Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Rational Approach to Punishment

I was thinking about punishment after my last post, and it occurred to me that there is a simple way to rationally decide how crime should be treated.

Obviously, like anyone else, I would find ideal a system which allowed me to do whatever I wanted without consequence, while providing enough punishment to everyone else that ti prevents them from harming me. Of course, no one would agree to allow me that freedom, and I would allow it to no one. So, the only choice which would be acceptable to all is a system where punishment is applied uniformly.

The next question is whether the system will punish everyone or forgive everyone. The forgiving system will allow me any crime, but will allow the same to everyone else. As I expect to benefit less from my own freedom than I would suffer from the freedom allowed others, it makes sense to opt for the system that punishes everyone. The loss from giving up the freedom to commit crime is small, while the protection is great.

Finally, we need to ask how harshly crime should be punished. And again, the logic is the same. I can benefit from weak punishment, but the potential harm is much greater. As I am unlikely to commit a crime, but I will suffer if even a small percentage of others do, it makes sense to punish crimes harshly enough that almost everyone is deterred from committing them.

And make no mistake, except in a few very rare cases, punishment deters crime. Ask anyone why they don't just take what they want and the first answer is "because I will go to jail". That alone says that punishment works. Of course, if I need to, I can point to the hundreds of news articles, strangely puzzled that rising prison populations go along with decreasing crime, and offer the simple explanation that the reporters miss: If people are in prison longer for crimes, it helps deter others from committing crimes ( and those in jail obviously can't commit crimes either). But do I need to prove that harsh punishment deters crime? It seems such a self-evident proposition.

Then again, the logic may seem incontrovertible to some, but it is amazing how often this very simple line of reasoning escapes people. They will argue about rehabilitation and prison reform and so on, and ignore the obvious. Punishment exists to keep people from harming others. If they are still harming others too often, then the punishment must be more severe.

Why does this prove so hard for people to grasp?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/20.

The Most Worthless Defense

How often have we heard this reply "Well, maybe he did, but this other guy..."

Most recently I saw this defense offered for Obama's close ties to domestic terrorist Billy Ayers. The defense offered by a pro-Obama blogger was "Well, why aren't you going after Daley? He's friends with Ayers too!" Even ignoring the fact that Daley is not running for president while Obama is, this is simply a worthless defense. It simply does not make one candidate good because someone else did wrong as well. Even if the other person were in a similar position, it would not excuse one that another did wrong, it simply makes them both guilty.

I thought every school child learned this by age five. Yet it appears political partisans, especially Obama supporters, missed those few years in elementary school.

Think of it this way, if a man were charged with murder, would it be right to release him because someone else committed two murders? Would it be right to release him if someone else were acquitted on a charge of murder they actually committed?

Of course not. One man's misdeed is in no way excused by the misdeeds of another.

The only time this even makes a small bit of sense is when there is an either-or choice. If it were the general election, and Obama were facing McCain, it may make sense to say "Yes, Obama  did X, but so did McCain." It still would not excuse the deed by either man, but at least in that context it would mean we cannot use that issue to decide between the two. (Assuming, of course, they both did commit the same misdeed, and there is no context explaining it away on either side, and that the two deeds in question are actually even comparable. Things those seeking excuses by pointing fingers often overlook.)

But that is rarely what we see. Instead we see people pointing to completely unrelated public figures, accusing them of the same misdeed, or even unrelated misdeeds, in an attempt to excuse their candidate.

It just makes no sense.


I Just realized when I asked if one man should be acquitted because another did wrong, that that position was actually argued before. When there was debate over the beating trials in Jena, among other more substantial arguments, some actually argued that the black youths charged should be acquitted because white youths had committed other crimes. That was even more idiotic, as it was simply based on collective racial guilt (ie. If whites as a whole get one crime, blacks as a whole should get one crime.) But it is one of the few times I have seen anyone seriously argue the point I thought was so idiotic when writing the original post, that a crime by one man means another cannot be tried.

I suppose similar logic is found in the idea that America is imperfect, so we cannot criticize other nations, and in the terrible misuse of the "let he who is without sin" quote to deny anyone the right to judge, but in those cases they do not state it quite as explicitly.

Obviously, I do not agree with any of those positions. An individual's guilt or innocence is his or hers alone. Even if 100 guilty men are set free, the 101st still must be tried on his own merits, the past miscarriages of justice have nothing to do with him.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/20.

Performance Art

I have never had much respect for performance art, but I am even less impressed now. After reading this article on the possibility that the self-induced abortion art may have been a hoax, I am left convinced that there is little of either performance or art in performance art.

Let us look at both possibilities. A student caused self-induced abortions to raise awareness of "womynhood". Or, a student faked the same to get a lot of media attention. I just can't think of, say, a Rodan bronze, and this juvenile stunt and call them both art. Limiting myself to the realm of performance, I still can't compare this to something as unimpressive as a high school production of Shakespeare, or even "Inherit the Wind". It is simply a childish tantrum going by far too elevated a title, whether it is true or a hoax.

Call me a philistine, but I have to say what passes for art, and what has passed for art for most of this century, is nothing but juvenile garbage elevated by a critical community which has abdicated its duties. Once they admitted that anything could be art, then nothing was art any longer. I know it is unpopular to say so in the art world, but without rules and standards, art is meaningless.

Is it any wonder that modern art is such a sterile, worthless realm, interesting only to its practitioners and a very small clique of groupies?


For those who disagree with me on the need for standards, let me ask this. Did anyone play tee ball when they were very small? Where each side retired after five runs, and each game was a 45-45 tie? Do you recall how little interest you had in the outcome of those games? How it never inspired you to play anything but a mediocre game?

When we fail to measure things, to say some are better than others, we end up with no one trying. Or, worse, when there is no standard of excellence for which to strive, we see what we have in the art world, those who strive for notice in other ways, mostly through shock. If an artist cannot be judged great any longer, then the only route to success is either nepotism, media buzz or shock. If you don't have friends, and you can't generate buzz any other way, then shock is all that is left.

Which explains a lot of modern art.


By the way, after mentioning tee ball, I must state one of my claims to fame. My team was the only known tee ball team to ever win a game. We were rained out early in the eighth inning due to a sudden torrential rain. As we had finished more than 7 innings, we actually recorded the only known tee ball win, 37 to 35. At least I know of no others.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/19.

Hope You Like Unpaid Internships

I was replying to a comment when it struck me, the minimum wage actually works to make entry level jobs worse. Oh, not in the usual way you hear, that by raising the wage above what the market will bear there are fewer entry level jobs. That is true, but that is only half of the picture. There is another down side.

While the law does not like jobs that pay less than the minimum wage, it has no problem with unpaid internships. Which creates a bad situation for those hoping to break into an industry. Where previously they may have been able to negotiate a $2/hour salary, they are now stuck with one of two options. If they are worth whatever the minimum wage is, they will be able to receive that. However, as they are trying to break into the industry, odds are good that is not the case, so they are left with the option of an unpaid position.

In other words, for those trying to break into a profession, the minimum wage laws have turned low paid jobs into unpaid internships (at least where it hasn't eliminated entry level positions entirely). I do not see how that benefits those looking for work.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/19.

Seeing People as Stupid

In earlier essays I have written that government intervention is based on the assumption that our fellow citizens are incompetent. In a later essay, I elaborated on this, arguing that, while unwilling to call listeners incompetent, most politicians have to postulate some nebulous set of "other people" who are so incompetent to need help.  Now, I am uncertain if all politicians really believe that the majority is actually incompetent, or if they simply adopt the rhetorical position to justify their seizure of power, but it is clear that those who support them must believe it. So, in order to show why I think government intervention is such a tremendously bad idea, let me show why this assumption is both inherent in every liberal policy, and is so dangerous.

Let me return to a question I addressed in my last post, a government regulation mandating that landlords provide heat through the end of March. The logic behind this rule is obvious, the regulators feared that "greedy landlords" would refuse to provide heat to their tenants in order to save money. What is not stated is that this rule also assumes either absolute stupidity, or an inhuman degree of passivity, on the part of these tenants. If you were to rent an apartment, and then discovered there was no heat during the winter, what would you do? Well, first of all, you would likely make sure the lease ensured there was heat, so that would never happen. But let us assume a lapse of judgment ended with you in an unheated apartment, what would you do? I think anyone reading this would answer "move". Which is the logical answer, and the one I think every human would make. Which would mean the landlord would find himself with an empty building very quickly. As landlords with empty buildings usually end up in bankruptcy, the obvious response would be either to start providing adequate heat, or get out of the landlord business. In either case, if one does not assume that tenants are brainless, passive lumps, there is no need for this law, as tenant response will take care of the situation quite well without any law being required.

Let us look at a second case of a similar assumption, minimum wage laws. Now these are a bit different, as they assume passive stupidity on the part of not only employees, but also assume that either all employers are collaborating or that other employers are as much passive lumps as their employees. Finally it also assumes that investors are also a bunch of passive lumps, who cannot respond to a great investment opportunity.

Let us start by looking at the employees. The minimum wage laws assume that, barring such laws, employers will pay them less than they "deserve", and that employees will simply accept that wage. Now, this is wrong on a number of levels. First, there are many rational reasons an employee may be willing to accept less than "a living wage", he may want to break into a business, he may realize he is not really worth the minimum wage, or he may want to simply get work experience to demand a higher future wage. There is also the case where the entire category of labor simply does not produce enough value to support the minimum wage*. Whatever his reason, the minimum wage laws now make these rational motives illegal acts, and cut off those options. But let us ignore that for the moment, and just assume that our worker wants as much as he can get, but an "evil" employer decides to underpay him. Now, we may allow that someone looking for work may not be aware of the prevailing wage or his won worth, but that ignorance will not last long. Friends, family, coworkers, even strangers from time to time mention their incomes, and, if he interviews more than one place, he will also get an idea of wages that way. So he will surely know that he can earn more elsewhere.  So, unless we postulate that ALL employers are underpaying, those workers being payed below market wages will know it soon enough, and leave, forcing the employer to either raise his wages or shut his doors. Again, a problem solved by the market without any laws involved.

Of course, the proponents of minimum wages will argue that if such laws were not passed, all wages would be too low. But that idea requires one of two improbable situations. Either all employers are collaborating, which we shall deal with later, or other employers are simply willing to base their wages on the lowest wages paid in their region. Neither one would last long in the real world. If wages are far below what the market would support, a smart employer would raise his wages slightly, attract the best employees, and thrive. A second would outbid the first by a little more, and so on and so on, until market wages would prevail. Even if there were collusion, this possibility of increasing efficiency greatly with a very slight rise in wages would make it hard to keep such a collusion going.

But let us assume there is an iron-clad collusion, or only one employer, as that amounts to the same thing. What then? Well, this supposedly "impossible" situation is only so if we forget that the market also includes investors. With labor costs being held so artificially low, the profit margins will be tempting to a lot of investors. As in the other example, a very slight wage increase will yield huge returns, so these investors will likely start to exert an upward pressure on wages. As wages approach the market wage, profits will decline, and investment will slow, but, as long as wages are too low, investors will be attracted and wages will rise.

In both examples, we can see that the assumption underlying calls for government intervention require that we postulate that everyone in the market is a moron. If we assume even an adequate intelligence on the part of the actors, or even most of the actors, the problems will resolve themselves. Perhaps it will take time, and some may suffer while the situation resolves itself, but it will be fixed on its own, without the state. And usually in a more satisfactory way than would result form state intervention.

So, the next time you are inclined to believe someone's claim that the state needs to intervene to "fix" the economy, ask yourself if the proposal assumes that everyone involved is an idiot.


* The minimum wage laws actually help to explain both the tendency for companies to move labor intensive seamstress work oversea and to employ illegal labor in some labor intensive farm work. Yes, some do it simply to increase profits, but in many cases, the value added by labor on an hourly basis simply does not rise to the required minimum wage. If a lettuce picker can only do $5 of labor per hour, then paying him the minimum wage means a net loss. The employer is left with the choice of employing illegal labor, illegally paying below the minimum wage, or shutting down the business. Some other businesses also have the option of going overseas, but in the area of farming this is not an option.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/19.

Why Government Fails

Back in the 1980's I lived in an apartment with centrally controlled steam heat. In other words, the apartment had radiators that were turned on or off for the entire building. I never really noticed when they came on or went off, as, for my first few years there, the heat was on when it was cold and off when it was warm. However, one spring, when we experienced an exceptionally warm March, I noticed that the heat was still running. Now, the apartment had no air conditioning and I relied on fans to cool off, so it was quite noticeable when the heat was running on 80 degree days.

I called the management and asked them if they realized they were broiling their tenants. It was then that I learned the government, either Maryland or Baltimore County, I don't recall which, had enacted a law that, in apartments where the heat was not controlled by the tenants, the landlord must provide heat through the end of March. In short, it was illegal for them not to broil their tenants.

So, why the story? Well, it illustrates two principles that I have mentioned before, and does a great job.

First, it does a great job of illustrating why government-driven, rules-based solutions are always inferior to private, agreement-based solutions. The government must operate by rules, as otherwise it is simply capricious dictatorship. For some situations, this works adequately. Saying murder and theft are against the law is a rule based solution, but it works well enough. On the other hand, mandating that heat must be delivered until the end of March does not work, as it fails to take into account other factors, such as weather. Of course, the rule could be refined, but inevitably any refinement will leave some other exception unanswered. The rule based solution simply will never be as flexible or useful as the private solution.

Second, it illustrates the way that good intentions often result in horrible outcomes. The government, worried that greedy landlord would deprive tenants of heat, instead ended up mandating the heating of apartments on 80 degree days. They meant well, but their assumptions led to making rules which harmed the very people they intended to protect. A far better solution would have been to do nothing, as tenants will not likely rent apartments that fail to provide heat, meaning the assumed "greedy landlords" would either have to provide adequate heat or see their apartments sit empty.

Actually, both concepts reinforce one another and both point to one conclusion. The state should be kept to matters for which there is no other solution, when it meddles in the wrong fields, the results are inevitably much worse than the problems it intends to solve.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/19.


My previous post reminded me of a topic I had been meaning to address for some time, the benefit of predictability. Most often this topic arises when I argue with those who advocate the adoption of the "living document" view of the Constitution, but it fits just as well with my arguments for a common culture. Basically, whenever a specific action produces a predictable outcome, people will benefits, and whenever the outcome is not predictable, people will suffer.

Let us remove this from the real of law or culture, and just look at it in very general terms. We rely in everyday life on predictable outcomes. We open the can with the picture of corn expecting corn inside. Were it sometime to contain a rattlesnake or poison gas, the value of canned food would drop incredibly. Similarly, we expect that going to work every day will result in a weekly check. If sometimes we were paid and sometimes thugs beat us senseless, we would probably seek another job.

It is a principle we recognize very well in everyday life, recognize everywhere outside of the law. Science is based entirely on the predictability of cause and effect. Even when we enter the murky area of subatomic physics with its probabilities, we still have a set of known outcomes, and the likelihood of each, there are many outcomes which are so unlikely as to be considered impossible.

Only when it comes to law do people lose all common sense and argue in favor of unpredictability. The advocates of "living documents" are basically making that argument.  The entire point of a constitution, of written law as a whole, is that it has a fixed meaning, and that people can act based upon the assumption that the law will behave in a predictable way. Once we introduce the idea of a "living Constitution", that benefit vanishes. If something may be legal today and illegal tomorrow, then planning breaks down. We are left in the situation of those living under the whim of a capricious dictator, unable to plan beyond the immediate moment.

It may not make sense to everyone, but it is better to live under a predictable tyranny than under a benevolent, but unpredictable ruler. At least under the consistent tyrant, the citizens can predict what actions will be needed to achieve specific results. When the law becomes unpredictable, this is no longer possible. If you do not know what you need to do to achieve your desired results, you are left unable to act. Unpredictability results simply in impotence.

And that is what the advocates of the "living Constitution" are endorsing, removing the single benefit of written law, predictability, making the Constitution worthless.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

The Problem With Cultural Relativism

The principle problem with cultural relativism is not that it is wrong so much as it confuses two different concepts.

Cultural relativism starts from an arguably correct premise, that cultures are of equal value. Obviously this is open to debate, and I personally believe that there are cultures which are more or less beneficial to their adherents. But even if we grant cultural relativism's argument, the conclusions they draw are incorrect.

Starting from the value judgment that all cultures are of equal merit, they reach the unwarranted conclusion that there is no value to a common culture. And that is where they go wrong. Even if all cultures are of equal value, that does not mean all should be present in the same society. Whether or not any specific culture is better than another, there are clear benefits to establishing a single culture within a society.

Why do I say that?

Well, let us start with a very simple example. If we establish a single national language, the benefits are obvious, as communication is facilitated. If we allow every member of society to speak whatever language they please, and do not encourage the adoption of a single language, it will result in chaos. If we speak a single language, we can assume safely that anyone to whom we speak will understand us.

And a culture is essentially nothing but a type of language. By having a common culture we have a short hand of kinds. We know how people will respond to various acts or words. If we do not have a common culture, we do not know if asking a woman on a date will result in a smile, a slap, or a stabbing by her brother. Common cultures resolve that, by telling everyone what the accepted range of responses are. It allows us to know what will happen.

So, we do not need to posit that our culture is superior to argue that people immigrating to our nation should adopt it. Yes, at home and in their own enclaves, immigrants are free to act as they wish, anyone is free to act as they wish when on their own. But in public, when interacting with the larger culture, it is important that we all adopt some common cultural assumptions if only to allow us to understand one another. Over time, those assumptions may change, aspects of foreign cultures may prove preferable to our own, and may be incorporated, but, whatever the cultural assumptions of the moment, it is important that society encourage everyone adopt them.

Of course, when we discuss what norms should be adopted, at that point the merits of various cultures may become a relevant point, and that may not please the advocates of cultural relativism. But whether we should adopt a common culture at all is a different matter. The benefits of a common culture, whatever it may be, is not open to debate. It is not an expression of cultural elitism, there simply is too much benefit from a shared culture to adopt the assumptions of the relativists.

NOTE: For those who read the very first posting of this article, I have changed the third paragraph somewhat. I realized that my wording may have been slightly confusing, especially my attempt to distinguish between the judgment of the relative values of cultures from the practical application that we should not have a common culture. I think my new pared down wording works much better.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

I Haven't Forgotten This Blog

I know it has been quite some time since I last transcribed from my other blog to this one, and even longer since I posted any original content, however that does not mean I have abandoned the project. Many things have gotten in the way of this project, but I have every intention of carrying through with my plan of moving every post from my older blog to this one, along with fixing the links to make them all refer to this blog (or to archive.org links for external articles). I realize the plan has fallen far behind schedule, but I still intend to carry it out, and hope to begin transcription again tomorrow.