November 2016 Archives

What do Libertarians have to say about puppy mills?

Can you diagnose a market failure where there isn't really a market?

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I think I know some people who speak Libertarian, so here’s a question. To my mind, this tragic story is about puppy mills, but it’s more generally about regulation.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are notoriously prone to syringomyelia, which means “your brain is too large for your skull” (!), but they’re not the only breed to have been messed about by breeders and dog fanciers. The BBC decided to no longer show Crufts because, amongst other things, the standards for German Shepherds amounted to animal cruelty. (The 2016 winner could barely walk.) The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel people in the UK have a kitemark about trying to do something about the terrible health of the breed, and hooray for them. But the breeder of this tragic puppy said (effectively) “we abide by all laws”, and said nothing about making sure that their breeding stock was healthy - because they didn’t have to.

If you decide to buy a mobile phone from a particular company, and they then confess that it catches fire and explodes, so for your safety you shouldn’t use it, it’s perfectly reasonable to decide to not buy another phone from them again, because you did, after all, plan on buying another phone in a few years’ time. If you decide that, because you dislike Nestlé’s efforts to promote baby milk, or Amazon’s attempts to screw over other publishing companies, you’re going to boycott Nestlé or Amazon, well, other brands are available.

But you don’t have this choice when faced with a buying decision you’ll make at most a handful of times in your life, and that you’ll share with nobody else. Unless you’ve decided that it’s your life’s ambition to live in the same place for 40 years, and own a succession of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, how are you going to be able to tell which are the good and bad breeders?

And unless you’re stunningly unlucky, are you ever going to deal with a funeral parlour more than two or three times, ever? No - so in the US and the UK, costs are rising. You can hope that industry trends will mean a reversal of the trend eventually, but that’s as much wishful thinking as paying attention to the IMF forecasts: they might well be right, but would you bet on it? No.

So: what do we do about industries like dog breeding (or funeral parlours), where dodgy vendors sell to many people but will hardly ever have repeat customers or word of mouth? The social-democratic response is obvious: regulation enforced by the courts. What do libertarians say?

The perils of a cat sleeping inside the piano

Namely: what happens when it decides it's awake now.

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Something my sister-in-law posted on Facebook today reminded me that I hadn’t told everyone this story!

As a kid and then a teenager, I had this wonderfully eccentric piano teacher, Jacqueline Gallon. (No, you’re right, there indeed aren’t many names that are more French.) She’d move all of the furniture in her house around every few weeks, because she said it would help her relax. Wonderful woman. Anyway, amongst other things, she had cats: a siamese queen, and a persian tom. They had kittens, and the one that she kept was a gorgeous pure-white cat with blue eyes - and therefore deaf. (This is A Thing!. And yes, Deaf White Cat would be a pretty good band name.)

Athar, Attarre, or however you spelled his name, liked to sleep in the baby grand piano that you got to play on if you were good. (Less good students were relegated to uprights.) You know how a grand piano is curved, like a pregnant B if you’re viewing it from above? If you prop open the lid at the front, you’ll realise that on the left hand side the strings go a constant length and then stop, so there’s a semi-circular bit of space at the back between the end of the strings and the wooden wall of the piano casing. Well, the lid was always open, and Athar liked to sleep there. Presumably the vibrations from the hammers hitting the strings felt nice, like a convenient cat-massage.

Anyway, this one day I’m playing this particular Chopin piece for Mme Gallon, and Athar is asleep in his usual spot. And as I play on, I realise that Athar has woken up. It’s not hard to miss; I’m playing the piece from memory so the music stand is down. I’m staring right at him, in increasing dread, as he gets up, stretches, and starts walking along the strings towards me. And I realise that there’s nothing I can do.

There are two things that must happen, and they are in direct opposition. First of all, I have to play this Chopin piece, well, and not stop. Secondly, Athar has decided that being asleep inside the piano is no longer his Thing, so he’s going to walk along to a point where he can comfortably jump out of the piano. Which, given the geometry of the piano, inevitably means the front. You know, the bit with the keys that I’m currently doing things to.

Did I mention that this particular Chopin thing used plenty of pedal? So whenever Athar jumps out from inside the piano onto the keyboard, the keys he jumps onto aren’t just going to sound, they’re going to keep on sounding?

Well, I did the only thing I could. I kept on playing for as long as I could. Athar did indeed jump out of the piano onto the keyboard, produced the greatest cacophony you’ve heard since that time your two-year-old nephew got into a fight with a bagpipe factory, and I don’t remember what happened next because Mme Gallon and I creased up with laughter. (Presumably Athar buggered off as if nothing had happened, which from his perspective was entirely true.)

Mme Gallon did say well done for carrying on playing even though we all knew what was going to happen next, though, which was nice.

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