What we've been reading: Free will, land and 4321

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Let no one accuse us of having a plain taste in reading material. Land tax, killers, and the latest novel from the crown prince of American postmodernism: it’s an intellectually challenging assortment in this week’s WWBR.

We hope you enjoy it. There’s plenty to work through here, folks. So get to it! And if you’ve enjoyed anything this week, let us know in the comments below.


Fran: The biggest privatisation you’ve never heard of: land

I’ve been slogging through Henry George’s Progress and Poverty recently. The book, written in 1879, is now little known, but it is one of the best selling non-fiction books in history.

In it, George dissects how the unequal ownership of land and speculation warps free markets. He was primarily concerned with how American society was being bisected between those who owned most of the land and the people who needed the land for productive purposes. The landed and the landless. If it sounds a bit like feudalism, well, that’s because it is.

Fast forward to 21st century Britain and the picture isn't dissimilar from the 19th century milieu George inhabited. There are around 60 million acres of land across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, two-thirds of it is owned by fewer than 6,000 people.

Meanwhile, land is being privatised at an eye watering clip: all told, around 2 million hectares of public land have been privatised during the past four decades. That’s 10% of the entire British land mass.

The result: a housing crisis despite there being more homes than households, and a skewed rental market where rents have doubled in a decade and could eclipse entire sum paid for mortgages by homeowners. The ruinous effects of runaway land speculation are being seen everywhere.

George’s solution? A land value tax.

Valme: How responsible are killers with brain damage?

This article analyses how brain lesions can lead to criminal behaviour and whether the killers can be held morally responsible for their actions. However, it only tiptoes around a more tricky area in which neuroscience, morality and philosophy converge: the illusion of free will.

“Free will should not be understood as a mysterious ability to cause actions separate from our brain activity. In fact just the opposite might be true: that free will requires certain connections between our brains and our actions” explains the author of the article. However, the explanation is somewhat oversimplified.

Our actions are dependent on neurological interactions within our brains, the interactions with other people and a whole universe around us that follow rules that are far from arbitrary. The result is a vast network and a system that is so complex, that in practice, we cannot predict our future, even though it will be the result of the interactions that are already happening.

The illusion of free will is a fascinating topic, and yet, even if you believe it doesn’t exist, we are very conveniently programmed to forget about it in our daily lives. But isn’t it better that way?

Kat: Paul Auster - 4321

Have you ever looked back on an incident – a failed relationship, a broken arm, the death of a close friend – earlier in your life and wondered: if that hadn’t happened, would I be a different person now?

That’s the question Paul Auster tries to answer in his latest novel 4321. His first publication in seven years, tells the story of Archie Ferguson four times over. In each story, Archie’s born to the same two parents, Stanley and Rose, in the same New Jersey hospital. But as Archie grows up in each narrative arc, different plots pave the way for a different life. In one story, the Indians beat the Dodgers in the World Series, which sets one chain of events in motion –  in another, the Indians lose.

Set in an era of anti-communist sentiment, the Rosenberg trials and the assassination of JFK, 4321 is a fascinating look at public opinion in 1950s America and a memorable, overwhelming achievement.

About Francois Badenhorst


I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 


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16th Feb 2018 15:41

You might enjoy:

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
by Carlo Rovelli (Author)

In I think the last essay Rovelli touches on free will and makes some tentative points re probability, uncertainty and free will.

I have read it once very quickly, and certainly the analysis in each chapter lacks depth, however some of the ideas are worthy of pondering further even if no answers are really provided. (though anyone seeking absolute answers re relativity,quantum mechanics, the cosmos, black holes etc is likely looking for Schrodinger's cat which is black, in a dark room and possibly not there)

Thanks (2)
19th Feb 2018 09:12


Thanks for the reccomendation. This was actually Tom H's secret santa this year. So I might ask to borrow it once he's done.

If you enjoyed 'Seven Brief' lessons (and from the way you describe it) you might enjoy 'Why does the world exist?'. It's a fantastic, entertaining primer to some of the wackier and interesting existential questions and answers.

Thanks (0)