point I've been making (my point applies also to documentaries which favor my views), (b) my suspicion is only that, suspicion, not disbelief, and (c) it is not a suspicion of the facts themselves so much as whether or not they have been cherry-picked, and whether or not the story that the documentary weaves them into (i.e. what is often called the "narrative") is the only reasonable story that they could be woven into. Furthermore, (d), the "working theory" that I apply is not mere speculation, mere armchair reasoning, but is empirically confirmed in a wide range of contexts.

But despite (b) (that it is only a suspicion), I would add that (e) an empirically well-confirmed general theory is often sufficient reason not merely to suspect a particular concrete set of alleged facts and narrative, but also to reject it outright. Examples of this are alleged poltergeists, ESP powers such as psychokinesis, astral projection, and mindreading, Loch Ness Monster and bigfoot, and alien abductions. While there is always an outside chance that there really are ghosts, the weight of evidence against the possibility is very strong, strong enough to withstand very convincing accounts of particular ghosts.

In the case of a documentary about historical events, I know from having seen people do it that it is not that hard for someone to cherry-pick facts which in themselves are individually entirely true, and weave a false or misleading narrative out of them. The problem of cherry-picking is a common one, maybe the most prevalent one.

Oooo, I like that.

While there is always an outside chance that there really are ghosts, the weight of evidence against the possibility is very strong, strong enough to withstand very convincing accounts of particular ghosts.

Nice!

I'm going to keep that example and use it against you the next time we'd discussing epistemology. THEN you'll see the problem with free riders taking people's work product!

more of an immature market,

more of an immature market, or one not quite ready to see the wisdom of standards. Modern cell phones are an example where the market worked, but I can concede that an immature market might benefit from some govt help, in 1920 UK, it appears to be the case. Doesn't mean the market might not have suddenly had an epiphany, but the odds were long.

Megaprojects

I don't really think the market is efficient when it comes to high-risk, high-cost infrastructure megaprojects that are not profitable in the short term, but at the same time offer huge immediate benefits to a huge variety of people/firms, giving a boost to economic growth.

People are simply not going to invest in things which will pay off only after they've grown old or after they've already died.

Recall the John Kennedy quote?

The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!'

"The market" is simply the

"The market" is simply the totality of offers and acceptances for transactions made by individuals as they compare how they value different goods and services. If you believe this is not an efficient way to determine the long term profitability of a megaproject, you are saying that you have a very different opinion of the long-term value of the project than do the majority of individuals.

You should take advantage of your superior skills at valuing long term projects to, for example, buy up cement futures so all of these short-term thinkers have to run to you when they realize they haven't planned ahead. If you just want to claim superiority and force the rest of us to live according to your values by using the government, that is too bad--I have observed that most of us have our own opinions and don't take too kindly to being threatened at gunpoint.

fail safe mini nuke

Couple of years ago I read the Japanese were developing a fail safe mini nuke power plant. If there was such a thing each metro area or district could have its own nuke and the need for the grid would be minimized.