Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saul Alinsky's Rules

I don't know why people think this is a good thing. Just look at rules 4 and 5 and think about them in terms of the rules of rational discourse. This is the next step down into Civility Hell.  Three and a half years ago, I blogged about "the book" and I don't think I can improve on what I said then about why it is evil and will do this nation harm.  (Note that it doesn't matter who is following these rules -- it is the rules themselves that are unjust and irrational.)  Here is what I  said:

In the right-wing blogosphere there has long been a theme that says that Obama is a disciple of the old lefty, Saul Alinsky, and that he and Hillary Clinton are (literally) playing from his rulebook, an actual book called Rules for Radicals. Hillary's senior thesis at Wellesley was on Alisnky, so they say. I'm not interested in that issue. BHO's behavior won't look any worse (or better) to me depending on where he learned it. But some quotes from that book interested me.

I don't really know anything about this guy, except that leftists often mention him as as a sort of wise, lovable old coot, a sort of leftie Yoda.

I found an electronic copy of the book and read (most, I think) of a chapter titled "Tactics." My jaw dropped. The core of the chapter is thirteen tactical rules for changing the world (in good ways, supposedly). Most of them belong with the sort of tactical advice you can read in The Prince or Mein Kampf.

Yoda he is not. Look at this. (And as you read, try to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Thoreau saying any of this.)

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have."

One thing this seems to mean, if we read it in connection with some of the rules that follow, is that his goal is to intimidate those who disagree with him, controlling them through fear, and not to convince them of something by appealing to their mind or conscience. Note also that this power seems to be based on deception of some sort.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.Rule 2 is actually good advice. Base your arguments on your own experience and that of your audience. Knowing that your case is based on solid evidence increases confidence and dispels fear.  But notice that he applies this valid principle in reverse against others. Spreading this disabling fear far and wide is just what Rule 3 advises.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

This rule might have been defensible if it meant that you should expose hypocrisy or take advantage of the impracticality of your opponent's moral code. But that is not what he has in mind. He says that everyone is vulnerable to this tactic, not just hypocrites. And the example he gives, of answering every letter, is actually a decent and sensible rule. He is advising you to take advantage, not of your opponents' hypocrisy and foolishness, but of their decency and their ideals.  And to take advantage of the fact that they can't do something that, according to him, nobody could do anyway.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force [note his word choice here] the enemy into concessions.

I take it the idea here is something like this. Instead of engaging in a debate with Dick Cheney about the ethics of torture -- where you'll end up dealing with a mass of theories and supposed facts -- make fun of him for shooting his friend in the face on a hunting expedition.. If you do it right, people will just start to snicker when he shows up on TV. They won't hear a word he says. It will be just as though you have turned off his microphone. If you are really lucky, he will lose his temper and look even worse.

As with Rule 13, below, the basic strategy here is the respond to speech by delegitimizing the speaker. I can't think of a single practice (short of the use of threats and violence) that is more deeply inimical to the basic principles of civilized discourse.

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

In other words, disable his opponent's capacity to reason.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

Need I say more?

RULE 10: The major premise of tactics is the development of operations that will maintain constant pressure on the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.

Translation:  Provoke your opponents to doing irrational things that are not in their interest, but are in yours.

RULE 11: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

Get them to abandon reason altogether and resort to violence. Now you are a martyr. Yay! you win!

RULE 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

I think this rule is the most evil one of the lot, partly for the reason I gave under Rule 5. But there is more.

I have long been convinced that the problems in the world are due to bad institutions and not ultimately to bad people. Bad institutions reward bad behavior, punish good behavior and distort people's ideas. When bad people are at the center of things, it is generally because we have created an institution in which the only people who can flourish are ones with certain moral vices.

This truth, that "it's not the people, it's the system," was one of Marx's most distinctive ideas, and it is responsible for what is true in his doctrine.

It makes it hard to reform the world, however, because people don't get energized about "institutions," and even find them difficult to think about. The issue has to be personalized somehow.

What Alinsky is recommending is that you personalize the issue in the cheapest, most duplicitous, and cruelest way: pick out hate figures and demonize them.

If old Saul's disciples are indeed in the saddle, we are headed straight for Nastyville. I'm not going to enjoy the ride one bit.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ban Big Ammunition Magazines?

The other day I posted about something I call the weapons line drawing problem:  Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle that separates the permissible from the ban-able?

The principle I offered was "the ultra-hazardous weapon principle":  A weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it cannot be used safely.  The idea is that if you are using such a device, it is too likely that you will eventually be subjecting those around you to an unreasonable level of risk from which they gain no benefit.  Since you have no right to do that, banning it would not violate your rights.

I argued that civilian "assault weapons" pass this test and my not be banned without violating individual rights.  What about large ammunition magazines and clips -- ones with more that 10, 20, or 30 (different limits exist in different states) round capacities?  Obama is pushing hard for Congress to act quickly, I would even say precipitately, and it's likely they will place some nation-wide limit on magazine and clip size.(From now on I'll say "magazine" to refer to both, though that's technically not correct.)

Clearly, such a ban is not supported by the ultra-hazardous weapon principle.  It is easy to use a large magazine safely.  Millions of responsible citzens use them on shooting range and (where legal, I hope) for hunting with no one getting hurt.

But notice that my principle only rules things in as candidates for banning -- it "may be banned" -- and doesn't rule anything out.  Maybe large magazines may be nominated as candidates for banning on the basis of some supplementary principle.  One reason I have seen given by talking heads lately as a reason for banning these things is that they "serve no legitimate purpose."

 I would flesh this out like this:  a weapon, weapon feature, or accessory may be banned if it has criminal uses and serves no legitimate purpose for which there is no perfectly good substitute,  

I have some sympathy for this a s a general principle.  The intuitive idea, I guess, is that such a ban would interfere with criminal acts and, though it would coercively deny the object to innocent people, the coercion involved does them no harm.  I'm not generally keen on coercing (ie., threatening) the innocent at all (it violates the libertarian side constraint), but it if does them no harm, I'm at least willing to consider it.

There is another problem with this principle, though.  It's not so easy to think of an object currently in use in the civilian population that has no legitimate use for which it lacks perfect substitute.  Some years ago, I was working on a paper on gun owners' rights (this one) and I tried to propose an example of a weapon that would fail this test and could well be banned:  in fact, it already is more or less illegal throughout the US.  The example was sawed-off shotguns.  This weapon, I said, emits a spray of projectiles, any one of which can cause a nasty injury, and cannot be controlled very well by the shooter (I could have argued just as plausibly, or implausibly, using the ultra-hazardous weapon principle, but I had not thought of it yet).

Anyway, my editor for that paper, Samuel C. Wheeler, pointed something out to me.  This weapon could be very appropriate as an answering-the-door gun for an elderly gentleman who, say, lives in a dangerous neighborhood (it's the best he can afford) and has had his Social Security check stolen and been mugged, and so has legitimate concerns about his safety.  At close quarters, like ansering the door in and apartment building, the projectiles can be controlled quite well enough.  Plus, the pellets will not pass through the opposite wall of the hallway, injuring the innocent.

I deleted that part of the manuscript.

Another problem with the "no legitimate purpose" principle:  grading or ranking purposes.  After all, there is one legitimate purpose that is served by a big magazine, and there is no conceivable substitute:  reloading avoidance.  Not having to reload so often.  Nothing illegitimate about that.

Obviously, the principle has to include a qualification about how the purpose has to be "important" enough to qualify.  Maybe the fact that it serves mere convenience is not enough.

I don't know about you, but I'm still enough of a liberal to get queasy about deciding whether a purpose -- someone else's purpose -- is "important" enough to exempt them from heavy fines or a jail sentence. It is something the law has to do from time to time, but I would like to keep it to a minimum.

Finally, to get back the the big magazine issue itself:  I believe these things do pass the "no legitimate purpose"test."  To see why, take a look at this compelling essay by history professor Clayton Cramer.  You'll see that not having to reload can make a life or death difference in situations that civilians do find themselves in from time to time.  Indeed, this feature might be more valuabe to the law-abiding than it is to mass shooters.  Further, not only can they save innocent lives, but they can even enable you to safely spare the life of your assailants.  If that sounds impossible, just read the essay.  Please.

On a somewhat related not, here is a very interesting post by my old friend, philosophy prof and sci fi aficionado Kevin Hill.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ban "Assault Rifles"?

Okay, so most of us can agree on two important things: Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle?  This is a very important question, and I've thought about it a lot.  The answer I've come up with was heavily influenced by American tort law.  Case law has evolved organically under the guidance of some very smart, well-meaning people who have guided it while in full-frontal contact with reality.  They are dealing with cases, not their own fantasies.  So it deserves to be taken seriously. 

There is a concept in the law that is useful here:  that of "ultra-hazardous" activities, also know as "abnormally dangerous activities."  Both terms are a little misleading, because what makes an activity ulltra-hazardous is not so much the degree of danger as the lack of control you have it.  Classic examples are:  crop-dusting, drilling for oil, transporting gasoline by truck, blasting.  I think of these as activities that can't be done safely.  What the law does with these activities is this:  if it produces some economic good that goes into the marketplace and people find it worthwhile to pay for, you may do it, though if things go wrong we will hold you strictly liable for the results (look it up - it's different from the rule that applies to normally dangerous activities)  If it does not produce such results, you may not do it.  So, even if playing involuntary Russian roulette on your neighbor's head is less risky than drilling for oil, you may not do it.

There is an important distinction to be made between the abnormally hazardous and that which is normally so.  I think a related idea applies to weapons, and with similar reasoning.  Some weapons cannot be used safely.  And since your neighbors are not being compensated by, means of some economic good being made availiable to them, for the risk they are subjected to, there is no reason they should put up with it.  That means you can't have nuclear weapons, bazookas, hand grenades, incendiary grenades, or a machine gun.

Notice, and this is very important, that a modern gun, as such, is not (to coin a phrase paralelling the above legal one) an ultra-hazardous weapon.  In fact, it is in one way the opposite of that.  If used at the range at which it was intended to shoot, a modern firearm, in contrast to the old muskets and flintlock pistols, is a precision instrument.  I like to tell my students that if I had a good pistol I could dot the "i" in that exit sign at the other end of the lecture hall.  (Some of them look startled.)

An AR-15 is a precision instrument and not an ultra-hazardous weapon, in my sense.  It is not a machine gun.

This brings me to the reason I put "assault weapons" in scare quotes, above.  True assault rifles were invented for the military during WWII (in Germany and Russia).  The military definition is: (a) a medium range rifle that (b) has a selector that switches the weapon between fully automatic and semi-automatic.  Select "fully" and it becomes a machine gun.

The latter clause is why the AR-15 (pictured above) such as the one the Sandy Hook murderer used, does not fit the military definition of an assault rifle.  It lacks this switch and only has the semi-automatic mode of functioning.

What "semi-automatic" means is this.  When you fire a bullet, the mechanism uses some of the energy expended to do three things:  expel the spent cartridge, move a new bullet into the chamber, and cock the firing pin (this is called cycling).  To fire, all you need to do is pull the trigge (this is called single action trigger).

In a semiauto weapon, only the cycling is automatic.  The firing is not:  ie., the gun does not keep cycling and firing, both, if you just hold the trigger down.  

A typical revolver, like the S & W .38 I inherited from my Dad, accomplishes somewhat the same effect of a semiauto by means of a double action trigger:  as I pull the trigger, it rotates the cylinder, moving the spent cartridge out of the way, presenting a fresh round to the firing pin, and cocking it.  (I just timed myself and got up to four shots per second.  The gun was unloaded, of course.)  Doing all that work with your trigger finger makes the less accurate, unless you have a really fine, smooth-shooting revolver like the Colt Python, but that would run you around $1,500.

Hm.  Maybe you'd rather have a semi-automatic pistol, like the classic Colt 1911 (named for the year it became standard issue in the US Army).  This highly esteemed weapon is just as automatic as the AR-15, except for one thing:  before the first shot you fire, you must cock it manually by pulling back the slide.  Thereafter it cycles automatically.

Or, if you want to avoid that one little hitch, you might try one of the many kinds of semiauto pistols where the trigger is double action on the first shot, single action thereafter, and auto cylcing throughout.  These weapons are exactly as automatic as the AR-15.

Now you can probably guess what my point is:  These "automatic" weapons have been extremely common for a long time.  They have been standard military issue for a century.  They are carried by virtually all armed police officers.  There are millions and millions of them in the possession of civilians who use them for entirely legitimate purposes.

As a matter of fact, they are the weapon of choice of mass murders, overwhelmingly preferred by mass murders to weapons like the AR-15.

It's easy to see why.  These weapons, as I have said, are made for medium range shooting:  shooting at enemy coming over the next hill.  Not for long range sniping, and not for shooting somebody in the same room with you.  Hell, it has a 20-inch barrel, for medium range accuracy.  What do you need that for, when your victim is in the same room with you?  You've accepted the weapon's bulkiness, clumsiness (at close quarters), and conspicuousness, and gotten nothing in return.  You are better off with a 1911 and a bag of loaded magazines over your shoulder.

[I don't mean this in a crass way.  Innocent lives are at stake and to figure out what we should do about it we have to think in a no-BS way about what these demented dirtbags are actually going to do.]

The "automaticness" of these "automatic" weapons does not make them "ultrahazardous," in the sense in which that could justify banning them, and they give the mass murderer no advantage they couldn't get from weapons that are extremely common and obviously legitimate.  It is no reason to ban them as a response to mass shootings.  None.

There actually is another issue here that I have not touched on.  There is one difference between AR-type weapons and pistols like the 1911:  magazine size.  The magazine in Mrs. Lanza'a AR may have held as many rounds as 30 (the max allowed in the state of CT).  Magazine size of a 1911:  6.  Is that a reason to limit the size of magazines (in effect, banning all larger than the limit)?

I'll try to post about that later.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why Can't These People Say "Christmas"?

 I was startled to notice this morning that I first posted this five years ago --- five years ago yesterday, to be exact.  Startled because the Food Network is still doing the kind of weird crap I describe here, and because I can republish it with minimal revision.  I have changed the style a little to elevate the tone of moral disgust, also to add a new item at the end.

Watching the Food Network a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I noticed something that gave me the creeps. None of the regulars seemed to be able to say "Christmas." (No, this is not some Bill O'Reilly war-against-Christmas BS! At least I hope not. Please read on!) Tyler Florence pours red and green sauces on on enchilada and Guy Fieri says, "Boy those are some holiday colors!" Sandra Lee is wearing a red sweater and making evergreen-tree-shaped cookies, and she keeps calling the "holiday cookies."

Right away I got this weird feeling. These people are not free. Someone off-camera is pointing a gun at them. The evil gnomes who run the Food Network Corporate Borg are compelling them to speak this weird jargon, probably just to degrade and humiliate them. (This could also explain those creepy claymation figures -- see the picture above.) Is this going on at other channels? Has the whole world gone insane while I was paying attention to other things? I really don't know, as Food Network is almost the only channel I can stand to watch (and it sucks, but I won't go into that now).

What could possibly be the problem with saying the word "Christmas" in public? Below are some more or less random observations on this baffling question. Most of what I am about to say is pretty obvious and far from original, but I think it is worth saying anyway.  Apparently, it is not obvious to some people.

Yes, not everyone celebrates Christmas. And it might, conceivably, just barely conceivably, be unpleasant to be wished "Merry Christmas" when you do not. As a university professor, I sometimes find myself in a room full of people who are talking about how bad conservatives, Republicans, or libertarians are, as if they assume I am a Democrat like themselves. So I have some sympathy for people in that situation. But not very much. After all, the people in my roomful of Democrats are saying that people like me are morally or intellectually inferior to people like them. They are insulting me. The person who wishes you Merry Christmas is not. In fact, he or she is wishing you well. They are trying to be nice.

My Golden Rule is: Never, ever make someone sorry that they were nice to you.  Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes said that this is one of the most basic rules of civil society.  He was right  Violating it is one of the most ignoble and stupid things you can do.

The problem is not that there are other holidays at this time of the year. You can celebrate more than one. In our house, we always celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Holidays don't exclude on another, religions do. By wishing somebody a Merry Christmas, or using the word to describe a cookie, you are not excluding anybody from anything.

Admittedly it is true that Kwanzaa was invented by the Marxist Prof. Ron Karenga as an "alternative" -- his word -- to Christmas. He did intend his holiday to be exclusionist. But apparently, the African-Americans who celebrate it today do not see it that way. (As often happens, the hearts of "ordinary" people have proved sounder than those of the supposedly wise men who seek to lead them for their own good.)

Nor is the problem that not everyone is a Christian. Even atheists love Christmas. As I have said, the problem, so far as there is one, is merely that not everyone celebrates Christmas. So try avoid wishing Merry Christmas to someone who does not celebrate it.

Often, banning the C-word is simply hypocrisy. None of the FN "holiday" specials that I saw contained a single reference to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything but Christmas. By banning the C-word, they are pretending to an inclusiveness that they do not practice. To the minor sin of non-inclusiveness they add the major one of lying about it.

If you are talking about a holiday, and the holiday in question is indeed Christmas, there is no possible harm in calling it that. There is no excuse for saying "holiday cookie." None. If it is shaped like a dredl, call it a Hanukkah cookie. If it is shaped like one of those trees, call it a Christmas cookie. If you don't, you'll just sound like an idiot.

Please join me this "holiday" season in trying to avoid this canting hypocrisy.

Update:  And now, here is fellow atheist Penn Jillette, with a different take.  Notice that he is not answering the sort of argument I am giving here.  He is answering the O'Reilly notion that this is an "attack on Christianity."  That of course is not what I am saying.  On the other hand, he does seem to be saying one thing that I have been arguing against:  that refraining from "Christmas" is being inclusive.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mass Shootings Are Irrelevant to the Issue of Gun Control

In the approxaminately 1/3 million words I have written in this blog (not counting comment section!) I fear I may have said everything I have to say about everything that interests me.  In the space of two days we have had two horrific mass shootings by horribly disturbed people -- the shootings placed occuring, with a symbolism worthy of the Prince of Darkness himself -- on the opposite coasts of this country.  Since both shooters used "assault weapons" renewed calls for banning such weapons have arisen everywhere.  (BTW, if I get time tomorrow, I will write a new -- yes, new! -- post explaining why I put scare quotes around "assault weapons.) After the "Batman shootings" last Summer, I wrote a blog post arguing that such horrors are the weakest possible reasons for gun control, and that those who think otherwise are actually not being moved by reason, but by emotion.  Except for correcting some typos and making a few other small changes, I stand by it as written.  So here it is (with those changes: ----

In the wake of mass shootings like the one in Aurora Colorado, there are always renewed calls for gun control.  This familiar phenomenon is a testament to human imperviousness to facts and logic, as such shootings are. of all gun-related deaths, the least likely to be deterred by gun laws. The worst such shooting, ever, happened in Norway (death toll 77) and the worst K-12 school shooting [until yesterday] happened in Erfurt Germany (18 dead).  Both countries have gun laws that are far more constraining than those of the USA.  As John Lott points out here, four of the five worst school shootings ever happened in western Europe, within the boundaries of gun control heaven. The harsh, stringent gun laws of these countries failed to save the lives of the victims of these atrocities.

Possibly the oldest utilitarian argument against gun control was voiced by Cesare Beccaria in 1764

(HT to Charles C. W. Cooke):
The laws of this nature are those which forbid one to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent.  Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and more arbitry injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance.
This argument applies best of all to mass shooters like James Holmes.  Like most such people, Holmes did not suddenly "snap."  He planned his atrocity well in advance, beginning at least four months ago, with great patience and determination, accumulating an arsenal of weapons as well as elaborate body armor, and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment.  It is obvious that someone who will shoot seventy completely innocent and defenseless strangers in a darkened theater is not going to be deterred by "oh, I can't buy that weapon -- it's illegal," and it's also pretty clear to me that Holmes would have had the determination to get weapons from an illegal source.  Like drug laws, gun bans do not make the banned item disappear, rather they drive it into the netherworld of criminal commerce.

If you are going to advocate a law based on a single horrific case, then that law has to be one that would have prevented that horror.  Otherwise, that one case is, logically, completely irrelevant to whether that law was a good thing or not.  And gun bans would do nothing to prevent and atrocity like Aurora.

Having said this, I have to admit that the principle I have just placed in italics, which makes perfect sense to me, seems to have no effect on most my fellow human beings.  When Oswald murdered Kennedy with a gun purchased through mail order, Congress responded by passing a law that banned such purchases.  Even at the time, as a teenager, it was obvious to me that, whatever the reasons for such a law might be, the Kennedy assassination was not one of them.  Who could think that Oswald would not have killed Kennedy, or tried to kill General Walker, if he could not have gotten his cheap Mannlicher-Carcano through the mail?

Mass shootings like Aurora are not good reasons for weapons bans; they are emotionally powerful symbols of violence.  Those who are moved to ban a weapon by such incidents are acting on emotion and not on the basis of reason.  Especially in the realm of the law, that is a terribly dangerous thing to do.*


*  This is why laws that are named after people -- such as "Megan's Law" -- are usually a bad idea.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Death Penalty: Bad Arguments on Both Sides

I just learned that Troy Davis has been executed by the state of Georgia.  The last time there was a wave of public discussion of his case, I wrote this. It still makes sense to me, though as I point out here, this is only half of the story.

In the wake of the Troy Davis (pictured) case a lot of people are thinking about capital punishment, including some arguments that seem silly to me. I just read a column by Jonah Goldberg that gives an argument for the death penalty that I find stupefyingly unconvincing.

Before I get to that, I want to point out that he says something about arguments for the other side that is simply not true:

Opponents of the death penalty believe that no one deserves to be executed. Again, it’s an honorable position, but a difficult one to defend politically in a country where the death penalty is popular. So they spend all of their energy cherry-picking cases, gumming up the legal system, and talking about “uncertainty.”
Well, I'm against the death penalty and, to be blunt, the idea that "no one deserves to be executed" has never made any sense to me. It seems to mean that nothing a human being can do is bad enough to deserve death. There seem to be so many obvious counterexamples to that claim that I would feel like I am taking cheap shots by citing one. I'll tell you what: please think of the most loathsome murder you have ever heard of. Surely if the person who did that were to be put to death as painlessly as possible, it would be no more than they deserve: in fact, a lot less.

If it can be just for the state to punish someone at all, if they may rightly in some cases take away all of a person's liberty and property, and for the rest of their lives at that, and subject them to the degradation of life in prison, then why on Earth is it necessarily unjust if they also take a person's life? If they can take away everything that makes life worth living, what is so special, as far as desert is concerned, about taking that extra step? I have never understood that.

... So why am I against the death penalty? And what is the argument of Goldberg's that I think is so bad? I'll try to post about that tomorrow.

BTW, you can find my reply to Goldberg here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Conference on Gun Control at UW

The Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison is presenting a day-long conference on the moral and legal status of gun ownership today.

GUNS IN AMERICA:  Conflicting Points of View 

Gun ownership by private citizens is one of the most hotly debated issues in America today.  What should the legal status of gun ownership be?  Should the laws be more restrictive than they are now?  Should they be less restrictive?  What are the consequences of having so many guns in private hands?  For this conference we have brought together researchers representing contrasting points of view and four different academic disciplines for a thoughtful discussion of these important questions.

All sessions will be held in The Pyle Center. 702 Langdon Street  Madison, WI, on Thursday November 1st, 2012.  The event is free and open to the public.

The conference schedule is as follows:

Session I:  Legal Issues (9:30-11:30)

Joseph E. Olson (Hamline University School of Law) 

“The dimensions of self-defense under the Second Amendment: not as Trivial as Some Believe”

Joseph Blocher (Duke University School of Law)

“Second Amendment Localism”

Session II:  Empirical Issues  (12:30-2:30 pm)

Carlisle Moody (Department of Economics, College of William and Mary) 

"Whither the Right-to-Carry Debate?"

Stephen Hargarten (Medical College of Wisconsin)

“Gun Violence:  The Strengths and Limits of the Disease Model”

Session III:  Philosophical Issues (3:00-5:00 pm)

Timothy Hall (Department of Philosophy, Oberlin College)

"How There Can Be a Right to Bear Arms"

Jeff  McMahan (Department of Philosophy, Rutgers University)

“Guns and the Limits of Self-Defense”

For further information, please write to Deborah K. Hunt at

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 as a Religious Act

I just saw someone on TV commenting that there were no ceremonies today involving major politicialns, commemorating the anniversary of 9/11.  "America is moving on."  I'm hoping that means that it's okay to take this anniversary as an opportunity to say something that might really offend some people.  This is a post I wrote 5 years ago, when I was reading a book by the late atheist Christopher Hitchens.  (That is, it was not originally written on the occasion of an anniversary of 9/11.)

You know, of course, what prompted the "new atheism," the surge of books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, as well as lesser luminaries, some of whom burn hotter if not as brilliantly. It's because of 9/11, the day that changed everything.

That morning I rose late, about ten o'clock or so, and began what I expected would be a slow day. At noon my friend Don Downs of the Poli Sci Department was going to bring over some documents about a professor who had been de-tenured and fired by the Board of Regents, a case that we though raised some serious due process issues. We were thinking of trying to get the faculty senate to take a position on the case.

Quite unexpectedly, the front door bell rang. It was Don. I opened the door and looked at him sourly. "You're early," I said.

He looked at my bathrobe. "You haven't turned your TV on yet, have you?" he asked.

"Why? What happened?"

"Somebody flew a passenger plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center and knocked it down."

"O my God," I said stupidly, "that must have killed hundreds of people."

"Oh, thousands," he corrected me.

The next thing I said was an angry outburst: "Do you see how wonderful religion is!? How it helps everyone to live together in peace?" Don looked startled.

How did I know, instantly, that this was a religious act? I don't think I was even sure right away which religion was involved, but that religion was at to bottom of this seemed beyond doubt. You have to admit that, wherever there is widespread and persistent violence in the world, especially irrational vioulence -- whether it is on Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Aghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka -- it is usually caused by religious differences. Hitchens argues convincingly that the last European war, the civil war in Yugoslavia, was really about religion as much as anything else. "Ethnic cleansing" was really religious cleansing. It was Christians killing Muslims, and doing so because the Muslims were Muslims and, most particularly, because the Christians were Christians.

Years later, it occurred to me that there was a simpler explanation of how I knew that this was a religious act. The clue lay in the fact that the violence on 9/11 was obviously suicidal. The pilots of those planes must have died together with their innocent victims. When we secular humanists commit an atrocity to make the world a better place, it is because we selfishly want to live in that better world. If the atrocity can't possibly have that motive, one knows at once the motive was religious. The statement an Islamist once made to a reporter, "We will win because we love death as much as you love life," surely is a profoundly religious statement.

Hitchens would quickly point out, and he would be right, that this does not really undermine his thesis. After all, the very worldliness of the secular is a constraint. If I want to live here with you, that is a tie between us. My selfish desire to live is something you can appeal to when I grow too indifferent or hostile to your interests. In the gravest extremity, when all else has failed, it makes possible the ultima ratio, the last of all reasons, the threat of death. Religious fanatics, with their "self-sacrificing," "altruistic" behavior (which incidentally are a fake self-sacrifice and spurious altruism in people who think that they will be rewarded with eternal bliss) cannot be appealed to in this way.

In view of this, why do we persist in associating religion with peace and public order? I do it myself! To some extent I think it is a sort of illusion of perspective. We in the liberal West have a distorted view of what religion is really like. Our religions have been corrupted by two centuries of contact with peaceful secular humanists. The idea that peace and public order are good things is by no means a product of religion: the three great monotheistic religions resisted it quite violently for many centuries. It arises from the sort of thinking that secularists have been doing all along: naturalistic thinking about life on earth.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Who to Vote for on Tuesday?

For the benefit of any libertarians out thee who might be voting in Tuesday's Republican Senate primary election here in Wisconsin, I'd like to quote a comment that the excellent Kirsten Lombard made in a discussion on her Facebook page.  As usual with Kirsten, it is logical, principled, and reveals the sort of specific information you can only get from an experienced foot soldier like her:
My vote is going to Mark Neumann.

Mark has worked really hard to get educated on constitutional and related liberty issues that matter profoundly to me. He's the only guy talking credibly about the NDAA, HR 347, state sovereignty, national sovereignty, and a range of other issues.

He's also demonstrated that he'll be accessible to the grassroots. Just one prominent example: A fellow organizer of mine is working on the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway (FWHP) issue up in the Appleton area. He called Mark up to talk to him about it. After 20 minutes, Mark said, "You know, I think this requires a longer discussion and face time." So Mark asked if this organizer would come with him on the campaign trail one day so that as they were driving across the state, he could explain to Mark more about the FWHP. He has now taken a principled position against it...because he opened himself to being educated on the issue. Educated by whom? By the grassroots.

Same with Agenda 21. He didn't know what it was when he showed up at my group to be vetted. He does now. Once he knew he had a gap in his education, he worked hard to fill it.

He's going to listen to us. Will he always agree with us? I can't promise that, and I'm guessing he can't either. But one thing I know for sure is that he will hear us and consider what we have to say...and on many issues where he's been listening to us so far, there is agreement once he understands.

That is really, really rare in politicians and candidates most of whom just pretend they're listening, dismiss you, or ignore you altogether. Mark is something really special that way. He has truly EARNED my trust. I didn't just give it to him. He worked for it.
As usual, I am open to counterarguments, but now my plan is to vote on Tuesday and to vote for Neumann.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Renewed Calls for Gun Control

I recently did a count, crunched some numbers, and came up with an estimate that in this blog I have written one third of a million words, not counting the comments section ("oh, you can't count the comments!" David  Bordwell said to me when I reported this factoid to him).  

By now I must have written on every single topic that I find interesting or important.

I was thinking of blogging about the renewed calls for gun control in the wake of the Aurora CO murders, but I realized I had already written about renewed calls for gun control in the wake of a mass murder.  That was in April of 2007, when another maniac killed even more people on the campus of Virginia Tech.  Here are some of my comments.  I think that with some obvious adjustments they are applicable here.

(Warning:  Some of the ideas expressed below will shock and offend some people.  At least, they did the first time I posted them.)

The idea behind theses calls for more gun control is pretty simple:  we have a problem here, and the problem is guns. The guns are the problem.

In a way, this is obviously true. Those people were killed with a gun. What may be a little less obvious, though, is that guns might be part of the solution as well. Notice that not one of the thirty three murder victims was armed. Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?

This a particularly poignant question, because in 2005 there was a bill in Virginia that would have allowed students with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns on campus, but it died in committee. (Hat-tip to historian David Beito here.) The victims of this atrocity had been deliberately disarmed by their own government. Adding horribly to the irony of this is the fact that one Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, praised the death of this bill:
"I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions," Hincker said on Jan. 31, 2006, "because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.
"Feel safe," maybe. But isn't being safe more important?

Notice that these shooting sprees are only ever seem to occur in places like schools, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, post offices. Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar? Bars are full of people with poor impulse control. They have been working for hours at reducing their impulse control, shrinking their profit-horizons, and trashing their ability to distinguish right from wrong. Why don't you ever see the headline, "33 Killed in Saloon Rampage"?

There is a pretty obvious answer. The people in a bar may not be the nicest or most rational people in the world, but they all know that the bartender probably has a gun and a baseball bat behind the bar. They also know that he (or she!) would be happy to use them in order to maintain good order and public peace.

These killers go into schools and playgrounds because they feel safe there. Don't you think it is time to interfere with their government-given sense of security? If an armed professor or student had brought the Blacksburg killer down, it would have saved innocent lives immediately. It would also have given the next insane murderer reason to pause and go elsewhere, or maybe just to either seek help or keep his evil thoughts to himself.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"If You've Got a Business, You Didn't Build That..."

People in the right-o-shphere are going ballistic over the argument that the president gave yesterday for the governmemnent's taking back, through its power to tax, some of what society has gaven you over the years.  I agree that this argument is a bad one, but it I am used to hearing it.  I have seen it in many, many places.  Here is a post I wrote on the occasion of Tax Day (April 15th) 2008 about it.  I wrote it when I discovered that Herbert Simon, of all people, had given the same argument.  (Simon must be the smartest person ever to use this argument.  Must be.)

Happy Tax Day! I hope you are enjoying the one day of the year when most people feel the same way about the state that I feel on the other 364. God knows I am not.

I was shocked to learn recently that the late Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate and former colleague of mine, once recycled, in a published essay, what is probably the worst of all moral justifications for taxation. As far as the morality of taxation is concerned, he is supposed to have said, the state would be perfectly justified in taking away 90% of the income of the people in the developed countries, as this is the amount of your product that is due to certain features of our social system. The most important of these features are probably these three: a relatively efficient and decent legal system, a government that (unlike most) is not simply a kleptocracy, and the vast stores of knowledge long accumulated by other participants in the economy. The government's taking 90% of what you own away from you, according to Simon, would merely be a matter of returning it to its real owners, which presumably is the people who comprise the state.

I can hardly believe that Simon said something so silly. He must be the wisest and smartest person ever to repeat this ridiculous argument. That is no doubt why we often see this idea attributed to him. It did not originate with him. Like many a bad joke, it is truly anonymous.

It is true of course that an enormous part of my income is made possible by the fact that I live in a half-way just, semi-free society, instead of one of the horrible Hell-holes in which many human beings have to live out their lives. If I taught philosophy in Russia or Mexico, instead of Madison Wisconsin, I would earn a very small fraction of what I earn here, even though I would be doing the same brilliant job that I am now doing. Why? Well, the people in those societies are working within political and legal systems that have been devastated by centuries of horrible government and rotten laws. As a result of this, the other participants in those economies have less powerful ideas, theories, methods, and skills -- in a word, less knowledge -- and are less productive than the people I deal with over here. In a system in which the government does not stop them from doing so, people come up with new and better ideas, year after year. Because of the human capacity for memory, the discoveries and inventions of past generations remain here after they have left the scene, and in some cultures the resulting total reaches truly staggering dimensions. Even though my brain contains the tiniest fraction of this total, living among these highly knowledgeable people is very beneficial to me. In general, it is to my advantage to trade with more prosperous, more productive people rather than less wealthy, less productive ones. (In case this is not obvious, think of it this way: those less prosperous people are going to pay me for my contributions with ... what?)

There is no harm in summarizing what I have just said by saying that a lot of my product is possible because of "the contribution of society," as long as we remember what that means. It means that a lot of fine people worked hard at developing good ideas about things and implementing those ideas by building institutions that endured after they departed. I owe these people my eternal gratitude. Gratitude, not cash.

The reason is very simple. They all made their contributions in return for compensation, which they were paid by others. They may have wanted more in return than they actually got (don't we all?) but they regarded what they got as sufficient to offset all the trouble they went through to make their wonderful contributions to our way of life. We know this because we know that they did decide to actually take that trouble and make those contributions.* Why should you lose 90% of what you produce in order to compensate them for what they did? They have already been paid! (Not to mention the fact that the great majority of them are now dead.) This would mean paying them twice.

By the way, doesn't this mean that I should be paid twice too? I contributed something too. It may not have been much, but I am still alive and can actually be compensated. Come to think of it, doesn't it also mean that I get my 90% back? But then where is all this money going to come from, now that we are paying everyone twice what they produce?

Actually, I should say that Simon would be proposing to pay everyone twice, if the money were really going to the actual contributors, the heroes who make this wonderful life possible. But of course it isn't. Simon wants the state to get it. Why on Earth should it get any of this money? Insofar as the state makes any contribution to my product, this contribution was the work of individuals who have been compensated** and at any rate would never see any of Simon's vast pile of loot.

So this argument is rotten for two reasons: 1) the real contributors have already been compensated, and 2) the alleged compensation would actually go to the wrong people anyway. Like I say, worst argument yet.
* For simplicity, I am ignoring the fact that some contributors were defrauded or coerced. Some were literally enslaved. Those people were not adequately compensated. Maybe we should compensate their heirs. But this is not the sort of compensation that Simon is talking about. It would not justify payments to the state, but only to the heirs of victims. (Also, note that most of these past injustices were actually committed by the state -- and its hangers-on, such as slave-owners.)

** Furthermore, their contribution consisted in large part in restraining the power of the state, which becomes predatory and extremely destructive if not restrained, and subjecting it to the rule of law. If it weren't for them, the state would mainly be pursuing its ancient calling of conquering, pillaging, and murdering. Moreover, these brave men and women were often paid by the state for their efforts with torture, imprisonment, dishonor, and death. Maybe the state owes them, and their heirs, something?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meet My Little Friend, Crotalus viridis

I almost stepped on this Prairie Rattlesnake last night around sunset.  In fact, I would have if it weren't for his sudden and furious rattle.  What a startling sound!  Literally:  It gave me a huge startle response.  It starts out like a triple forte blast on some weird kind of percussion instrument and just keeps going.  I jumped back before I knew what was going on.

Odd that exactly the same thing happened to me almost thirty years ago, in almost exactly the same spot.  This little fella is cooling off on the floor of Indian Creek, Bufflalo Gap National Grassland.  Last time, it was much bigger one, who was slithering through the prairie grass, about 100 yards away.

That was also at sunset -- rattlesnake time!  That's when the are out and about.  Though I should have been wary, both times they took me completely by surprise.

BTW, this one isn't as big as he probably looks to you -- a little bigger in girth than my index finger.  I wouldn't want to be bitten by him just the same. Even if a rattler bite doesn't kill you, it will leave you gruesomely maimed and disfigured if you don't get antivenin soon.  The nearest hospital to where I was at this moment is probably in Rapid City, about 40 miles away, and some of those miles on some really bad roads.

So the best medicine in this case is not to get bit in the first place.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

'The Penaltax: A Problem Here?

As I was driving through western South Dakota yesterday evening, this blog post by Dave Birge set off such a mental fugue in my head that I forgot to look at my fuel gauge and almost ran out of gas.

Here is what I haven't quite figured out.  First, the facts:

The Affordable Care Act at one time, so they say, had language that described the penalty for refusing the buy health insurance when the government says you can afford it as a "tax."  That was taken out, many people think, because the bill could not have become law if this charge, cost, impost, whatever it is, is a tax. If it was, it wouldn't have gotten through Congress. It had to be a penalty, not a tax.

Then, in the Supreme Court, it became a tax again.  Why?  If it were a penalty, it would not have gotten through the Supreme Court.  This is certain.  Unless Chief Justice's discussion of the Commerce Clause argument was a blatant lie, he was bound to side with the three other conservatives and Anthony "Swing Vote" Kennedy and strike down the individual mandate.

So in order to get through Congress, it was a penalty, and in order to get through the SC, it was a tax.  All the Republicans seem to have to say about this (not including Romney in this case) is something like "Aha!  So you did raise taxes!  So there!! Nyah nyah!"  Am I the only one who sees a deeper problem here?  Does anybody see any "checks and balances" issues here?  Something about the rule of law?  Anybody?  Anybody?  Hello?

I haven't quite put my finger on it yet, but I think there's a problem here:  A law means whatever it has to mean in order to get passed and stand.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Top Five Reasons Not to Write a Nasty Obit

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The idea is so old its classic expression is in Latin: Speak no ill of the dead. After Andrew Breitbart's sudden death at the shockingly young age of 43 has provoked a chorus of nasty tweets and blog posts from the left, a lot of folks are rethinking this ancient aphorism.

I've never been quite sure what to think of the practice. H. L. Mencken, one of my heroes, wrote an obit of William Jennings Bryan that was so brilliantly vicious that, according to legend, a colleague thought HLM didn't realize that Bryan was dead (I guess he missed the memorable first sentence of the piece). I could be accused of having committed a similar sort of offense when Ted Kennedy died (though in my defense I was really objecting to the way the whole country was going way too far in the other direction - adulation for a "lion" who was obviously a seriously flawed person). (See also this.)

For the moment I'm leaning slightly toward the nihil nisi crowd -- though not out of fondness for Breitbart, whom I came to regard, after the Sherrod affair, as a polluter of the civil forum.

1. Respect for the family and friends of the deceased. Someone might well be hurt by what you say. I found this writer's apologies to AB's family for his harsh word-choice actually quite touching -- and probably appropriate.

2. Don't kick them when they are down. Until moments ago, you were carrying on a spirited argument with someone who made you angry. Suddenly they have been silenced and can't answer you. It feels unfair. Later, when you discuss them as someone who receding into history, that is a different dialogue, with a different tone. Take some time to calm down and switch gears. If all you are going to do is continue the screaming match in a one-sided fashion, maybe you should consider silence.

3. You won. Death after all is a sort of defeat, and you're still here. Maybe you should show some magnanimity.

4. Concern for your own reputation. By kicking a warm body you make yourself look petty and vindictive.

5. Respect for the awful mystery of death itself. Death puts things into perspective, and here you are showing a complete lack thereof. Try growing up a little.

Of course, none of these considerations amounts to an absolute prohibition. Let your conscience, your taste, and your concern for the feelings of others be your guide.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Police Surveillance Drones: Time to Draw a Line?

Like or not, domestic use of those surveillance drones that were developed by the military is coming. Many potential users are interested in them, in many cases for uses that are plainly legitimate, but according to this article the "hungriest" these by far are "the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies."

Is this anything to worry about? Of course not, says big business and their friends in big government:
"Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around something that they're interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want," said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. "I don't understand all the comments about the Big Brother thing."
The idea is that the only relevant difference between a helicopter and a drone is expense, not privacy. This statement is plainly false, as you can see from the following quote from the same article:
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.
Recording sound and video from the vantage of a residential window ledge is treated as criminal when done by a civilian. We are looking at something that potentially carries information-gathering capacity of the police way beyond what is supported by helicopters and planes.

There are clearly forms of surveillance that are okay. Though some object to them, I don't mind fixed recording cameras at busy intersections and turnpike tollbooths. I am glad that they have helped in the apprehension of vicious criminals and have documented police brutality as well.

Is there a principled line to draw here?

As we ordinarily understand it, the right to privacy is very flexible: it is easy to give up. At the moment I am putting on my necktie tomorrow morning, I will have a right, good against everyone in the world, that the not see my tie. As soon as I open the front door and step out onto a public sidewalk, I have given up that right.

A legal phrase you often see here is "reasonable expectation of privacy." I don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a busy intersection, which is why both private citizens and government officials may observe and even photograph me there.

If the system gives the cops the right to freely use these drones, as it has allowed them to freely use military-style armor and weapons and freely administer devastating electric shocks in the field, then the area of your life with a reasonable expectation of privacy will shrink and, with it, your right to privacy may be greatly constricted.

Unless people make an effort to stop it, this is most likely what will happen.

In current law, the cops may search your home without a warrant if evidence of a crime is "in plain view," and "plain view" includes seeing it (for instance, a marijuana plant in your back yard) from an airplane or helicopter. Shall we extend that to include seeing it via one of those hummingbird drones buzzing around in your yard? If we do, there will be a lot more things they can do do you without convincing a judge that they have probable cause, and without getting your permission.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Contraception Mandate

So the president has put forth a "compromise" version of the H & H S decree that health insuranceproviders, including Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities to pay for all female contraceptives, (including sterilization surgery and what some people regard as abortion-inducing drugs).

According to the New York Times, the compromise is an attempt to "make the new rule more like that offered by the State of Hawaii, where employees of religiously affiliated institutions obtained contraceptives through a side benefit offered by insurance companies." However, they explain somewhat helpfully: "The result differs from Hawaii in that it shifts the cost to insurers, instead of employees. It also differs from Hawaii in that it requires companies — and not the religious institutions — to inform employees about how to arrange coverage."

I'm having trouble understanding what this change amounts to. It sounds like religiously affiliated employers
will no longer have to pay directly for employee's contraceptives: instead, they will only have to do so indirectly, through the insurance they will be forced to pay for. Under both arrangements, individuals (as opposed to institutions) are compelled to pay for other people's contraceptives via the insurance premiums they are forced to pay.

I'm also having a huge problem seeing how this is an improvement. It sounds like what the administration is thinking is that the original objection was that Catholic institutions are holy and can't get any birth control cooties on them. If the connection is sufficiently indirect, that's not too icky and so everyone can be fine with it.

The real issue is similar to the one involved in this paragraph from Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom (one of the three achievements he asked to be named on his epitaph):
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind.
Forcing someone to actively participate in an activity that they sincerely believe is wrong is morally problematic. So is forcing them to pay for advocacy of the idea that this activity is in fact not wrong (the case that Jefferson is addressing here). I would also put forcing someone to pay for carrying out this same activity belongs in the same category.