Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Day Visit

I don't usually use this site for personal-diary-type entries, but today I am experimenting with the camera-function of my new cellphone. ... Say, it works! How 'bout that!

We just went to River Falls to spend Thanksgiving with my friend, Imtiaz Moosa, pictured here. He is a Nietzsche scholar who teaches at the UW campus there. This is the morning after the great turkey-pig-out, over breakfast at the local Perkins.

Since the last time I saw him, Imtiaz has gone more or less completely blind. Hence the dark glasses, which he is not wearing in order to look cool. It is an inspiration to see how he continues to flourish, despite the gathering darkness. May we all have a portion of his courage and good cheer!

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Those Lying, Cheating Pilgrims!

Here is an interesting Chapter from Murray Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, with some surprising facts about the Pilgrim fathers. One that particularly impressed me:

Slightly more than one hundred people sailed in the Mayflower in 1620. Of these, only forty one were Pilgrims. Eighteen were indentured servants, by contract bound to seven years' service to their masters, and the rest were mainly Anglicans coming west in search of economic opportunity. The original plans were to start a colony in southern Virginia, but the Pilgrim masters of the ship decided to veer well to the colder, wilder north. At this news, some of the indentured servants threatened to exercise their contractual rights: they had agreed to be indentured servants in Virginia, not in some unknown northern wilderness! In the words of an early chronicle: "They would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them." They had the right idea, oh my brothers!

Partly in response to this threat, the Pilgrim minority, though still at sea, constituted themselves the first state in New England, by entering into the Mayflower Compact. Thus they cemented their dominance over the non-Pilgrim majority. The Mayflower Compact, far from being an assertion of independence and individualism, was an attempt to oppress, enslave and expropriate their fellow human beings. In this way, it was like every state established on so far on Earth.

Having said this, it occurs to me that this last statement might sound extreme. To avoid misunderstanding, let me extract my Aesopian moral as a stand-alone, properly qualified, but universally quantified proposition. Every state heretofore is an alliance of some human beings to kill, enslave, or (in the very most benign of cases) to rob their fellows. There! This I think is a statement I can stand by.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Trouble with Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen, comedian of Borat fame, recently gave a rare out-of-Borat-character interview to the British newpaper The Independent. In it, he expresses surprise that real-world Kazakhs have taken offense at his portrayal of them as urine-drinking cow-raping antisemitic morons:

I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realize that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater.

I find this an amazing statement. He seems to be saying that if he and his friends don't know anything about you, then it's just as if you don't exist and, if he portrays you in a stereotypical way, you shouldn't complain because you are just a fictional character anyway. Could it be that he has some of the same insensitivity that he cleverly satirizes in others? The Greeks had a word for that.

Okay, I admit there are more charitable ways of reading what he is trying to say here, but I think my underlying point is valid. In the Borat movie there is nothing, from one end to the other, that is the least bit threatening to the Western liberal point of view. It's all about what what racist, homophobic, antisemitic jerks all the people in the world who are not Western liberals -- from Middle-Eastern Muslims to red state Americans -- are. If you are a Western liberal, this movie is very favorable to your Self and very unfavorable to the Other. How stupid it is, how nasty, how unlike you and me!

Some of the liberal reviewers of Borat said the movie made them think. What it made them think, of course, was that their old opinions are even more true than they always thought they were. What it made me think is how similar Western liberalism can be to the narrow ideologies that it piously denounces.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Who is More Virtuous: Liberals or Conservatives?

Now this is interesting! There are a number of studies out that correlate personality (or you might say, "character") traits with political ideoleology. There is a study correlating correlating being a liberal with being "open minded" and being a conservative with being, well, closed. Now there are some studies correlating being "conservative" with positive traits: More exactly, according to Eugene Volokh, people who are against income redistribution (making the poor richer and the rich less so) tend to be less angry, less vengeful, less unhappy, and more generous than people who are in favor of it. There is a new book by Albert C. Brooks, Who Really Cares, that reports similar findings. (You can see a review presenting more of Brooks' findings here.)

I have two comments:

First, the latter sort of finding is exactly what Nietzsche would have predicted. Egalitarianism and revenge are products of the very same existential stance: excessive moralizing, the insistence on re-editing reality based on one's views of how it "ought" to be. Further, he claimed that true generosity is a result, not of a sense that one shares the underdog's neediness, but on the contrary of a sense of overfull vitality and prosperity. The generous person would be the one that does not need the nasty defenses of the moralizer.

Second, these two sets of findings are logically consistent with one another. It could be true that anti-redistributionists are more happy, less vengeful, less angry, more generous, and less open-minded. It could be true that pro-redistributionists are less happy, more vengeful, more angry, less generous, and more open-minded.

Why not?

Volokh does report one result that surprised me. Being pro-redistributionist is positively, not negatively, correlated with racist attitudes. I suppose that surprises me because the redistributionists I know are all highly educated academics, who are members of a small sub-culture that is militantly anti-racist. If you go out there into the real world, where pro-redistributionists are not members of this tiny group, you might find very different associations between ideas.

Once again, I can't resist pointing out that this is just the sort of thing that Nietzsche would have predicted, at least if you define racism as involving bitter, rancorous thoughts about the racial Other. The mechanism that explains revenge could explain this too. In fact, that is how Nietzche explained the "ism" that, tragically, was coming to dominate German public discourse in his time: namely, anti-semitism. In fact, he strongly associated anti-semitism with egalitarianism. I assume it was indeed so associated in the writings of anti-semitic socialists of Nietzsche's day such as Eugen Duehring, Karl Marx, and Nietzsche's brother-in-law Bernhard Foerster.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tasering Incident at UCLA

Rod Long has an article here on an incident at UCLA: Campus police repeatedly administered electric shocks to a student (note his Muslim-sounding name) who failed to show his ID at the customary 11:00 o'clock ID check. As he was attempting to leave the building, he objected to one of the police officer's grabbing his arm. That's when the violence (all perpetrated by the police) began. Even according to police statements (contested by witnesses, one of whom photographed the incident), the worst thing he did was to "go limp" when they tried to eject him from the building. (Some reports have the police saying that he requested others to help him. Apart from the fact that other witnesses apparently denied this, I would say this was clearly within his rights.) As their victim screamed and writhed on the floor, sympathetic onlookers stood "helplessly" by and argued with the police. Like Rod, I suspect that someone should have tried to drag the cops off of him, at least if they were not armed with lethal weapons. But put a uniform on a guy and suddenly the rest of us are "helpless."

You can see the hair-raising video of the event on YouTube.

I think the student's behavior in the video is exactly right. He says everything he says at the top of his lungs, to get as many witnesses as possible, and points out at every turn what the police are doing to him: "I've been tased for no reason! ... I was leaving! ... This is your Patriot Act! ... This is your abuse of power!" Note perfect. When you are being abused by the authorities, secrecy is in their interest. Publicity is in yours. Go thou and do likewise!

BTW as Patri Friedman points out in the Catallarchy blog, there is one good thing about this: we all should give thanks for these electronic technologies. which make it easy to record events like these. In the past we would probably never have heard of this incident, and even if we had, it would have been obscured by the fog of official lies and prevarications. No longer! Praise the Lord!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, RIP

Milton Friedman died today at the age of 94. He was a very smart person who used his considerable talents to fight for everybody's freedom. He is one of the people who ended the horror of military conscription in America, and he did more than any one person to spread the idea that the "war on drugs" is simply wrong. He was a great man.

Here is a story about him from the Chicago Tribune obituary:

When Nixon appointed Friedman to a panel examining whether to abolish the draft, Friedman found himself at odds with Gen. William Westmoreland, the Army chief of staff and former Vietnam commander.

At one point, Westmoreland declared that he did not want to command an army of "mercenaries."

"I stopped him and said, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Friedman later recalled. "He drew himself up and said, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.' I replied, 'I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.'"
The most sophisticated of the many obits I've seen is Charles Goodhart's, in the Guardian.

Friedman's grandson, Patri Friedman, has some links to delightful videos of Friedman here. To view them is to see how one participates in public discussion with both brilliance and urbanity.

I met Prof. Friedman just once. It was over lunch in Berlin, at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings of 1982 or 1983. He had just come from a trip to the USSR. His impression of the then-extant workers' paradise were, as you might imagine, not favorable. Of course, he had expected as much. But he also noticed that other visitors had similar reactions. On the return flight, when the pilot announced that they had crossed the Finnish border, the passengers burst into applause. Later, a Finnish cab driver gleefully told him, by means of broken English and hand-gestures, "Oh yes, I've been to Russia! I've dropped bombs on Russia!" referring to the brief period in 1940 and 41 when tiny Finland humiliated the Red Tsar, Stalin.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

My Economist is Bigger than Your Economist

I was astonished to read in a little op-ed piece in Scientific American (one of the world's most overrated publications, BTW) by one Jeffrey Sachs that the corporatist politico-economic systems of "the Nordic countries" prove that "Friedrich Von Hayek was wrong": the welfare state does not lead to serfdom but to social justice and a "vibrant" economy, both! What? Wasn't I just reading an article (which I blogged a couple of weeks ago) by a man who had just won the Nobel Prize for studying these very questions -- where virtually the opposite thesis was asserted? What gives?

Well, these country-to-country comparisons are very messy but, roughly speaking, Sachs is wrong, is what gives. For a brilliant account of a lot of what is wrong with what Sachs was saying, see Tim Worstall here and especially here.

There is one mistake that Worstall did not point out and, call me petty, but it really cheeses me off.

There is a small typo in the first edition of Thoreau's Walden, which is corrected in editions that are carefully re-edited, but survives in a vast array of crappy ones (such as the shoddy Modern Library one, the really horrible Barnes and Noble one, etc.). Turning to that page is a quick and easy way to tell whether an edition is a good one or not.

Similarly, there is a quick and easy way to spot people who talk about Hayek and just don't know anything about him. Hayek was not a "von." Furthermore, even if he were, the word would not be capitalized. The fact that Jeffry von Sachs didn't even know what Hayek's name was, was an early indicator (in addition to his grossly obvious misinterpretations of what Hayek was saying) that Sachs was talking through his pantseat.

Few people in the history of the planet Earth have been as roundly denounced for being wrong during their lifetime, or as resoundingly proved to be right subsequently, as Friedrich August Hayek (his real name!). He should be honored for it, and I do so here!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Darwinian Argument for Paternalistic Coercion?

Economist David Friedman has a very interesting post on a clever argument for paternalism, forcing decisions on a person because the coerced option is deemed to be for their own good. The basic idea is that, since biological evolution lags behind cultural evolution, there can be ways in which we are systematically prone to make bad decisions about our own welfare.

Not too long ago, it was actually a very good idea to stuff yourself whenever you had food because for all you know you might be enduring drought and famine soon -- and living off your fat! For most of human history, becoming fat was perfectly rational. Very recently, we humans have created an environment in which our hard-wired behavior is no longer rational. So m-- here comes the paternalism -- why not impose a tax on refined starch, refined sugar, and fat. This would revise the incentives we have to eat one sort of food rather than another, bringing our behavior back in line with conduct that is rational. We would become healthy and wealthy, without ever incurring the expense of becoming wise! (A related idea is considered by Gary Becker here.)

Here is David's comment on this:
If we had a government run by benevolent philosopher kings, that might make sense. The problem with it in the world we live in is that although I may sometimes be a bad judge of my own welfare, sometimes even a bad judge in predictable ways--arguably the central point of behavioral economics--I have one enormous advantage over any one else when it comes to making decisions about my own welfare. Unlike almost everyone else in the world, I can be trusted to put my own welfare very high in my priorities. Once we shift the decision to someone else, however rational, we can expect him to make decisions for me in his interest rather than mine.
The goal of self-control is generally self-interest. The goal of other-control is unfortunately other-interest.

My own view is that other-control is even worse, in comparison with a regime of self-control, than David makes it sound. When others control me, I have noticed, they often aren't even trying to promote their own rational self-interest (at least as we would intuitively think of it). They often are trying to make me do what is "right" (not use drugs, not use hate-speech, not carry a hand-gun, etc.).

The potential for irrationality in this sort of regime is truly immense.

One trouble with this sort of decision-making is that it does not set up any feed-back mechanism that would cause the controller to change his or her policy. If they were trying to exploit me economically then at least they could look at the bottom line and see whether they are making any money off of me. But if the decision was made just because it was "right," why, no amount of bad stuff that happens either to me or to them would prove them wrong. If I am unhappy with my drug-free life or get killed because I didn't have a gun, those are just some of the costs "we" have to pay on order to do our duty! If the war on drugs puts a third of a million young men in prison, and use of dangerous drugs is still rampant, that is a reason to -- redouble our efforts! Does this sound familiar at all?

What both rebuttals to the Darwinian argument, mine and David's, have in common is of course the idea that in the real world, other-controllers are not going to make precise re-adjustments of the incentive-structure in the direction of true rationality. So a model in which they do so, while interesting perhaps, has no implications for what we ought to do about real governments. What we should do with them is -- replace paternalistic other-control with self-control!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Someone to Vote For

Boy, this election is a tough one for me. Which group do I disagree with most strongly? The gang of coercive world-savers the Republicans have been since 2001? Or the gang of coercive world-savers the Democrats have been since 1933? The people who are pursuing America's post-WWII foreign policy to its insane conclusion (the Republicans)? Or the people who invented this policy in the first place, during the Truman and Roosevelt administrations (the Democrats)?

And then there are the second-order issues. If the Republicans are beaten up as badly as they deserve, after their performance as one of the most incompetent ruling parties history, the Dems will of course claim that this is a great vote of confidence for their statist policies. On the other hand, if the Repubs somehow escape the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, they will naturally claim that that is a great vote of confidence for their statist policies. Personally, I find it hard to see how anyone can have any confidence in either of these gangs of idiots any longer, but then I realize that about these second-order issues I tend to be an optimist.

The only way out for me is to vote for third party candidates. Voting for the right third-party candidate sends a relatively clear message, which takes care of the second-order sort of issue. Then there is the first-order sort of problem, including of course the why-waste-your-vote issue. Well, there are all sorts of low-profile (but in some cases important) offices that third party candidates do have a shot at. For that reason, I am planning on voting for Tim Peterson, Libertarian candidate for Wisconsin State Treasurer. If you are a Wisconsin resident and inclined to laugh at this suggestion, just think for a minute about how you feel about living in one of the states with the very highest tax burdens, far ahead of both Taxechusetts and Taxifornia. See here.