Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Feds Cause a Panic

So some morons in the government caused crowds of private citizens to run in screaming terror. I just have one question: Isn't this what they are always doing? H. L. Mencken said it best:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
As I have said before, the only thing our masters agree on is the need to keep us in state of quivering fear. They do disagree, though, about what it is we should be afraid of. Arab suicide bombers? The extinction of the polar bears? The next banking crisis? That they might fail to expand their powers fast enough to save us?

Whether it is the swine flu of 2009, or the that of 1976, which led to a government-driven panic that caused far more tragedy and suffering than the disease itself, each incident ends with more bureaucrats being hired, more power being granted them, and more citizens hiding under their beds.

There is one difference between this case and the others, however: This time they sincerely regret their insensitive and cruel gesture. This time, the fear was triggered by accident.

Added Later: Here is a sensible article on the H1N1 virus scare by a professor of medicine who specializes in studying flu. It seems to me that the people who are promoting panic are government officials and their servants in the media, and that the voices of sanity tend to be medical people. (In the former category I except President Obama, whose statements on the subject have been pretty sensible.) Of course it could be my imagination, but I seem to see a pattern there.

Also, here is Dr. Ron Paul taking a little stroll down Memory Lane:

Hat-tip to Lew Rockwell.

Still later: Here is another sensible article (written by a journalist but reviewed by a doctor); it gives seven reasons not to worry too much about the new virus. On the other hand, Joe Biden is discouraging his family from going anywhere in an enclosed space with other people and Nancy Pelosi is encouraging her own family members to "stay home." Feh.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Susan Boyle

I wanted to show this to my students so we can have a discussion of the evils of lookism and their relations to questions of distributive justice -- but I cry every time I see it. Silly me. (Sniff.) So I didn't. Too embarrassing.

Like anything that is this emotionally deep and powerful, this event was symbolic. For me, it was a symbol of all who triumph over adversity, who start with nothing and achieve greatness, who face doubt and derision, create something beautiful -- and win!

But not everyone was swept away. A certain Mary Schmich asks, in this article in The Chicago Tribune: What if Susan couldn't sing?
If Susan Boyle couldn't sing, Simon Cowell wouldn't have stopped smirking; the spectators would have kept on snickering; and America's newest heroine would have gone back to her Scottish village to resume the life of an unmarried, unemployed, ungainly, middle-age woman who lives alone with a cat. In other words, without what we define as talent, Susan Boyle would be an object of mockery and pity.
Wow. Way to rain on my parade, lady. Thanks a lot.

Actually, at first I just could not understand what she was trying to say. And I was stunned by the fact that the hundreds of comments on the Trib web site were overwhelmingly approving. "That's exactly what I was thinking!" "So true!" What the Hell are these people talking about?

I think she is probably reacting to things people have said about Boyle's triumph. Speaking to the Washington Post, Boyle herself said:
Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances. [...] There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example.
When these immensely symbolic things happen, immediately begins the revolutionary struggle over control of the symbols. Arm for the next fight! Seize the means of the production of meaning!

Schmich doesn't want Boyle to have her don't-judge-by-appearances symbolism. Schmich is convinced, she tells us in her article, that people avoid sitting next to her sister on the bus because her sister looks, well, rather like Susan Boyle. If she had an extraordinary talent like Susan's, they would treat her like a queen; but she doesn't, so they treat her like dirt. The people in the audience were mean and unjust before they had the epiphanic realization, "oh wow, the ugly woman can sing!" and they are still mean and unjust.

Why do I find this attitude so obnoxious? There is, after all, more than a grain of truth to it. I suppose I feel that it threatens my triumph-over-adversity symbolism. But there must be more to it than that.

There is a habit of mind that I call moralism: that of weighing and evaluating things only in terms of moral categories and rules, especially ones that ground blame and guilt. Moralism, Nietzsche taught us, leads straight to nihilism, the radical denial of value.

Yes you can look at things this way, just as you can, like little Manfred Steiner, look at a beauty queen and see what she will eventually look like after being dead and in the grave for three months. No one can say the the facts you are responding to are not facts. But do you really want to go there? What good does it do you, or anyone else?

Poor Manfred Steiner was cursed with a clairvoyant power of seeing the worms and corruption toward which we are all creeping. But we have a choice. I know it sounds melodramatic and hysterical to put it this way, but I think it is profoundly true: It is a choice between life and death.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Ethics of Torture

I guess I agree with what Shepard Smith is saying in this remarkable exchange(start at 1:40): We are America and we don't allow torture: this is not a right and left thing, it's a right and wrong thing. If there has been torture, those who ordered it should be prosecuted, even if it was the president.

If I sound a little reluctant, it's because I see di a problem here. However, I think we already have a solution to this problem.

I think of it as "the Fail Safe problem." At the end of the book and film of that name, the President of the United States (Henry Fonda in the movie) faces the possibility of the destruction of civilization as we know it. Due to a series of human and comuter errors, the US has dropped a hydrogen bomb on Moscow, destroying it. The Soviets are poised to retaliate with an all-out nuclear attack on the US. After exhausting all available alternatives, the president convinces the Soviets that the bombing was an accident by ordering another bomb to be dropped on Manhattan. The pilot who drops the bomb knows that his own wife and children are below him as he drops it. He then commits suicide. End of story.

My point is that you cannot prejudge for all time what you would or should do to prevent unthinkable horrors. Here the cliche example is very much to the point: Wouldn't we torture a terrorist who knows where a ticking H-bomb is? Sure. I would pull a few fingernails myself.

There is no need to legalize torture -- law or no law, we know it will be used in such unthinkably extreme circumstances, and so do our enemies.

But, you may say, if we don't change the law and allow torture, aren't we ensuring that people who are doing things that, though horrible and perhaps even unjust, are nonetheless necessary, will be punished for trying to protect us?

No, we aren't. If I commit torture and am exposed and prosecuted, I could argue that though I broke the law, nonetheless, due to horrific circumstances, I had a justification or excuse for doing so. I would be arguing that though I broke the letter of the law, I am not guilty of doing so. Even if I were still found culpable, these same arguments can figure as "extenuating circumstances" in sentencing (perhaps resulting in a suspended sentence).

Indeed, if my torture is successful and is known to have prevented the ticking-bomb disaster from ocurring, the public prosecutor would surely not prosecute at all and the government will try to keep my crime a secret.

People who want to legalize torture want the legal system to be flexible and adapt to changing times and circumstances. There is no need to abandon some of the most fundamental values of our system in order to be rationally flexible. Time-honored legal concepts like "justification," "excuse," and "extenuating circumstances" already give the system the flexibility it needs. As they say, "hard cases make bad law."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What is Freedom of Speech?

Last week, Miss California Carrie Prejean, who eventually came in second in the annual Miss USA contest, was asked as part of the competition to give her opinion of gay marriage. Her answer was that though she thought it was great that our society has developed to the point that people can choose to love people of the same sex, marriage should nonetheless be reserved for relationships between opposite sex partners. In the above nasty and crudely dishonest video, the questioner makes it plain enough that he voted against her in part because she took the wrong position on this issue.

One blogger has asserted that, however obnoxious his behavior might be, it has nothing to do, as some have claimed it does, with free speech:
Miss Prejean has as much free speech as anyone else in America. She was asked for her opinion, and she gave it. Live on television. If asked again, she could say the same thing. She could sing it from the rooftops, provided she stop before 11pm, lest she cause a noise violation. No one is restricting her speech in any way.

The question of whether or not she lost the crown for her remarks isn't the same as the question of free speech. The Miss USA pageant is an enterprise, not a government body. They may choose whomever they wish. It is up to the judges to decide, on whatever arbitrary grounds they see fit to apply, who wears the Miss USA crown for a year.
I think this reflects two sorts of confusion. First, free speech in our culture is generally not understood as a matter of being able to speak (positive freedom) but of not being punished or penalized if you do (negative freedom). By this blogger's logic, the only penalty that would abridge my freedom of speech would be execution. After all, as long as I am left alive, I am able (though perhaps in a prison cell and under the threat of further punishments) to shout out my opinion. Free speech, I say, is a matter of speaking without fear of being punished. It is not about whether I have the capacity to speak if I don't mind paying the penalty.

The second confusion is in assuming that free speech is a mere matter of governmental arrangements. Arguably, this is true of the right of free speech, but free speech and speaking freely are broader than that. Indeed, free speech probably cannot survive in a society in which people think of it in such a narrow way.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out in 1859, free speech advances our understanding of the world and constantly improves our ideas about it. Governmental arrangements like the First Amendment serve these vital functions as part of a wider social system of ideas and practices that protect speech. Mill went so far as to say that we ought never to judge the content of what someone says as immoral unless it is directly harmful to someone else. He reasoned that the threat of the sting of our disapproval penalizes expression in fundamentally the same way that legal punishments do. This may be going too far, but I would say that at least we should not go out of our way to penalize someone for the offense that Orwell called "crimethink." This ought to me mere good manners.

Without such standards of civility, the narrowly legal institutions of free speech will not really do what they are supposed to do. In fact, without and the appreciation for liberty that supports such standards, the legal arrangements may not even be around much longer.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

That "Rightwing Extremism" Report

Dear Republicans,
Do you regret creating the Department of Homeland Security yet? Are you ready to apologize?

That's the first thing I thought when I read that DHS report. Like an earlier report from the Missouri Information Analysis Center report that instructed law enforcement personnel to watch for cars with Ron Paul or Libertarian Party stickers, it has the right in something of an uproar.

As you may know, the report warns law enforcement agencies that there "may" be a rebirth of right wing violence. It warns, among other things, that returning veterans could be turning violent. Another passage that has attracted unfavorable notice is this one:
Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
As others have said, this means there are an awful lot of potential terrorists out there. Aside from the fact that these people are casting their net way too widely, I am not as stunned by this development as many others are, for two reasons.

First, I hate to say this, but the general idea behind the report -- that there is a substantial possibility of right-wing violence in our future -- is probably true. I predicted it almost half a year ago:
Obama's party will not only control the White House but both houses of Congress. I don't expect them to be magnanimous in victory. They have suffered (how they have suffered!) eight years of not getting their way, and they won't have to take it any more. This will make a lot of others feel helpless and unrepresented by the system.
This of course is exactly how Obama's party has acted since re-taking power. In fact, they have been quite a bit more in-your-face than I thought they would be. I see no outreach there at all, and a lot of slash, burn, and trample. As I pointed out in these earlier comments, there are some people on the right who, when they feel that the political system has made them powerless, are apt to exert their power in brutal ways. The notion that violent rightwing extremists are a myth is itself a myth. Law enforcement people should indeed be on the lookout for it. I hope they are.

Second, it is true that the Democrats are probably going too far in this direction, but who gave them the opportunity to do so? When the Republicans created this new "security" apparatus, especially the DHS itself, there were plenty of us to predict that, when the Democrats eventually return, they will use it in ways that the Republicans do not approve of. This was a good reason to not make these changes in the first place.

Democrats and Republicans are both similar and different. If you give them an apparatus for snooping and spying, Republicans will sneak around looking for "Islamofascists." Democrats are also willing to sneak around -- they are similar in that way -- but they will be looking for "right wing extremists" instead of "Islamofascists." During the first Islamist attack on American soil -- the original bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 -- the attention of the Clinton Administration was completely absorbed in what they thought was the real threat to America -- those scary gun-toting Christians in Waco TX.

Now that the Republicans have given them the gift of an improved apparatus for living out one's favorite paranoid narrative, we should not be surprised if they once again pursue a narrative that is not the conservative one. We saw this coming years ago. It will not do to start sniveling and whining about it now. Instead of complaining about the people who are using the apparatus, we should look at the apparatus itself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taxation and Liberty

There are a couple of things that are disturbing about this clip, taken at one of the nation's many Tea (= "taxed enough already") Party protests today (Wednesday).

As a political philosopher, I suppose my reaction might seem eccentric. -- What disturbs me is: "liberty ... what does that have to do with taxes?"

Okay, here's the thing. Paying taxes is not the same thing as giving gifts. Nor are taxes membership fees. I cannot resign from the USA, as I can from a club. A tax is an coerced payment, extracted via the threat of a prison sentence and, unlike a membership fee, it is unconditional. There is no good or service that I get if I pay my tax but otherwise not. My government will not withhold from me protection against invasion by the Canadians or the Mexicans if I don't pay my tax, as a club would withhold the privileges of membership were I to fail to pay my dues. No, I am forced to pay, whether I want to or not, and whether the benefits are worth the expense or not.

The only way I can avoid a tax is to leave family, friends, and home to travel to a land where ... I will also have to pay taxes.

If you think that freedom is abridged when I am coerced ("negative freedom"), then every increase of taxes is a reduction of freedom.

Of course, you may think of freedom as the capacity to choose between options ("positive freedom"), but in that case the same result follows. Before my money is taken from me by the government, I have the power to choose how it is spent. After it is taken, the government makes that choice. Now, some of the things it chooses to spend my money on are in my interests, so I don't perceive these choices of theirs as a reduction of my positive freedom: things like punishing violent criminals, building roads, or maintaining the air traffic control system. These are things that I would choose to spend my money on if I could. But, as far as I can tell, by far most of the things the government throws my money at are not like this at all. They include:
  • Maintaining a national "defense" establishment larger than those of the entire rest of the world combined.
  • Maintaining a government schooling gulag that my wife and I tried to escape from by sending our son to private schools that better suit our educational philosophy, while being forced through taxes to pay for the government system at the same time. After three years and a second mortgage on our house, we ran out of money.
  • Keeping over half a million people in prison (mainly for possession of marijuana) to make sure that I don't take any drugs the government doesn't like.
Taxation has a great deal to do with freedom, but mostly not in a good way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Piracy: The Free Market Solutions

What did the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama have in common with the victims of the Binghamton murders?

Both were unarmed and defenseless against evil.

In the Binghamton case, this probably had to do with the fact that government offices, such as immigration services centers, tend to be no-gun zones. In the case of the commercial ship, the reasons are more complex.

Jane Jacobs told a story in a brilliant book years ago that is very much to the point here. During the Middle Ages, she says, the rising merchant class of the island nation of England found that to really prosper they had to cross the seas to conduct trade in other lands. But the seas were swarming with pirates, and they lost ships and treasure. But they found a solution. Pooling their resources, they built a flotilla of armed ships. Then they gave the ships as a gift to the king, with the request that his men go out and clear the seas of pirates.

Why, having the resources and the ships, didn't they themselves go out and kick pirate butt?

There are at least two sorts of reasons. First, trading and fighting force with force are two very different skill sets. The solution to the problem of the Maersk Alabama is not to say to the crew, "Here, have some guns!" They are not trained in their safe and effective use. There are indeed a number of reasons why they don't want to be so trained.

As Jacobs points out, traders and professionals in the use of deadly force follow moral codes that are profoundly different, and they generally do not mix very well. Trade is based on on a respect for human rights -- the main ones involved admittedly are property rights, but they are rights nonetheless. To trade valuable goods with a complete stranger who is armed would mean worrying about whether he might just kill you and take your goods for free. If the Maersk Alabama had been armed, there are ports in the world that would not have allowed it to dock. Its mere presence would constitute a security risk.

What is the alternative to do-it-yourself security? There are plenty of people who are saying that the only long-range solution is to go in and "fix" Somalia. I think these are the same people who "fixed" Iraq, Afganistan, and Vietnam. Remember them? I think such people are much more dangerous than the pirates. If they have their way, they will take far more lives and destroy far more treasure. Come to think of it, they already have.

But there is a third way. For a fee, private firms who specialize in protective services, will protect your ship. Depending on the policy you purchase, they may put armed guards on your ship or, if for any number of reasons you don't want to do that, you can take out a fancier and more expensive policy and they will escort you with a convoy of armed boats through pirate infested waters. The latter sort of policy would solve the unable-to-dock problem. You can rendezvous with your guard boats at a pre-arranged point and part with them after passing through the dangerous waters, at which point their check will presumably be in the mail.

Like everything else in life, the third-party security alternative has both positive and negative aspects. But with time it may prove far preferrable to both alternatives: either continuing to count ransom and pirate violence as an expense of doing business, or allowing liberal imperialism to shove us into yet another political black hole in the Middle East.

Either one of the main free market solutions have one big advantage over any government solution: They will be paid for by the people who benefit the most from them. And they will be paid for if, and only if, they are worth the cost. And that's something you sure can't say about Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
Added later: I just found this on the web (hat-tip t o Lew Rockwell):

Here is an article in Politico about Rep. Paul's proposal.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

U. Ends Graduation Prayer: What Message Do They Send?

This morning on Fox News Meghan Kelly did a segment on the breaking news that the University of Maryland Senate has voted 32-to-14 to end the practice of a officially-offered prayer at graduation ceremonies.

Kelly and her guest from the Heritage Foundation made some alarmed sounds about threats to religion, displaying this recent Newsweek cover. My first thought was "32-to-14? Don't these people have a quorum rule?" My second was surprise that they still had a graduation prayer. U. of Maryland is obviously a government-funded institution. That was why own university dropped the prayer in 1976, as a result of a complaint from then-student Annie Laurie Gaylor.

A quick search revealed something that the beautiful and brilliant Kelly, who also happens to be an attorney, failed to mention: the legal argument for the move, which had nothing to do with whether America is a Christian civilization, was the separation of church and state.

One opponent of the vote argued that rescinding the practice could "send the message" that secular speech is superior and religious speech is inferior. Ah, yes. That argument. It really brought back some memories for me. I recalled that, during the tumultuous discussion leading to my own university rescinding the last of its speech codes a few years ago, one opponent argued that it will be difficult to abolish the code without "sending the message" to students of color that we don't care about them and might event think that racist speech is acceptable. I think this is a very common sort of concern. I am sure that one of the main reasons why we do not end the War on Drugs, despite its horrific expense in terms of the liberty, property, even the very lives of so many people, is that ending it would "send the message" that drugs are okay and possibly even a good idea.

As it turned out, ending our censorship code did not send a racist message at all. The reason is that the discussion that led up to it made it perfectly clear what the reasons for the move were. This is one of the reasons why democracy is better than dictatorship: there is always a discussion in which reasons are given and explained. Rulers can't just do things and let people guess what the reasons are (except of course when we can't have a rational discussion because it's an "emergency"). As long as there are not too many haters around who attribute dishonorable motives to their opponents, the principled grounds for policy changes can come clearly through.

Liberals and conservatives are united in trying to use institutional arrangements and coercive rules to send messages about their preferred values. I say, in the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union. Do it at your own expense.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Follow Me!

I've added a gizmo on the sidebar to the left that enables you, with a mere left-click, to "follow" this blog. If you are a blogger at blogger.com, this means that when you check in at your dashboard you will see the header of my most recent post. I've found this a handy way to keep up with blogs that aren't updated every day (like this one!).

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Binghamton Murders

With economic hard times upon us, we will be seeing more violence like the horrors in Binghamton New York, and as a result more calls for gun bans. In light of that, I can only link to my post on the Virginia Tech murders from two years ago. I would just have to say more or less the same things over again.*

One small point: As you can see from this map (click to enlarge) New York does not have a shall-issue concealed carry law. What they have is what is known as a may-issue law. What that often means is that, technically, you can get a permit to carry a weapon, but you have to convince the police that you have a "good reason" to have a gun. (A lot of police seem to think that if there is a reason you might actually use a gun then that is a good reason to not let you carry one.)

If New York had, like most of the US, had a shall-issue law, that would have increased the likelihood that there would have been a law-abiding citizen near the atrocity who could have brought the killer down before he shot his last victim and blew his own brains out. As it was, his victims had to wait for the police to respond to a 911 call. The police did a good job of getting there fast (2 minutes, according to the police department) but even that was not fast enough to prevent any murders.**

... unfortunately, I can't make the same point about the multiple murder in Pittsburgh, a story that broke after I started to write this post, in which three police were on a domestic battery call were ambushed by the batterer. There just are no magic bullets for these things (no play on words intended).
* One thing I might change: in the original article, I suggested that the rules should allow any law-abiding person at a university or college to be armed. For reasons of safety, I would now probably support some sort of age-requirement for concealed carry, which could limit it to people 21 and older. Also, it might be good for schools to limit it to teachers and other school staff.

** Later: Looks like I spoke too fast in giving the police even this faint praise. According to this news story: "Police heard no gunfire after they arrived but waited for about an hour before entering the building to make sure it was safe for officers. They then spent two hours searching the building."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Defaming Religion

I suppose everyone knows by now that last week the grotesquely misnamed Uniited Nations Human Rights Commission has voted through a declaration that "defaming religion" is a human rights violation. It received 23 votes in favor (including various Muslim states and Hugo Chavez' Venezuela), 11 against, and 13 abstentions. I would love to know who the thirteen quivering weasels are who abstained, but I can't seem to find that information. Last November, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the governments of the world to punish people who "defame" religion.

I have been slow to comment on these developments because everything I could think of saying was pretty obvious, even hackneyed, viz:
  • The notion of "defaming" an idea is a sinister and illegitimate concept.
  • Individuals have rights, religions do not.
  • Defaming religion is a human rights violation is a human rights violation.
  • What do you expect from a club (the UN) all of whose members are states?
  • It is no surprise that the UN Human Rights Commission has fallen into the hands of people who abuse, trample, and urinate on human rights.
  • When countries like Canada and Germany (both of which have national hate-speech laws) vote against an attack on free speech, you know it's got to be outrageous.
  • First they came for Alec Rawls, but I didn't agree with Alec so I didn't speak up...
... well, I still can't think of anything to say about this that hasn't been said before. There doesn't seem to be anything to be learned here that we didn't already know. However, sometimes the obvious must be said. Originality is a lot less important than freedom.