Monday, May 31, 2010

Sowell on Commencement Speeches

Every year about this time, big-government liberals stand up in front of college commencement crowds across the country and urge the graduates to do the noblest thing possible— become big-government liberals.

That isn't how they phrase it, of course. Commencement speakers express great reverence for "public service," as distinguished from narrow private "greed." There is usually not the slightest sign of embarrassment at this self-serving celebration of the kinds of careers they have chosen— over and above the careers of others who merely provide us with the food we eat, the homes we live in, the clothes we wear and the medical care that saves our health and our lives.

- Thomas Sowell

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On The Minimal State and 'Heartlessness'

I believe that an individual's rights (most fundamentally to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, in that order), should have very few restrictions. The only just restrictions of these rights should be when they conflict with another individuals even more fundamental rights. For example, if thrusting a knife into your chest would make me happy, I still would not be justified in carrying out this deed because it interferes with an even more fundamental right of yours; the right to not be assaulted or murdered.

The primary (if not sole) function of the state is to ensure these fundamental rights are granted equally to all citizens. Both through the instruments of the law, as well as through military defense of the nation from foreign threats. This is my conception of the state and it's fundamental duties and responsibilities.

Further it is also my belief that any governmental actions that exceed these few, limited, essential functions are coercive and unjust by their very nature. To illustrate, consider the case of taxation. Outside of funding the few limited functions of government as discussed, what is the function of taxation? To force individuals to pay for collective, social 'benefits' that A) may or may not actually be beneficial to those individuals specifically and B) even if they actually did benefit them, they still may or may not choose to pay for those benefits. Thus, taxation is theft and destruction, at heart. Taxation to fund the few essential functions of government is theft that we just have to tolerate as a trade-off, because the alternative is even less tolerable (that being anarchy).

Now for some relevant quotes:

Thomas Paine:

Government, at it's best, is a but necessary evil; at it's worse an intolerable one.

Chief Justice John Marshall:

The power to tax is the power to destroy

No matter how reasonable a position this is, regardless of how fundamentally humane a philosophy this is (at core concerned with human rights), invariably the most common objections to it are appeals to emotion such as "That's a heartless philosophy", or "You're a cold individual." It's been my experience that such objections arise from fairly unsophisticated thinkers who can't differentiate between the advocation of a public policy and private beliefs. That is to say, it's often assumed that since I'm against what is ostensibly forced charity (an oxymoron if there ever was one), through the instrumentalities of government, then I also must be anti-charity in general. Which is of course blatantly fallacious.

In addition, heartlessness is not wholly a negative quality when it comes to government policy. Government should operate through processes and systems that protect against things like human emotion. Rights, the government, the law, justice; these things should not be human personifications of a collective will. They are processes distilled from human tradition and wisdom which protect against human emotion and error (the most significant products of the 'human will').

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Learn *Too* Much From History

It is often said, and it is often accepted as an extremely wise maxim, that we should learn from history. That "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." While this advice does have some general merit, I would like to advise against accepting it as an absolute. Very many people 'learn things from history', and believe that history has relayed some insight to them, when often it actually hasn't. Do they just have their facts wrong? Or are they interpreting those facts incorrectly? Neither, necessarily. My contention is that it's very possible to have a firm grasp of all relevant empirical data, as well as the arguments relating to the data, and still have a very skewed, inaccurate conception of the world and of history. So, then, where is the source of error?

The history of the world as it exists is only one of the trillions of histories that could have been. The past is, essentially, a single sample. A crucial step in the scientific method is repetition and verification (or falsification). A solid conclusion about anything is only accepted after a great many trials. We do not have the ability to replay history and see all of the trillions of possible outcomes. Had random events occurred differently, or had others besides ourselves made different decisions than they did, the results that we would see (that is 'history'), would be very different, and therefore might 'teach' different 'lessons'. Not to mention the infinite numbers of ways that seemingly unrelated events could occur differently, and thereby drastically alter all events that were contingent upon the outcome of that initial event (think butterfly effect).

Many specific lessons of history are actually reliable, simply because they have been repeated, tested and verified (or falsified) throughout the course of history. Too often, however, we believe that very recent 'lessons' of history are indicators of some overall trend, when in fact there is no reason to believe that these events aren't actually exceptions to a given rule or trend.

This is true both of history in a broad, general sense, but also true of our own personal history. If some decision that we make leads to some undesirable outcome or consequence in our lives, then we are likely to attribute those outcomes to the unwise decision. Rarely do we consider the possibility that the decision (given all information available to us at the time,) may have been a very wise decision, but that random subsequent events are responsible for the undesirable outcomes. Not to mention the fact that, in certain circumstances, any decision we make will lead to undesirable outcomes, and the decision we made may well have resulted in the least undesirable outcome, and therefore would be quite wise indeed. However, we don't get to 'see' the alternatives, so we can't ever know that this is the case. But neither should we assume that we just made a 'bad decision' (or vice versa in the case of 'good decisions' with desirable outcomes, which could have been due to good fortune). We often recognize the 'lesser of two evils' reality when choosing a political candidate to vote for, not realizing that this brutal truth extends to many areas of life. Many problems don't have 'solutions'; only trade-offs.

Career Paths

To further illustrate the point, let us use an example with a few, easily identified variables (where much of life has millions of difficult to isolate variables) and apply them to a mathematical decision model. Say we are considering the option of three different career paths, A, B and C. With path A we believe (given all available information to us about the prospects of the field, as well as knowledge of our own skills and abilities) there's an 80% chance of great success, 15% chance of mediocre success and a 5% chance of failure. With career option B we assign the probabilities to be 50/20/30 and with path C we determine them to be 25/25/50. Clearly, given our analysis of the available data, career path A would be the wisest choice.

So if we choose career path A and 10 years later the result is 'failure', did we make the wrong decision? That certainly isn't clear. It could be that our analysis was off, and the probabilities that we assigned were 'incorrect' i.e. not truly representative of the possible outcomes and their likelihood. Or it's entirely possible that our analysis was spot-on, and the history that we experienced just happened to fall within that 5% of the time that we knew would end in failure. However, the vast majority of people who find themselves in this, or similar, situations would immediately begin second-guessing themselves, claiming that options B or C were 'obviously' better choices. This is called a hindsight bias.

The Iraq Wars

Another example of a hindsight bias can be seen in the broader sense of history as well. Take the two wars in Iraq, for example. The first under George H. W. Bush, was swift, successful, and cost the United States very little. Opposition to this war was very small going in, and even smaller once the outcome was known. The second war in Iraq, under George W. Bush, was much longer, difficult and costly in terms of human lives (both Iraqi and American). Opposition to this war was stronger at the outset (though not significantly so) but became more consolidated once it had been under way for some time. As the 'results' were coming in they were deemed to be undesirable, or at least not worth the cost. Even though the rationale behind the two wars was not significantly different (a brutal, rogue dictator invading a sovereign nation vs. a brutal, rogue dictator remaining defiant and non compliant with weapons sanctions he had agreed to).

Many opponents of the 2nd war now hold it as axiomatic that it was a 'mistake' based largely on what they see as the undesirable results (even if they claim it isn't based on the results). Had the second war been as swift, simple and successful as the first (and the non-insurgent portion was), I find it hard to believe that opposition to the war would have been as strong as it turned out to be. Certainly there would be some people who would have opposed the war on principle, or who hold that the rationale for going into war was insufficient. But there are a great deal of others, probably a majority, who wait to see how things turn out before they form an opinion. Or who would have allowed results to change their opinion had the results been different (the results just happened to confirm their initial position in this case, at least in their mind). Many of these people aren't even actually weighing costs against benefits in their analysis, however. They are simply looking at the costs incurred and seeing that they are undesirable, not even acknowledging the fact that there would be competing costs and benefits associated with not waging war. Since these costs and benefits of the alternate reality are unseen, they simply assume that the net result there would have been preferable, without any justification for making such a conclusion. Not to mention that anyone declaring with certainty that it's either a mistake or a success at this juncture could be doing so prematurely (clearly, the long-term consequences of the war are still undetermined).

The relevant analysis should be of the conditions and circumstances, as well as the rationale in favor of undertaking the war at the time it was entered into, when the results were unknown. Divorced from what we now know, not in light of it. The decision was either wise or not on it's own merits, irrespective of the results. Because the undesirable results could have been due to innumerable subsequent decisions of how to wage the war, insufficient preparation, actions (or failed actions) of those involved, and random occurrences that occur within war that can influence the outcome. All of which are entities independent of the initial decision to wage war. Not to mention that the undesirable results could have been even more undesirable had we not invaded.

FDR and The New Deal

Yet another example of confused analysis on the basis of results is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great Depression and The New Deal. For decades intellectuals held it as axiomatic that "FDR and the New Deal ended the depression." What evidence do they submit to establish that these two events were causally linked? Simply that they both occurred at somewhat the same time. The Great Depression did in fact end, did it not?

Of course the depression ended, everything ends at some point. Markets boom and bust. The relevant question is whether or not the depression ended faster or slower than it otherwise would have without The New Deal. Scholars have more recently revisited this subject and found that relevant historical and economic data from the time reveals that it is very likely the case that FDR and The New Deal likely unnecessarily prolongued the depression. That is; had different economic, social policies been instituted, or perhaps simply had old ones been left alone, the depression still would have ended only much faster. The great depression ultimately only ended with the advent of World War II, which was much more responsible for it ending than Roosevelt's New Deal policies.[1][2]

These are some very specific examples, but when you start to analyze things in these terms, you see that they are hardly exceptional or out of the ordinary. Indeed, as humans we are hard-wired to be results-oriented in our thinking, so this type of analysis is actually the default way we tend to look at things. And not without reason. Many 'results' are often distilled from hundred of years of experience, and wisdom, passed down generation to generation. Or they are inherited genetic survival traits (i.e. the man who runs from the lion passes on his genetic code, the one who stands still dies). These 'results' are often quite reliable. They have been shown to work through a de facto scientific method; trial and error over centuries. That being said, just because many of these traditions 'work', that doesn't necessarily mean that they are optimal. Not to mention that many detrimental beliefs and practices can get passed on in the form of superstition and tradition. The important thing to keep in mind is that results can be meaningful and useful when it's possible to isolate the variables responsible for creating the outcome (at least to a fairly high degree of certainty). Or when the results are repeatable and testable.


[1] - FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression (Paperback)
~ Jim Powell
[2] - New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America by Burton W. Folsom (Paperback - Nov. 17, 2009)

The Efficacy of Incarceration

Thomas Sowell has a new blog post that lightly touches on the subject. Sowell delves more in depth into the subject in his most recent book Intellectuals and Society. As you might expect, if you know anything about Sowell, his (and my) belief is that incarceration, especially as traditionally practiced in the United States, is a good and effective thing. Not because of it's ability to rehabilitate, but because it is effective without rehabilitating.

Leftists have attempted to move the goal posts with regards to incarceration using all kinds of secondary, or irrelevant, criteria for evaluating it's efficacy. Criteria such as "how well does it rehabilitate?", "how well does it deter?", "how much does it cost?" etc. How well it rehabilitates or deters are at best secondary considerations, and if it does neither, but succeeds at reducing crime by simply keeping criminals off the street, then it is very effective at what it is primarily supposed to be effective at. As for cost, statistics citing the enormous cost of incarcerating criminals, which liberals tend to spew at every given opportunity, are actually largely irrelevant because they are rarely, if ever, presented in the context of what incarceration costs versus the cost of having those criminals let loose in society. There is much evidence that suggests that the costs of incarceration are less than those potential costs of releasing thousands of criminals into the streets (or failing to incarcerate them in the first place), and Sowell lists some of those evidences in his book.

Some potent evidence for the efficacy of traditional incarceration practices are the witnessed results of alternative philosophies of incarceration, namely focusing on prevention by getting at "root causes" and seeking to "rehabilitate".

In the United States, where murder rates had been going down for decades, and were in 1961 less than half what they had been in 1933, the legal reforms of the 1960s - applying the ideas of the intellectuals and widely applauded by the intelligentsia - were followed almost immediately by a reverseal of this long downward trend, with the murder rate doubling by 1974. In Britain the ascendancy of the same vision of crime was followed by similarly sudden reversals of previous downward trends in crime rates. As one study noted:

Scholars of criminology have traced a long decline in interpersonal violence since the late Middle Ages until an abrupt and puzzling reversal occurred in the middle of the twentieth century

Liberals often cite recidivism rates as evidence that "incarceration doesn't work." Which is only evidence that incarceration doesn't work that well at reforming criminals, but reforming criminals is not the primary goal of incarceration. The primary goals of incarceration are protecting citizens from criminals and decreasing the amount of criminal activity that takes place in society. Anything else is extracurricular, and often focus on these extracurriculars can detract from the main goals. Sowell writes:

In Britain, as in the United States, it is often taken as axiomatic that "prisons are ineffective," as The Economist put it. The reason: "They may keep offenders off the street, but they fail to discourage them from offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released." By this kind of reasoning, food is ineffective as a response to hunger because it is only a matter of time after eating before you get hungry again.

Some more reasonable liberals will object something along the lines of "Well, OK, but aren't some sentences too harsh? Doesn't America incarcerate too many people, and for too long?" Which is a legitimate question to ask, and there certainly is a theoretical threshold at which one can go too far with a policy. But I don't think we've reached that threshold as crime is still too high, and incidents of unjust, excessive incarceration, or of unjust laws, are fairly low. Though, with that being said, I don't necessarily think all of our resources are optimally directed at this time. That is, there's probably too much focus on minor drug offenders, for example. So certainly our system is not perfect. It's just the best.

Liberals will also list anecdotal evidences of 'unjust' sentences for minor crimes, like the third strike offender whose third strike was stealing a pizza. Often concluding that some mandatory sentencing law, such as the three strikes law, is too harsh. Because it can result in people who commit three nonviolent crimes serving very long sentences. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that this is unjust because I think a proven repeat minor criminal has higher potential to be someone who commits a serious crime. Or, minimally, will continue to commit minor crimes costing society a lot to get hurt by them, catch them, judge them, jail them, release them, catch them, judge them, etc. ad infinitum. Everyone deserves a second chance. And a third. But not much more, at least from society (from each other as individuals and from God is another matter). Not to mention that liberal defense lawyers, and their ilk, right after decrying the injustice of a third strike life sentence for a nonviolent offender, will make the same argument on behalf of a rapist or a child molestor. These people's objections should be taken very lightly.

Even if I did recognize some anecdotal examples of unjust sentences, that doesn't even begin to make the case that the entire system of incarceration is unjust. Any functioning justice system will have instances of injustice, injustices done to both criminals and their victims by the way (the latter examples of injustices being conspicuously missing from such lists). The task is minimizing, not eliminating, these injustices. And we do an excellent job of that already.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Riding a Tea Party tsunami, Rand Paul won the Republican nomination for Senate in the state of Kentucky, upsetting the establishment Republican. In the wake of his victory there has been some controversy surrounding the libertarian's position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He has made what some have deemed to be 'controversial' statements about Title II of the act which states that private businesses (which Title II calls 'public accommodations') can not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, etc. Paul, though being somewhat evasive for political reasons, has made it clear that he has reservations about that aspect of the act, though he agrees fully with the public portion. Paul has stated that he still would have voted for the act, had he been in the Senate in '64, finding that the positives of the Act outweigh this particular negative. Which is a completely reasonable position to take. The only thing I don't understand is why this view is considered controversial? He is a libertarian, and this opinion is textbook libertarianism.

In addition to this opinion of Mr. Paul's not being particularly controversial, his statements are also actually just correct. Government should not have the authority to tell private business whom they must serve, anymore than it should have the authority to tell private citizens whom they must be friends with. Private business establishments should reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason.

When it comes to freedom of speech everyone understands this concept: "I don't agree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Most people seem to understand and agree with that principle. Yet when it comes to my right to do what I wish on my property, somehow this principle no longer applies in many people's eyes. Despite the fact that the principle is exactly the same. Freedom has costs, and one of the costs is that bigoted, ignorant individuals must be allowed to choose who sets foot on their property. Whether that property is their restaurant or their home. Anything else is a coercive restriction of that business owner's rights.

For all you bleeding-hearts and do-gooders, fear not! We as non-bigots, we the enlightened, are not without recourse. Though our savior isn't the almighty hand of government. It's our own freedom. We have the freedom to boycott such establishments. We have the right to picket them. We have the right to decry racism, bigotry and hatred wherever we see it. Whether it's outside of institutions that have such practices, in letters to the editor, blogs, or public pronouncements on radio and television. With such a relatively enlightened, tolerant populous, and with the amount of instantly available information, due to the internet and such, this alone would squash the vast majority of instances of this type of practice. Racists can't even deny the power of the dollar, and with all of these pressures on them, they would be forced to either abandon their racist practices, or very likely go out of business. Minimally they would be forced to suffer a hard financial hit when we non-bigots refuse to spend money at their establishment.

However, there would likely still be a small number of enclaves of mostly racist rural individuals who could continue to operate by serving their own racist, ignorant customers and not suffer too much, regardless of how much people boycotted or protested. And so what? We already tolerate racist individuals being allowed to hold whatever views they want, we tolerate their right to put those views into books and articles and disseminate them. We acknowledge their right to gather and discuss racist ideas in their homes. How is the right to determine who they will or won't serve in their place of business any different? Freedom to racist speech, but not freedom to actually be, and behave, like a racist? Why should our rights end at speech?

Your rights should only end when they infringe upon another person's rights. In this case the rights of potential patrons are not at stake. The whole idea of business transactions is that you have two willing parties entering into a transaction they both find favorable, neither being forced into the transaction. If the business person does not want your business, whether it's for economic reasons, or ignorant, bigoted ones, he should have no obligation to accept your business. The rights that are at stake are those of the business owner, not the patron, as the patron (or the government on the patron's behalf) does not have the right to force the owner into making transactions he does not want to make, on his own property.

This is what liberty is. This is what freedom is. It isn't always politically correct, but it's the foundation of our society. Thus, Title II of the Civil Rights Act is actually a restriction of rights, those rights of business owners.

With all that said, Mr. Paul is not stupid, and has the ability to weigh this one negative of the act against the rest of the act, which is demonstrably positive and highly necessary. The stupid ones are his critics. People who clearly don't even understand, or care to discuss the relevant issues. Instead appealing to emotions, as Rachel Maddow did when interviewing Paul on this topic, wringing her hands over people who "fought to desegregate lunchroom counters", and dismissing Paul's argument as an "esoteric argument about ownership." Not refuting, or even addressing the argument, mind you, but simply dismissing it out of hand.

The implicit assumption of Maddow's, and others who think like her, is that since government power was the instrument that was used to end private discrimination (at least in those areas where it had the ability to i.e. restaurants, lunch counters etc.), that it is the only instrument that has the ability to achieve the desired results. There are a few problems with this line of reasoning. The first being that, as I have shown, government is not the only instrument that can achieve these results, there are alternatives. The second problem is the assumption that some social results are so desirable that the desired results should supersede certain types of rights, in this case property rights. Which I disagree with philosophically, first of all, but is also a notion that has no Constitutional basis. Although, it admittedly has found subsequent support in the courts. Which doesn't mean a whole lot to me, considering the plethora of unconstitutional, nonsensical things that have found support in the courts since FDR.

Too many politicians these days give pat, standard answers to questions and issues that are often quite complex. Mr. Paul could have easily, simply said that he agrees with the Civil Rights Act of '64 (since, on balance, he does), and not even brought the pain upon himself of having to defend his position to people who have no real interest in hearing what that position is or how he defends it. In so doing he could have avoided entirely the possibility of hurting himself politically with a voting populous which, though not stupid, is often quite tone-deaf to subtlety and nuance. The fact that he chose instead to say what he thinks should be lauded, not condemned. The fact that he chose to say what he thinks and it was levelheaded, consistent and logical, knowing that all of these things will draw the ire of the media and the Washington establishment, should place him in the political hall of fame.


Maddow's show: +

Saturday, May 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien

[In the middle of trying to cajole the otherwise well-read interviewer into reading The Screwtape Letters]:


... instead of is it true or not. You don't even have to - I mean, just go, it's in like the first twenty pages. The Screwtape Letters is really - it's weird cause it's a very childlike, simple book. But Lewis is incredibly smart.

And it's, it's weird, it's one of the things I noticed, I don't notice that you argue by analogy or whatever. But it's like, if somebody will say something to you, your reaction is very often to quote a line similar to it. Or to talk about whether that's - whether that's a good line or not. And I think the reason why it doesn't irritate me, but I feel it and I notice it, is that there's a similar component in me. It's a writerly type thing.

But I guess my only justification for saying to you is that I'm like, I'm really - there's something else. There's something else besides that. There's also this, is it true or not. That, does it feel true, does it taste true? And like whether it's clever, or whether, whether it's well said, or whether its fresh or not, is only part of it. It's like - ah, I don't know. It's... I can't quite nail down just what I'm saying.

I think you would find that book intensely interesting. 'Cause it's weird, I read it for the first time when I was thirty. I swear to God, I'll read Renata Adler and Nabokov's letters if you will check that out. I think you'd really like it.

In 2006 Wallace placed The Screwtape Letters atop his top 10 novels ever list . At the time this interview hadn't been published in it's entirety and there was some question as to whether he took the top 10 task seriously, as his top picks are not highly respected, literary titles. Most of them are modern, commercial works. But if you read Lipsky's book, Wallace makes it clear he has this strange admiration for a lot of cheap pop art. And it's not disingenuous, he really does like low-brow stuff on a lot of levels, in film, music and books. And believes there's a lot of artistic value in some of it. Not that he views Screwtape as pop, cheap or commercial, or even all of his top 10 that way. It's not like he just listed bad novels to be funny. For all I know his list might be dead serious, but considering many of his major influences and writers that he loves (i.e more serious, literary stuff, and some more experimental, high-art stuff), as well as his acknowledgment of many of the canonical classics as deservingly held in high opinion, it seems doubtful. Seems more like he was highlighting what he felt to be the stand-outs of certain types of authors that are under-appreciated, or even abhorred, in intellectual literary circles. Or perhaps he was using some quality+commercial-success criteria in order to make some point (though, that wouldn't explain the entirety of the list). Or maybe he just picked 10 books he liked a lot that he knew wouldn't be on anyone else's top 10. In any case, it now seems plainly clear that he definitely loves Screwtape.

On Tolkien and Lord of the Rings (interviewer, Lipsky, is in italics):

[Tells me he read Lord of the Rings five times as a teenager.]

You loved Tolkien. Is it a pleasure to have written a book long enough so readers can lose themselves in your world, same way you did in Tolkien's? [Talking about Infinite Jest]

I think it's different though. 'Cause this is a harder book, and it's more in chunks. I mean, the thing about Tolkien is, it's a very long linear narrative, where you feel like you yourself are on a voyage. And this is much more...

But on the Web boards I've visited, people DO speak about it as if entering a different world ...

That would be very neat.

Having read and loved both Lord of the Rings and Infinite Jest I can attest to the idea that Infinite Jest is an extremely complex, detailed world in it's own right, and is completely immersing in a way that is similar to what Tolkien achieved with LOTR. Though, of course, being extremely different in most other respects.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Who's Worse: Tobacco Companies or 'Truth'?

It's a lot closer than it should be. "Truth" is the anti-big-tobacco organization that puts out anti-big-tobacco advertisements. I say "anti-big-tobacco" rather than "anti-smoking" because I've never seen an advertisement by the group that focused on the dangers of smoking, or was attempting to convince people to quit and/or not begin smoking. Which, if that's what they did, would be a noble enterprise. However, virtually all of their efforts are aimed at the demonizing and scapegoating of tobacco companies and executives, which I can't imagine is very effective in terms of actually reducing the amount of people who smoke. Neither could it possibly frighten or deter tobacco companies from going about their normal business, even if that were a noble goal (which I don't really believe that it is).

Tobacco companies fill a market demand. Even if you successfully convinced every existing tobacco company to cease production of cigarettes tomorrow, how long do you think it would take before more companies cropped up to fill that void? Hopefully it should be clear that the problem of smoking, especially at this point in history, where the dangers of smoking are well known to just about everyone and full disclosure is not an issue, is not the responsibility of tobacco companies.

We, as consumers, have the power to not only force tobacco companies out of business, but to ensure that others don't replace them. How? By not purchasing tobacco products. By choosing to stop smoking. By ending the demand. Therefore the continued existence of tobacco companies is entirely, fully our own responsibility, as consumers. And if "Truth" really wants to put the tobacco companies out of business, they should focus their efforts on convincing us to quit buying, rather than on them to quit selling. That's an exercise in futility if ever there was one.

With this being the case, 'Truth's campaign, if they truly want to end smoking, is completely backwards in it's methodology. We know from the lesson of prohibition in the 20s that cutting off the supply of a product that is in very high demand only creates black markets and a large organized crime problem. You have to attack the problem on the demand side. The issue is a personal choice and public health issue, and the solutions are already known. We need only, as individuals, to either implement them or not. If we do, good for us. If we don't, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Obama, The Supreme Court and 'Activism'

Today's New Yorker has an asinine article by Jeffrey Toobin about judicial activism, in which Toobin accuses today's conservative, Robert's court of being guilty of "judicial activism." He asserts that while conservative justices claim that they are in favor of judicial restraint, their actions say otherwise, and proceeds to list some decisions where the conservative court "actively" shot down unconstitutional laws. To what authority does he turn to in order to define "judicial activism"? Barack Obama, the 'law professor' of course.

A few weeks ago, on Air Force One, Obama, a former law professor, gave a useful definition of the term, saying that “an activist judge was somebody who ignored the will of Congress, ignored democratic processes, and tried to impose judicial solutions on problems instead of letting the process work itself through politically.” This is, indeed, what the Roberts Court is doing.

Never mind consulting any actual legal experts or, say, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court (i.e. true legal experts) for their definition. No, he blithely accepts Obama's definition and uses that to frame the entire debate throughout the article, as though that definition were valid. Despite the fact that Obama's definition is simply not what judicial activism is. It's not what it is, neither is it even how it has been historically understood. Obama's definition is a blatant example of outright, intentional, deceptive manipulation of language in order to render legitimate criticisms of the actual judicial activism of the left null by equivocating it with what is actually judicial restraint on the right.

Judicial activism was probably first defined by it's earliest proponent Roscoe Pound in 1908, who clearly lays out what judicial activism is. That is: the act of interpreting the law in a way that goes beyond the written letter of the law in favor of what you believe to be the "spirit" or "intent" of the law, in order to achieve some desired social result. And that's how it has been understood since, at least until recent linguistic acrobats on the left have attempted to turn it on it's head. Judicial activism is not stepping beyond the will or intent of Congress, as Obama defines it. Indeed, the entire purpose of a judiciary, as a co-equal branch of government, is to act as a check on the power of elected government officials i.e. Congress and the president! Yet Obama claims the exact opposite; that the judiciary's role is to submit to the will of Congress, not to determine whether or not the actions of Congress are Constitutional or not. It looks like someone doesn't have the most rudimentary understanding of (or perhaps respect for) the fundamental workings of our system of government. Surprise, surprise.

The trick of Obama and others on the left, being masters of both language and manipulation, is to play on the common man's fallible, but reasonable, sensibilities. In this case treating the idiom of "judicial activism" as two individual words. When you do that then virtually anything that the judiciary does actively, especially actively declaring acts of Congress unconstitutional, qualifies as "judicial activism." Thomas Sowell comments on this phenomenon is his book Intellectuals and Society (prior to Obama's recent comments), and reveals it for the cynical ploy that it is:

"Judicial activism" is an idiomatic expression whose meaning cannot be determined by the separate meanings of its words, any more than the meaning of the exclamation "Hot dog!" can be determined by referring to a separate definition of "hot" and "dog." Nevertheless, in recent times, some have attempted to redefine judicial activism by how active a judge has been in declaring laws or government actions unconstitutional. However, the Constitution itself is a limitation on the powers of Congress, as well as on the powers of the other branches of government. Judges have been considered duty-bound to invalidate legislation that goes counter to the Constitution, ever since the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, so how often they perform that duty is not solely in their hands, but depends also on how often others do things that exceed the powers granted them by the Constitution.

Toobin goes on in the article to say that "activism" and "restraint" are just convenient words people use whenever it suits their interests. He does this by simply defining "activism" and "restraint" along the lines of action versus inaction, which is clearly misguided. It is similar to what people who take the root of the word "conservative" (conserve) do when they determine that conservatives aren't being conservatives whenever they advocate some change, for change is the opposite of conservation. While this exhibits great mastery of the OED, it betrays either complete ignorance, or cynical manipulation, of the nuances of language. Specifically with regard to what the word "conservative" means in a modern political context. Similarly, "judicial activism" and "judicial restraint" as concepts are not merely the sum of the definitions of those terms.

Having handily disposed of misconceptions about "judicial activism", Sowell goes on to illuminate what it actually is:

The real issue regarding judicial activism is over whether the basis of a judge's decisions is the law created by others, including the Constitution, or whether judges base their decisions on their own particular conception of "the needs of the times" or of "social justice" or of other considerations beyond the written law or legal precedents.

This is what judicial activism is, and this is what it has always been understood to be. So either our dear leader, the distinguished law professor, is unaware of this fact (which is hard to imagine), or he willfully and cynically tries to maneuver around it with "verbal virtuosity", the most potent tool of the statist. In either case it spells bad news for us, though it's much worse if it's the latter (which it most likely is). Because in that case there's no chance that this is an isolated misunderstanding of the workings of our government, rather it reveals a conscious, systematic attempt to subvert the foundations that our society rests upon.

Kagan: Obama's Harriet Miers?

I just finished reading an article titled "Kagan Doesn't Deserve it" by Paul Campos, where he bashes Kagan's nomination based on her complete lack of any real legal experience, as well as her publishing virtually nothing scholarly that would reveal what her position is on anything, or what type of justice she might be. He draws a comparison of her nomination to that of George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers, claiming that, in the relevant factors, Kagan is just like Miers.

Grownups understand that a Supreme Court justice’s politics are by necessity a crucial factor in how he or she goes about interpreting the law, since difficult questions of legal interpretation are inherently political. Certainly conservatives understood this when they opposed the nomination of Harriet Miers: Their primary objection to her had nothing to do with whether she was “qualified” for the position, but rather with the fact that, just like Kagan, she had practically no public record. The argument for Miers came down to the claim that conservatives should simply trust George W. Bush to make these kinds of decisions. This is exactly the same argument that political progressives are now being asked to accept in regard to Kagan: that they should trust Barack Obama.

The most central, relevant similarities between Kagan and Miers is that neither have ever been a judge, neither has much legal experience to speak of, and neither has published hardly anything scholarly that would allow you to determine what kind of judge that they might end up being. The similarities might end there, but when it comes to the relevant issues when selecting a Supreme Court Justice, those are some monstrous similarities with extreme significance.

In what relevant ways do they differ? The most important difference has nothing to do with the nominees themselves, but with the president that nominated them, and their respective parties. That is, it was Bush's own party, the Republicans, that derailed the Miers nomination. Conservatives understand the potential dangers of nominating someone with no judicial, or public legal record of opinion. And Conservatives are inherently distrustful of leaders (even one of their own), and thus saw no need to trust Bush's judgment on the matter.

The Democratic party, on the other hand is, by definition, more trustful of leaders in general, and especially one of their own. And even more especially the anointed one Barry Obama. The Democrats simply do not have the gall to insinuate that Obama would ever make anything less than a perfect decision. Neither do they understand the potential problems associated with electing someone with such a complete lack of a record, and partly for good reason. That is, considering that so-called 'unknowns' most often turn out to be quite liberal in their decisions, progressives figure that they have little to fear. While the opposite was true for conservatives; they had every reason to fear that Miers 'unknown' status would translate into her becoming a liberal justice.

So the different repsonses to two nominees who have similar qualifications actually makes a lot of sense given the differences between the parties. I guess the point is that a) the left should be more distrustful of their leaders and b) everyone should be more wary about putting a total unknown in such a powerful position.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why Legal Drinking Age Laws are Discriminatory

Drinking age laws are so discriminatory! And, what's worse, they harass people who are of legal drinking age! People of legal drinking age, who look like they could be too young to drink, are often forced to prove that they are of legal drinking age. Yet older people rarely have to show any form of identification! Thus legal drinking age laws discriminate against young looking people, and harass people who are of a legal drinking age.

Sound familiar? This is the argument being leveled against the Arizona illegal immigration law. When I make the exact same argument about legal drinking age laws the ridiculous nature of the argument is revealed. Yet many people continue to make the argument with a straight face.

Young looking people are statistically much more likely to be under the legal drinking age than are older looking people. Thus young looking people get carded more often. Mexican and latino looking people in the state of Arizona are statistically much more likely to be an illegal immigrant than white, black or Asians in that same state. Thus they will be more highly scrutinized in that regard. There's nothing unfair or unjust about recognizing and isolating different behaviors among different groups. Different groups in different areas behave differently and have different characteristics. To ignore this, or to call for law enforcement to ignore this, is the equivalent of asking police to shut off a functioning, logical, helpful part of their brain, that they should be using to their job more efficiently.

It's not something that they will trumpet, but intelligent detective and police work is absolutely dependent on all types of profiling, including racial. "The suspect is a 6'1" white male in blue jeans" - when this is the description of a suspect of a crime, should police highly scrutinize a 5'4" black woman in a skirt as the likely culprit? I should hope not.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Slavery and American / Western Exceptionalism

In Thomas Sowell's most recent, stellar blog post entitled "Filtering History", Sowell shows how American slavery is unfairly, or perhaps unevenly, portrayed in popular media and in academia. Reading it got me thinking about how essentially everything our culture conditions us to think about the issue, via these institutions, is effectively the opposite of the truth.

The truth being that, as Sowell points out, America and the West were the first in the history of mankind to reject slavery and take very clear steps toward eradicating it's existence. Meanwhile we are conditioned to believe that America's brand of slavery was in some way unique, or exceptionally brutal. We are taught that the the sins of America were somehow worse than those of any other society in history. When in reality it wasn't America's sins that were exceptional; our sins were quite ordinary and commonplace. What was exceptional was our recognition of the evil of slavery, and the great sacrifices and pains that the people of America went through in order to end the institution. That was original. That was exceptional.

Yet we still feel the need to take an apologetic, sorrowful tone when approaching the issue in the present, rather than a more appropriately triumphant one. Not that we deserve any more credit for the heroic acts of our ancestors than we do blame for their wicked deeds. We deserve neither. But if you're going to attempt to dole out one, then in order to be consistent, you must factor in the other.

As Sowell is careful to point out, it isn't that the information that is presented by the media or in academia on the subject is false, only theat there's a selection bias as to what information is presented, the manner that it's presented in and how often it's presented. What's missing is a historical framework and context within which to properly view the events.

Kindle Revolution

I'm 55% through Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell, 35% through Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb and 85% through Let there Be Range by Cole South (a poker book). And I just got the latest New Yorker delivered wirelessly to me which has a couple of essays/articles I want to read, including a new essay by Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe it's just me, but the Kindle has revolutionized the way that I digest information. In school you always had a schedule of courses, each with their own unique material which you were expected to learn all at the same time, more or less. Where your time and effort modulated between subjects. Some are more adept at handling this process than others, but on average most of us are at least capable of it. However, when it came to my personal reading/studying time, I would always start a book and not read anything else until I finished it. Not because I thought I was incapable of mentally juggling material, but because I was physically incapable of lugging libraries around. Or at least I chose not to be so discomforted. In school I had to lug books around, but in my post-school life I was determined to avoid that if at all possible.

When I heard about the Kindle it sounded intriguing to me as a reader, but it didn't excite me that much. I didn't see there being a large incentive to get away from old-fashioned, cover-bound, printed books. But this was a case of "you don't know what you're missing until you've tried it." My lovely wife got me the Kindle as a gift, and since then I've become a more voracious reader. I read more often now, but also, when I'm reading, I feel like that time is utilized much more efficiently than it was pre-Kindle. Intuitively this doesn't make much sense. After all, I'm still holding a device that's approximately the same size as a book, just as I would be if I were reading a real book. So what's changed? I think the biggest difference is having your library at your fingertips. Not just your library but also the ability to purchase new books from your device as they are recommended to you.

Also, the physical difference may be slight, but I underestimated it. For an extreme example, I don't think I could have gotten through a physical, cover-bound copy of Infinite Jest. The weight of the thing, and the effort it takes to keep the pages open, not to mention the flipping back and forth to read Wallace's end notes. Combined with Wallace's dense, complex prose and it would have been even more of a chore (and of course, it is by design). But with the Kindle the task was decidedly easier. A very light device, and whenever a end note shows up I could simply click the end note, go read it, and instantly click back. These are little differences that cumulatively have made a big difference for me. The few seconds you save here and there add up.

I don't fully understand myself why some small conveniences made such a large difference in my desire to read and my ability to process information from disparate sources simultaneously. And maybe for some people it wouldn't make any difference. But it did for me. Long live Kindle!