Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spelling Nazi Short Post

I haven't posted many spelling Nazi posts since I changed blogs (I think January 2013's "Pathetic" may be the only one), and this one is going to be short. I just found a comment on a Youtube video that made me chuckle. First, because what the post was trying to say was so trivial, and yet it still managed in four words to say something completely different thanks to a completely puzzling spelling mistake.

I had been puzzled for some time by the utterly incomprehensible lyrics to a song in the background of a Citicorp ad ("Somebody left the gate open/we got lost on the way/Somebody save us/ the runaway train, gone insane" -- what does that mean? It makes "What's the word/Thunderbird" sound profound by comparison.) Anyway, I was looking up the artist and found out it was from "Into the Wild" by someone calling herself LP. I saw a number of predictable comments on the video, the usual "I hate it"/"I love it"/"That's one ugly guy"/"I would turn lesbian for her" that you always find on emo-ish female singers' videos. And then the one that amused me to no end:
Man, can she whale.
Now, "can she wail" would have been a pretty trivial comment if it had been spelled right. But how on earth did someone manage to misspell it? I mean, "wail" is a common word, and "whale" is not. So why did someone manage to suggest she was engaged in hunting marine mammals? It just boggles the mind.

I know it sounds like a trivial complaint but it isn't. It is one of those things I can't figure out about bad spelling. When someone takes an unusual word and spells it using a more common homophone (using "your" for "yore", for example), or a similar word ("ear" for "ere" or "Lou" for "lieu"), that I can understand. When one confuses two common homophones ("you're" and "your"), that makes sense. Even when someone forgets which words are contractions and which aren't (again, "you're" and "your"), it is understandable. I can even get it when someone uses internet contractions ("l8r") or advertising spellings ("hi", "lite", "thru").

But how do you take a common word and replace it with a relatively uncommon one? Replacing "rain" with "reign" for example. Or, "wail" with "whale". It just makes no sense.

Well, in any case, it just amused me, so I thought I would share it. Doubtless, sooner or later I will be moved to post a more comprehensive spelling or grammar Nazi post. Until then, I hope this brought at least a tiny smile.

POSTSCRIPT

By the way, for those who live in areas served by Xfinity (AWFUL name! Pure marketron nonsense!), who also know their 80's "alternative" music, am I the only one who finds it odd to hear the instrumental sections of "Love Vigilantes" playing behind Xfinity's advertisements? When they are trying to market their online services as fast and friendly, is a song about a soldier's family being told he died really the best choice?

And it is an odd choice. It is a kind of anemic instrumental bit, rather quiet and flat, and they keep the levels low, so for those who don't know the song, it must sound very bland and dull. While for those who do know it -- and New Order was big enough in the 80's that the number who do recognize it is not inconsequential -- many must be doing what I do whenever I hear it, mumbling the lyrics, and immediately afterward marveling at how poorly they fit what I just saw on the screen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

An On Demand World

If there is one noteworthy feature in our modern world, it is the tendency toward customization. Not that it is a novelty, "custom", "tailor made", "fitted" and "one of a kind" have always been synonymous with desirable. From the comparison between custom made versus off the rack clothing to the fast food ads that once touted having it "your way", we have long recognized that people want things made specifically tailored to their desires, and that they would pay a premium to receive such. However, the modern world, thanks to technological innovation, as well as a general increase in overall affluence, has finally reached the point when the mass market can receive some degree of customization. For example, we have moved from a trio of networks programming all television to dozens, then hundreds of cable channels, some aimed at fairly narrow niche markets, to the modern era of "on demand" television where a view can decide what to watch and when. Similarly, self service in everything from travel planning to stock brokerages have moved us away from the day where we handed our money to an expert and took what he suggested. We now have the ability to make many, even most, of our purchases fit our precise needs. We can buy just the songs we want rather than the entire album. We can design our own t-shirts. We can pick a pattern we like and have it printed on everything from clothing to cups to posters to bedsheets. We may not exercise full control over everything we buy, but not for a lack of trying. Every day some new entrepreneur is finding some new way to make a dollar off our desire for customizing our lives.

This is an interesting tendency, as it shows that we very clearly recognize two important economic facts. First, that individual desires differ widely*, and even seemingly universally desirable goods are desired in different ways by different individuals. Second, and most importantly, it recognizes that the economy produces the greatest satisfaction, and thus succeeds best as an economy ("Competition", "The Basics"), when we allow for that individual variation in desires, rather than trying to force individual wants in a few narrow categories.

Again, none of this is new. We have all heard the story (or at least those of us of a certain age have, it seems to have fallen out of favor of late), about how Henry Ford surrendered a truly impressive market share by sticking to the principle "you can have a Model T in any color you want, as long as it's black." Color may have seemed a frivolous issue to Ford, but it mattered enough to buyers that making cars available in various shades allowed his competitors to establish themselves in a market he seemed destined to dominate.

The reason I mention this is that there is one are in which we have a tendency to completely ignore this lesson, and instead try to impose one size fits all solutions, and that is the government. Somehow, we imagine that by forcing everyone to adopt the same economic decisions, be it their choice in wages, in insurance, in retirement, in safety precautions or what not, that we will improve everything. When, in truth,even something as supposedly objective as safety is still a question of personal values. If I would rather accept a risk than pay for some precaution, by forcing me to dot he opposite you do not improve my life, you reduce my total satisfaction. Yes, perhaps by your lights it is a sensible choice, but as we have just shown, what is and is not worth the cost is a hugely subjective choice. And so, forcing one set of values upon everyone in questions of cost and benefit is not to improve the world, but to reduce it. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Right Way", "Absolute Values", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer")

The fact is, so long as government is limited to very simple, easily defined functions -- protecting rights of life, liberty and property -- these questions do not arise, and the state, far from being a "necessary evil", is instead a valuable tool. ("Tools", "The State of Nature and Man's Rights", "The Case for Small Government") Once we move beyond that, however, it becomes a question of choosing a single set of values, claiming it represents the objectively best choice and imposing it on everyone, and that will bring not happiness but dissatisfaction. ("Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "Guns and Drugs", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Arbitrary Choices", "Consumer Protection", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity")

What makes this so surprising is that this is a principle we recognize in things as mundane as pizza orders, burger toppings, juke boxes, college electives and television programming, and yet when it comes tot he biggest choices of our lives, such as how much to save for retirement, what approach to take to ensuring our health, contracts with our employers, the education of children or the design of our homes, we fail to apply the same reasoning and grant absolute power to elected officials. I just cannot understand how anyone can hold two such contradictory beliefs at the same time.

POSTSCRIPT

I understand that many do not hold my minimalist view of government and would have it regulate matters beyond the minimal protection of individual rights. The founders recognized something similar, seeing that reasonable people could differ on the role of government. And they came up with a brilliant solution. Rather than applying a single decision to the entire nation, let us devolve most power to the states, or even farther down, to counties, or cities, townships, communities and so on. If a decision is made on a sufficiently small scale, even while it still applies a single rule to multiple people, it gives those who are dissatisfied the chance to move to avoid the decision without fleeing the entire nation. It also gives each individual more say in such decisions, presumably preventing the worst abuses of such a system. ("Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "The Benefits of Federalism", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Minimal Reforms", "Reforms, Ideal and Real")

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Consumer Protection

Conservatives are, supposedly, the group which wishes to prevent the government from passing unnecessary laws, wants to keep government as small as possible, and generally wishes to keep power in the hands of the people1. However, even within the conservative movement there seems to be rather strong disagreement over where the line should be drawn, and what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate exercises of government power. Most, for example, support laws against drugs2 and prostitution3, while most oppose gun laws4.  On the other hand, within the area of business regulation, the lines get rather blurry5. Most conservatives mouth opposition to business regulation6 in general, but end up supporting, say, licensing of various professions7, or workplace safety regulations8, though they may oppose specific instances of either one. However, in their support of "common sense"9 regulations, most conservatives grant --with varying degrees of enthusiasm -- support to government measures untended to enforce truth in advertising.

Truth in advertising is, in one sense, a bit of a misnomer. If a seller actually promised something and then failed to deliver, that is if they say they are selling a drug that will make you 18 again and instead sell distilled water, then they have committed fraud, and would be subject to civil penalties, perhaps even criminal ones, under the most venerable of legal principles. Of course, in situations where they were not actually creating a contract, that is in advertisements and other solicitations, they were free to say whatever they wanted, but canny buyers who asked for assurances of those promises before buying would normally be told some form of the truth, or else the seller would face those civil and criminal penalties. And this was consistent with legal principles as existed at the time. Caveat emptor was the law not because of pro-business sentiment, but because the principle of contract law was that the parties were sensible, competent adults, and so would contract for what they wanted. If something was unspoken, then it was not part of the contract. Thus, caveat emptor10. Similarly, because there was no contract created, and individuals were free to say what they willed, because we assumed free speech, even commercial speech11, among competent adults was preferable to government intervention, there were no restrictions upon advertisement.

However, with the advent of the reform and progressive movements there was a dramatic change in that perspective. The assumption was now that the imbalance of power between the seller and buyer required that the buyer be protected against the seller. Contracts were no longer freely entered into, the state became a silent third party, approving and disapproving of contracts as it saw fit. In addition, the assumption was born that buyers are easily duped and that advertisements are so inherently persuasive to such easily fooled people that the state must restrict their content12. And thus was born the idea of government regulation of "commercial speech"13.

In one sense, such laws are pointless, as those who intend to break the law through fraud will not be stopped by the fear of also breaking advertising laws14. For example, those selling fraudulent medical devices already face FDA fines and perhaps jail, as well as civil penalties and state fraud charges. Does the threat of an additional false advertising fine seem likely to stop them? No, as with criminals buying guns, the most likely outcome is not to stop the criminally inclined, but instead to penalize the law abiding who find themselves in technical violation of some regulation15.

But I am not here to argue against consumer protection laws on that basis, nor even against them because of the unsupported and insulting assumption of our general incompetence16,17. Instead, I am going to use these laws to make a more general point, though, in the process, I hope to show that these laws truly are pointless, and more than one argument exists to show that to be true.

Let us not start with the cases people usually toss out when discussing consumer protection. Let us not look at "bait and switch" and the like, though we shall discuss them later, but let us instead look at the real focus of much of our law, the minute definition of every imaginable term18.

If you doubt that the vast bulk of "consumer protection" constitutes nothing more than making infinitely long lists of terms and definitions, just look up any European foodstuff of some renown on Wikipedia. I guarantee each and every one will be defined by the EU to require it be produced through a certain process and in a certain region. Of course, in those cases, much of it is intended not just for consumer protections -- though that is an element19 -- but also to provide some trade advantage to European producers. For example, by defining "champagne" as including only sparkling wines form the Champagne region, it means US sparkling wines must be sold as "sparkling wines", presumably giving a slight price premium to the French sparkling wines. However, this is hardly limited to the EU, it seems what started as a campaign against patent medicines and the like has instead become a bureaucratic campaign to define every imaginable commercial term in as much detail as imaginable20.

Let me start with a simple example to demonstrate what I am discussing. Suppose you want to buy some meat. Specifically, you want some pork shoulder, without added water, and with salt. So, what would you buy?

Most of us would say "ham". And in the real world, that is adequate. However, the US government will present you with not just "ham", but "ham with natural juices", "ham-water added",  "ham and water product" and "chunked and formed ham"21. So, which meets your needs? Don't know?

That is my point. The minute definition of each of these terms is supposed to benefit the consumer. In other words, by having one ham called "with natural juices" and the other just "ham" it is supposed to allow you to know what to buy. The problem is, no one outside of the regulators and ham manufacturers know what the terms mean, and, as they rarely mean what the words would mean in their plain sense. (Eg. "natural juices" has nothing to do with juices being retained.) So, who is being helped?

Yet,w hen businesses fail to follow these guidelines, they are prosecuted and fined, perhaps jailed, on the argument that their actions deceived consumers. And that is absurd. if you get 19% protein from a "natural juices" ham, have you been defrauded? What if the protein is 10%? Or 16%? One of those is allowable, but I defy any consumer who does not work for the USDA, FDA or ham industry to tell me which without looking it up. And so, how is the use of that term for the other two defrauding anyone?

Which brings me to my point. We have countless regulations that supposedly are for safety. But these tedious, bureaucratic laws are intelligible to no one but those in the government and industry in question . We will be safer because of these laws which exist to create the impression of safety and protection, laws which basically create technical compliance problems but do not protect consumers, workers or anyone else.

However, whenever we discuss reducing such laws, reducing the size of such bureaucracies, we are told we are letting "big business' run wild and exploit everyone. Is that true? If the types of ham are less well defined, or if there are fewer prosecutions for too few franks in a can of franks and beans, will the world end? Really? Do you buy franks and beans based on past consumption and your opinion? Or because it says "franks with beans" rather than "franks and beans", or some other tedious definition?

Nor is this the only area where this is the case, every section of government tends to create these situations, areas where past regulation leads to ever more minute future regulation, until it becomes so convoluted it is no longer serving any purpose but the perpetuation of the regulatory apparatus. Nor is it unique to business regulation, police and military as much as any branch of government tend to become bureaucratized. If you doubt me, explain how often city dwellers are told there are insufficient funds for police on the streets, the message being delivered by a half dozen well paid PR officers. Consider that when claiming there is no waste in the police or military.

And yet, time and again, calls for cuts are treated as if they must come from the most basic and essential services, as if these convoluted, irrelevant parts of the government were untouchable, and that is absurd. I admit, I would argue all consumer protection is pointless, that consumers can protect themselves. For example, in "bait and switch" ads, if they come to a store and find the advertised good is not there, then don't buy anything. Problem solved. But even if we want to treat consumers as children or imbeciles, we must admit there is quite a bit of waste in those areas of government protecting them. A lot of supposed protection does nothing, as consumers don't understand the terms it uses to supposedly save them, and there is a tremendous amount of waste to cut.

However, there are two impediments to true cuts. First, politicians who put forth scare stories to try to dissuade any cuts. Second, bureaucrats who will refuse to cut anything if possible.

And, sadly, easy solutions are just not there. Short of eliminating everything -- which I am inclined to support -- if we were to, say, cut the budget of these agencies by 50%, likely they would end up preserving many of these pointless endeavors and instead cut public and popular measures, bolstering their claim that every dime is essential, until they were funded fully once more.

But then again, that is the problem I have so often described. There are many problems the government can "solve", at least to the satisfaction of some. But, once we use the government to solve these problems, it will tend to expand more and more, increasing both intrusiveness and cost. Even legitimate government functions tend to have a growth in cost and size, if not so much of a creeping intrusiveness. But if we were limited to only legitimate functions, police, military and courts, at least the areas we need to audit and watch closely are very limited. Now, with government involved in so much of our life, and with its functions growing ever more extensive, the amount of supervision needed is beyond our ability. Government is simply too large, too extensive, to easily tell what is and is not legitimate, and even among the legitimate functions, to determine what does and does not accomplish its aims.

There are many arguments for limiting government, and I have made them over and over, but I think even those who most ardently support government intervention have to admit, when we spend tremendous amounts of money not only defining a dozen or more terms for "ham" and even more prosecuting those who do not minutely follow them, all supposedly to protect consumers who don't even know what the terms denote, we have gone overboard with spending, and perhaps we should reconsider precisely what is and is not likely to give us a reasonable return on our limited funds.

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1. I grant this overlooks social conservatism and kindred movements, which some would argue are actually the heart of conservatism, but for our purposes the small government part is the relevant element of conservatism. Though, having mentioned the social conservatives, does it strike anyone as odd that authoritarian social conservatives (cf "Three Approaches to Social Conservatism") and liberals seem to be the two who most stress this point, the social conservatives to argue against the more libertarian conservatives, the liberals to argue the right wants to enact a theocracy. (I recognize I am in a very tiny minority, which accepts there is a social element to conservatism, but argues that government is not the means to enact it. See "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government", "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Social Controls", "Shame and Behavior", "Our Rude Behavior", "Shame and Understanding", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law" and "In Loco Parentis".)

2. See "In Loco Parentis", "Standing By My Principles", "Medical Regulations", "Medical Regulation II", "Drug Legalization", "Who Does It Harm?" and "It Doesn't Matter to ME...".

3. See "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution".

4. See "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable", "The Weakest Gun Control Argument", "Nuclear Disarmament and Gun Control " and "Arrogance and Gun Control", but contrast "Guns and Drugs".

5. Oddly, conservatives in generally are uniform in supporting the most intrusive economic measure, government fiat currency, which touches on 100% of the economy, and allows unrestricted spending through inflation. If any measure were to be opposed by conservatives, one would imagine this would be it, yet by and large conservatives are more faithful to the Federal reserve System than were even liberals of a few generations ago. See "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money? ", "What Is A Dollar?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 7, 2012)", "Wolf or Sheep", "The Inflation Engine", "Those Greedy Bankers" and "Explaining Past Crashes".

6. See "Economic and Political Power Revisited", "Power - Political and Economic", "Greed Versus Evil", "The Case for Small Government", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Competition".

7. See "Professional Education", "Licensing", "Business Licensing and Regulation" and "A New Look At Intervention".

8. See "Who Is Safer?", "Worker Safety", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans" and  "Oven Mitts and Safety Regulation".

9. See "Et Tu, Town Hall?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "Doing Something", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything" and "Why We Lose". See also "The Lunacy of "Common Sense"", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" and "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact".

10. See "In Praise of Contracts", "Principles Versus Outcomes" and "Caveat Emptor".

11. Logically, the artificial distinction we now have between "commercial" and "noncommercial" speech opens the door to undermining all free speech. (See "Inescapable Logic".) In fact, this gives one of the few examples of the principle I argued in "Slippery Slopes ". Campaign finance and speech restrictions are pretty obviously outgrowths of our restrictions on advertising, showing how "commercial" restrictions can come to limit speech in an areas very clearly intended to be protected. So, now we have prohibitions on how "non-media" individuals can talk about issues before an election. Does anyone doubt this restriction will only expand in the future? (See "A Crime?", "Regulated Speech" and "Confusing Money and Votes".)

12. I have argued against this assumption in "Regulated Speech", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails" and "The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism" and more generally in "Appealing to Arrogance" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences".

13. I should not need to point this out, but the first amendment contains no such distinctions. It mentions speech, without differentiating between types. On the other hand, some of the laws limiting speech in the 18th century would be considered unconstitutional today, though the drafters of the constitution allowed them without objection, so it is clear there is room for quite a bit of interpretation in protection of speech. My own position can be found in "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "In Defense of Discrimination", "A Statute of Limitations for Race", "How to Handle Idiots", "Back Again", "Best of the Web gets It Very, Very Wrong" and "Contradictory Beliefs and Practices'.

14. See "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding".

15. I am working on an essay now about the modern tendency to make more and more private individuals criminals through overregulation, which leaves us all in technical violation of one or more laws without any criminal intent. I do not think such outcomes are the result of any sinister plan, but that does not mean the outcome is not dangerous. However, I will leave that analysis for my upcoming essay.

16. See "Bad Economics Part 12", "The Basics", and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences".

17. As with all laws based on the incompetence of the public, consumer protection laws have an inescapable flaw. If we are incapable of telling what is true and what is not, if we are easily duped by advertisements, then why are we suddenly able to see through them once elected to office? As with every proposition which assumes universal incompetence, the only possible justifications are (1) that being elected magically transforms someone from incompetent into genius or (2) that there exists some genius elite who are inevitably elected to office, or otherwise drawn into government service. Since no one is going to make either argument openly -- though I suspect some bureaucrats imagine #2 is true -- there is no real logic supporting the idea that we cannot see through false advertisements but the state can. (And if we can see through them, then why bother passing such laws, as we can protect ourselves adequately without wasting scarce resources parsing advertisements and prosecuting their creators.)

18. I discussed this in passing once before in "Why Regulation Makes So Little Sense".

19. I do not hold with the general practice of many, that once one finds a possible ulterior motive, that that must be the "true" intent. (See "The Presumption of Dishonesty", "Deadly Cynicism", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Conspiracy Theory Enters the Mainstream" and "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable". Also see "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "A Small Digression" and "In Defense of Civil Debate" for an analogous political phenomenon.) I believe many people really do believe what they claim. And in this case, many bureaucrats do believe these definitions protect consumers, they just happen to have a coincidence of purpose with those seeking protection from competition. Perhaps some recognize both purposes, and a few may act dishonestly, but there are also those who act for the reasons stated, so we need to analyze all intents, not just the "hidden" ones.

20. I described Wikipedia once as the "The Taxonomy of Trivia", but Wikipedia list makers have nothing on the FTC and their ilk. Our government seems to imagine itself a latter day Dr. Johnson, and hopes to create a modern version of his masterwork, encompassing all commercial transactions. The only problem is that no one really wants it, but, lacking Dr. Johnson's wit, and common sense, that does not deter them. (Actually, some may want it, and a surprising group at that, as the knowledge of government regulation about advertising does grant some advantage to established firms -- see "Anti-Business Businesses".)

21. Ironically, two of the terms which seem most clear mean something other than they say. "Ham in natural juices" has nothing to do with whether or not their are natural juices, but just the level of protein. Similarly, "ham- water added" is also based on protein, not the addition of water. "Ham and water product" means water was added, even though "water added" seems the more natural candidate. Yet another mystery of government nomenclature.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Arbitrary Choices

I have been watching cartoons with my son recently and was rather amused at some of the cartoons which depicted sports, either in the future or in imaginary worlds. From the creature battles of Pokemon to the top wars of Beyblade to the futuristic slot cars of Scan2Go, I initially found it strange to picture a world in which such games would be held in such high esteem. But then I happened to walk into the living room while my mother was watching a dog show, and it struck me that we can turn almost anything into a competition, and not just a competition, but a serious competition, and, after a bit of thought, it struck me that looking back over the history of even relatively familiar cultures, not to mention those more remote from the west, we could find all manner of games elevated to quite lofty positions1.

Let us look, with the eyes of an outsider, at our own culture. We have any number of sports, yet only a certain number are taken seriously. For example, until very recently, soccer was not prominent in the US, and even now is still something of a second class game, as are, despite strenuous efforts by the media, most women's sports. On the other hand, in most other countries, soccer is the preeminent game, with American football either unknown, or at best a curiosity. Baseball is a little more widespread about the world, being played and followed in most of the Americas, as well as Japan, but the rest of the world seems to have little interest.

Then there are other activities, such as running, swimming, skating, skiing and the like, which are followed avidly by many during the Olympics, but largely ignored by all except a hardcore group of fans -- mostly those who participate in the same activity -- between Olympic games. And then we have other sports or games, such as auto racing, which is popular in many nations. However, differing nations seem to have different ideas of what is proper racing and what is not, so while NASCAR is a massive industry in the US, that particular form of stock car racing is almost unknown, and certainly not followed, elsewhere. Similarly, rally racing, or formula one racing, or any other variety, seems to have partisans, often based upon geography, who avidly follow their particular version fo racing, and yet have little or no interest in other varieties.

If we widen the definition even more, to include games which are not precisely sports, we can move into pool, poker and a host of other forms of gambling, which, until relatively recently, were not considered spectator sports. Well, pool was watched for some time, but poker has only recently become something to watch rather than play. In fact, until relatively recently, I can't imagine anyone believing that televised poker would not only be watched, but popular enough to be sold as pay per view.

 Which brings me to my point. What is worth watching, or worth playing, or what can be taken seriously and what cannot, is a largely arbitrary choice. While it seems obvious to us that people would pay to watch football, and would not pay to watch, say, a spelling bee, it is actually far from obvious, but is instead an imposition of our own biases on reality.  For, if we were to put ourselves in the mind of, say, your average Roman living in the late republic, the very idea that someone would pay to watch men kick a ball is absurd, though to us it is not. What is and is not a valid sport is little more than a cultural norm, combined with some degree of personal bias.

Why I bother mentioning this, the reason I wrote this at all, is because of how easy it is to forget that simple point, as exemplified by my amusement at the thought of a culture which would lionize men who can win combat between metal tops (Beyblade) or fights between animals (Pokemon). Of course to us these seem absurd, but to men in other nations, or in other times, watching other people play cards, or drive fast in a circle would seem equally absurd. But because we are so trapped in our own cultural assumptions this is very hard to remember, and we have a tendency to imagine that what we consider proper is the only possible choice.

I can already hear conservatives beginning to cringe, and a number of traditionalist warning bells going off, so let me set some minds to rest. While I am an iconoclast in many regards2, I am not about to begin shouting about cultural relativism, or the need for multicultural understanding. I have a fairly strong regard for cultural traditions, and though I may argue about what tools we should use to advance those traditions3 I am not about to say they should be abandoned.

No, what point I am going to make is a much more basic one, and one we forget even more frequently. And that is, cultural assumptions are not the only ones we often find hard to overcome. Our own personal assumptions can be every bit as deeply ingrained, and can just as easily, or even more easily, confused with truth. Oh, we recognize that our tastes in food, in clothing, in music, in art4, all of what we choose to call "preference" is arbitrary, or at least somewhat subjective. However, there are a whole host of other values, just as arbitrary that we often call "reason", and we fail to recognize as just as subjective. And because of this, we often fall into the trap of confusing our individual values with universal constants, and with dire results.

It is a point I have made repeatedly, though most clearly in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", what many consider an objective choice is all too often nothing but their own subjective preference, and to impose it on others is not to help, but to harm them. And, sadly, it is a flaw that is hardly confined to the left wing5.

For example, one of the supposed benefits of the FairTax is that it discourages spending and encourages savings. This is hardly unique in a plan supported by conservatives, we often hear from the right that we save too little and spend too much. And, perhaps that i fair in one sense, in that our inflationary currency does create incentives favoring consumption and borrowing. However, that is the environment in which we live, and the solution is not to coerce people into saving, as that will not create a better world, but simply reduce overall satisfaction. No, if we want to remedy the problems of inflation, then end our fiat currency, don't institute another system designed to impose your values upon others, thus making them less happy.

Similarly, many on both right and left have few objections to government funded research. They may differ on the types and the amount of money, but I have found frighteningly few on the right who would end all such funding. However, the idea that such research is more beneficial than whatever the tax payers would choose to buy is, once again, an example of applying the arbitrary values of a single individual, or a group, upon everyone, reducing overall happiness in order to achieve a goal valuable to some select few.

But perhaps the best example is my most controversial, that is the idea that there is no "right" education. In "Reforming Education" -- and later in  "Why Vouchers are not the Answer" -- I discussed the idea that vouchers would be a problem, as the state would have to intervene to make sure students received a "proper" education, and I argued that, truthfully, there is no "right" education. We imagine that an education which paves the way to college, or a job, is proper, but parents may disagree. If I believe serving God is paramount, then perhaps an education stressing religious dogma is more important, as it will instill in my children ideas and knowledge I consider more important. Or, perhaps I believe a job is more important than abstract knowledge, and so I stress manual skills over general academic education. Is that right? Or wrong? The fact is, it is neither. What is important in education is as arbitrary a belief as any other. It all depends on what your goal is (cf "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity") We might believe there is a single right way to educate, or a range or right choices, but that is because of our assumptions, because we do not recognize our own arbitrary choices for what they are. (Cf "The Right Way")

There is a lot of argument to take us from this realization to the final conclusions, and I lack the time to make them all. Fortunately, I don't need to do so, as I have made them all before6. However, for those who have not read my earlier writing, let me at least point out the most fundamental points. If we value individual satisfaction, then what we should learn from this realization is that the state should be limited, and should confine itself to the simple task of protecting individual rights. In order to make this most likely, it is best to keep its power small and local, and thus I favor a minimal, local federalist state. And in terms of economics, the conclusion we must draw is that the state should keep to itself and allow the market to run itself, with the state limited to enforcing contracts and protecting against force, theft and fraud. Obviously, there is much more to be said, and I have said only a part of it in all my writing, but for now that will have to do.

Of course, some will argue with my conclusions, and will try to make a case for some position being rational or proven and not arbitrary, but if we look at those points, and trace them back to their foundations, I guarantee somewhere, at some point, they rest upon some arbitrary personal choice. And thus, for anyone who holds a different view, those rational arguments are all invalid. It is often ahrd to recognize, but once we do come to realize it, the conclusion is irrefutable. Which is why, despite all the many arguments for any imaginable intervention, in the end, I simply cannot find any reason to move beyond the minimal government I have so long endorsed. There simply isn't anything to be gained by embracing any additions.

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1. Perhaps the best example of a behavior that is both familiar and strange is the fairly well know prominence held by the chariot racing factions in Constantinople. Or, rather, by the blue and greens, as the other two factions seemed to be much less prominent. Through a number of riots, there two factions not only brought about a considerable amount of social unrest, but actually began to play a part in Byzantine politics. In the past, this was usually held forth as an example of the decadence of Roman culture, but then we started seeing our own basketball fans -- college and pro --burning down their own home towns to celebrate wins, or mourn losses, an found we could not longer look down upon the excesses of the Romans. True, we have yet to see various franchises associating themselves with political factions, but that is about the only way in which we have not managed to reproduce the chariot factions.

2. For those curious about my most recent forays in this area, I recommend "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal" and "Guns and Drugs".

3. My arguments for tradition can be found in "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Pushing the Envelope", "Uniqueness", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?",  "An Interesting Article", "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"". However, unlike many social conservatives, I firmly believe these beliefs should be advanced, not by government in any form, but through persuasion, education and other non-coercive, private means. See "Government Versus Culture - A Forgotten Distinction", "Shame and Understanding", "In Defense of Civil Debate", "A Small Digression" and "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal".

4. It is ironic that Ayn Rand, whose writing brought von Mises to my attention, and thus allowed me to come to see the arbitrary nature of so many values, herself tended to confuse her personal biases with the one single, rational choice, and thus elevate her taste to a universal constant. It was this blindness that started me along the path to disillusionment with Rand and Objectivism, though it was far from the only objection I had.

5. There are a host of questions on which some conservatives, if not all, seem to forget the arbitrary nature of decisions. For example, whether or not the state should force us to save for retirement. ("Social Security is Not Insurance") Or workplace safety laws. ("Who Is Safer?", "Worker Safety") Or many others. In case after case, supposed conservatives make choices that suggest they believe the values they choose should be applied to all, which is precisely what they object to in most liberal plans.

6. See "A New Look At Intervention", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Case for Small Government", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "Minimal Reforms",  "Tools", "The Price of Equality", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts", "Bar Fights, Riots and Drug Markets - The Limits of Law", "Who Will Decide", "Volunteer Fireman, Barn Raisings and Government" and "Arguing In Hindsight".

Status

It seems I have not found the time to write that I anticipated. I have been working a little on my non-political blog "Musings of a Ghost Squirrel", but have written very little even there. Still, the blog is not dead, I do have every intention of completing some new posts very soon, so please check back at the end of the week, or next week, as I should have some posts up by then.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable

I had an interesting experience today. I was complaining to my mother about the strange way the IRS behave sin an number of situations. For example, the two years in which I failed to report stock earnings and losses. In one year, I earned a modest amount, and the IRS claimed half of it, plus penalties and interest. In the other I suffered a pretty serious loss, three times the gain of the other year, yet received an additional refund of maybe 3% of the loss. In the course of discussing this, my mother suggested that the IRS might contact me to tell me they owed me additional money thanks to under-reported losses. I laughed and pointed out they never contacted me to give me money, the year I suffered losses, they had contacted me because I failed to report the purchase price, and had originally tried to bill me for $100,000.

My son had big ears (figuratively, at least) and loves to know everything, so he asked me to explain. After setting his mind at ease that I didn't owe anyone $100,000, I tried to explain what had happened, and how the IRS had reached the wrong conclusion. At one point, I said something like "the government often reaches odd conclusions", but then felt the need to correct myself. And so I explained how, to the IRS, working with very limited information, there is no choice but to treat a lack of information about purchase price as if I had obtained them for free, and thus, absurd as their conclusion might be, it was really the only one they could have made, provided they wanted to make an initial assessment without waiting for my reply. And, since the only way to motivate taxpayers,a t least in their mind, is to threaten a bill if the payer fails to act, they had to assess some kind of taxes. Thus, strange as some of this might seem to those outside of the IRS -- and many decisions they make seem much more peculiar -- the particular position in which they find themselves make such conclusions sensible, if not correct1.

As I explained this -- and probably bored my son to death -- it struck me that many government officials, especially many in positions that make important decisions, have strangely distorted perceptions of people and events thanks to the pressures and incentives of their positions. I spoke of something similar in my post "Fear Driven Enterprises" and "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", among others, but not in great detail, and since it plays such a tremendous role in the shape our government takes, I thought it would reward some effort to take a more thorough look2.

Let us start by looking at how this can occur, how a particular perspective can blind one to the consequences of one's actions. As I was recently discussing the foolishness of modern gun control laws with my mother3,4, let us start there. Specifically, let us look at how easily efforts aimed at a singular goal can bring about unintended consequences.

For our purposes, let us forget all the beliefs about ulterior motives for gun control and imagine a true believer, someone -- like many rank and file liberals -- who really believes there is no reason for the general public to own guns, that police provide adequate protection, that if everyone were disarmed then crime would be reduced, and so on. The basis for his beliefs, their internal consistency, their consistency with observations, all of that is irrelevant for our purposed5. What matters for our purposes is that the individual in question is a true believer who finds himself in a position to make policy, so we can see how the combination of those beliefs, and his focus on the task at hand, will bring about unforeseen, and unintended -- results, all without a single hidden motive.

For example, when questioned about the ease with which criminals find guns, giving them a massive advantage over disarmed citizens, gun control advocates often cite inadequately enforced laws. They point to the smuggling of guns from states with more lax -- or no -- controls, as well as straw man purchases within their area of control. Since there isn't much they can do about laws in other areas, they can address this only imperfectly, by pursuing those who smuggle guns, and by attacking the people who make straw man purchases.

One of the easiest ways they believe they can address both issues -- smuggling and straw man sales -- as well as what they see as the loop hole of gun shows and other private transactions -- is to enact laws regulating private transfers of firearms. By requiring that any private transfer be registered with the state, and perhaps go through the same background check and waiting period, advocates of gun control believe they will either make gun show and straw man purchases impossible, or, if they cannot prevent them, will at least have legal grounds to arrest those who try to circumvent the system to illegally obtain guns. Again, it is not relevant whether or not this will truly happen6, what we are discussing here are the beliefs and intents of the actors, and how they alter their perceptions of their actions, not the objective likelihood of things working out as intended. We will be looking at unintended consequences, but even then, more than looking at the workability of solutions, we are more interested in consequences that are outside of the intended effect entirely.

For example, as some critics have pointed out about the present gun control bills being offered, laws that make it illegal to transfer guns without proper process , or, more specifically, laws which make it a crime to receive a gun which has not undergone that process, will make criminals of, say, widows who inherit their husband's firearms and then fail to go through the lengthy transfer procedure. Or, in some cases, because the transfer takes place automatically at probate, a few proposed laws might make them criminals no matter what they do.

These are a good example of how perspective can change the way one sees his actions. The gun ban advocates see their laws in terms of illegal buyers, or people making commercial transfers at gun shows. Because they are entirely centered on transactions between strangers, they forget entirely that transfers may take place between family members, or that gift exchanges may take place, which their laws may impede or criminalize. And thus, they enact laws that reach far beyond what they intended.

Now, some will disagree and argue that all gun control advocates intend this result, and that they have no other goal than registering every gun with the intent of a future confiscation. Whether or not this is true of some gun control advocates, and I cannot argue that there are not some people who think this way,the fact that many believe this of every gun control advocate gives me a chance to point out another effect of perspective. Because those who discover such flaws in gun control laws often imagine the proponents of the laws intend these outcomes, it would be unlikely for them to point out these problems to the gun control proponents. And so, even if the gun control proponents were sincere, and would be shocked to find these unintended consequences, they never get the chance to do so, since the critics, imagining them to have ulterior motives, are not going to work with them to eliminate such excesses. And so the overreaching laws remain, and the critics give themselves additional evidence of their beliefs.

Or let us look at an area where a lack of political partisanship might make the same effect easier to observe dispassionately. For example, the way in which tax authorities handle errors in self-reported taxes.

It has been pointed out by numerous writers that the IRS has an institutional tendency to view all mistakes as evidence of cheating. And in a way this makes sense. Some amount of omission is an intentional effort to cheat. In addition, the IRS officials themselves spend a lot of time, most of their lives, looking at tax laws, so to them these laws are pretty transparent, easily understood, and thus errors must be, not signs of confusion, but efforts to deceive. Because they cannot imagine making errors, they decide that those who fail to report all of their taxes must be cheating. You can even hear this in their argument, sometimes offered, that most supposed mistakes send up favoring the the taxpayer, and thus they argue, are more likely fraud. However, this overlooks the fact that one of the most common errors is simple failure to report other income, such as interest, which is an easy omission if one has a stack of small slips of paper from numerous sources. In addition, he IRS does not audit for failure to claim an exemption, only wrongly claiming one, making their own process skew the results, and reinforcing their impression that errors are simply concealed tax evasion.

But there is more. Because the IRS sees omissions as cheats, and imposes not just interest, but penalties as well, they dissuade individuals from self-reporting errors. Were there no punitive fines, and were the IRS not to treat individuals as thieves for their errors, I doubt there would be a rush of self-reporting, but it is far more likely individuals who discovered significant errors would report them rather than face future audits. But, as they fear the confrontational IRS stance, they tend to avoid self-reporting, and the IRS again comes to see this as more evidence that errors are signs of cheating.

All of this tends to hamper some much needed reforms. For instance, there is the repeated news story, trotted out year after year around tax time, showing that a panel of several professional accountants, or even the IRS help line, produce differing results for the same facts. This points to a desperate need both for simplification of the process, and for a better method of conveying information from the IRS to individuals. However, because of the IRS viewing errors as intentional evasion, rather than mistakes, they tend to oppose such reforms.

Finally, let me offer one more example, though the source eludes me for the moment. In some work on liability law, I recall reading of a particular railway which had the practice, quite sensible, of blowing the whistle prior to crossing train bridges. The intent was that, should anyone be illegally using the bridges as pedestrian walkways, the whistle would warn them of the oncoming train. However, lawyers for the railway argued that in so doing, they were showing evidence that they knew the bridges were so used, and would end up losing liability cases because of it. So, rather than provide a whistle to warn individuals of the danger, they silently crossed the bridges, actually increasing the risk, but lowering their liability.

Now, this may not seem like an issue of perspective, just foolishness of our legal system, about which I have written before7, but in truth, it is at least in part, a question of perspective. You see, under past liability laws, there would have been no issue, as the individuals crossing the bridge would have been seen as assuming the risk. However, modern tort laws having a much more lax perspective on the question, the matter hinges on whether the railway knew there were likely people on the bridge. And thus, from the perspective of the law, the whistle really does show they should have known there was a risk, and somehow kept individuals off the bridges. Though it makes little sense from an outside perspective, the law viewed them more harshly for using the whistle, because it removed any possibility of claiming they did not know someone was using the bridge.

I suppose none of this is news, after all everyone knows that people tend to have skewed impressions due tot heir personal beliefs, their jobs, what have you. But, I would argue that it is a factor we often overlook when taking important actions. For example, those who enter government, of necessity, tend to be those who believe the government can be used to solve problems. Not all of them, but, for the most part, government officials, bureaucrats and the rest, tend to have excessive faith in what I dubbed the "Swiss Army knife" view of government, that is the belief it can solve every problem. Given that, it is foolish of us to grant to the government itself the decision on how far to extend government power. Given that they believe in government, they see every failure of a government program as a sign, not of the impropriety of a government solution, but instead of a lack of power, and thus, over and over, failed programs are followed, not be a reduction of government involvement, but an increase. And, given the perspective of those involved, it is almost unavoidable.

Of course, there is a similar problem from the opposite end, and a much worse one, at least if we value freedom. That is that individuals, also embracing, to one degree or another, the belief that government should involve itself in solving this problem or that, tend to look down on anyone who says honestly "We will not solve this problem" or "people need to do this themselves." Madison might have stayed in office despite refusing to help during national crises, but such a principled stand today would spell political suicide. Instead, politicians are forced by voters, sadly both right and left, to make efforts to solve every problem. And so we get supposedly conservative "energy policies" and "health care plans" rather than politicians saying that the state should stay out. Because people have come to see refusal to act as a sign of weakness or failure in a politician, again, perspective dooms us to ever growing government.

Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is not an easy one. It is easy enough to say that we should limit government, we should constrain its powers to a few limited abilities, but we have a constitution that nominally does that now, and it fails to accomplish anything of the kind8. Similarly, much as I see federalism as beneficial, and assume it will produce better results than our present centralized system9, it is still limited by our own beliefs10. If we continue to demand politicians act, and politicians continue to believe government is a panacea, then we will be back where we start in no time at all. Which means, overall, the one thing we truly need to do is engage in the slow, tedious and less than glamorous, or exciting, task of educating our fellows in the proper role of government, and the need to limit it. It is, sadly, an area in which we have done a poor job, for reasons I have argued elsewhere11. But, unless we undertake this action, we will find that no reform, no change, will make things better. Until the voters change, the government will not.

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1. For a long time I have planned to write an essay about our tendency to "psychologize" evil, and assume a psychological explanation, or even an understanding of someone's motives is the same as moral exoneration. For instance, if Jim was abused as a child, it excuses his future abuse of his children, and similar pop psych nonsense. My argument is simple, just because we understand why someone did what they did, they still made the choice to do it, psychology is not deterministic, people still make decisions, abused children do not all behave in one way, and so understanding why something was motivated does not equal exoneration. And here, I want to point out a similar thing. Though I argue here that many government officials behave as they do because of the way their position colors their perceptions, I am not saying that makes those choices good or right. I am simply pointing out how, by leaving power in their hands, and given the way they perceive things, the results are predictable, as they are the most probable outcomes. Such outcomes are not certain, but they are likely, and thus it is probably a bad idea to leave power and decision making in the hands of those with such distorted impressions.

2. I discussed the topic in less detail in "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "The Nature of Evil", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position" and "The Demand for Villains". Also, in the many essays about bureaucracy, including "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads", "Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Bureaucratic Management", "The Bureaucratic Mind", "Bureaucracy Revisited", "The Wrong Solution to Bureaucracy", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "Adaptability and Government", "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "In The Most Favorable Light", "With Good Intentions", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)".

3. I realize many on the right believe gun control advocates are motivated by a hidden agenda, but experience has shown that, while that may be true of some, a large number of the rank and file believe exactly what they say. In fact, though I won't go into it here, the belief that a given political movement is solely motivated by a hidden agenda is itself a perspective which might drive one into actions with unintended consequences. (See "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal")

4. My mother was amused by, what I agreed was a pretty silly argument offered on television by a defender of gun rights, that it would help a woman facing down criminals to have a "scary looking" gun. However, I then pointed out to her that proposals to regulate "assault weapons" often base their definition on "military characteristics", many of which amount to little more than being "scary looking". And if it is silly to rely on scary looks for self-defense, it is even more silly to ban a gun on the same grounds. (For that matter, given that so much of the definition of "assault weapon" depends on configuration -- eg twin grips, short stock, etc. -- the entire definition seems grounded much more in appearance than any functional characteristic. OK, they are also all "semi-automatic", which scares the uninformed, but means nothing more than it isn't a single shot, double barreled, a revolver, or a pump or lever action. In other words, the vast majority of modern firearms.)

5. Many people, on both sides of the aisle hold inconsistent beliefs. How many liberals and conservatives believe a free market currency causes economic instability, while our single biggest crash came only 12 years after moving decisively toward a managed currency, and the century since has seen an accelerating cycle of booms and busts unprecedented in the -- relatively -- free market century preceding. See "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 7, 2012)" and "Bad Economics Part 19".

6. Clearly I do not believe in the efficacy of gun control laws, as should be clear form my posts "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding", "The Weakest Gun Control Argument", "Nuclear Disarmament and Gun Control" and "Arrogance and Gun Control". However, as I said in the essay proper, that is not relevant for our purposes.  (I am also disinclined to imagine everyone holding a position which I find foolish has sinister intent.)

7. See "Still More on Liability Law", "Liability Law and Cost-Benefit Analysis", "Victim as Judge" and "The "Right To Sue" As Our Only Right".

8. See "The Single Greatest Weakness".

9. See "Minimal Reforms".

10. See "Bar Fights, Riots and Drug Markets - The Limits of Law". Also see  "Doing Something", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything", "Why We Lose", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "Inescapable Logic", "The Cycle of Compassion", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "Don't Blame the Politicians" and "Guns and Drugs".

11. See "The "Liberal Bubble" Becomes Universal".

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POSTSCRIPT

I realize this is a bit late, and the other two posts I promised are still missing, but I will be writing them as soon as I can. Apologies for my slow pace, it seems I just cannot find time recently.