The Establishment

Monday, September 1st, 2014

The Establishment was established in 1955, in Great Britain — or at least the term was established then, by a Tory journalist named Henry Fairlie:

What attracted his attention was a scandal involving two Foreign Office officials, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union. Fairlie suggested that friends of the two men had attempted to shield their families from media attention.

This, he asserted, revealed that “what I call the ‘establishment’ in this country is today more powerful than ever before”. His piece made “the establishment” a household phrase — and made Fairlie’s name in the process.

For Fairlie, the establishment included not only “the centres of official power — though they are certainly part of it” — but “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised”.

This “exercise of power”, he claimed, could only be understood as being “exercised socially”. In other words, the establishment comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another’s backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather on “subtle social relationships”.

Fairlie’s establishment consisted of a diverse network of people. It was not just the likes of the prime minister and the archbishop of Canterbury, but also incorporated “lesser mortals” such as the chairman of the Arts Council, the director general of the BBC and the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, “not to mention divinities like Lady Violet Bonham Carter” — the daughter of former Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, confidante of Winston Churchill and grandmother of future Hollywood actor Helena Bonham Carter.

The Foreign Office was, Fairlie claimed, “near the heart of the pattern of social relationships which so powerfully controls the exercise of power in this country”, stacked as it was with those who “know all the right people”. In other words, the establishment was all about “who you know”.

(Hat tip to Outsideness, who describes it as so upside-down it almost gets it.)

How To Grow a City in Honduras

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Reason looks at how to grow a city in Honduras:

Myths of European Gun Laws

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Gary Mausera and Darrin Weiner debunked two myths about European gun laws in their study “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide: A Review of International Evidence,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol 30 (2007):

First, that European gun laws are much more restrictive than American; and second, that Europe has less violence than America.

Now it is true that European gun laws are often different from ours. This is largely because they aim to stem political violence, not apolitical gun crime. But they are not generally more restrictive. [...] Moreover European gun laws generally allow far more extensive gun use against crime than American law does.

[...]

In the 1920s a German farmer was tried for shooting starving children who were stealing from his orchard. Now under our law, which is based on what is deemed reasonable, the farmer was clearly guilty. But he was exonerated by the German court because European law follows the thought of Immanuel Kant: There is the Right and there is the Wrong — and never need the Right yield to the Wrong! The farmer is in the Right and the starving children are in the Wrong. So if the only way to stop their thefts is to shoot them, then shoot them he may.

A later German statute overturned this – but in a way that reinforces it. The statute only overrules the case if children are shot. But the farmer may shoot if an adult steals his fruit.

[...]

A rapist attacks a woman but retreats when she draws a gun from her purse. The woman, frightened and outraged, shoots him anyway. Under our law this is called “imperfect self-defense.” It is manslaughter (not murder) if the rapist dies; assault with a deadly weapon if he does not.

But under Austrian, Dutch, French, German and Italian law the result is entirely different. If she shot him from “outrage” (i.e., vigilantism) at his attack the court can just acquit her.

As to buying and owning guns, European laws are generally as permissive as American. It is true that you need a special permit to buy a 9 mm. handgun in many European nations. What ignorant American gun prohibitionists don’t understand is that this is a special control on “military-caliber weapons.” Similar controls ban military caliber rifles without special permission. But there is no restriction on other rifles or on handguns in, for instance, .380, .38 Super, 9mm Ultra and many more powerful handguns e.g., any of the magnums or .40 S&W, .45 auto, .45 Long Colt, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, 475 Linebaugh, .480, .500 and other powerful handguns.

Unlike residents of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts or California, law abiding responsible Italians can buy any revolver or semi-auto they want. No permit is required nor is there any waiting period. Though the handgun must be registered, buying it involves less fuss and red tape than Americans face even in Texas.

Austrians require permits for semi-automatic pistols but not to buy a revolver. Moreover law abiding responsible adults have a specific legal right to a permit for a semi-automatic pistol for home defense. Permits to carry are much more available to law abiding Austrians than to Americans in New York, Massachusetts or California. For a population of over 37 million, California has about 40,000 carry permits. For its population of around seven million, Austria has over 200,000 carry permits.

In France and Germany permits (easily available to responsible adult householders) are required to possess a handgun of modern design. But if you are satisfied with a cowboy-style gun, France requires no permit at all to buy a newly manufactured revolver of pre-1895 design.

Consistent with its focus on political crime, European law precludes stockpiling guns. You might be able to own multiple guns in different calibers, but not 10 or 20 in the same caliber.

There are no magazine size restrictions on semi-autos.

Nine European nations have fewer than 5,000 guns per 100,000 population. Seven have more than three times as many guns per 100,000 population. The nine nations’ violent crime situation is disappointing, even shockingly contrary to the myth that restricting guns diminishes murder. Their murder rates are three times higher than those of the seven high gun ownership nations!

We collected many examples: Norway has far and away Western Europe’s highest household gun ownership (32% of households), but also its lowest murder rate. Holland has the lowest gun ownership in Western Europe (1.9%), and Sweden lies midway between (15.1). Yet the Dutch murder rate is half again higher than the Norwegian, and the Swedish rate is even higher yet, though only slightly. Greece has over twice the per capita gun ownership of the Czech Republic, yet gun murder is much lower in Greece and the Greek murder rate with all weapons is also lower. Though Spain has over 12 times more gun ownership than Poland, the latter has almost a third more gun murder, and its overall murder rate is almost twice Spain’s. Poor Finland: it has 14 times more of these evil guns than its neighbor Estonia. Yet Estonia’s gun murder and overall murder rates are about seven times higher than Finland’s.

Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A whopping 83 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact, Lenore Skenazy points out, that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that:

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What’s more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Gratitude

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A “back to school” fair for underprivileged kids seems like the kind of place where you’d see a lot of gratitude expressed. Think again.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

From Left to Right

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has argued, in 1914 America represented the international left:

By 1919, America was organizing the international right. America had not changed; the spectrum shifted around it.

(That’s traditional conservative William S. Lind citing Marxist historian Arno Mayer.)

Scientist Shamans

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Frank Herbert based the Bene Gesserit “witches” of Dune in part on the scientific wizards of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Herbert’s judgment on them is implicit in the way he has reversed the roles played by such scientists in Dune.

Asimov’s trilogy is set in a crumbling galactic empire, in which a “psychohistorian” named Han Seldon has analyzed with mathematical precision the forces acting upon masses of people and can predict nearly exactly what will happen hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. Seldon has set up a foundation to act in accordance with the statistical laws of psychohistory and take the necessary steps to bring about a new order from the ruins of the old. In Seldon’s vision, the Foundation will enable the rebuilding of galactic civilization in 1,000 years instead of the 10,000 years of turmoil that would otherwise be required.

The trilogy chronicles the successes of the Foundation and the complete accuracy of the long-dead Seldon’s scientific predictions, until a freak mutant is born. An empathetic superman, called “the Mule” because he is sterile, he was completely unexpected by Seldon, whose science could predict only mass dynamics and not the truly exceptional individual. The Mule shatters the Foundation’s precious new civilization in his own hungry grab for power, and is stopped only by a mysterious “second foundation” established by Seldon to study the science of the mind and to prepare for such unforeseen emergencies as the material science of the first foundation could not handle.

Herbert questioned the assumptions about science that he saw at work in Asimov’s trilogy. In a recent essay, he wrote:

History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take…. While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.

Dune is clearly a commentary on the Foundation trilogy. Herbert has taken a look at the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov’s classic — the decay of a galactic empire — and restated it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero.

The Bene Gesserit are clearly parallel to the “scientist-shamans” of the Foundation. Their science of prediction and control is biological rather than statistical, but their intentions are similar to those of Asimov’s psychohistorians. In a crumbling empire, they seek to grasp the reins of change. The Sisterhood sees the need for genetic redistribution — which ultimately motivates the jihad — and has tried to control that redistribution by means of their breeding program. The Kwisatz Haderach, the capstone of their plan, is not its only goal. Their overall intention is to manage the future of the race. Paul, like the Mule, is the unexpected betrayal of their planned future.

The irony is that Paul is not a freak but an inevitable product of the Bene Gesserit’s own schemes. Although he has come a generation early in the plan due to Jessica’s willfulness in bearing a son instead of a daughter, the real surprise is not his early birth but the paradox of the Sisterhood’s achievement: the planned instrument of perfect control, the Kwisatz Haderach, was designed to see further than his creators, He could not help but know the emptiness of their dreams. The universe cannot be managed; the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy’s exaltation of rationality’s march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims the power and primacy of the unconscious and the unexpected in human affairs. Paul’s wild ride on the jihad, not the careful Bene Gesserit gene manipulation, provides the answer to the Empire’s needs.

Even though Dune so clearly undercuts the assumptions about science applauded in the Foundation trilogy, such antirationalism was the culmination of a long struggle. Early on, Herbert saw that the same assumptions pervaded much of science fiction, including his own. In order to embody his visions of the future, he needed to untangle himself from their hold.

Warring States

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

In War in Human Civilization, Azar Gat describes the early modern military revolution:

Armies greatly expanded and became more permanent; they were increasingly paid for, administered, and commanded by central state authorities that grew progressively more powerful; similar processes affected navies, with which the Europeans gained mastery over the Seas.

A world held together by feudal ties transitioned to one dominated by institutionalized, absolutist monarchies whose powers expanded with the scope of war — and, as T. Greer explains, this wasn’t just an early modern European phenomenon:

Small armies organized around noblemen on horseback are replaced by gigantic armies of massed infantry led by professional generals. Reasons of state supplant chivalry in determining the course of battle; court ministers work closely with kings to establish the bureaucratic machinery needed to wage such wars and determine the national interest. Complex strategies and protracted siege warfare become the new norm. All of this describes what was happening in Early Modern Europe — but also what happened in pre-modern China!

The parallels between the Chinese Warring States Era and its pre-modern European equivalent do not end here. The Chinese Warring States Era gave birth to the Chinese strategic corpus. Many historians of Western strategic thought begin with the strategic theorists — such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu — of the “European Warring States” Era. Unlike the strategic thinkers of Western antiquity, these men did not plant their theories in broader historical narratives, but devoted entire treatise to strategic themes. They drew on the histories of the classical era, but their approach was more similar to that of the ancient Chinese thinkers than the Greek philosophers and historians which they esteemed so highly.

What accounts for these similarities? What follows is not a comprehensive review, but a few tentative explanations that I personally find convincing:

A Scattered System of Warring States: War has been a constant in Chinese history; in many ways China has always been a warring state. Less common is its division into warring states. Both premodern Europe and ancient China were host to vicious polities divided in a desperate bid for survival. There was no world spanning empire; all roads did not lead to Rome. (Or Luoyang, for that matter). There was no universal center of learning or prestige that all intellectuals passed through before their voices could be heard, nor was there a single governing authority with power to clamp down on thinking it disapproved of. The decentralized political system of both eras allowed intellectual movements to flower without serious interruption. The competitive nature of this system piled fuel on the fire, for dueling states that refused innovation — be it scientific or strategic — faced annihilation.

The Rise of the State: Modern political scientists often date the creation of the modern-nation state to premodern Europe. However, almost all of these developments (the exception being institutionalized banking and finance) are closely paralleled in the Warring States transition. These institutions did more than increase the number of men that could be thrown into battle; they changed why wars were fought and what wars were fought for. The strategic logic of war between states was fundamentally different than that between feudal lords. Ideas like “national interest” or “reasons of state” made no sense in a society where there was no real distinction between international relations and interpersonal relationships. Treatises explaining how to use military power to attain national goals have no purpose when there is no nation.

Absolute Monarchy: The rise of absolute monarchs had various effects on European and Chinese societies, many germane to the creation of strategic theory. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that “French kings have shown themselves to be the most energetic and consistent of levelers. When they have been ambitious and strong they have striven to raise the people to the same level as the nobles.” A similar statement could be made about the kings of the Chinese warring states. As kings in both eras extended their control over their realms, they systematically replaced warrior nobles with professional soldiers and ministers. In both eras these men produced treatises on statecraft and soldiery and in both eras men of their rank were the primary consumers of such. The rise of the monarch affected strategic discourse in another subtle way. In the classical city-states of Greece and Italy, matters of state were discussed in the forum or the agora before public audience; feudal systems and tribal confederacies, in contrast, placed emphasis on formal oaths and war-meetings. In both of these cases decisions were made publicly. Those who wished to influence policy (or as was often the case, justify it) did so by way of oratory. Not so in the world of the absolute monarch. Decisions made by kings and emperors were usually made in private. There was little need to justify these decisions in a grand public setting. Those who wished to influence policy did so through personal conversation, correspondence, or official petition. The strategists of both systems were not orators or debaters. They were writers. This partly explains why we have their writings today.

Police Brutality

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Criminologist Darrell Ross has studied “out of control” police:

First of all, it’s important to understand that between 1978 and 2003, the U.S. population age 13 and older grew by about 47,000,000 people. The police population in that period increased by about 235,000 officers. Yet despite a civilian population growth that is about 200 times that of law enforcement growth, police shootings have not increased. Indeed only a tiny percentage of police-citizen contacts — holding steady at about 1% — involve police using force of any kind. Even in arrests, use of force occurs only in about 3%.

From 1968 to 1975, an average of 483 persons per year were shot dead by police rounds. That average has dropped significantly since then. Overall, the annual average of lethal shootings is down 33% since 1968. Shootings by police that inflict injury but not death have decreased by 20-22%, Ross says. He credits a drop in violent crime, more restrictive court rulings (notably Tennessee v. Garner), better training and decision-making by officers and the availability of more less-lethal force options, including OC, Taser and beanbag ammunition.

Police shootings are related to UCR violent crime trends. Both tend to be highest in crime- and violence-ridden “hot spots” within a city. These areas are “catalysts” for officers being called and using force to deal with the situations they encounter there, Ross says. Like it or not, the areas with the highest concentration of violent crimes predominately are black. “Shootings are related to community safety and crime in the community,” Ross explains. In fairness, “you can’t ignore that and look at police shootings in a vacuum. If you don’t consider factors like this you aren’t looking at the true nature of the statistics.”

Given their representation in the general population (about 15%), blacks are disproportionately shot by police. But that figure is changing. In 1978, 49% of suspects shot by officers were black. By 2003 that had fallen to 34%. It’s relevant to note that there also is a racial disparity where the commission of violent crime is concerned. For example, “African-American males are eight times more likely to commit homicide than whites,” Ross points out. This involvement in violence and other behavioral choices make them more likely use-of-force targets. “The lifestyle of people who get shot is generally different from those who don’t. You can’t overlook that. Disparity in shootings does not equate with ‘discrimination’ in shootings.”

The race of the players in use-of-force scenarios is changing. The incidence of white officers killing black suspects has dropped since 1978, while the incidence of white officers killing white suspects is increasing. Most often black suspects are killed by black officers. All of this “dispels the myth of cops picking only on a certain race” when force is used, Ross says. “Research over the last 30 years repeatedly shows that lethal force used by police is NOT racially motivated.”

As to the charge that misguided police tactics provoke force encounters, Ross found no evidence of a pattern in which “the officer ‘created’ the danger and/or situation in which lethal force was required, nor did the officer take a ‘poor position’ that placed the officer in a situation necessitating the use of lethal force.”

Where both lethal force and nonlethal force are concerned, Ross’ research confirms that the measure of force officers decide to employ is “highly associated” with the degree of suspect resistance. In other words, force is not just arbitrarily and unjustly delivered. Indeed, he found that officers “routinely use lower forms of force than what could have been justified” (deploying OC, for example, when a baton or a neck restraint could have been employed). A significant indication of the move toward lower levels of force is a decline in the use of impact weapons and a corresponding rise in the use of pepper spray, Ross says.

As to the claim of widespread “brutality,” Ross cites the federal DOJ’s Use of Force Survey (1996 and 2000), the largest study of its kind ever made. Of all the hundreds of thousands of police-citizen contacts in which force of some kind was used, fewer than 1% of uses were considered excessive. In 68% of arrests, the subject did not sustain any injury, and in another 25% only a cut or bruise occurred. In fact, officers in force encounters are more likely than suspects to suffer an injury that requires hospital treatment!

Virtue Cultures

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

All cultures prior to modern European culture were virtue cultures, Michael Strong suggests:

Humans were raised understanding that they had a role and standing in society and that their entire life was a reflection of how well they fulfilled that role. Indeed, in many cultures, this reputational effect was multigenerational: if one violated a cultural norm, it damaged one’s children, and children’s children, and so forth.

Each culture had a vision of excellence in that society. This vision of excellence was transmitted by means of myth and heroic tales, it was transmitted by a multitude of comments, jokes, attitudes, manners, behavioral corrections, and so forth: the very texture of day-to-day life provided a consistent, coherent template that taught young people how they were to behave. From time to time, a member of the society was sanctioned or expelled in a manner that made it perfectly clear what types of behavior were not condoned by the community. And young people were brought up in a set of cultural practices that allowed them to practice the requisite virtues of that society so that they would naturally become respectable adult participants in such a society.

Of course, western civilization has been seeking liberation from these sorts of “intolerant” virtue cultures for some 500 years. The social rebellions known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in their resistances to traditional authorities unwittingly provided the foundation for the more radical liberations of the 20th century. In the 1920s and the 1960s it appeared as if radical individual freedom was the final goal.

What none of the liberators seems to have realized is the truth of Goethe’s insight, that “Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious.” I continue to be committed to the liberation of the spirit; and I have gradually come to realize that as I liberate spirits, I have an absolute obligation to simultaneously provide training in self-control. Else I am responsible for disasters.

Traditional cultures did not seek to liberate the spirit: by and large, they sought to constrain the spirit within very well-defined cultural boundaries. As a consequence, they were often highly bigoted, shaming, and sometimes cruel: Zorba the Greek contrasts Zorba’s own liberated spirit with the cruel stoning of a young widow. Films continue to celebrate the liberation of the young from the constraints of traditional narrow-mindedness: See My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham for recent sweet comedies based on the same theme. Few people who are truly knowledgeable about traditional cultures would want to return to their brutal stasis, conformity, constraints, and judgementalism.

And yet many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives. We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems.

He notes that we only see honor in fantasy and sci-fi characters:

In reading about the concept of honor in Japanese society at Bronze Doors last week I noticed, as is typically the case, that the students are fascinated. Adolescents, I find, crave a sense of honor. I asked them if characters in science fiction and fantasy had a sense of honor, and they all acknowledged that usually such characters did have honor, and that that was partly why they loved those genres.

And then I asked if the people in reality tv shows had honor, and those who were familiar with such shows agreed that those people did not.

How strange it is that young people in our society must look to fantasy novels to enter a world in which honor is a living reality, and yet “reality” television typically shows us a society made up of human beings motivated entirely by short-term vanities and pleasures.

It seems abundantly evident to me that we evolved in tribes in which a sense of honor was a key element of society.

From Rags to Riches to Rags

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

It is clear that the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect, Mark S. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl have found:

It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

Yet while many Americans will experience some level of affluence during their lives, a much smaller percentage of them will do so for an extended period of time. Although 12 percent of the population will experience a year in which they find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, a mere 0.6 percent will do so in 10 consecutive years.

World Of PeaceCraft

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

“You’ve fought terrorists in Call of Duty and alien hordes in Gears of War. Well, now get ready for the opposite of that“:

(From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)

How much does poverty drive crime?

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

How much does poverty drive crime? Not so much. Actually, not at all:

In Sweden the age of criminal responsibility is 15, so Mr Sariaslan tracked his subjects from the dates of their 15th birthdays onwards, for an average of three-and-a-half years. He found, to no one’s surprise, that teenagers who had grown up in families whose earnings were among the bottom fifth were seven times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes, and twice as likely to be convicted of drug offences, as those whose family incomes were in the top fifth.

What did surprise him was that when he looked at families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children — those born into relative affluence — were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.

That suggests two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities. One is that a family’s culture, once established, is “sticky”—that you can, to put it crudely, take the kid out of the neighbourhood, but not the neighbourhood out of the kid. Given, for example, children’s propensity to emulate elder siblings whom they admire, that sounds perfectly plausible. The other possibility is that genes which predispose to criminal behaviour (several studies suggest such genes exist) are more common at the bottom of society than at the top, perhaps because the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.

Public Health Benefits of Culture

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) provide a dramatic case study of the “public health” benefits resulting from involvement in a particular culture:

The Mormons have created a distinctive culture with remarkable health and welfare benefits. Utah, where 70% of the population are Mormon, has the lowest, or near the lowest, rates of smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, alcohol consumption, abortions, out-of-wedlock births, work-days missed due to illness, and the lowest child poverty rate in the country. Utah ranks highest in the nation in number of AP tests taken, number of AP tests passed, scientists produced per capita, percentage of households with personal computers, and proportion of income given to charity.

Utah is often ranked among the best places to live and the best places to raise children. Provo, more than 90% Mormon, was ranked by Self magazine as the healthiest city for women in the country, because it had the lowest incidence of cancer, violence, depression, etc.

Within Utah, it is clear that Mormons are disproportionately represented within these positive statistics, and Mormon populations outside Utah share similar phenomenally positive statistics. Indeed, although no academic researcher would dare to propose such a thing, one could conclude that a mass conversion to Mormonism would reduce social problems more effectively than all welfare spending, academic research, and public health initiatives in the last fifty years.

Slum-Free Hanoi

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Across the developing world, people move from the country to the outskirts of the city, where they build slums:

Their homes are built illegally, so there is no state provision of services — no electricity, running water, waste or sewerage provision. And shack by shack, the slum is born.

Hanoi has faced the same population pressures as other Asian cities. But thanks to vague and informal conventions, the state has been able to avoid extreme levels of disservice, even to the most impoverished new urban areas. And the construction of homes themselves has remained at least loosely connected to the regulations of the more formal suburbs. Together these factors have prevented the formation of slums as they are typically defined. But how has this come about?

By some estimates, 90% of the buildings in Hanoi have been built without official permission — the land untitled and never surveyed — the effects evident from even a cursory view of the city. Skinny buildings abut each other on narrow plots of land, and from the motorbike-choked thoroughfares, narrow alleys splinter off into neighbourhoods. The unplanned developments have been carried out by the quasi-legal construction industry.

[...]

Under socialist decree, all citizens were entitled to homes. Private property and construction was heavily restricted. Instead, housing was provided in state-run Soviet-style collective flats. But as growth increased, the new government struggled to maintain existing facilities and keep pace with demand. Occupants began building their own additions, often circumventing the arduous permit process. Other residents built illegally on public land.

Caught in a bind, having forbidden private construction but unable to house everyone, the government caved in and allowed private construction but with minimum standards. “Effectively, anyone could build a house on a minimum plot of about 20 square metres,” says Michael DiGregorio of the Asia Foundation. But oversight was limited, and a culture of partially and completely illegal construction began to flourish.

As the 1990s progressed, increased wealth fuelled demand, and illegal construction grew sharply. In 1995, there were about 1,000 illegal projects in the city — and those were just the reported cases. The city also began to spread out, progressively consuming villages and rice paddies to keep pace with demand for homes. Urban planners call this “spontaneous urban development”. Most of the world calls it “slums”. But in Hanoi, with the unusual mixture of basic regulation and control, a strange thing happened. “The negative side of this development was substandard infrastructure,” says DiGregorio, “but there was also a positive.” That positive came from the enlightened regulatory attitude of authorities.

In the culture of semi-legal construction, if someone built a structure that adhered to minimum standards, it became legal — and for the most part was provided with basic services such as electricity and sanitation. In most developing cities, those flooding from the countryside end up living in sprawling squatter encampments, lacking basic sanitation and vulnerable to eviction. But in Hanoi, the new arrivals could build houses that didn’t have official permission but often received basic services anyway. Because the buildings were legal, residents had incentive to improve and rebuild with stronger materials when their finances allowed. As well as these new homes, there was a similarly positive trend in the existing overcrowded and under-serviced public housing blocks, with an incentive for residents to improve the buildings.