Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spoilers: A Defense

Last weekend, the Libertarians nominated former Congressman, and former Republican, Bob Barr for President. This is probably the most important single event in the history of their party since its first presidential campaign in 1972, as it means they will get much more attention, and probably far more votes, than ever before. It is also historically interesting in another way -- as one more bit of damage the Republicans have done to themselves since 9/11. People are continuing to grab life preservers and jump out of their neocon ship.

As Bruce Ramsey points out in the June issue of Liberty, this raises once again an interesting issue that Libertarians do sometimes find themselves facing. Do you really want to do in 2008 what Nader and his supporters quite possibly did in 2000? Some are saying that Barr could cause the Democrats to win this time.

Actually, in my case, the candidate I would vote for if I don't vote for Barr would almost certainly be Obama. There are no circumstances (except, possibly, torture) in which I would vote for an imperialist, authoritarian warmonger like McCain. This raises an interesting sub-issue for me. Suppose the Barr vote benefits Obama. Does this, by itself, mean there is no "spoiler problem" for me?

No, I don't think so. If you vote for a third party candidate who can't realistically win, then you are diverting a vote from your second-best candidate.* And if this second-best candidate is a possible winner, then you are undermining them and helping your less preferrable electable candidate -- regardless of who eventually wins. I think the concept of "spoiler" is relative to the individual voter. You are always spoiling your favorite electable candidate. (I suppose we should speak of voters as being spoilers, as well as candidates.) ... and I should never "spoil" my favorite electable candidate, right?

Again, I don't think so. There is actually one good reason to always go with the spoilers. After all, there are good reasons why I don't like the idea of voting for Obama. Granted he is somewhat less imperialistic than McCain. He is probably also more pro-liberty (at least slightly) on a number of domestic issues (eg., abortion, the war on drugs, the domestic war on terror). But it is also true that if elected he will serve up more of the same socialism-plus-tapwater (eg., more "free" health care) that the Democrats have been decanting since 1933. If voters are going to third party candidates, the major parties will know that they are doing something to chase these people away. If there are enough of these votes, the majors will want to bring them back. If Barr takes enough votes away from Obama, the Dems will have a reason to nominate less socialistic candidates in the future. If he takes enough votes way from McCain, the Republicans will have a reason to nominate candidates who are less imperialistic than he is, next time around. As a matter of fact, both these things can happen at the same time.

So, though spoilers have a negative effect on the current election, they have a positive effect on the next one. And the latter effect becomes more and more important as the "spoiler problem" also becomes more important: that is, the more people will vote for the Libertarian candidate and "spoil" the election, the stronger my reason to join them. In other words, the I have a reason to vote for the a third party candidate, and in addition a reason to not vote for one. This year, both reasons are particularly strong.

Of course, they are different sorts of reasons. The reason to not be a spoiler has to do with caring who wins the current election. The reason to be a spoiler has to do with caring about the future. Right now, I am leaning toward voting for the future.
* I am assuming throughout that it makes a difference who you vote for, and that the difference it makes is that it raises (or lowers) the probability that the candidates that you vote for (or refrain from voting for) will win. This is actually not true, just because the probabilities involved are too small to matter. As Wendy McElroy has pointed out, it is much more likely that I will be killed on the way to the polls than that my vote will affect who wins or loses. Voting is purely symbolic, insofar as it is a rational thing to do at all (which of course is doubtful). But the present discussion could be translated (with some extra verbiage) into a series of claims about what my vote symbolizes.

On the Purity of Walden, and Against Purity as an Ideal

While I was in Concord last week I managed to walk out to Walden Pond via the railroad tracks one of Henry's favorite ways to get there. To the left you see "Thoreau's Cove," where he would bathe in the morning, as it looked on that day. In a way, I ought to write something lyrical/devotional about Thoreau and his Walden sojourn, but I think the only thing I have to say that would half-way original involves expressing a doubt or worry about an aspect of his world view (though I should add that it is an aspect that overlaps to some extent with my own).

The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very
beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, ... yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. It is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.
That is Henry's description of Walden Pond in the chapter of Walden called "The Ponds." Walden, as he said, is noteworthy for two things (among others): the purity of its water and the fact that it has no surface inlets. Indeed, these two features are surely connected. Any given water molecule in Walden has been sitting on the surface of the earth for a relatively short period of time. It has not long been wandering from lake to lake, exposed to light, air and nutrients. The result is a gem-clear lake. I have noticed this phenomenon many times in other lakes. The lake you see behind me in my blog portrait in the left sidebar is one I have visited many times since 1969. It is perched atop a mountain of granite, fed only by melted snow. To the the right is a view of the lake, looking down into it. The shape you see near the bottom of the picture is a large boulder at the bottom of the lake. (Click to enlarge.) The lake has algae, but no weeds, no macroscopic plants at all. In fact, my lake is much "purer" than Walden, as it doesn't even contain any fish.

Maybe you can now guess what my point is: Where bodies of surface water are concerned, purity is death.

What is purity, after all? The idea of purity rests on three more fundamental ideas. To have a concept of purity you must, first, have the idea of a type of material as properly belonging in a certain domain (eg., domain: lake; material: water). Second, you need the idea that everything else is (eg., anything that can obstruct my view of the bottom) foreign matter and does not belong here. Finally, when this foreign matter invades the material that belongs here, what you have (third fundamental idea) is pollution (the Greeks called it miasma).

Aesthetically, purity is a very attractive idea. Anyone who has looked into a flawless gem or a pure (ie., dead) body of water knows this. But I see deep ethical and political problems with the idea, possibly fatal ones. Purity is, first of all, a entirely negative. To achieve purity is simply to chase certain things out, or annihilate them. Second, it is profoundly reactionary. If purity is ever achieved, all changes in regard to it are by definition bad and to be resisted. So its ideal end state is stasis stillness. In view of that it is no surprise the purity and death go hand in hand. Finally, if the concept is in a way profoundly intolerant. The idea of purity involves splitting the world up into the element that belongs here and the foreign element that does not, and should be chased back home or wiped out of existence.

We associate the idea of purity with ascetics, and so we should. Ascetics are deeply negative people, obsessed with chasing out the bad thoughts, flushing out their bad feelings, avoiding "wrong" foods and, in extreme cases, flushing "impurities" out of their very bowels. But it also is of great interest to a certain sort of environmentalist. After all, as I have said, pollution is nothing but the introduction of impurities. At their most purity-obsessed extreme, environmentalists can be very negative, reactionary, and intolerant people. Finally, and less obviously, purity is an idea that is very congenial to racists. Indeed, you could almost define racism as nothing more or less than the application of the purity-ideal to race. I can't really weigh in on the question of whether the Third Reich was the first consciously environmentalist government, but I can say there is a connection between Nazi racism and Nazi conservationism: they share a common theme in the idea of purity. Note that the Nazis referred to racial intermarriage as "race-pollution." To a racist, that is exactly what it is.

Thoreau's hunger for purity is both attractive and worrisome. (On both points, see the opening pages of the Walden chapter, "Higher Laws".) The more I think about it, though, the more I want to resist my own tendency to seek purity. And to exhort others: Oh my brothers and my sisters, be positive, be tolerant, commit pollution! Dare to be impure!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Off to Concord!

I'm leaving for a Liberty Fund colloquium I'm directing on Hawthorne and Thoreau -- in Concord Massachusetts itself! Both men, as everyone should know, lived there, where they were good friends and fishing companions.

When Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne moved into the Old Manse in 1842, the garden that supplied their vegetables had been planted by Thoreau. This was three years (to the day, almost) before he moved in and Walden.

In all the times I've been there, I've somehow failed to come back with any pictures of Walden Pond (do Catholics take snaps of the Vatican's interior when they go their for an audience with the Pope?). This time I'll try to make good that oversight and post one or two when I return.

Anyway, I probably won't be able to post until I return after Memorial Day. Too busy! Have a great holiday weekend everyone!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I Weigh in on the Miley Cyrus Thing

There's something about reading final exams that makes me want to surf the net for ten minutes at a stretch, reading about things that are none of my business. Here is something that was quite a flap for a week or so recently. Fifteen year old Singer and actress Miley Cyrus appeared in a series of photos (I think the fourth one in the slide show is probably the so-called "topless" shot) in Vogue Magazine, some of which seem obviously sexual and just as obviously aimed at adults. One feature that drew a lot of ire was a video on the Vogue web site in which she snuggles with her dad in ways that some people found creepy (it seems to have been removed). There was a chorus of "you slut!" from her fans, an apology, some back-pedaling. (If you think the above picture is one of the controversial ones, you should probably take a look at the Vogue slide show. Or maybe time-travel to an earlier century.)

The largely negative reaction to the photos begot its opposite reaction, and some have suggested that Ms. Cyrus is simply a teen who is taking charge of her life, exploring her sexuality, and good for her (hat-tip here to Hugo Schwyzer). As an ultra-libertarian and the parent of a teen, I have a lot of sympathy for this reaction, at least for the values that lie behind it. But I think the facts of this case are probably a lot more complex than this interpretation makes them sound. This is not, after all, just some high school sophomore exploring her alternatives. Aside from the semi-relevant fact that young Mylie does not even attend high school, there are several powerful causal agents involved in addition to her own deliberation and choice: a high-profile photographer, her parents*, two giant business corporations (Disney and Conde Nast, the owners of Vogue), and positively shocking amounts of money. To some extent, I am sure she is being used by agents who are basically moral idiots.

There is one other feature of the situation that dampens what might otherwise be my enthusiasm for Miley's exploratory behavior. Many girls discover at an early age that they have a peculiar sort of power over men. With just a little practice, they can get them to do amusing things: stammer, bump into things, give them peculiar amounts of drooling attention. It must be very tempting to inspire this sort of reaction as an end in itself. After all, it is a sort of power. But power over people, when sought as an end in itself, is always evil. It is power over nature that is good. (This was Ayn Rand's revision of Nietzsche.)

Here someone will want to object: "Power?" -- there's nothing coercive about it, and if men make fools of themselves over women, it's their own darn fault. And besides, the behavior you are talking about is perfectly natural. And, besides, without the pursuit of this sort of power, whole branches of art and popular culture would not exist. All this is of course true. It means, among other things, that the question of how parents and others should respond to this sort of behavior is a deep and difficult one. A coercive response, including parent-on-child coercion, is not justified. That being said, it is also true that the typical behavior of the coquette, the tease, the thousands of web cam girls shaking their money-makers on YouTube and amateur pornography sites is ethically problematic. Surely, at a minimum, such behavior, in children, should not be encouraged by adults. The fact that said adults stand to make money off it only makes it worse.

* They seem to be wonderful examples of the type of over-wealthy ignoramus that America n capitalism produces in such abundance. They named her little sister "Noah." Her dad is famous for one of the worst songs ever to soar into the stratospheric portions of the top 40. (I almost said the worst song, but I had forgotten about "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Why would my memory play such a trick on me, I wonder?) By the way, notice that the one detail in the elder Cyrus' signature song that makes it stick in the memory like a splinter under a fingernail -- namely, substituting "achy breaky" for "achin', breakin'" was his idea.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

All Tied Up!

I'm buried in term papers and exams now and my postings and comments may be sparse for up to a week.

Just now I am reading a bunch of papers about Triumph of the Will, and they're pretty good. I'm learning something, which is great!

For years now I've had the impression that our students are getting better and better. I know that sounds suspiciously like Emile Coue's magic mantra, but I swear it's true. There's probably another school somewhere, where the students are getting worse and worse.

So I'm feeling little pain but, rather like Andromeda on her rock, I'm all tied up.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Rights of Fetuses and Animals: Who Really Believes in Them?

George Carlin has a routine I heard once years ago, and have been thinking about ever since. The people who say that a fetus is a person just like you and me, and that abortion is therefore murder: do they really believe that? Why aren't fetuses counted in a census? If a fetus is a human, why do people say we have two children and one on the way instead of saying that we have three children? Why is a funeral not given when a woman has a miscarriage?

I would add some more questions, ones that I admit would be out of place in a comedy routine. If the pro-lifer's expressed opinions are true, then abortion as it is practiced here in the US is an evil akin to that of the Holocaust. In that case, why aren't these poeple bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors? Why don't most of them even go so far as to favor laws that impose penalties on women who have abortions? Haven't these women paid someone to commit "murder," like the clients of Murder, Incorporated? Of course, there are a few people who do draw these seemingly logical conclusions, but they are regarded as obviously insane, even by other right-to-lifers.

Similar questions can be asked about animal rights advocates. Hugo Schwyzer, in a vegan blog I enjoy visiting, poses a thorny problem. He recently invited some friends to dinner at a restaurant of his choice and picked up the tab afterwards, even though some of the friends had eaten steak and lobster. What should he do in situations like that, he wonders. After all, he tells us, he believes animals have rights. I appreciate the moral bind he is in, but I also think that if he really believed that animals have rights in the sense that we do, there would be no conflict at all. That belief would logically imply that eating a steak is wrong in the very same way that cannibalizing humans -- humans, moreover, who had been killed in specifically in order to be eaten -- is wrong. Paying someone to do that would be, once again, morally on a par with patronizing Murder, Inc. It would simply be off the menu. So, no moral conflict.*

There is another thing that vegetarians often do that does not seem to fit their declared beliefs at all. They frequently eat foods that are obviously designed to resemble meat products. They put hamburger-like soy protein crumbles in their chili, they eat breakfast links that are meant to resemble pork sausage, and so on. I eat these foods myself for health reasons, but if I seriously believed that pigs have the same right to not be killed and eaten that you and I have, I would avoid them with horror. If you were a reformed cannibal, would you eat foods that were designed to resemble human body parts? "Mm. Try one of these. They're just like real human toes. Crunchy!" I don't think so.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, one that deserves to be studied and explained. I don't know what the full explanation would be, but at minimum it must include the supposition that these people do not actually hold the beliefs they claim to hold. Surely, there has to be an element of behaviorism in any conception of what a belief is. If it's a belief, and not a hope or a hunch, you act on it. These people, I admit, surely must believe something that is different from what I believe, because they act differently than I do. But their actual behavior is far, far from fitting their beliefs as they describe them. Something else is going on here. What it is, I can only wonder.
* As with the pro-lifers, the animal rights movement does include a tiny minority whose actions are actually consistent with their declared beliefs. These are the ones who blow up science laboratories and commit other acts of violence. But they are generally regarded as crazy, even by other anti-vivisectionists.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

David Horowitz: Not a Consistent Friend of Free Speech

David Horowitz is angry. (Yea, I know, so what else is new?) This time it's about a cartoon he saw posted on a bulletin board by the Muslim Students Association at UW-Milwaukee when he went there to give a talk. (Hat-tip here to Ken Mayer.) You can find the cartoon here, together with a call by a National Review writer for the MSA to apologize to Horowitz and the Chancellor to reprimand them. Here you can find an essay by Horowitz alleging that the cartoon is anti-semitic. UW-Madison poli sci prof Kenneth R. Mayer commented, rightly I think, that there is no more reason for apology or reprimand here than there was when the UW-Madison Badger Herald offended the MSA by publishing the notorious Danish cartoons. Horowitz replies here. "The difference between the two cartoons," he says, "is that the university has rules against religious bigotry. The Mohammed cartoons were nothing of the sort."

I think this is a clear case of "what's sauce for the goose." I see nothing in this cartoon to indicate that it is about religion at all. And, as a friend of mine pointed out, except for a slight exaggeration in the nose, there is almost nothing in this cartoon to indicate antisemitism. True enough, references to Nazism (the armbands in this cartoon) in connection with someone known to be Jewish is offensive and contemptible for several different reasons, but they themselves don't rise (or descend) to the level of antisemitism either.

Above all, displaying the cartoon is clearly within the ASM's right of free speech. If UW had a rule against an offense as nebulous as "religious bigotry" (which of course it doesn't), it would obviously violate that right.

For my part, I think an institution like the university has to have (viewpoint-neutral) rules against harassment and intimidation in face-to-face encounters. Arguably, such a rule might be used against a student who calls a speaker an anti-semitic epithet. But this cartoon falls well outside that narrow class of actionable offenses. Distasteful as it may be, it is simply part of the cost of taking controversial positions on emotionally charged issues.

As William Allen White said, “Liberty is the only thing you can't have unless you give it to others.” Horowitz needs to improve his grasp of this fundamental truth.

Friday, May 02, 2008

What! Nozick Agreed With Rawls?

It's nice to see an article in the popular press about one of my favorite philosophers. It would be even nicer if it were written by someone who really knows how to read. Well, I can't have everything, I guess.

The author, political science professor David Lewis Schaeffer, is writing about John Rawls (welfare state liberal, roughly) and Robert Nozick (libertarian) from a conservative point of view, complaining that the are really too much alike -- which, from his point of view, I guess they are. But what is the point of similarity that he sees?

From a conservative point of view, both advocate too much personal freedom. "Victimless" offenses, like using dangerous drugs or practicing prostitution, would be permitted, if they had their way. (It's actually not obvious that this is true of Rawls, but let it pass.) Where they differ, if at all, is on the issue of distributive justice. Amazingly, Schaeffer claims they agree here too.

As you may know, Rawls advocates the "Difference Principle," which says that inequalities of wealth and income are only to be permitted if they benefit the people who are the least well off. (For instance, they may be necessary incentives to induce talented people to produce these benefits for the least-well-off.) This requirement of benefiting the least well off could justify some sort of coercive redistribution of wealth, from those who have "too much" to those who have "too little." This idea is an example of what Nozick calls an "end-result principle." Regardless of the process by which you acquired what you have, if the result of the process does not fit this principle, you are liable to coercive redistribution.

Nozick's alternative is what he calls a "historical principle." Whether what you have is rightfully yours depends on past history. On his view, the "Entitlement Theory," you are entitled to your holdings if you acquired them in the right way (eg., by purchase and not by theft) from someone who was entitled to them (by this same principle). Since this rule is recursive, it goes back to the beginning of time unless it is qualified somehow. Of course, there have been people who acquired their holdings in the wrong way (eg., by theft). This brings in the Principle of Rectification, which requires that those who were wronged, or their heirs, be compensated for the wrongs they have suffered.

According to Schaeffer, this is where Nozick suddenly morphs into Rawls:
Ironically, however, Nozick himself ultimately acknowledges that his entitlement theory is insufficient to refute demands for a redistributionist state, since it can never be demonstrated that existing holdings derive from an unbroken series of voluntary transfers... Hence, surprisingly, he ends up suggesting that something like Rawls’s difference principle is morally required after all, in the name of “rectification,” on the dubious premise that those currently least-well-off have the highest probability of being descended from previous victims of injustice.
In the next paragraph, Schaeffer suddenly upgrades Nozick's "suggesting" this into an "area of agreement with Rawls." Apparently it was something more than a suggestion, according to Schaeffer. Let's look at what Nozick actually says.

Beginning with the paragraph in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (p. 152) in which he introduces the idea of rectification, Nozick acknowledges a number of times that the problem of how this principle is to be specified and applied raises all sorts of difficult questions. Right away, he raises, as an issue he will not try to settle, this question: "How far must one go in wiping clean the historical slate of injustice?" In other words, maybe we should recognize a sort of moral statute of limitations. Maybe, if the injustice from which your holdings derive happened before a certain cut-off date, you owe nothing on their account.

For whatever it might be worth, my own view is that it is virtually inevitable that we do this. The further back in time we go in finding injustices, the more insoluble the difficulties in deciding what sort of compensation would be required to set it right.

In a note on the next page (p. 153 n.), however, Nozick raises the possibility of quite a different approach. Suppose that rectification means making the victim's heirs as well off as they would have been had the injustice not happened. Suppose, further, that there are several different ways things might have turned out. Which one should the rectifier bring about? Here, he says, we might use some end-result principle to choose between these states of affairs. We might bring about the scenario that would create the most happiness overall (utilitarianism), or we might bring about the one that benefits the people who are now worst off (the Difference Principle), and so forth.

Again, much later (pp. 230-231), he plays with yet another possibility. (One thing Nozick had a lot of is ideas.) Maybe, instead of trying to figure out how things might have been if really old injustices had not happened, we could substitute, as "a rough rule of thumb," something like the Difference Principle, on the theory that the least well off people are most likely to be the ones whose ancestors were treated badly (African slaves, dispossessed Indians, etc.). He admits, though, that "this particular example may well be implausible."

This last idea must be the one that Schaeffer is (mis)reporting.

Obviously, Nozick is not agreeing with Rawlsian redistribution, for at least two reasons. For one thing, he is not asserting that any of these three ideas. They are mutually inconsistent, so he can't believe them all, and he has not picked one. Also, even if he were to opt for the last, most Rawlsian-sounding, one, the point of the transfer payments that he would be recommending would be to rectify past wrongs. Nozick repeatedly points out that whether it is redistributive to take from Peter to give to Paul depends on what our reasons are for doing it. If the reason is historical, if we are trying to right past wrongs, then we are not redistributing. You are simply returning things to their real owner. If, on the other hand, regardless of what happened in the past, you just think Peter has "too much," then -- and only then -- you are redistributing. Nozick's reasons, if he were to opt for this third idea -- which he has not done! -- would be non-redistributive.

As I have suggested, I think the obviously best solution here is the simplest one: some sort of statute of limitations. Nothing that even looks Rawlsian about that!

Thursday, May 01, 2008


I've been reading a delightful book, Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists (Bloomsbury, 2007), by James Geary. It is a great way to meet a wide variety of very interesting writers. Here are some samples from the book, all of which were new to me (except for the one by Whitehead):

"You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred."
--Woody Allen

"He who loves his neighbor as himself either doesn't know his neighbor very well or doesn't love himself enough"
--Roberto Gervaso

"It's going to be fun to watch and see how long the meek can keep the earth after they inherit it."
--Frank McKinney Hubbard

"Politics: a Trojan horse race."
--Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."
--Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

"A state is as easy to ride as a bicycle: handles at the top, chains below..."
--Victor Shendorovich

"If elections changed anything, they would be forbidden."
--Kurt Tucholsky

"The lack of money is the root of all evil."
--Mark Twain

If you don't quite get that one, it is expressed more clearly here:

"Prosperity is the best protector of principle."
--Mark Twain

One more by Mark. I can't resist:

"An uneasy conscience is a hair in the mouth."

"A child educated only at school is an uneducated child."
--George Santayana

"A thing moderately good is not as good as it should be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice."
--Tom Paine

I said the same thing, but of course not as well, here.

Old Tom knew a thing or two about principle:

"Want of consistency is a natural consequence of want of principle."
--Tom Paine

"The devil is an angel too."
--Miguel de Unamuno

"A man is a god in ruins."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.
--Oscar Wilde

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them."
--Alfred North Whitehead

"Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it."
--Simone Weil