Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hot Speech and Responsibility for Evil

In the days since the atrocities in Oslo and Ut√łya, commentators have rushed to associate the killer with ideas they already hate on other grounds. I've already said that a lot of this talk is disingenuous and springs from some very nasty motives, but it does raise an interesting issue.

Obviously, what these talkers are trying to do is make their opponents feel/seem responsible for evil acts committed by others. The theory is that there can be vicarious responsibility via speech and thought. The issue: Can your speech and thoughts make you responsible for evil acts you do not actually commit? If so, when?

Well, clearly I would be responsible for a murder if I
  1. Order it done.
  2. Promise to pay for it being done.
  3. Personally urge the killer to do it.
  4. Publicly advocate it, thereby influencing the eventual killer.
These all seem pretty obvious to me. There is such a thing as vicarious responsibility, and speech and expressed thoughts can create it.

The interesting part is 3 and 4, which bleed over into other categories, where some distinctions have to be made very carefully. Let me give you an illustration. Here is the account of the run-up to the horrific Thirty Years' War in the vol. VII of the Durants' The Story of Civilization:
The struggle between Lutherans and Calvinists was as bitter as between Protestants and Catholics ... for each alteration of roles between persecutors and persecuted left a heritage of hate. ... What Melanchthon called rabies theologorum raged as seldom before or after in history. The Lutheran Pastor Nivander (1581) listed forty characteristics of wolves and showed that these were precisely the distinctive marks of Calvinists. He described [ie., with approval] the dreadful deaths of leading anti-Lutherans; Zwingli, he said, having fallen in battle, "was cut into straps, and the soldiers used his fat -- for he was a corpulent man -- to grease their boots and shoes." Said a Lutheran pamphlet of 1590: "If anybody wishes to be told, in a few words, concerning which articles of the faith we are fighting with the diabolical Calvinistic brood of vipers, the answer is all and every one of them, ... for they are no Christians, but baptized Jews and Mohammedans." ... "These raging theologians," mourned a Protestant writer in 1610, "have so greatly augmented and aggravated the disastrous strife among the Chistians who have seceded from the papacy, that there seems no hope of all this screaming, slandering, abusing damning, anathematizing, etc., coming to an end before the advent of the Last Day.
In these ravings, the rabid theologians are not in so many words urging people to violence, but in depicting their opponents as dangerous subhuman animals (wolves, vipers) and "Mohammedans," they are depicting them as what the Nazis called Leben unwert des Lebens, live unworthy of life. If you talk like this on the eve of murder and mayhem, I think you do share some responsibility for the result. (For another example, scroll to 23:00 in this video: "First, the victims were ridiculed....")

As I say, though, distinctions have to be made. I see a big difference between depicting your opponents as animals, devils, or monsters and, on the other hand, depicting them as murderers, criminals, and thieves -- provided only that you have real evidence that the latter sort of depiction is accurate.

Politics is about force and violence, and that is why any political ideology can become a motive for assassination as long as the ideology is out of power. Politics is a theater of real injustice and real oppression, and it naturally makes people angry. The fact that the Norwegian Muslim-hater read some books by American conservatives does not make them responsible for murder, not even if they somehow caused him to carry out his crimes. It depends on what they said and how they said it. Responsibily requires more than mere causation. It also requires mens rea, a guilty mind. I draw the line between anger and even rage based on considerations of justice on the one hand, and dehumanization on the other.

How the Heck Can Politics Make You Rich (Legally)?

This video answers a question, albeit with just one sentence, that I have often wondered about. I think of it like this:

Thomas Jefferson's finances were devastated by his two terms as President. His only source of income was his farm, which he had to neglect while in Washington. Meanwhile, he had to pay the salary of at least one staff member out of his own pocket.

Today, on the other hand, politicians often become (by my standards) fabulously rich while in office (yes, this does include Obama).

The question is, how is this possible without breaking the law? Why aren't these guys being led off in leg irons? How do they do it?

The answer, apparently, is by means of practices that in the business world would be called "insider trading."

George Washington Plunkitt called a similar practice "honest graft":

There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's honest graft.

Shouldn't this sort of insider trading be illegal? Do the objections to Plunkitt's "honest graft" apply to them?

(Hat-tip to Amy Alkon for the video.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Seeing Like a Nanny State

This is Rhonda Kallman, who was driven out of business after months of battling the FDA's ban on caffeinated beer. Meanwhile, the manufacturers of Four Loko have taken the caffeine out of their product like good little slaves and seem to be doing fine. Please read her sad story here.

We've come a long way since Congress -- Congress, not unelected jobholders with lifetime tenure who are answerable to no one -- had to pass a constitutional amendment in order to ban alcohol. In our era, the FDA can do the same thing with a wave of its bureaucratic magic wand. What has happened since 1919 that implies it should be much, much easier than it used to be for the nation-state to tell us what we can and cannot do? Were there no products as "dangerous" as Moonshot to protect us against?

I think what has changed is much more a matter of Weltanschauung than objective fact.

Let's take a look at the thinking behind the ban. How did it get started? Soon after the first of these products came on the market, some college students overindulged and ended up in hospital. One was reported as "almost dying." (See this.)

(BTW, no actual deaths were reported. It would be interesting to find out how many students died from alcohol poisoning [ethanol overdose] during that same period from other beverages. Here is a relevant fact: about 157 people ages 18-23 died from alcohol poisoning between the years of 1999 and 2004.)

The theory was that, with these drinks, you don't feel as drunk as you actually are. Hence there's a tendency to underestimate one's own consumption and so to over consume.

The theory must also involve the idea that people are not going to notice this and learn a new method of gauging how much alcohol they have swallowed (by counting cans rather than proprioception).

How can they justify using coercion against the manufacturers of these products, even driving them out of business in some cases, for the way consumers are using their product? I'm sure the theory goes on like this: These corporations, together with their advertising and the chemical content of their products, cause these young people to overindulge. This is harmful. Causing harm is wrong. Therefore they deserve exactly what they get.

Notice that this is a narrative in which the corporation is active and the young consumer is passive.

According to this narrative, the consumer is a) stupid and b) weak.

One reason I find this world view morally repugnant is: people only ever think this way about others, never about themselves. The people at the FDA do not see themselves as part of the weak and stupid populace. And we seem to agree. That is one of the things that have changed since 1919.
* She has the same surname as one of my favorite composers. I wonder if they are related. For an explanation of the title of this post, see this.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Libertarian Argument for Drug Prohibition?

Good Lord! Glenn Greenwald (in the second of the two arguments he gives above) presents the worst argument I think I've ever heard for drug legalization. The conservative columnist James Taranto then turns the very same premise into an even worse argument for drug prohibition. Here is Taranto:
This columnist has some sympathy for the libertarian arguments in favor of decriminalizing drugs, but we've never felt comfortable getting fully on board with the idea. Blogress Ann Althouse points to a big reason why. She links to a video in which long-winded leftist Glenn Greenwald makes a case for legalization. Here's Althouse's description of the garrulous Greenwald's argument:
He loves the idea of pulling people into the embrace of government. When drugs are illegal, there is a "wall of fear" separating the people who are drug users from government. But if drugs are legal, "the relationship between the government and the citizenry changes for the better and becomes much more constructive." Tear down that wall, and these people who avoid the grip of government can be enfolded in endless programs. A torrent of ideas for programs spews from the mouth of Greenwald. It's such an exciting idea for lefties: There's a big untapped pool of potential clients for nurturing government services. Let the druggies come to Big Mother government. [Notice there is no counter-argument here. Ann merely restates Greenwald's argument in emotionally loaded language. Althouse is the logical equivalent of Oakland California: There's no there there.]

Libertarians might argue that this would still amount to a net gain for freedom. We suspect they would also point out that they are against both antidrug laws and Greenwaldian nanny government.

The former argument is defensible, but the latter is irrelevant. Since we live in the real world and not Libertarianland, it's unreasonable to think that legalization of drugs would not result in at least some of the sort of government expansion of the sort Greenwald desires. Thus we continue to lean against drug legalization, in part on libertarian grounds.

What's wrong with Greenwald's argument: His main premise is something like this: Drug laws make people fear the state and consequently make the state look bad: so if we do away with them, people will think more positively about the state and favor more social welfare programs. As far as I can tell, the antecedent portion of this hypothetical statement is not true. The war on drugs does not seem to make government look bad, as if we should not trust it to solve our problems. It certainly does not have that effect on the majority of citizens who favor standing drug laws. How about people who use illegal drugs? Well, most of the people I've known who use drugs are welfare statists, like Greenwald himself. In fact, even he does not draw the conclusion that government itself is an untrustworthy institution. Why does he think others would?

I noticed the same phenomenon during the Vietnam era, when I was active in the antiwar movement. Here was a government that basically kidnapped us and shipped us overseas to be shot in rice paddies -- and for no very good reason at that! Well, were the people in the antiwar movement skeptical of government? No! The leadership was mostly authoritarian statists like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.

People's political views are for the most part like their religious views: not based on facts and the requirements of logic (eg., the requirement of consistency). Their opinions about whether the price of gold will continue to rise, or whether there is any milk left in the refrigerator, or whether their employer will lay them off soon, are indeed based on reasoning. Their trust in the state, like their faith in the church, for the most part is not.

As to Taranto's reverse version of the argument, it is truly beneath contempt. After all, why would the drug war make government look bad to people, if it did? Obviously, because it is bad: current drug laws are cruel, wasteful, and unjust. In other words, he is defending these laws on the grounds that they are cruel, wasteful, unjust. What makes them good is that they are so bad.

How many things are wrong with that argument?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Casey Anthony: (Procedural) Justice Was Served

Their disappointment is palpable. I almost feel sorry for them, but not quite.

Consider the similarity between this case and the Amanda Knox case in Perugia, Italy. In both cases, a physically attractive but morally unattractive young woman is accused of a bizarre homicide. This triggers a massive media frenzy which feeds off its own multiplying energy, eventually chewing up the woman's character, spitting it out on the ground, and stomping on it. The women make matters worse by behaving badly after the fact and telling reprehensible lies that are eventually exposed. The prosecution had in both cases rather tenuous circumstantial evidence and a narrative that, if true, would explain the evidence and incriminate the accused. Unfortunately, other narratives, at least as facially plausible, would exculpate the accused. Knox is sentenced to 27 years, while Anthony is acquitted of all felony charges.

Why the different results?

I'm sure there are many factors involved, including perhaps the facts of the cases themselves. However, one thing that must have made a big difference is this: in Italy, unlike in the US, juries are not sequestered. Every night, the Italian jury went home and were exposed to the media narrative about what an evil witch the accused was.

Fortunately, the American jurors were kept away from the tabloids and the talk shows, and were able to reach a different conclusion from the one that the people in the above clip have convinced each other is true.

This enables them to reach a conclusion based on evidence and legal rules and definitions, and not on indignation, pity, or mob hatred (or empathy). The system that makes a verdict like this one possible makes me proud to be an American.

Update: I recommend this. There is much wisdom there.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Displaying Old Glory on the Fourth

I posted this on the Fourth last year. Since the sentiments in it are still mine -- what the heck? I'll post it again!

I took this picture of our front porch this morning. (If you click twice to enlarge you can glimpse at the far right the tail fins of the 57 Imperial.)

I always display flags on occasions like this one, but I have mixed feelings about it.

If you look up the rules for flag etiquette - actually, they seem to be a lot more than mere etiquette - they seem pretty weird. It must never touch the ground. If has to be lowered by sunset, unless an artificial light is shining one it. It must be disposed of properly. Here's the oddest one: If flown with another flag (including my favorite, the Gadsden standard, and yes I often display it as well) - which side must the Stars and Stripes be on? Old Glory must be on "the flag's own right." What? You mean, like the flag has a face and eyeballs? Yes, that's right. (In case you need to know, the flag's right is the viewer's left.) The flag is being treated as if it were a living thing - and in fact there are official statements of the relevant rules that say exactly that, in those very words.

It's as if it were a mystic symbol sacred to the religion of state-worship.

I display the flag because red, white, and blue are such cheery colors. And because it makes my house look a little like the Auvers town hall on Bastille Day, in van Gogh's wonderful painting (click to enlarge). Also, because to me it is a symbol of freedom, and not of any particular government.