Saturday, November 30, 2013

The All or Nothing Mistake

It is a common argument among certain segments of self-proclaimed libertarians1 that there is no difference between the two parties2. Or, if they admit a difference, to argue that they are both "authoritarians" or "socialists" or whatever words of opprobrium they are using that day. Of course, even in their most delusional moments, it is hard to take these claims at face value. One may accept that the Republicans have authoritarian leanings that make them unacceptable to these individuals, but to claim the two have no differences is just absurd. However, that they would offer such an argument, even if it can't be taken seriously, is a sign of something significant, and that is a tendency I noticed before in a number of political groups, the tendency toward "all or nothing" thinking3.

In a way, this is not precisely all or nothing thought, or it is a combination of all or nothing argument with a fallacy I described before as valuing form over substance. ("Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion") Then again, there is a lot of common ground between the two fallacies. The all or nothing fallacy tends to adopt the more straight forward approach, refusing to accept any solution that does not give it every one of its goals, all at once and completely. On the other hand, the form over substance argument tends to take a single case, or a set of positions, and uses them as an absolute test of validity. Thus, they often will reject very real gains because they do not match those specific goals.

To offer an example, let us look at two cases, both drawn from the pro-life position. In the all or nothing case, a pro-life advocate would not accept a solution, even if it reduced the number of abortions, which would not result in a total ban on abortion. On the other hand, the form over substance position would refuse a given solution, even if it reduced the number of abortions, because it did not contain certain provisions, such as parental notification, or because it said abortion was legal with restrictions, rather than illegal except under certain circumstances. As you can see, the two are often quite similar in practice, even indistinguishable in some cases, but there is a real difference, just one that may be a bit muddy in some cases4.

Perhaps one other example would help to clarify. Let us look at the generic representative, perhaps a bit of a caricature, of the Ron Paul movement in recent years. They clearly are quite ardent in their beliefs, and definitely give no one much leeway. And, in their stubborn insistence upon perfect fidelity to their views, they manage to show both versions of this error. The first is easy to see. Where I might criticize Republicans who support measures such as social security, but accept they are better than their liberal counterparts, even if not perfectly in accord with my beliefs, many of the Paul supporters simply refuse to recognize as legitimate anyone who does not agree 100% with their own personal views of liberty. However, there is also the second type of error present. Even if an individual agrees with them, should that individual fail to comply with certain formalities. For example, I recall once explaining to one of that era's slightly less militant libertarians, that, during the first Gulf War, I was generally opposed to the alliance with Kuwait that got us into the war, but since there was such an alliance, we were obligated. As I was not willing to simply denounce the war in its entirety, this individual could not accept that I was truly a libertarian and in agreement with him. Likewise, in more recent times, it seems there are many who, even if you agree that we should terminate support for Israel5, will not accept you as truly legitimate if you do not also join in blaming Israel for numerous ills. In other words, it is more important to denounce activist foreign policy or Israel than it is to hold certain ideas6.

I have written quite a bit about the "litmus test" error, so, to the degree it differs from the generic "all or nothing" mistake, we will leave it alone for now. Instead, let us focus on the "all or nothing" error, and explain why, in a select few cases, such an argument may make sense, but in general it is self-destructive, and, more importantly, a much better, and all-inclusive rule provides a much better approach to such situations.

Let us look first at two non-political, non-economic examples. They are, admittedly, perhaps imperfect, as they involve no ideology, and are, like all analogies, only approximations, but they do help to illustrate the problem with such thinking, as well as point the way to a much more appropriate solution.

First, let us suppose you are starving, by which I mean truly starving. Not "I skipped lunch today" starving, but "gone without food of any kind for fix or six days" starving. There is no prospect of any food in the near future and you re starting to seriously worry about death. In this state, you come upon a heap of spoiled food. Not completely inedible, just in the process of becoming so. Bread with mold spots, wilted greens, soft fruit,potatoes with eyes and brown spots, and so on. Stuff you could eat, but which would definitely be unpleasant, and might make you ill. Under these circumstances, would it make much sense to say "No, this isn't any good, I am going to wait for fresh food?" Yet, in many ways, that represents the "all or nothing" approach. Even in the most dire situations, when presented with a solution which is less than their ideal, they refuse it, even if it means an even worse situation continuing.

Perhaps another example would help illustrate this, and this time one more familiar from everyday life. In many cases of cancer, part of the cure involves removal of a part of the body. If the tumor shows no signs of metastatizing, the belief is, through removal of the cancerous growth, odds are very good the individual will be made healthy once more. In some cases, such as when such an amputation involves the loss of an arm or a leg, the individual will refuse, arguing that he would rather die than live "part of a person". And some people would agree. However, when it becomes smaller, say the loss of an eye, or even smaller, maybe an ear, more and more of us imagine it is a rather silly objection. And when it becomes quite trivial, such as leaving a scar on an arm or leg and no more, we would imagine it absurd to say the cure is worse than the disease. However, in some ways, those are like the all or nothing argument, as they reject a potential solution because, while it will restore much of their health, they will not be in perfect condition afterward.

Having shown from those two analogies why I think these arguments are absurd, allow me to offer two political examples, to show why the same principles hold when we move to the political realm. These examples will be a bit longer, as there are some other issues involved, and, though I said I will ignore it, in both cases the "form over substance" question comes into play as well. However, in the end, I think both examples show the futility of all or nothing arguments, and will also allow me to offer up an alternate approach.

First, let us look again at the abortion debate. In this case, looking at both the pro-life and pro-choice camps, as in this case both seem prone to making the same errors.

For the moment, let us abstract away from specific policies, and instead look at policies in terms of percentages, that is, to what degree they accomplish the end goal of the given party. For example, let us say, from the pro-life side, a policy leaving abortion legal, but requiring parental notification would represent, say, a 20% success, while a policy making abortion illegal after the first trimester would be a 70% victory. I know this is a bit of a fiction, as specific policies have countless additional implications beyond their explicit function, but for the moment, this sort of abstraction provides me with a useful means to point out the problematic way both parties operate.

You see, in general, both pro-choice and pro-life groups have a tendency to set a pretty high threshold. That is, when a specific policy is proposed, unless it offers at least 60% or 70% of their goals, they will oppose it. Even the most moderate seem to set something like a 50% threshold. There are exceptions, from time to time a specific issue (eg parental notification) will arise which will become significant for some reason, and winning on that question will override all other concerns, but that is the exception. In general, both sides tend to reject anything less than a clear win7,8.

Such a position would make sense, perhaps, if you already had everything you wanted, or something close, but in many cases the situation is far from ideal for either party, and this all or nothing approach ends up leaving the two sides in a stalemate, and circumstances in that confused, far from pleasing condition. For example, if you were a pro-choice advocate in a state largely pro-life, where, say, the laws allowed abortion in only very limited circumstances, it would be in your interest to support policies which liberalized the laws in any way, even if, in the process, you granted a few concessions. For example, if abortion were limited to the first trimester in all circumstances, but had no parental notification requirement, it might be worthwhile, from a strategic point of view, to concede parental notification if in exchange the law were liberalized to allow some second trimester abortions9.

There are some who will find fault with such concessions ("The Inability to Compromise"), arguing that granting any of the opposite side's positions is "selling out", but that is precisely the problem I found with the litmus tests I mentioned earlier. Those who adopt this position are embracing an odd position. They refuse to grant the appearance of conceding any of the points of the opposition, in essence valuing appearance above all, while at the same time, effectively conceding the case to the opposition by refusing to endorse anything short of perfection. That is, they would rather embrace an actual defeat rather than give the appearance of being defeated.

Perhaps there is some small merit to this position, in that one does not want to give the appearance of agreeing with the opposite side. As I argued before ("Inescapable Logic", "The Solution", "Doing Something", ""Doing Something" Revisited", "Doing Something Revisited, Again", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Cycle of Compassion", "What We Deserve", "Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases", "Don't Blame the Politicians","The Single Greatest Weakness"), the side which adopts the more consistent position will always win. However, this is not identical with the all or nothing position. When I speak of consistency, I mean intellectual consistency, not a complete refusal to compromise. For example, when Republicans offered up their own plan for universal health care, they were being intellectually inconsistent and handing victory to the Democrats by agreeing to the proposition that universal health care is a proper government function. On the other hand, should they agree to, say, extending medicare, in order to grain some advantage they prize more highly, but at the same time make clear it is simply a concession, not an endorsement of the principles behind medicare, then they have made no concession on intellectual grounds. In other words, they have not compromised their beliefs, simply accepted the reality that current political circumstance require a degree of compromise10,11. As should be obvious, this is worlds away from the all or nothing premise about which I am writing.

Perhaps another example, though certainly a more controversial one, would be the McCain candidacy of 2008. Now, before going on, allow me to say, were I given my choice, neither McCain nor Romney would have been the Republican nominee. Nor, at the time in 2008, was I convinced by the claims that McCain had a strong rating from the ACU and other groups. ("82%? So What?", "Oh, Please!") McCain did, at times, try to offer some nods to the small government wing of the party, and for a short time actually appeared to be moving somewhat rightward, but, inevitably, in response to bad economic news, he fell back on traditional centrist big government, soft money solutions, made even worse by his tendency to seek the praise of the media. Still, both at the time and afterwards, I have argued that opposing McCain was the wrong course to take, for reasons I shall describe.

The main point most raised when McCain was running was that he was a "RINO", Republican in Name Only. That is, that he was more liberal than conservative on most issues,and would, in general, not support the conservative position. And, for the most part, this was true. However, it overlooked the other part of the equation. Given current circumstances, there is almost no chance of a third party presidency12,13, and thus, any opposition to McCain was tacit support for Obama. And, if McCain was 75% liberal, the fact remained that Obama was 100% liberal. Thus, if one rejected McCain because of his liberal tendencies, in effect one was embracing an even more liberal candidate. Nor was that the only concern. Even had they been equally liberal, the party affiliation of each candidate was still a relevant factor. Obama, being a Democrat, ensured of the support of his party, had no incentive to listen to Republican concerns, and most certainly not conservative Republican concerns. On the other hand, McCain was likely to face Democrat opposition, even if he adopted a liberal agenda, simply out of partisan interest. Thus, he was dependent on Republican support, and so, even if he was personally not inclined to embrace conservative positions, he would have been required at some point to listen to the concerns of the more conservative factions of his party. It was certainly not as good as placing a truly conservative president in the White House, but it gave much more influence to conservatives than they would have (and history has shown them to have) in an Obama presidency. But, thanks to an "all or nothing" belief among many conservatives, a good number adopted the "take my ball and go home" position, and as the party nominated someone not to their liking, refused to give him their support14.

There was one other issue which came up during the 2008 election, and that was the idea that, somehow, by refusing to support McCain, it would help bring about a conservative revolution among Republicans.

The first form was the belief that, because McCain is such a moderate, if he lost support, then the party would recognize the need to nominate a more conservative candidate. Which, were it true, might have been a valid argument. However, this "sending a message" argument hinged on two rather shaky suppositions. First, that Republicans would recognize that they lost because their nominee lost popular support, not because the other party nominated a better candidate. Second, that they recognized the loss of support was because of his liberal leanings. At the time, I argued that second was the more unlikely, for the simple reason that, were a very liberal candidate such as Obama to win, it could just as easily be assumed that McCain lost because he was too far right, not too far left, and the party could be driven the opposite direction. As things turned out, the 2012 election showed that in fact neither came to pass. Some spoke of the need to adopt a more conservative candidate, but in the end, the nominee was still a strongly centrist one, proving that "sending a message" failed.

The second argument offered was, oddly enough, akin to a theory embraced by the far left since the days of Marx. Under orthodox Marxist theory, the complete flowering of capitalism is something to encourage, as only when capitalism is fully formed will it begin to show its weakness and evolve into communism15.  working form this basic concept, many radicals of the far left, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s, developed the concept using their violent acts to force mainstream society, which they saw as a tool of the right, into showing its authoritarian tendencies, thus undermining it and bringing about the communist revolution they desired. Oddly enough, I heard something quite similar from those opposing McCain. Arguing that the Carter administration brought about Reagan, and the Clinton presidency the class of 1994, they believed that allowing Obama to win would show the mainstream the bankruptcy of the left and result in a move rightward.

First, allow me to point out that, as a practical matter, we can see around us the evidence against this belief. Even with ObamaCare a shambles, the economy still stagnating, and not much else worthy of note, there has not been a massive groundswell in favor of the right. It does appear the right may enjoy some future success, but more through "burn out" and apathy on the left than any public outcry for conservative solutions. Thus, as a practical matter, we can reject this idea.

However, even in 2008 it was clear it was not a valid extrapolation. ("Learning Too Much From History", "Forget Hope, Try Realism") In 1980 there had already been a build up of conservative elements. Reagan had run in 1976, and there was the beginning of a struggle within the Republicans between the old guard and the Goldwater/Reagan wing. Carter might have won, but it was only because of Nixon. The public was still wary of the Democrats they had seen in 1968 and 1972 and in general were still in a relatively conservative frame of mind. Similarly, in 1994, the Republican party still had a group of conservative politicians, both nationally and in state offices ready to fill national spots. The four years of Bush might have discouraged some, but it was not that long since the Reagan presidency had given real conservatives some coattails on which to ride. In 2008, that was not the case. The Class of 1994 had fizzled, after a promising start they had not been able to move ahead. And after 8 years of Clinton, rather than a true conservative agenda, the Republicans hitched their fortunes to "compassionate conservatism", trying to head off accusations of being heartless rather than trying to advance individual freedom and initiative. And, were that not enough, Bush himself jumped even farther left as soon as it seemed he would be blamed for an economic downturn16. Thus, by 2008, there just were not the conservatives waiting in the wings that there were in the other circumstances. And the few there were lacked the support they needed, there just was not a critical mass of conservatives on all levels, the conservative movement needed to rebuild, and there was not enough time between Obama's victory and the 2010, or even 2012, elections. Thus, it seemed a suicidal proposition then, and history has shown, if it was not quite suicidal, it certainly was self-defeating.

But enough of specific examples. Instead, let us ask, if this "all or nothing" approach is a problem, if it keeps us from gaining advantage when we can and pushes us to make things worse when they could be made better, then what should we do? And the answer, quite simply, is to apply the same methods we apply elsewhere in life. Oh, we often don't recognize we are doing it, but in almost every aspect of our life, we apply what economists describe as cost-benefit analysis. That is, we look at a given decision and decide how much we will gain if we make a given decision, then compare it to what we will lose (or, if you prefer, what it will cost). For example, when buying a car, we look at each model, we assess the benefits each model might have (be they economic, emotional, social or other) and then look at the cost. In the end, after comparing the cost tot the expected benefit, we tend to pick that which will provide us with the greatest gain17. Nor is this particular case unique. Though in other cases cost, as well as benefits, might be non-economic, we tend to use this system in all our decision making. We have to choose whether to date June or Mary? We compare the "pros and cons". That is cost benefit analysis. Decide whether to eat cake or exercise? Again, cost benefit analysis. We use it everywhere. And with good reason. It works.  From time to time we might lose sight of this, may try to declare something is "worth any cost", but, in the end, even when we espouse such silly ideas, in practice we still fall back upon simple balancing of costs and benefits.

And that is the only real alternative to this all-or-nothing approach. Instead of insisting on total victory, we need to look at what we will gain, and compare it to what we will lose, basing our final decision upon the result of this computation.

This is the reason I argue our libertarian friends are being foolish in rejecting conservatives who do not fully meet their ideological tests. Were we living in Galt's Gulch, then it would make sense to insist upon our representatives matching our ideological profile to a tee, as any big government beliefs would create the possibility of moving away from our existing ideal. (Though, were the only choice between two big government candidates, it would still make sense to pick the less harmful of the two.) However, we are hardly living in a libertarian ideal. Since our current state is largely imperfect, then a candidate who will make even small improvements is preferable to one who will make things worse, or just leave them the same. And thus, from a purely cost-benefit analysis, it is absurd to criticize anyone who falls short of the libertarian ideal, or reject Republicans who hold some statist beliefs. So long as they are better than the prevailing conditions18, then it is in our interest to support them, rather than make the perfect the enemy of the good. (Cf "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Third Best Economy")


1. I call these individuals "self-proclaimed libertarians" as a number have some odd fringe ideas that often are at odds with their libertarian beliefs, while others seem less interested in any sort of meaningful political reform, and more interested in simply maligning everyone else. Not that one should take this to mean I have any great love for libertarians, just because I do not grant these individuals that designation. Even among those I accept as real libertarians, there is a troubling tendency toward fear of government ("Tools", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "A Little Bit of Irony") as well as a tendency toward dangerous concepts of foreign policy ("Rational National Defense", "Rights Versus Laws", "Last Word on Defense", "Foreign Policy", " The Point of Foreign Policy ", " Knights and Bandits " "War As Last Resort") and law enforcement ("Faulty Logic", " Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise"), not to mention that even mainstream libertarians seem prone to accept conspiracy theories at face value. ("The Demand for Villains", "Conspiracies Vs. Conspiracy Theories", "Backwards Logic", "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small", "Sleight of Hand", "Just... Wow!", "The Unpublished Reply", "Self-Sustaining Beliefs") However, libertarians are still preferable to the "left libertarians" ("The Libertarian Left", "Liquid Ice? Female Father? That's Nothing!", "Revelation From Bottom Feeding") and others who adopt the title while holding a slew of inconsistent, bizarre beliefs.

2. Strangely, the idea that the two parties are the same is also popular on the radical left. Though perhaps that should not be too surprising, the fringe on the left and right seem to arrive independently at many of the same ideas.

3. See "Single Issue Voting", "Principled Voting or Suicide?""Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion" , "One More Rason Not To Sit It Out", "At Last", "Sending a Message", ""Selling Out"", "Abandoning the Party", "The Need for Realism",  "A Problem With Certain Conservatives", "Why We Need Adults" and "Winning By Losing? Not A Chance!".

4. I do not mean to imply the pro-life movement is unique in this regard, this problem exists in many movements, all along the political spectrum. I just chose the pro-life movement as they came to mind before any others.

5. I am not suggesting that I voiced such opinions. In fact, in this specific case I was an outside observer, watching one libertarian criticize another for no fault greater than refusing to place sufficient blame upon Israel for all of our problems.

6. I do not claim this represents all Paul supporters, or all libertarians, but there is definitely segments of those two groups who hold such ideas.

7. This is why, in those cases where one side or the other exercises a degree of cleverness, and proposes a measure which moves the argument in their direction, but only by small, incremental steps, it tends to succeed, as the rank and file can't imagine winning by making concessions.

8. By the way, when I speak of the pro-choice and pro-life groups here, I largely mean the rank and file. Most leaders are perfectly capable of imagining victory through incremental steps. However, as the rank and file is so ardent in their desire to give no ground, those leaders often have no opportunity to act on those ideas, and end up enacting an all or nothing policy in order to retain the support of their constituents.

9. I am looking at these questions entirely from a strategic point of view. I mention that because, having taken on the persona of both a pro-choice and pro-life advocate, I am sure someone will recall one and not the other and accuse me of holding sympathies for the side they oppose. In truth, this issue is one in which I am politically undecided. I did not spend much time thinking about it until a few years ago, and I have to say, much as I have thought about it since, I can see arguments in both directions. (It is akin to the problem I have deciding the legal status of those who attempt suicide. Cf "The Right to Die", "The Right to Die Revisited".) Personally, I am inclined to oppose abortion as a personal decision (eg. when told there was a 1 in 17 chance my son would be born with Downs Syndrome, I had no thought of terminating the pregnancy [fortunately he was spared that situation]), but in terms of legality, I am undecided. I recognize both sides have made thoroughly inconsistent and senseless arguments ("Legal Schizophrenia", "A Few Questions on Abortion"), but that is not the reason I am undecided. I am inclined to declare third trimester abortion illegal, as the fetus/infant could survive unaided in many cases, but earlier I am still unsure whether or not legal protection should extend to the fetus/child. It is a difficult question and, sadly, one about which I cannot in good conscience declare myself.

10. Obviously, were they able to gain whatever they wanted without compromise, that would be better still, but in my lifetime I have never seen a congress where free market, small government politicians held such power. Thus, a degree of horse trading is a necessity. So long as it is presented as such, as long as the politicians make clear it is a concession, not an endorsement of the beliefs of the big government, regulatory factions, then it can be a viable tool to achieve one's ends.

11. One problem in our present era is an absolute refusal to "look weak". Thus, politicians hate to admit they are making concessions. In general, they want to make it appear every bill they support is in complete accord with their beliefs. Thus, for example, Bush's efforts to make his Medicare Part D appear a consistent part of the Republican platform rather than an attempt to head off a worse bill from the Democrats. Due to this, many on the right end up selling out their beliefs rather than admit to making a compromise, and as a consequence do more harm than good.

12. Without any national party framework, and that includes at least a handful of nationally visible office holders, such as congressmen or governors, a third party simply cannot get enough support. People are rightly wary of filling the highest office in the land with someone having no party affiliation with others holding similarly ranked positions. Not to mention that it is quite rare of anyone to gain the presidency without having held either a congressional position or a governorship.

13. There is the added issue that a third party president would be very weak in terms of congressional influence. Unless he was essentially a member of one party in all but name (as with the congressional socialist and independent, both of whom are effectively Democrats) he would have no reliable support in congress and would need to constantly scramble for support from one party or the other. In the end, it is most likely, whatever his initial affiliation, he would end up choosing one party or the other to embrace as his de facto home, making a third party presidency less of a change than many seem to anticipate.

14. This is another problem the McCain candidacy brought up. If conservative Republicans abandoned the party because a moderate candidate was nominated, then what was to prevent moderates for similarly abandoning the party should a future primary nominate a conservative candidate not to their liking? There is a reason behind calls for party loyalty, for working out disputes in primaries and then closing ranks. If a party cannot do this, then it will tend to break down into competing factions, none able to get the support needed for national victory. (This problem plagued the Democrats from the late 60's through the 80's, but since the Clinton victory, they seem to have learned their lesson, though the Republicans have not.)

15. I admit, the whole Hegelian-Platonic-Marxist thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach is hard enough to follow that Marxist thinkers have used it argue for a host of possibilities. Capitalism might evolve naturally and peacefully into communism, or it might fail and be replaced in a painful revolution. Or any of the hundred possibilities between those two extremes. Or something else entirely. Marx, for all his writing, was remarkably vague about many quite important events in supposed inevitable timeline of communist evolution. (Not to mention that the timeline was quickly rewritten when the first communist state was not in the industrialized, capitalist west, but feudal agrarian Russia, contrary to all Marxist theory.) So, I understand my characterization here is but one possibility, and one with which many Marxists would disagree.

16. I have argued often enough that Bush, for all his other failings, was not to blame for the slump that ended his presidency. (He is to blame for his foolish attempts to resolve it, but that is another matter.) On the other hand, Clinton is not entirely to blame either. ("Not Entirely to Blame", "Explaining Past Crashes",  "A Thought on the Clinton Surpluses", "Place Blame Fairly, Regardless of Party")The subprime crisis was just a predictable outcome of our managed currency, one of many expressions of inflationary pressures. Yes, some of Clinton's policies forced the funds into real estate and mortgages, so he shaped the collapse, but had he not, it would have come in another area of the economy. The problem was not any specific economic policy, but instead the entire idea of managed currency, especially since Nixon broke the last tie between the dollar and any tangible asset. (See "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Close But No Cigar", "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money?", "What Is A Dollar?",  "Why Gold?", "Proof Keynes (and Krugman) Are Insane", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", " The Inflation Engine ", "A Timeline Part One", "A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I" and "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II". )

17. As I have pointed out, cost and benefit are not strictly monetary. Many decisions are made based upon intangible individual benefit, that is the expected emotional satisfaction. Of course, when dealing with large numbers, the collective assessment of their individual emotional benefit is expressed in terms of money, as a sign of how much each would sacrifice for the given good or service, but that money is still just a way of representing individual happiness. Thus, cost benefit analysis is not limited to strictly economic decisions, we can apply it to any situation, though in many cases the balancing of costs and benefits may be slightly less precise than it is in, say, manufacturing or sales where monetary calculations can be used.

18. There is a second consideration. In a two party system, with little chance for a third party, even if our situation were ideal, it would still make sense to support an imperfect candidate if the other candidate were even worse. As one must win, picking the "lesser of two evils", no matter how much it may rankle for some, is better than picking the "greater of two evils" either explicitly or be default through choosing no one. Thus, even when our circumstances are ideal, it can still make sense to pick a bad candidate if the alternatives do even more harm.

Knights and Bandits

NOTE: These essays were reproduced from my no longer accessible blog "Random Notes" because I intend to cite them in my upcoming post "The All or Nothing Mistake". Some may seem strangely anachronistic, such as rather detailed analysis of the 2008 election made during the course of that general election, but they are all relevant, as shall hopefully be obvious once the article is posted.

History can be informative. Not in the big ways most people imagine. In fact, sometimes looking for patterns in the overall flow of history can lead us to terribly mistaken conclusions, as we ignore subtle causes and instead see in events the causes we wish to find there. (See "Learning Too Much From History") But if we avoid such errors, and take in history as a whole, sometimes it can help us to see things quite differently than before.

I write this because recently, I read in quick succession several histories relating to Byzantium and the Crusades, followed by a history of piracy in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Indian Ocean. It doesn't sounds like a pairing of topics likely to produce important revelations, but surprisingly it did. At least it brought to my attention facts I had known before, but whose significance had previously continued to escape me.

It came to me while reading some descriptions of privateering and the intentional use of piracy as a tool to open up commerce in closed markets, as well as early British piracy carried on by petty local lords, who were careful to avoid domestic shipping, while preying on any foreign merchants who came too close. Somehow, all of these topics sounded quite familiar. And then it came to me. During the crusades, one problem that arose time after time, was the breach of treaties by local lords, or in one case even the King of Jerusalem, when tempted by the chance to play bandit and seize valuable herds or trade caravans belonging to nearby Moslem lords. Thinking about such raids, it was hard not to see in them something very similar to both the early local pirates and the noble protectors, and the later privateers.

Actually, privateering is probably the worse fit of the two, as it has more in common with modern total warfare than the independent depredations of petty (and sometimes not so petty) local lords. Privateers were commissioned to attack specific targets, were usually called off when the wars ended, and were generally recruited more to do harm to a rival than earn money for a given notable. Granted, in later ages, local governors in Tortuga, Jamaica and elsewhere used privateering commissions more a source of personal revenue, and were much less particular about targets, becoming much more like the bandit and pirate lords of the past, but the traditional privateers were something somewhat different. 

On the other hand, there is much uniting the rapacious lords of the crusades with those early pirates who viewed all non-local shipping as fair prey. Looking through history, it seems that for much of history, aliens were seen almost universally a fair game.  There were exceptions, times of greater civility, or greater order, and in many eras there were more and less civilized regions, but for the most part, history seems to teach the lesson that anyone not under the protection of a strong local power better be able to defend himself, or he is likely to be plundered. From the mixed mercantile and plundering expeditions of the Vikings, to the banditry of many feudal lords, to the pirate lords of the British Isles and many more besides, examples abound of this lesson.

In modern times many nations, even the more oppressive, have recognized the benefits of trade and tourism and so refrain from this sort of banditry, and some nations also recognize the nature of man's rights and thus refuse to plunder out of principle, but there are still any number of lands where the local powers that be would happily plunder unwary travelers, or allow locals to do so for some share of the spoils, but for one thing. And that thing is the existence of strong national military forces, forces which would quickly act to crush those states which openly allowed such plunder. Just as the gradual development of strong stand against piracy by Britain, followed by the US and France, eventually brought an end to the era of the pirate, national defense of the rights of citizens keeps would be bandit lords in check, at least in much of the world.

I bring all of this up for two reasons. Mainly I mention it to point out the error of many liberals, and some conservatives, who object to the use of the military to "protect corporate interests" or even using the military for any purpose beyond repelling a direct invasion. Beyond that, I also want to point out that such banditry is not completely dead, and only a foolish sort of politicized blindness has kept us from recognizing it, and, worse, has made it profitable for these new bandits. But I will explain that second point later, let us first look at the idiocy of the liberals and "anti-interventionist" isolationists.

Let us start by looking at pirates, at least for the lesson they provide.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Barbary pirates, as well as pirates from Salle in Morocco, preyed freely upon any Christians sailing the Mediterranean, as well as ships in the Atlantic between Ireland and Morocco. Not only ships' crews, but also those caught on coast by one of their inland sallies, could find themselves taken captive and sold in north African slave markets. Of course, the Christians had a similar institution, in the small fleet maintained by the Knights of St. John, as well as the Maltese corsairs they licensed, all of whom preyed upon Moslem shipping and coastal residents in the same way. But, for the moment, let us focus on the Islamic side of this final holdover of the crusading era*, as it is most informative for our purposes.

Throughout much of the seventeenth century, the Barbary pirates raided without distinguishing between their victims. However, at some point, the English began to make serious raids against the pirates, not always effective, but troubling enough that eventually the pirates agreed to leave British ships alone, while preying on others. Later, a similar treaty was made with the French. In both cases, the possibility of damaging military reprisals kept the pirates from plundering travelers. Granted, they continued to plunder others, and at times they also ignored these protections to risk raids against British and French ships, but, for the most part, the threat of aggressive military action made the pirates look for easier prey.

Throughout history we see similar patterns with land locked banditry as well. Lords prone to plundering passing travelers, or to steal away the assets of their neighbors, were gradually suppressed either as larger national units attempted to facilitate trade and travel within their new national boundaries, or as nascent states began to put down the bandits on their borders and along popular trade and travel routes. Slowly, strong military force, or threat of the same, was used to make banditry too expensive for those who were so inclined. Even out of the way locales, like the Dalmatian coast, were slowly pacified by the mercantile states, who used similar threats of force to secure their own vital navigation routes.

And not much has changed today. Granted, some civilized lands protect the rights of all and sundry out of principle, and many others because they recognize the benefits of trade and tourism are greater than the short term gains of plunder. But many smaller states and petty regional powers would have no trouble reverting to plunder, or allowing a private party to do the same in exchange for a share of the take, some even have from time to time. The only thing that truly protects us around the world is the knowledge that any such action would draw swift retribution from at least the home of the victim, if not from a number of other powerful nations, upset at the unnecessary breach of the peace.

I mention this because there are two foolish philosophies which threaten this security. First, the broader, more foolish policy, sadly one that springs from the right, and that is the neo-isolationism which likes to call itself "non-interventionism". This policy is ostensibly aimed at preventing nations from "interfering" with other nations, but, in practice, it amounts to nothing less than abandoning our citizens to foreign thugs should they leave our borders. As such individuals suggest we should not use force for anything other than the repulsion of invaders, there is no way we could hope to protect our citizens abroad. If such a policy were ever adopted, and the knowledge spread to nations overseas, it would be a very bad day for travelers in many lands, for, as I have said, though the benefit of peaceful coexistence is likely much greater than the gains of plunder, many individuals are not ready to wait for those gains, and many others are not that adept at seeing the big picture, and so it would be more than likely we would see a tremendous rise in assaults upon our citizens, assaults endorsed by any number of petty lords, either those with an axe to grind, or just those seeking a few quick dollars at our expense.

The second philosophy, the left wing version**, is a bit more limited in scope, but still dangerous. This version does not deny that the military has  a role to play, nor does it cut our citizens adrift. It simply argues that the state should not fight for "corporate interests" overseas. In other words, it is a theory that is willing to defend the rights of citizens overseas, unless those interests are somehow tied to a "corporation", at which time those rights cease to matter. 

It should be obvious that this is an untenable stand. If a citizen is to be protected, how does he lose that right when he is employed by a corporation? Or, if property should be protected, why should it no longer be worth protecting once it is owned under a particular form of partnership? It is clearly a position which could not be applied consistently. And obviously could never be adopted as a formal policy. However, it does not need to be consistently applied for it to do harm. Just the knowledge that some sorts of injury will be ignored is enough. Knowing that some property can be safely attacked, that some types of attacks will draw less attention, is more than enough to embolden those who hope to act against us, and is likely to lead to just the sort of escalation I described above. The theory may not be as immediately harmful as a full abandonment of our citizens overseas, but in the long run, the effect will be the same.

Which brings me to the other sort of theft, a specific category I mentioned earlier, which I want to handle separately. When theft is committed by individuals, or by a government solely for the sake of wealth, it is normally criticized by the left and the right. However, there is a single type of theft the left will normally refuse to criticize. If a nation, especially a less developed one, decides to steal an entire industry under the banner of nationalization, the left somehow sees this as justified. So long as there is rhetoric about exploitation and bringing wealth back to the people and all the rest, this form of explicit theft is somehow seen as acceptable.

Needless to say, this is a dangerous position. If we accept nationalization, then we only encourage more of it. Whenever a nation needs more money, if nationalization is seen as a harmless activity, then it will nationalize. And such a belief will not only harm companies that invest overseas, who will suffer losses without any hope of compensation, it will also harm those nations which need the investment and never plan to steal a dime, as no one will want to risk funds overseas if the nation will not defend them. And thus, though sold as a position helping underdeveloped nations, supporting such "revolutionary" measures is incredibly destructive. ("Exploited Labor", "Capital Investment",  "Fairness and the Free Market","The Harm of Closed Shops and Collective Bargaining", "Pro-Labor Cannibalism, A Look At The Union Food Chain")


* It is interesting to note that crusading was hardly a purely Christian invention. Whenever I hear someone blaming Islamic terrorism, or distrust of the west, on "the Crusades" I have to chuckle, as the Crusades were themselves simply a response to continuing Islamic crusading against the west. While it makes a tidy little "blame the west first" package to ascribe Islamic terrorism to our collective guilt for breeding Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse, there were Ghazis fighting for Islam all along the border with Christianity long before Peter the Hermit or Saint Bernard were even born. (See also "What About The Crusades?".)

** I say this is a left wing folly, but the right has its own version. With the rise of more and more anti-business sentiment among some protectionists and paleocons ("Misplaced Blame and A Power Play", "Remember I Predicted It"), especially anger against "multinational corporations", the right has begun to espouse this as well, at least in some circles. (Though, to be fair, I am still not convinced the paleocons are actually on the rights -- see "The Political Spectrum" and "If You Wear a "Kick me" Sign, Don't Complain About Getting Kicked".)



More of my thoughts on national defense and foreign policy can be found in the posts "Rational National Defense", "Rights Versus Laws", "Last Word on Defense", "Foreign Policy", "My (Informal) Nobel Peace Prize Nomination" and "Inconsistencies in Historical Perspectives".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/01/02.

Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise

NOTE: These essays were reproduced from my no longer accessible blog "Random Notes" because I intend to cite them in my upcoming post "The All or Nothing Mistake". Some may seem strangely anachronistic, such as rather detailed analysis of the 2008 election made during the course of that general election, but they are all relevant, as shall hopefully be obvious once the article is posted.

I was reading an interesting refutation of much of the "history" in The DaVinci Code when something struck me. If you go into a matter prepared to find inconsistencies, they are very easy to find. However, simply finding things which are slightly inconsistent in no way proves that something is amiss.

Let me take a simple example. I am sure everyone has heard an advertisement for those MRI facilities offering "full body scans". In most cases, at least as far as I know, these are not covered by insurance (and with good reason), but the imaging facilities are trying to market them as the ultimate preventative measure. The ads I heard were replete with tales of someone who found cancer early or detected arterial plaque in time to save his life. However, what they don't tell you is about the 95% or more of other cases. In those cases the scans detected 3 or 4 "anomalies", small lumps or bumps or strange shaped or under or over sized organs, all of which were completely harmless. In fact, almost every human has a half dozen or more "irregularities" in their body, little bumps, lumps, misshaped bits and other deviations from the medical norm. However, since we don't do full body scans, we don't know about it. But once you do a full body scan, suddenly we worry about these perfectly normal abnormalities, and end up spending a fortune and many sleepless nights tracking down proof that they are harmless. I suppose it is not so bad if you have a fortune to waste on such things (well except for the added stress), but you can see why insurers don't want to pay for such scans. They would probably spend $10,000 or more in useless testing for every $1 they saved through early prevention. In fact, if you figure in the stress-related problems from worrying about "that suspicious mass", they may end up saving nothing in preventative care. (No, I have no studies to back that up, just a guess from seeing the way people react to any sort of bump, versus the likelihood that any stray mass is cancerous.)

And the same holds true for almost any area to which we turn abnormal scrutiny. The "norm", the "average" is an imaginary construct. Almost nothing is absolutely "normal". Just like a perfect cube or a perfect sphere, the norm exists more in the intellect than nature. And so when we start looking at any matter, the fact that it deviates from the norm, far from being a sign of a cover up or something else untoward, is simply a sign that we are seeing the normal variability of human behavior.

Let us turn back to The DaVinci Code. Now, I admit, I have not read the book, as I was well aware what it was pushing. However, in the 80's I did read Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy, upon which much of it was based (and upon which most of its other sources were also based), so I feel confident addressing some of the arguments.

Now, back int he 80's, being a lot less historically astute, and much younger, I thought that some of the claims in these books made sense. Not that I accepted all the secret society stuff, but some of the Biblical material seemed plausible, if less than certain. For example, the claim that Jesus was pressing a secular claim is plausible. After all, he was executed by the Romans in a style consistent with political dissidents, and with the charge that he was claiming to be "King of the Jews". Admittedly, later history painted this as mockery, but it is possible to argue this was not mockery, but the charge under which he had been executed, essentially leading an insurrection. In fact, it helps to explain why there were genealogies in the synoptic gospels, as who cares what the lineage of the Son of G-d is? But if he is claiming a kingdom, then genealogy is essential.

On the other hand, looking at this later, with much less gullible eyes, I can see that it may be making much out of nothing. It is true that the Sanhedrin had their own methods of execution, and were allowed to execute those promoting heretical beliefs. They could easily have had Jesus stoned to death. On the other hand, if he had a following in the city, or if the Sanhedrin thought he did, it would have been better for them to have it seem the heavily armed Romans were doing the execution. And Pilate would certainly have not had a problem accepting the assertions of the collaborationist local government that Jesus was a threat to public order, and then ordering Roman style execution. So the crucifixion, rather than proving the political element as is suggested in these books, may have simply been the outcome of local politics.

And I found when I applied the same reasoning to all of the claims of these books, and the claims I have read coming from The DaVinci Code, many of these "irregularities" are simply that, innocuous deviations from what moderns would expect, coming either from slightly unusual circumstances, from modern misunderstandings of the past, or simply from a lack of records upon which to base our conclusions. The truth is, when we set out to look for abnormalities, we can find as many as we want, but that proves nothing. When everything is riddled with irregularities, the significance of any single irregularity is quite small.

Or let us look at a completely different case, the trial of Mumia. Many on the left, and some of the more left-leaning libertarians, have taken me to task before for claiming they are defending a murderer. To prove this, one of their favorite claims is that the trial contained "many irregularities". I know I did not make it all the way through law school, but I know many who did, and I read quite a bit in my time in school, as well as observing many trials, so I am not completely ignorant of these matters, and the truth is every trial contains "irregularities", at least if you define the term pretty broadly. If every trial were perfectly regular, the appellate courts would be much more quiet places. Oh, they would still have the occasional question of law to settle, but by and large they would have a pretty sedate schedule, hearing about a tenth of the cases they do now.

So, why should Mumia's trial be any different? Yes, witnesses were not called, some evidence was excluded, some handled poorly, some testimony didn't quite match what was said earlier, and so on. That is true of any but the most mundane trials. Let me give you an example. I once testified for a friend in a hearing about a restraining order. As part of the proceedings I was asked what he and his girlfriend said to one another. As it was a few weeks later, recalling what was said after a night spent bar hopping, I am absolutely certain I failed to recite word-for-word what had been said. In fact, I may even have omitted some bits of conversation entirely. I did recall that some things previously alleged had never been said, but beyond that I probably got things about 75% right, if that. Was I lying? No, I simply was doing my best to recall what, at the time, seemed unimportant, nothing I needed to commit to memory for all eternity.

And that is often what happens with testimony. People forget things, people remember things they did not earlier, the significance of statements becomes clear as they think about it more, and so on. And the same pattern holds for all these irregularities. The evidence may be mishandled, not because the police are hiding anything, but because they are human. Even with the best training, sometimes police still make mistakes. Training does not cure all ills. If it did, NFL kickers would score 100% of field goals, and police don't train in evidence handling even 1/10th as much as kickers train at field goal kicking. 

Nor does the exclusion of specific witnesses bother me. The strategy of either side is never revealed, for obvious reasons, so we can never know with certainty why certain witnesses were or were not called. Nor do we know what happened during depositions or other conversations between witnesses and attorneys. It is quite possible an excluded witness, far from having a crucial piece of evidence, convinced an attorney he would come across as dishonest, and so was excluded to prevent him form doing more harm than good. Many times the witnesses we think significant looking in from the outside simply did not fit with the overall strategy of the defense. Which make sit impossible to say with any certainty after the fact that excluding this witness or that was a mistake.

Still, even ignoring the witness question, the fact is every trial has some irregularities, and the bigger the trial, the  more opportunities there are for these mistakes. And nothing is much bigger than a police shooting involving a local activist. So that there were irregularities in the Mumia trial hardly shocks me. What does shock me is that many draw such wild conclusions from them.

Which brings me to 9/11. And here the weight some give to certain evidence simply stuns me. The truth is the WTC was utter chaos after the plane struck it. Though the Truthers like to go on about molten metal, strange chemical compositions, stress, shear stress, load bearing structures and so on, the fact is, we just cannot easily model the precise details of what happened in the towers before or after the collapse. The Popular Mechanics model of the collapse does a good job at the big picture, but the small details are beyond us. Some ask where various chemicals came form that were found mixed with steel support beams, ignoring that those beams sat in, what was in effect a crucible underground, mixing under intense heat and pressure with the 100+ stories of random contents that had fallen on top of them. I would be shocked if there weren't traces of almost every chemical known to man present. To draw conclusions from some trace chemicals that mysterious thermite bombs had been planted is just absurd.

So, why did I bother? What is the point of all this?

That, at least, is simple. I have written recently about many conspiracy theories. About the "Israel Lobby", about the claims of Obama's forged birth certificate*, about scheming oil companies and "Wall Street greed", all sorts of theories which ascribe all the ills of the world to scheming cabals about which only the elect are aware. And many times even I asked "why bother"? What is the point in refuting all these absurd claims?

But then I recall what I wrote in "Conspiracy Theories", that the intrusion of government into our lives can be supported not just by claims of general incompetence, but also by claims of an external malevolence, that conspiracy theories can be used to justify authoritarianism just as easily as paternalism can. And so, whatever I can do to stop people from buying into these bizarre theories is justified.

And that is my purpose. To argue that the finding of "irregularities" is not enough, that you should not accept the most absurd claims simply because the accepted theory is not 100% in accord with the evidence. Yes, the irregularities may show that the theory is not precisely right, but ti could also mean we are reading some of the evidence wrong, or maybe a bit of both. What it certainly does not mean is that there is proof positive of some massive plot at work behind the scenes. Before you buy into those claims, be it about the USS Liberty or planned oil shortages, ask to see some proof of the plot. If those knocking down evidence can't provide any of their own, then why should you believe them any more than the "official" story?


* The claims that Obama may be ineligible due to the requirements of being a "natural born citizen" do not strictly speaking fall under the rubric of conspiracy theory, as they do not require the actions that the forged birth certificate theory does. (Someone to forge, to hide evidence, place fake birth announcements etc.) I still do not agree that he is ineligible, and plan to write about it later, but it is not exactly a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, I do worry that many of those promoting these arguments seem to be displaying one aspect of those promoting conspiracy theories, the assumption of a conclusion and the search for evidence to support it. Much as Truthers assume the WTC was an "inside job" and then look for proof, many seem to have accepted the theory of Obama's ineligibility from the first birth certificate claims, and as old claims are dismissed look for new arguments to support their position. While that does not make these claims into conspiracy theories, they do show a worrying tendency among those on the right to mirror the thought processes until now more associated with the "Angry Left". (No, I am not saying all who raise objections fit this description, but I have seen many who do, and that is troubling.)

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/05/11.