Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Not to Give a Commencement Address

The above speech begins as a sort of PC version of a perfectly normal commencement speech: ie., an address consisting mainly of inoffensive bromides. If you scroll to 45, however, you will see it suddenly go terribly wrong.

Here we all are, celebrating the achievements of the last four years and looking forward to the rest of our lives, and this verbal bomb thrower, Prof. Sandra Soto, lobs one into our midst, blasting us into clashing, angry factions. This is the last memory we will have of our college days: some boor choosing our commencement as the venue for a controversial, purely ideological speech. Thanks a lot, whoever invited her!

There is a good reason why commencement speeches are packed with cliches. A wise man once told me that every culture must have some institutions that bring people together, but that in a free society things can only bring us together if they have little or no intellectual content.

Why is baseball important? Who cares which of us is best at hitting a ball with a stick? Baseball is empty! But its emptiness is its point. A horsehide-wrapped ball isn't about anything. That's why we can all agree about it. Sports are empty. Good food is empty. Partying and dancing are empty. The witless antics of the "celebrities" that fill the tabloids are all empty. The law and the constitution are empty frameworks to be filled with whatever actions we choose.

At commencement we gather to celebrate some of the very few things we do have in common: the ideals embodied in the practice of advanced learning itself. To perform this function, a commencement speech has to come as close as it can to intellectual emptiness. In speech, the nearest approach to emptiness is the bromide, the cliche. It consists of ideas that are obviously true, or at least obviously plausible, to everyone.

There certainly is a place for abrasive, offensive political harangues, but it is elsewhere.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gun Debate Hits New Low: A Comment on Method

As Chicago's handgun ban gets close to its day of reckoning at the US Supreme Court, we have this bizarre rant. It begins with Mayor Daley of Chicago offering to shove a bayonet up a reporter's nether end. He then goes into a weird argument that seems to be based on the premise that every gun, including the rusty antique he is holding, kills "thousands" of people. (Like many one-party states, Chicago is run by a malevolent moron.)

The reporter -- who happens to be a gun control proponent -- has just asked an honest question about Chicago's handgun ban. For some reason, the question isn't on this clip, but the reporter remembers it as "do you really think it’s been effective?"

That is a very good question. Chicago leads the nation in the stringency of its handgun control law. However, it also leads is a national leader in homicides.

Elsewhere in the news, Mexico has a murder rate more than three times that of the US. Northern Mexico has turned into a cesspool of murder and kidnapping that is overflowing into the US. And yet, strangely enough, that country has also had stringent gun control for four decades.

I once met up with a hunting party of Tarahumaras and mestizos who had just killed a deer with a .22. The reason for their otherwise-odd choice of firearms was of course that this was the only gun they could get their hands on.

That is the situation of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Mexicans. On the other hand, as thousands have pointed out, that is not the situation criminals are in.

Criminals don't seem to be very impressed with gun control laws, and aren't any more inclined to obey them than they are laws against murder and mayhem.

Say, I just thought of something. Anti-gun scholars often base their case on correlations between rate of gun ownership and the crime rate. One number you still see tossed about is from a 1997 study that argued that in a hand-picked set of 12 countries, the correlation between incidence of gun ownership and homicide is .67 and that between handgun ownership and homicide is .84. (No, Mexico was not one of the countries studied.)

Such numbers are full of meaning if what these people are advocating is a magical, uniform reduction in the ownership rate. Of course, what they are actually advocating is the enactment of certain laws in the real world.

Well, has anyone studied the real-world effects of such laws? If not, someone should. That is, someone should: 1) figure out a plausible way to rate gun control measures for stringency, 2) collect the relevant facts about a large number of jurisdictions (ideally ones the size of Chicago, not entire countries), and 3) see how gun law stringency and homicide rate are related. I would be willing to bet that the latter would be an increasing function of the former.

To this the anti-gun people could reply, "Don't be silly. Stringent gun control doesn't cause crime. Rather, both have a common cause, which is of course violent criminals. Areas that have more criminals are for that reason more likely to impose heavy gun regulations. They are also more likely to have crimes, and for the same reason."

And the pro-gun folks could say: "Sure. And that's exactly what what we say about your gun/crime correlations. Americans have more guns because of the American character: specifically, its wild and anarchic, authority-despising streak. And it has more crime for the same reason."

Actually, I think all these timeless correlations have very limited value, but it would at least be interesting to study the right ones.

Added later: John Lott has an excellent article commenting on the Daly outburst, in which he reveals that he actually has done some of the research I wish for above. The results, at least to me, are not surprising:
Murder rates soared in D.C. and Chicago after their gun bans were put in place. As shown in the just released third edition of my book More Guns, Less Crime, before the late-1982 ban, Chicago's murder rate was falling relative to those in the nine other largest cities, the 50 largest cities, the five counties that border Cook County (in which the city is located), and the U.S. as a whole. After the ban, Chicago's murder rate rose relative to all these other places. Compared with the 50 most populous cities, Chicago's murder rate went from equaling the average for the other cities in 1982, to exceeding their average murder rate by 32 percent in 1992, to exceeding their average by 68 percent in 2002.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Great Speech

Above is the end of Rand Paul's excellent victory speech in yesterday's Kentucky Republican senatorial primaries. When was the last time you hear an important candidate praising "capitalism," and actually using that word? In my case, the answer might be "never."

Is Nancy Pelosi ready, I wonder, to apologize for calling the Tea Party movement "astroturf"?

Kagan's Disturbing Take on Free Speech

Above you may enjoy the spectacle of the brilliant Glenn Greenwald making hamburger out of Obama mouthpiece Greg Craig. (See also this.) Yes, as Greenwald points out, Kagan is a cypher. But there is one great issue on which her views are known. One of her very few published articles is this one, about the proper interpretation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. To me, what we find there is not reassuring.

This article defends two principles, both of which I think are seriously wrong:

1) The test of whether a governmental restriction on speech violates the First Amendment is, not the real-world consequences of the restriction, but the governments motive in imposing it.

2) The only motive that can justify a restriction is that of preventing harm caused by the speech. It should not be backed by what she calls "censorial" or "ideological" motives (p. 421). The harm involved must be "neutrally" conceived, in that we are not acting out of hostility to the ideas expressed in the speech.

Except for the proviso that harm to the government or a politician does not count as a relevant harm here, she leaves the idea of "harm" quite featureless and general. I am grateful for that proviso, for, aside from it, these rules seem clearly too friendly to government restrictions on speech.

Suppose that the government were to ban all electronic means of communication -- all computer modems, cellphones, iphones, blackberries, ipods, ipads, etc. etc. Would this violate our right to freedom of expression? According to Kagan's principle, it would depend on the motive behind the ban. What if all these devices are imported, and the government intends to stimulate the (eventual) growth of a domestic electronics industry? Her first principle would imply that in that case it would not violate our right of free expression. I think most civil libertarians would say that it does, because it is a use of governmental coercion that severely curtails communication. (Hat-tip to Prof. Timothy Hall for this example.)

The civil libertarian view is that our rights limit the means that government may use to pursue its ends, and thus indirectly limits those ends themselves. Kagan's view on the contrary is that government's purposes limit our rights.

Much more disturbing is the second principle. Protection from non-specific "harm" has ever been the motive of the censor and the inquisitor. It is what motivated St. Thomas to advocate that heretics be executed, "severed from the world by death": he only wanted to protect other Christians from having their immortal souls endangered by false doctrine.

Moreover, as the case of Thomas suggests, Kagan's distinction between the motive of fighting off neutrally conceived harm on the one hand and hostility toward ideas on the other is often a distinction without a difference. Whenever we feel the urge to censor "harmful" speech, it is typically the ideas behind the speech -- Communist ideas, racist ideas, heretical ideas -- that do the "harm."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Real "Greek Tragedy"

Way back in 1965 I sat in a lecture audience and listened to leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, at the time a professor at UC San Diego, argue that car names tell you a lot about the evils of capitalism: cougar, jaguar, mustang, barracuda. So many of them are named after violent or dangerous animals! These are the sorts of names that sell cars, because capitalism turns us into the sort of people to whom such things are attractive: it turns us into dangerous, violent beasts!

(Little did I know that this would remain for more than four decades the stupidest argument I would ever hear from a professional philosopher.)

And what would the alternative sort of society do to our character? I imagine that the Sage of San Diego thought that when the people of a country are forced to share just about everything, like members of a family share just about everything, then the country would be like one big family, and people would pull together. They wouldn't be so anti-social and selfish.

If you look at Greece this week, you will see what sort of character is actually fomented in an advanced welfare state. The bill for the Greek welfare state's lavish "benefits" -- "free" health insurance for all, "free" school through college, lifetime pensions at full-pay for government workers, enormous stretches of paid vacation every year -- is due, long delayed by irresponsible deficit spending. The government has to cut benefits and raise taxes in order to get bailout money from America and Europe.

Are the recipients of these benefits taking their share of the costs and pulling together like one big family in hard times? As you can see in the above video, that is not the response at all. The rioters have been reacting to the austerity measures with murderous rage.

Why? Well, consider the euphemism that Americans have chosen to substitute for the unpopular term, "welfare state": entitlements. If you have an entitlement, then with all the force of a tautology, you are entitled to it. An entitlement is a right.

As far as the truth of the matter is concerned, this word is like most euphemisms: vague, confusing, and dishonest. Obviously, these things are not rights in the sense that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights. Psychologically, though, this one is very revealing. The public school teachers you see in the above video are reacting exactly as if the government were violating their rights: they are getting into fistfights with the police.

Unlike life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, entitlements are rights to stuff, stuff that had to be produced by another person. An entitlement is a right to the fruits of the labor of others.

I hold that the very idea that a able-bodied human beings who are perfectly capable of fending for themselves have such a right is profoundly corrupting in its influence.

Entitlements create entitled people.

Here in the US, it seems that the states with the most lavish welfare-state spending are the ones in which the consumers of tax dollars are the least willing to accept cuts or, in some cases, even a freeze in pay raises.

The great Mike Royko once suggested that Chicago's old motto, Urbs in Horto ("City in a Garden"), should be replaced with Ubi Est Mea ("Where's Mine?"). It looks like this phrase expresses the true soul of the welfare state as well: Where's mine?

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Obama's Critique of the New Media

Yesterday Obama gave the commencement address at historic Hampton University (Booker T. Washington, one of my heroes, was an alum).* In it he launched a remarkable criticism of the new electronic media that has been widely reported on the web:

Here is one reporter's version of those comments:

"You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank all that high on the truth meter," Obama said at Hampton University, Virginia.

"With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations, -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," Obama said.

He bemoaned the fact that "some of the craziest claims can quickly claim traction," in the clamor of certain blogs and talk radio outlets.

"All of this is not only putting new pressures on you, it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy."

What all these media have in common is that they are interactive: they enable ordinary citizens to talk back and exchange news and views without a lot of, so to speak, adult supervision. Apparently, the idea is that too many of us engage in discussion frivolously, as a form of entertainment. Thus crazy claims gain traction. (I don't claim to be able to read minds but I am pretty sure he is thinking of claims such as those that he was born in Kenya, or that the new medical care plan involves government rationing of health care.) The fact that the internet allows us to say anything we want (even under cover of anonymity or pseudonimity!) might feel emancipating, but this feeling is an illusion if it subjects us to bondage to false ideas.

What is the alternative? Wherein lies true freedom? I guess what Obama is thinking is that it lies with the older, mainly-non-interactive media: network news, the print media, and the even older medium of college lectures. These are modes of communication in which the audience receives information and ideas from a comparatively small group of professionals and experts, who are charged to check content and mold minds along the lines of truth.

This might sound like double-talk to a lot of Americans (if being able to talk back and say anything you want isn't freedom, what the Hell is?!) but it makes perfect sense if you think of it in the "positive liberty" tradition of Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx. In this tradition, true freedom is not absence of government coercion, but presence of the power to act. One thing that greatly enhances such power is having the right ideas, and shedding wrong ones.

If I am convinced that I cannot ride my bicycle to Madison WI (perhaps thinking I am too old and infirm) that prevents me from doing so just as surely as if Congress had passed a law against it. According to the positive liberty tradition, authority is not inimical to freedom at all, if it frees us from our own wrong thoughts. In that case, in Rousseau's memorable phase, I am "forced to be free."
* However, the only Washington mentioned in the prez's speech is Washington D. C. Booker T., I am pretty sure, would not be one of his heroes. I bet he prefers D. C. to Booker T.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Should We Revoke the Citizenship of "Terrorists"?

Here you see Sen . Joe Lieberman suggesting that if any American citizens "choose to affiliate themselves with foreign terrorist organizations" we should be able to revoke their citizenship. Since then he has co-sponsored a bill to this effect. If passed, it would apply to native as well as naturalized Americans. Come to think of it, that would include me.

Consider first what he is not saying: He is not saying that if you are found guilty in a court of law of conspiring with a terrorist organization, then (as part of your punishment, perhaps) you might be stripped of your citizenship. No. He is saying if you are accused of being affiliated with a terrorist organization, you can be stripped of your citizenship and then (maybe!) a court will figure out whether you are guilty of anything.

Lieberman talks as if the officials making the accusing somehow just know whether you are "affiliated" with terrorist or not. The problem is that procedures and standards of proof make all the difference in the world. In his bill the accusation would be made, not by a judge or jury, but by the Department of State. Once you have lost your citizenship, you might be moving into a legal category where the standards of proof and procedural protections are a lot lower that they were before. According to the above-linked article, if you are captured overseas (while on vacation pershaps?) you can end up detained in a place like Gitmo, with the same rights that its inmates have.

According to law profs quoted in the same article, the bill is written so broadly that "affiliating" yourself could include writing a check to Hamas or Hezbollah, or helping them to do something that happens to be perfectly legal (such as making a presentation to the UN).

The very first thought I had when I first heard of the 9/11 attacks was to wonder what the US reaction would be. All I was fairly sure of was that it would be an over-reaction. Years later, the over-reactions continue.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Sorry, but Government is not "Us"

Speaking to a commencement audience over the weekend at a certain college in Ann Arbor Michigan, the President had this to say:
"But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us."
John Stuart Mill explained 160 years ago that by then the more thoughtful minds of the West had already seen through the notion that democratic governments are identical to the people they rule:
"It was now perceived that such phrases as 'self-government, and 'the power of the people over themselves,' do not express the true state of the case. The 'people' who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the 'self-government' spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein."
Beyond that, insofar as this is a democracy, it is a representative democracy at best. As Rousseau pointed out in 1762, a representative government is really an elected aristocracy. It is rule by a privileged elite over a populace that does not monitor it very closely, being too busy working to support it.

Worse yet, as I have pointed out before, even this elite is not really in charge. Most of the work in this state -- including the working out the details of the vast regulatory network -- is done by a staggering number of people who are not elected at all. Even the elected elite cannot really steer the vast Death Star of the modern bureaucratic state. In a very real sense, no one is in charge.

So if there are people out there who feel government is an alien and inimical being, with interests that are at the very best loosely related to their own, they jolly well ought to. This may be the beginning of wisdom.*
* By the way, elsewhere in the same speech, BHO said:
But the other strand is the belief that there are some things we can only do together, as one nation — and that our government must keep pace with the times. …This notion hasn’t always been partisan. It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said that the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.
... so ... our government is distinct from "us," and is actually superior to us in competence and power? I guess it is distinct when it serves his purposes to say so, and identical when the opposite theory is more convenient for his argument. I guess I shouldn't take what any politician says so seriously, but for some reason in his case I find the temptation impossible to resist.