Wednesday, 30 April 2008

How to cure your spider phobia

This is a bit of a departure from my usual rants. I came across a post where a spider met its end because it frightened a child. Actually this is an almost foolproof method for ensuring the child will develop a spider phobia (logic: if an adult finds it necessary to kill this thing it must be a threat).

I grew up with a very bad spider phobia which I can attribute to two such formative experiences. I also had the bad luck to grow up in a country with big spiders. Every time I walked into a room the hairs on the back of my neck would rise up in case there was a spider by the light switch or above my head (there seldom was, but that's no help to a phobic).

This persisted through to adulthood. Then something happened that changed it all, for ever.

I parked my car in the garage and saw a big spider (yes, size of your hand African spider) dart behind some timber. I knew this was going to cause me real phobia problems just going into the garage again. I could see it behind the timber, so I got a high pressure hose and washed it out into the open to kill it. But when I saw it, all bedraggled and wet, legs curled up defensively, I couldn't suppress a spark of empathy. I was hurting it, not because of anything it had done to me, but because I had a problem.

Instead of killing it, I found myself coaxing her (yes, it was a her now, not an it) into a small aquarium - with the aid of a very long stick it must be said. The top was sealed with cling film, with air holes punched through it of course.

Two things followed from this.

The first and most obvious was that I could bring myself to look at the spider in safety. Initially in small doses, then in more detail. She was actually rather beautiful. The closest I can get from an image search is that she was probably a Baboon Spider. Her abdomen was covered in grey and beige fur, as were her legs, but banded with yellow underneath. I think this was warning signal because the bands became visible if she reared up.

Second, I had to feed her of course, usually grasshoppers shoved through the holes in the clingfilm. I don't know how much spiders drink, but from time to time I would "mist" her with a hand plant spray. This had an extraordinary effect on her. She would begin an elaborate cleaning routine, much like a cat. With the underside of her foremost legs she would comb her whole body, systematically. Then she would pass those parts of her legs through her jaws to clean them, then continue with the combing. That really was fascinating to watch.

I never did have the courage to handle her. I wanted to, but unlike the fat and lazy kind of tarantula she was very alert and quite fast. I just didn't know if she would be alarmed enough to bite. Venom was not the problem, but she had some pretty significant mouth parts.

Then the final chapter. One morning she was gone. In the clingfilm was a gaping hole. Ooops. The Houdini trick. I wasn't counting on that. I looked for her, but no luck. Well done me, I thought. Had a big spider in the garage. Now I have a big spider in the house. But the fear was gone!

I had a feeling I would find her that night once all the lights were out. Sure enough, after lights-out I had a look with a torch and found her on the pantry wall. I put a glass jar over her, slid some card behind that, took her outside, and released her.

She did me proud and in a significant way changed my life because my spider phobia had gone and has never returned. I hope I was a good host. I now go out of my way to be ultra-nice to spiders (aah, so that's why you don't vacuum up cobwebs says the wife); trying to make up for those I killed in my other life.

A psychologist writes:

"This is an instance of 'flooding'. The client is subjected to so much of the threatening stimulus that their fear response is extinguished. This contrasts with their usual behaviour, which is avoidance. When you avoid the threatening stimulus, you feel relief. That simply reinforces the avoidance and so perpetuates the phobia.

This was backed up by desensitisation. In effect you approach the threat from a distance (sometimes first imagining it before you even have to see it, let alone touch it). As you learn to manage each stage, i.e. without excessive fear, you move to the next. "

But central to defeating a phobia is to live through exposure to the threat. Sure, you feel your heart is going to burst out of your chest - but guess what? It won't. And when your panic has run its course and the dog turd / spider / snake / you name it is still there, it's like "What else is left?" That works, avoidance doesn't.

And it is so nice not to experience that horrible lurch in the stomach any more. And so nice not to have to kill innocent spiders.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Compassion Wars

Compassion wars. You'll see the signs everywhere, once you know what to look for. They do a lot of harm. And they are very pervasive influences on political attitudes and public policy.

We need to start with an example, so I'll take my life in my hands and nominate disabled parking. Now I have no problem with disabled parking being conveniently placed. If you're not very mobile, then being able to park near the supermarket or terminal building is handy.

I do have a problem with the number of places allocated. I don't think I have ever seen every place occupied, not even close. At my local airport there are something like 20 places and I have never seen more than two occupied.

Let's try another.

Five hundred people in the UK die each year in fires. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but given the population of the UK, the death rate from fire is less than one person in 100,000 each year. Two thousand people in 100,000 die each year anyway, so you are (how can I put this delicately?) 2,000 times more likely to just die of, err, death, than you are to die in a fire.

So why is it that we have to deal with those accursed fire doors that "must be kept shut" but which naturally we all prop open? Especially when 70% of fatalities occur in homes where no such fire doors exist. Mind you, small mercies.

A few more:

  • Hot taps with notices "warning: hot water" placed above them (I should bloody well hope so, I'd be fairly hacked off if it weren't true)

  • Horse chestnut trees uprooted, .e.g. by Norwich City Council, to avoid conker horrors

  • Winter Festivals replacing Christmas
  • Speedtrap policemen wearing hi-viz flourescent jackets

So what are compassion wars?

Compassion wars are fought to establish who cares. The winner, obviously enough, is the person who cares the most. Not, please note, the person who is more effective. If I care more about poor people than you do, then I win! Never mind that you might be more effective at doing something about it than I am. As you might expect, the favoured battle ground for compassion wars is The Committee.

Risky Shift

It used to be thought that people on their own might come up with extreme ideas, while those in groups would be more moderate. It turns out that the opposite is true. There is a kind of escalation within groups as members up the ante. This phenomenon is known as Risky Shift. Actually it can work both ways - you can have a committee arguing down risk - such as felling trees to avoid the horrors of conkers. So after discussion, a group's actions will turn out to be a more extreme version of any individual's preferred action.

Back to parking

So the committee allocating disabled parking goes something like this.

"Our survey shows we'll need 5 disabled places".
"Yes, but at peak times ... perhaps 10? That's not a lot to ask".
"Well I'm not endorsing any recommendation that has disabled people being unable to park".
"You're right. Fifteen, at a minimum, surely".
"I cannot believe this equivocation over a few places. I suggest 20, and let's be done with it".

"All agreed? Good. Twenty it is then. Now about this conker problem ..."

A fly on the wall reports ...

The following was passed on to me by someone, who must alas remain anonymous, working for the States of Jersey. A committee was convened to look at the issue of free bus travel for disabled people. It was agreed and accepted.

Then someone, probably someone who was very compassionate, said "Old people are disabled in their way aren't they? I think they should have free bus travel too". Now it is characteristic of compassion wars that no one likes to lose. So naturally no one challenged this bit of twaddle. It too was agreed and accepted.

Time passed. The calculations were done. The committee met again. They were shown the cost of their generosity. Turns out there are an awful lot of old people on Jersey. The solids floated gently towards the ceiling where they hit the fan.

Postscript (you couldn't make it up)

A recent study has found that the traditional game of conkers has been banned from a number of school playgrounds. This and other such pastimes, like British bulldog, rounders and even football, have been judged by some schools to be too dangerous for children to participate in.

The research was carried out by Sarah Thompson of Keele University, who analysed the playground activities of 1,000 children in schools in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Lancashire. She found that schools were keen to avoid parents seeking compensation for children's injuries and were confused about health and safety regulations.

Ironically, as she reports, "It seemed that many of the children's attempts to play were extinguished by the same supervising adults who complained that children 'did not play'."Admirers of the shiny brown conker may be surprised to find that Miss Thompson heard it described by some schools as an "offensive weapon"...

Monday, 21 April 2008

The NHS - another bad idea

(In a nutshell: Britain's National Health Service has been hailed as "'one of the greatest achievements in history". I disagree. It has been an expensive example of the failings of centralised command and control)

On July 1st 1998 the BBC celebrated 50 years of the NHS by screening a special report entitled The NHS: 'One of the greatest achievements in history'. You can read about it here. The central idea of the NHS is that health care is free at the point of delivery and is available to all. It is so seductive that no political party has dared to privatise health and each election campaign includes extravagant promises about how this party or that will defend the NHS against the others who are certain to destroy it.

The NHS is definitely one of those ideas where I have done the 180 degree thing. When I first went to the UK as a postgraduate student in 1970 I was very taken with it. Now I am quite sure the concept is deeply flawed.

Actually, it's not complicated. Nothing is free, including the NHS. The government taxes citizens to pay for it. That tax is simply a proxy for health insurance. In effect the government is saying "We don't trust you to look after your own health provision, so we will make you do so on a compulsory basis". OK, so far, so good. Just two problems (a) there are specialised and efficient insurance companies who would be happy to do this - and do it better and more cheaply than the government, so why is the government doing it? and (b) for some completely unfathomable reason the government also decided to become the actual provider of health care.

This last is really bizarre. Take a different example to understand why. Road tax goes towards improving existing roads and building new ones. The government collects the taxes, puts the work out to tender and then issues contracts. Firms who specialise in civil engineering then do the work. Civil servants check that the work is done satisfactorily, then pay the bills. Now imagine we have the NRS (read National Road Service). All the road builders, everywhere in the country, would be on the government payroll; it would be administering their index-linked pensions; it would own all the equipment, suitably enlivened with NRS logos; it would similarly have depots everywhere for stockpiling materials which it would have sourced and bought; and all the above would be looked after by a large number of civil service managers.

So why is the NHS entrusted to government - which experience shows is notoriously profligate and incompetent?

How good is the NHS?

OK. The NHS may not be perfect, but it's surely benefited many, many people in the last 60 years? Well, let's find out.

A place to start is by looking at this graph (National Statistics Online). Can you tell when the NHS was established? I can't; not from the graph. I would be looking for a reduction in mortality rate (which here would mean a steeper line), and sustained thereafter.

The big wobbles are the influenza pandemic of 1918. The NHS was actually founded in 1948 but I can see no evidence of that in the graph. In fact female mortality was falling more steeply before the NHS than after it.

People use statistics misleadingly, often without knowing it. For example, the BBC report referred to earlier asked "Has the NHS been a success?" and went on to answer "In purely medical terms the argument seems overwhelming. Men and women are living about 10 years longer on average than they did in 1948 - men to 74 and women to 79".

So that's a gain of 10 years in the 50 years since the NHS was established. But this trend, see second graph, has been in place for a century and probably owes nothing to the NHS. For example there was a 7 year gain in life expectancy from 1912 to 1932 followed by a 9 year gain between 1932 and 1948. From the graph it looks like the increase in life expectancy slowed down after the NHS (but this could just be a "ceiling effect").

But the NHS is world famous, surely? OK, try this. Name some world-famous UK hospitals. Chances are you came up with St Thomas's, Guys, Great Ormand Street, Barts, maybe Papworth. Every one established before the NHS. Apparently not one hospital, created since the NHS, has achieved similar status.

How big is the NHS?

The NHS has 1,300,000 employees. In fact it is the 4th largest employer in the world! Now how many GPs do we find amid the 1.3 million? The number is just 33,000. And 32,000 consultants. And, yes, you guessed it, 40,000 managers. BTW spending on management consultants increased 15-fold from £31m to more than £500m in just two years (and that was back in 2006).

Apparently, on a typical day, 700,000 people see their GP. So that means that every 90 working days the entire country has visited their GP at least once. Each year 700 million prescriptions are issued and cashed - more than 10 prescriptions for every man, woman and child. I mean, what planet is this? No wonder people have taken to calling it the National Sickness Service.

But at least it's free at the point of delivery, right?

Yes, that much is true. But only that. No such thing as a free lunch, not even in the NHS. The NHS is stunningly expensive, heading for £100 billion and 10% of the GDP.

Let's translate this into terms one can grasp. The cost to every man, woman and child in the country is £1,800 a year. So it cost my family of four £7,200 a year. From the birth of my daughters to their leaving home some 25 years later, the cost to my family has been £180,000.

Maybe we're a healthy lot: I doubt if each of us went to the doctor twice a year. But say we went five times. That's 500 visits at £10 a time, £5,000. Let's say we picked up £10 worth of drugs on every visit, that's another £5,000. By my recollection we had, between us, five operations, some trivial. But let's say they averaged £1,000 each. That's another £5,000. Up to £15,000 so far. Now let's double that, because maybe I was unrealistic, so that's £30,000.

So we received £30k benefit at a cost of £180k. That doesn't feel like value for money. By way of comparison, Tesco's top private health plan costs under £400 a year. Across the same time scale that would have cost £40,000.

Why is the NHS so expensive? Good question. I suppose it is like a huge middleman sitting between you and your doctor. For a start, your money is taken off you, not by the doctor, but by an army of civil servants administering the tax system. And after a long chain of apparently expensive events, some civil servant will pay your doctor.

Compare this will turning up at the consulting rooms, seeing the doctor, paying him or her x dollars, pounds or euros and then departing. Eeek, yes this scenario does have you dipping into your wallet, but trust me, you're doing that anyway, and having to go deeper. You just don't know it.

But the real problem is Central Planning systems don't work

We already know this from the failed Soviet experiment. In principle we've known it since Adam Smith's book "The Wealth of Nations" was published in 1776. In this he introduced the idea of the "invisible hand" that guides production so that what is needed is produced - and that, though this be through the profit motive and individual selfishness and greed, society benefits.

Just as the Soviets would have a wild stab in the dark about how many nails they would need in five years time (and therefore how much ore would have to be smelted and therefore how many foundries they would need and therefore how much coal would need to be mined and - well, I think you get the point) so our Department of Health tries to do the same. They set out to train or recruit x doctors, y nurses, z ambulance drivers, make this many beds to be available, this many wards to be shut, this length of time for waiting lists and so on. Given the scale and complexity of the NHS the issue is not that they will be in error, but by how much.

A report by Warwick University said "The use of market mechanism to allocate resources and deal with imbalances has yet to be fully exploited (read: doesn't happen). Markets are a very efficient mechanism for bringing supply and demand into balance and for providing signals which guide decision makers in the right direction, but the Department of Health and managers have so far shied away from (this) preferring to intervene and attempt to manage the system."


It's not hard to like the idea of the NHS. Unfortunately it is intrinsically flawed because centralised planning and control is too. What keeps it going is that (a) it can't go broke because the government will tax, print money or borrow to meet shortfalls and (b) no politician dares speak against it. The result is a health system that is inferior to and more expensive than a system which is exposed to the discipline of market forces.


What follows is my experience with the French health system. In 2000 the World Health Organisation ranked France number 1 out of 191 member countries (UK was rank 18). The French system takes of bigger slice of GDP than the UK, but not much; perhaps 11% rather than 10%. But there is also a cash top-up element on an as-used basis, see below.

Why does it work so well? I don't pretend to know the details, but all consultations and treatments have a paying element to them. The state pays 70%, you pay 30% directly. At your option you can take out insurance to cover some of this, but you are liable for the premiums. I think this paying element provides market information to the system and allows it to be responsive.

About 6 weeks ago I went to my GP with a suspected urinary infection. He detected a heart arrhythmia during the consultation. Within five days I had seen a cardiologist who recommended intervention. Five days after that (ten days after my first visit to the GP) I was driving home, having had a catheter ablation operation at a top heart clinic. It just happened. I didn't have to push or shove.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

World War II (a very bad idea)

In a nutshell: I think most of us grew up believing that Chamberlain was mistaken to try to appease Hitler (and so avoid WWII). Here I explore the idea that the only mistake was that he failed.

I was born in February 1945, just before the end of WWII. I grew up believing that to be British was best, that the Germans were pretty dodgy, the Japanese unspeakable, and above all that WWII was not just inevitable, but right, and we were on the side of the righteous.

(Time passed. Nothing in my education or experience dispelled the war mythology, though I am pleased to say that I discovered that both the Germans and the Japanese are exceedingly meritorious. )

WWII is taken as an example of how important it is to stand up to tyranny - and how bad it is to try and appease an aggressor. In recent times Saddam Hussein was explicitly described as another Hitler. "Just like we did with Hitler, we have to do the necessary, and do it now, and certainly we can't appease him because it will just get worse". The Balkans have provided other examples.

These supposed parallels, and how to deal with them, should set alarm bells ringing.

WWII did not have to happen. It was not a good thing. As alternatives go, it was probably the worst possible thing. Appeasement was an option. A very good option. Of course, History has taught us that Any Attempt At Appeasement Was A Very Bad Thing. Chamberlain with his "piece of white paper" has been held up to ridicule ever since.

Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30th September 1938.He had attempted to negotiate a way around the tensions of the time. He felt he had succeeded and described his achievement as "Peace in our time". It is generally not known, now, that this agreement, though short lived, was considered by many to be a notable coup and was hailed, as such, internationally.

OK. So this is a watershed moment with two possible outcomes. Outcome number 1: Appeasement succeeds and WWII is avoided. Outcome number 2: Appeasement fails and WWII results.

Well, we know it was number 2. That's history. But it's also odd. What's odd about it is the stuff about it being good, right, inevitable and the way to deal with bullies. But what I find even stranger is that the appeasement alternative was deemed Very Bad. Does this stand up to any kind of scrutiny? My thesis is that appeasement, probably at any cost, would have left the world in much better shape than WWII.

Before I begin, I want to be completely clear that this post is not about rehabilitating Hitler. He was undoubtedly a nasty bit of work and his aspirations deeply suspect (actually the same could be said about Churchill, but that will be explored elsewhere). I am not a neo-Nazi. I'm not even a pacifist. OK, with that out of the way, let's move on.

How much harm can one man do?

In this scenario, appeasement works and Hitler is left to do what he wants to do. How much harm can he do? I'm sure the answer is "quite a lot". But I'm comparing scenarios. The issue is not that Hitler would not have done harm if left to get on with it. The issue is how much harm, relative to that actually caused during WWII.

Hitler was born in 1889. By 1960, say, he would have been 71 years old. He was not a healthy man, so he might well have been dead by then. He had political rivals who may have usurped him (don't forget that he did come to power by democratic means). He may have been assassinated. So from 1938 we're looking at perhaps 22 years worth of his reign, probably much less.

Rather than try and quantify how costly it might have been to leave Hitler in place, I'm going to take the simpler course and show, instead, how costly WWII was in so many ways. A cost in money, materials and life so huge that it is hard to believe that any despot could do worse.

How much harm did WWII do?

Material destruction

In 2008 money terms, the monetary cost of WWII was about 6 trillion dollars ($6,000,000,000,000). For comparison purposes, that would meet the full cost of running Britain's National Health Service, with its 1.3 million salaried employees, for the next 40 years, without having to raise a penny in taxes! Or enough to give every man, woman and child on the planet $1,000.

The material destruction beggars belief. The number of ships sunk was in the region of 4,500. Something like 20,000 Spitfires were destroyed and 12,000 heavy bombers. Entire cities like Dresden and Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, disappeared. Over one million homes were destroyed in London, another 800,000 in other parts of the UK.

In today's money a Spitfire would have cost maybe £250,000, so for every four destroyed we could make a bonfire of £1,000,000. A bomber would have cost maybe a million, so we are looking at 12 billion there. Who paid? Well our parents of course, but you and me too (oh yes, hang on to your hat, war debt was still being paid off in 2006!). The government used tax revenues, or debt, or simply printed money to fund the immediate costs, but in the end it was we who paid.

Now I know that some people think that though war is a bad thing, it does benefit the economy. Actually this is codswallop. If you believe that, then why don't I come around to your place and bash your windows in? You could return the favour and bash mine in. Somehow this destruction will help us both. Err, not really.

People killed

People killed? Well, something like 70 million in all, and of those 50 million were civilians. For each person killed, many other lives would have been changed forever - widows, orphans, aged parents who did not expect to outlive their children.

The holocaust

Almost six million Jews died in various extermination camps during the war. Would this have been different had the war not started? For hundreds of years Jews were subject to various forms of discrimination and harassment in Europe, and it is clear that they had a rough time in Germany and Austria before the war - e.g. Kristal Nacht in 1938.

However, whatever governments or groups get up to in civilian times, I believe that the position is much worse during a time of war. Then the prevailing administration can award itself draconian powers, can suppress (or make) all the news it wants to, can arrest and hold people without trial and so on - all in the name of national security.

I don't think it is any accident that the holocaust happened during WWII, and personally believe that nothing like it could have happened under civilian jurisdiction, no matter how unpleasant daily life may have been.

Creation of the State of Israel

Israel was created as a state in 1948. Would this have happened without WWII in general and the Holocaust in particular? I think it is unlikely, though the history of the region is complicated (Ottoman Empire, Palestine, British Mandate etc). If I am right the tensions in the Middle East today can be seen as a particularly harmful consequence of WWII and its aftermath.

Centralisation of power (and its retention)

This is one of those consequences that I believe has been very bad indeed, though it probably goes unnoticed by most people. Government gets Big during wars and essentially wants to run everything and everyone. If you are philosophically inclined towards laisser faire and small government, which I am, then this is a bad thing.

A state of war meant that the UK government was free to pull together resources as it saw fit - either during the war itself (e.g. the de facto nationalisation of the rail network by the Railway Executive Committee, The Ministry of Food being absorbed into the Ministry of Agriculture and the subsequent control of both the supply and price of food in the form of rationing), or in the immediate aftermath (e.g. Bank of England nationalised in 1946, NHS created in 1948).

Bad though this is during a time of war, it is the nature of big government not to let itself get small and many powers were retained long after the war ended, right through to modern times. Even today, in England, four pounds in every ten is spent by the government (and it tends not to spend that money very wisely). That is an enormous drag on the economy.


This follows on from the previous section and serves I hope to show how wide ranging the consequences of centralised power can be. The UK government, in common with others in Europe, got quite twitchy about food production during the war. It's not clear why, since there was not much privation during the war, and that that there was tended to be caused by malice or incompetence (e.g. food shortages in Holland and Jersey).

Sadly this preoccupation did not end with the war and governments have made it their business to push agriculture very hard. This has led to exponential growth in the use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, as well as mechanisation of farming. To what end? Well, massive food surpluses, an insidious system of subsidies that encourage the above and huge environmental degradation, as well as trade barriers that have left the 3rd world unable to sell into Europe. It has also led, paradoxically, to a flight from farms so that now many farmers live alone and the suicide rate among farmers is twice that of other workers.

There is much more that could be said, but not here. I include the above just to try and show the distortions that I think can be traced to a war time mindset, that persist long after the war is over.

The war with Japan

Would there have been a Pearl Harbour without the war in Europe? Difficult to say. There were pacts between Germany and Japan in 1936 and 1938, and in 1942 after Pearl Harbour. My guess is that having an ally like Germany which was already at war, and doing quite well at it, increased their propensity to attack America.

The Cold War

Rather a huge topic. To me it seems that the Allies were at best uneasy bedfellows. Their treaties masked huge ideological and political differences. After the war there seems to have been a bit of a land grab by all the victors, though the Potsdam Conference in 1945 pretty well presaged it. Notably France and Poland were not invited to attend.

Given that the Cold War could easily have become WWIII this might have been 'the' catestrophic consequence of WWII. Even in the absence of such, the Cold War nevertheless changed the world - Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Balkans etc etc etc).

Although the Cold War did not have the material destruction of WWII, it cost all of us plenty - those pretty little things in the photograph are "mothballed" jet fighters costing 10s of millions each. They are fully functional, but it is unlikely that they will ever be used again. I really can't get a grip on the cost but it was, of course, financed by (you guessed it) tax, debt and by printing money, i.e. inflation. Whatever this huge sum is, it was diverted from its alternative use of civilian prosperity.

The rest

This is a partial list of things (good, bad or just interesting) that were materially affected by WWII:
  • Advent of the atomic age (and indeed the first hostile use of atomic weapons)

  • A huge acceleration of technological development (e.g. biplanes at the start of the war and jet planes by the end)

  • Mobility and mass migrations of populations

  • Destabilisation of Middle East

  • Growth of state welfare programmes in Western Democracies

  • Collapse of the British Empire

  • Unsustainable industry and agriculture

  • Massive increase in pollution of all sorts

  • Stimulation of consumerism to mop up surplus industrial capacity

  • Move away from rail and ship to road and air

How much harm can one man do? (Take 2)

I said it was easier to start by looking at the harm we already know WWII did - either directly, or by subsequent social and political change. I felt that by the time we got here it should be a no-brainer. If Hitler had been active up to say 1960, as I suggested, then for him to have equalled the harmfulness of WWII, he would have had to kill more than 3,000,000 people a year, every year, and destroy resources at the rate of $300 billion a year, every year. And he would have had to do this in the context of a civilian regime, not a war-time one.

I personally don't think he could have achieved this. Now I guess you either agree with this or you don't. It can be challenged, but it stands up to the challenge pretty well.

For example you might cite the number of people that Stalin killed; he is probably the most convincing contender. At the top end the estimates would have us believe that he killed 2 out of 3 in Russia, but that seems highly unlikely. Many estimates settle at the 20 million level. However, these include not just murders, but death through incompetence too - such as mass starvation following collectivisation, poor conditions in labour camps and so on. The lowest estimate I found, for actual state executions, was 650,000.

Pol Pot, the lunatic who ruled Cambodia in the 70s is credited with the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in the infamous "killing fields".

The Rwandan massacres and reprisal killings accounted for something like 800,000 deaths, mostly in 1994.

The awful thing about this is that by "standing up to tyranny", "fighting for freedom" and "defending democracy" we seem to have done ourselves much more immediate and long term harm than if we had not stood up to tyranny, fought for freedom or defended democracy. It reminds me of a cold war slogan, popular in America: "Better dead than Red". That was kind of catchy until someone put up the alternative: "Better Red than dead". The choice of most I suspect.

The imponderables

There are many scenarios that I haven't explored, and can't do justice here. For example, suppose we had done what I suggest, and simply done nothing against Hitler.

Well, maybe he would have stopped after he had addressed what he (and the German people, and at least some politicians in Britain and France) believed were the injustices inherent in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI.

What if he had continued? Invaded various western European countries, or Russia. Well I never said that WWII could be avoided in all circumstances - just that we would have been much better off if it could have been avoided. If it happened, then it happened and those countries were invaded anyway.

It is interesting to speculate on the course of the war if Britain had remained neutral. Would he have invaded? Actually this is not likely; he regarded Britain, at that time, more as a friend than foe. But if he had? Well, then I guess that for a period of some decades the language of administration in Britain would have been German rather than English.

What about the fate of British Jews? This is an important and difficult question. I personally have no doubt that the Jews in Europe did far worse during a time of Total War than otherwise. But that may not have applied everywhere.

My conclusions

I believe that Chamberlain was right to try and appease Hitler and that the failure to do so has cost all of us an unimaginable amount in direct suffering and loss of prosperity.

Worse, I believe that a self-serving myth has arisen around this, namely that it is always worth "fighting for democracy / freedom / civilisation / you name it". This allows governments to justify their intervention in theatres like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The latter provides perhaps the most contemporary parallel to my arguments above. Saddam Hussein was not a nice man, but as time passes it seems more and more that the intervention has been a worse alternative for all parties than leaving him alone.

(Sources: I'm a lazy SOB, so I'm not going to spend half this life or any other trawling through original material with a handlens looking for "the truth" (does it exist?). However, I don't just grab the first handy fact off the first handy website just because it suits my argument. Most of my numbers come from Wiki or .gov websites. I believe that I am not an order of magnitude out on any of them)