Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ideological Entanglement

Though it is not obvious, the title is a kind of weak pun. You see, this all started when I was looking online for articles about the observer effect, partly because of its use to support absolutely absurd new age beliefs, and partly because I believe some specific interpretations are quite improbable. In the course of searching out such articles, I stumbled across a blog run by an Oxford physicist, and, reading through his many other posts, it struck me how very odd it is that on'es political views tend to color one's other beliefs on a host of other topics.

In this case, after noting the author was both a strong critic of "climate change deniers" and one who argues the line (which I find foolish) that because homosexuality is "natural" that means any moral disapproval is inappropriate. (Just to make my point clear, certain people are likely born with an inability to control their rage, or perhaps there are even born sociopaths. Just because something is inborn does not mean we need approve of it. Likewise, whether biological or not, that says nothing about whether criticism of homosexuality is valid.*)

What then struck me was, having come out exactly opposite on me in two areas, our blogger then proceeded to tear into those who criticized Wikipedia, saying one need only be sure to check references, and it is a-ok, as well as pointing out some study found it as reliable as Britannica. This makes me wonder, if you are going to bother checking every reference, then why use Wikiepdia at all? Why not find a good topical work, or bibliography, and use that to find sources? If we must double check all of Wikipedia, what use is it? Or, on the other hand, if by "check" he simply means make sure they exist, then my original objection exists, hoaxers and vandals could change the data attributed to a source, making it worthless. Not to mention the very strong bias found in many Wikipedia articles**.

But that is not my point here. What is is how interesting it is that so many people with certain ideological views feel so strongly on certain topics. For example, GNU/Linux/Free Software fanatics often espouse those views I call "libertarian left", and they, along with certain types on the left, are also Wikipedia enthusiasts. I can't explain why this might be, though I have to say that in a few essays, I think I may have hit on some explanations ("The Era of the Cocky Know It All", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Copyright as Politics", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Deadly Cynicism", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism", "Net Neutrality Follow Up", "The Real World Finally Gets My Point", "Shameless", "Outsider Art", "Guilt and Doubt", "The Life Coach Culture", "Perfectionism and Authoritarianism", "The Great "What If?" - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable", "Object Oriented Programming, Apple Computers and Justice", "Best Practices and Resistance to Change, Bureaucracy and the Free Market", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord"), but I just thought it was an interesting observation.

Perhaps in the near future I will revisit this essay, and using those old works, maybe write a more thorough explanation why so many seemingly unrelated views seem to correspond with certain political views.


* I am not personally inclined to find harm in homosexuality in itself, though the claims for privileged minority trouble me as they do for any group. What bothers me is the effort to shut off any debate through claims of some sort of biological determinism, or confusion of biology and ethics. Oddly, most groups that try this approach are strident nationalists, eugenicists and others that make strange bedfellows for gay rights activists. See "The Futility of Blame", "Gay Two Ways", "Don't Liberals Notice the Contradictions?", "Myths of Homosexuality", "A Question About Biological Theories of Sexual Ide..." and "Passing Thought on PET Scans" .

** My many criticisms of Wikipedia are too numerous to list, but links can be found in my more cents posts "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Era of the Cocky Know It All" and "Some Libertarian Analogies".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Futility of Blame

I have recently been reading Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals (actually reading again, but the last time was so long ago it is almost as if it were the first time). Fort hose who have not read it, it is quite an interesting work, arguing that many of the destructive behaviors of black American, especially poor urban blacks, come not from a history of slavery, nor of remnants from African cultures, but from a redneck culture that came to the American south, especially the back country and Appalachian, from the British border counties, along with northern Ireland and (to a lesser degree) the Scottish highlands. Of course, to make such a claim is to court controversy, as liberals have made an article of faith out of the claim that all problems faced by blacks come either from current intolerance or from the legacy of slavery, that they have no part in their own failings.

To this claim Sowell offers an interesting rebuttal, and a comment which is the subject of my current essay. Though not admitting the liberal claims, he asks if black culture is the cause of their problems, does it not make sense to eliminate that culture, whether it is the fault of whites, slavery or blacks themselves? In short, to paraphrase his statement, no one deserves blame for the culture into which he is born, but that does not eliminate the harmful effects of that culture.

Which brought to my mind a host of similar statements, a number of times in which, when discussion turned to the practical harm of various actions or beliefs, someone would inevitably divert that discussion into one of blame, which, inevitably, would result in derailing what had otherwise been a productive discussion. Or, the alternate version, where someone tries to discount the harm of certain behaviors by showing those who engage in those activities are not to blame, and thus, presumably, need not change.

The best example of the second type is probably found in the many efforts to prove homosexuality is either genetic or the result of other biological factors. (See "Gay Two Ways", "Don't Liberals Notice the Contradictions?", "Myths of Homosexuality", "A Question About Biological Theories of Sexual Ide...", "Passing Thought on PET Scans".) Granted, many engage in such a search to place homosexuals in the same civil rights categories as women and racial minorities, gaining them favored minority status, but others do so for different reasons, mostly to show that "they can't help it". However, as I have argued elsewhere, just because something is inborn does not mean it cannot be overcome. All children grab everything they desire, and were we unrestrained, we would all mate with anyone who caught our fancy. Biological urges are daily overcome by will power. And similarly, even if inborn, homosexuality can be equally controlled by the mind. Thus, despite their beliefs to the contrary, the question of whether homosexuality is harmful, or has negative consequences for individuals or society, is not eliminated by proving homosexuals are born that way and thus, presumably, without "blame". Whether a choice or an inborn inclination, the questions remain whether or not the practice is harmful*.

Similar nonsense is often offered in defense of criminals who come from poor backgrounds, histories of abuse and the like. Time and again, the claim is made that they are not to blame, that their actions are understandable because of their histories and so on. However, this completely overlooks the purpose of law enforcement. Jail is not intended only for those motives are unintelligible, it is intended to remove those who cannot abide by society's rules from the company of others until, presumably, they can control themselves. If we refuse to punish anyone whose story elicits our sympathy, then rules will no longer be absolute, but every ne'er-do-well who thinks he can tell a fair story will try his luck at theft or murder, hoping for a sympathetic ear on the jury.

Yet another error is often promoted by the right when discussing welfare reform. They often will claim they do not oppose help for those are in poverty "through no fault of their own". However, by focusing on "blame", this completely ignores the fact that, whether they previously were responsible or not, by providing welfare you provide a disincentive to bettering their current situation, as well as tell others that they need not exercise sufficient prudence, need not set aside enough money for a disaster, as if they are judged "worthy" they will be bailed out. (See "Perverse Incentives", "Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning","Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse","The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster")

Identical foolishness was also bandied about during the subprime crisis of 2007-2008. Time after time the efforts to provide mortgage relief, to lower interest rates and otherwise manipulate the economy were justified on the basis that many who fell into default were not to blame. However, again, this ignores the twin facts that such economic manipulation is harmful whether the recipients are saints or sinners, and that once such actions are taken, they provide future damaging incentives, regardless of the merit of the present recipients. (Cf "Why Borrower Forgiveness is Both Wrong and Dangerous", "Help and Harm", "When Help Hurts", "When Help Hurts II", "To Correct Debra Saunders", "Why 'Negative' Economic Indicators are a Good Thing", "Living Beyond Their Means","Debt")

Even in my own comments I ran into a variation on this mistake. When I wrote "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories", my thought was to point out that those espousing left wing ideas are often not motivated by some secret sinister ambition, but are simply people like us who happen to hold mistaken beliefs. However, in response, reader CW insisted on pointing out that they remained guilty of the harm their beliefs did. As you can see, this is yet another variation on the same issue, in this case, worrying about guilt and blame, rather than focusing on the more important issue, that our tendency to see the left as intentional villains prevents us from trying to persuade them of our beliefs, and tends to ossify our political positions. Whether they are blameworthy or not is irrelevant to this. In fact, it may be counterproductive. If we insist on forcing those once on the left to accept blame for all the harm the left has done, it seems unlikely we will persuade them of our cause, and thus this smaller goal of accountability may result in even worse harm by prolonging the left's control of the government. If we insist on this confession/atonement/absolution before anyone can reject the left, then the right is doomed to minority status**.

There are doubtless many other cases where I could argue that a focus on "blame" and "guilt" distracts us from more practical questions, or where "understanding" allows us to forget the very real consequences of actions, but I think I have made my case. Blame is perfectly proper in some contexts, but we must recall that it is not always the primary question. People can be completely free of blame, or act from completely understandable motives, and yet still do things they should not, or end up in situations from which only they can extract themselves. We need to bear this in mind and try to avoid talk of blame when it is not relevant.


* I do not personally believe homosexuality, as a personal practice, is harmful to society. The extreme gay rights movement with its ostentatious show and claims for special privileges most likely is not beneficial, but homosexuality in itself strikes me as relatively neutral. Granted, promiscuity carries risks, perhaps slightly greater than heterosexual promiscuity, but that is a separate question. I only mention the whole matter here, as I have so often seen the biological claim mistakenly offered as a rebuttal to questions of societal harm.

** CW is not the only person I have heard making similar statements, only the most recent and most memorable and thus the easiest to use as an example.


ADDENDUM (2016/05/01): I was reading this and was reminded of a discussion I often have with my son. Several times I have warned him about a certain action, that it will break his computer or his iPad or something else. His inevitable response is "I wasn't trying to break it" or "I didn't mean to break it." As I always point out, that does not mean it is any less broken. Reading the use of blame, or lack thereof, to avoid talking about problem reminded me of this. It does not matter what caused the current problems in black culture, it does not matter who is to blame, or who is a victim, the problems are there and harming people. Let us fix things, and worry about blame later, if at all.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Troubling Policy

Those who know my belief in the need to decriminalize drug use might think I would endorse policies which try to shift drug users from prison to treatment, as it is seen by many advocates of decriminalization as a first step in that process. However, just as with "marijuana buyers' clubs", "medicinal marijuana" and the like, such policies -- as described in this essay, cause me to have concerns. Granted, the SACPA policy as described in the essay worries me for reasons in addition to my normal arguments, but it also points out my general fear that efforts to shift to mandatory treatment and a "more therapeutic approach" actually have more risks to freedom, not fewer.

Before proceeding, I suppose I should offer a brief summary of my argument against making drugs illegal. For this essay, I will limit myself to arguments about decriminalizing currently illicit drugs, though, in reality, I find it incredibly inconsistent for others to argue about legalizing illicit drugs while maintaining our current prescription drug system. To make it legal to buy heroin, but illegal to buy amoxicillin without permissions trikes me as absurd. But, that argument is already made quite well in my essays "Medical Regulations" and "Medical Regulation II".

Many who make this argument focus on practical concerns, and they have a point. Just as Prohibition did not have much effect on alcohol consumption, I doubt any but the most casual drug user is deterred by the laws, and I am certain that there are not many who would suddenly start using drugs were they decriminalized. In short, the laws have not had a noticeable effect on the number of users. On the other hand, by removing all legal avenues for settling disputes, drug laws force drug sellers and buyers to resort to violence (as did brewers and distillers during Prohibition), and this violent atmosphere has also brought in the criminal class, which has profited greatly from the risk premium the law applies to drugs. In short, drug laws increase violence, subsidize criminals, and generally diminish respect for the law, both in the communities where drug dealers are lionized, and in society at large, where casual drug use reduces overall respect for the law1. Add to these obvious arguments the fact that jailing drug users, or even low level drug dealers, leads to prison overcrowding that has helped decrease the length of prison sentences, or even led to the release of felons, and it becomes obvious there are a number of practical problems with treating drug use (or sales) as a crime.

However, I tend to view those problems more as symptoms than as the actual problem. In general, I have found, when the law deviates from its proper role, such added problems tend to arise2. And thus, while those arguments all make a strong case, they also don't really establish why drugs should not be criminalized, and leave open the possibility of such foolishness as the "medical approach" about which this essay is so critical. No, the true argument, as I see it, is that drug laws are a problem because they are founded upon an improper understanding of the role of government, they extend government power beyond its proper limits and establish principles that have quite detrimental implications3.

The basis for banning drugs is usually a variation upon two distinct arguments, thought both are premised upon reducing harm. The first argument is that in using drugs, the individual does harm to others, with the harm itself ranging from actual injury to family and friends to increased health care expenses or lost productivity. The second argument offered is that drug users should be prohibited from using drugs because of the harm they do to themselves, that they need to be protected from themselves.

Obviously, I have arguments against both propositions, be it the vague nature of "harm" in the first opening the possibility of banning almost any act, as it is possible to extrapolate any act into some sort of harmful consequence, or the latter argument, which opens up the possibility of denying individuals all freedom in the interest of ensuring they never harm themselves. I have made these arguments elsewhere4, so won't go into them in depth, mentioning only those aspects which are relevant to this essay.

Nor will I spend much time explaining why I find the "medical approach" to drugs troubling in general, as that too I have mentioned before. Essentially, I find little to distinguish mandated treatment and mandated imprisonment, at least not in essentials. In either case, the individual loses his freedom, is forced to act against his wishes, often is imprisoned for a time. Does it matter if the prison is called jail, prison or treatment center? Were Chinese reeducation centers less prisons for being called schools? Of course, many of those sentenced to treatment are allowed out in the community, provided they continue to receive treatment, but, again, how does that materially differ from parole or probation? Essentially, the "medical approach" amounts to little more than "rebranding" prison. Yes, it does fit very well with our image conscious, terminology obsessed age, but to confuse it with actual decriminalization is a mistake, and those who support decriminalization but are fooled into endorsing politicians supporting "medical approaches" need to reconsider what they are backing.

As should be obvious, the medical approach, as it is formulated currently, tends to be endorsed mostly by those whose drug policy is predicated upon protecting individuals from themselves, or their own bad decisions if you wish. Those who justify drug laws on the harm done to others, or to society, tend to favor the law enforcement approach. Not that there is not some cross over, or those who shift between the two camps (either of approach or justification), but in general, those who want to force drug users to be good tend more toward forced treatment, while those who want to protect others from drug users tend to favor prison or other punishments. Of course, in the end, the two amount to much the same thing, and really have little impact in the long run. Whether one wants to treat or isolate or punish drug users, all seem to believe in the harshest possible treatment of drug dealers -- often ignoring that the high price of drugs (thanks to the risk premium) tends to make most regular users become, at one time or another, "drug dealers", if only because they buy in bulk to save some money -- and, whether one wishes to punish users or treat them, the facilities simply don't exist to incarcerate everyone who has been arrested for petty possession charges, and thus both camps end up favoring some sort of "diversion", which ends up inevitably as a type of forced treatment. Thus, whatever one's ideal system, the realities of the penal system, and the perception of drug dealers a evil exploiters of drug users, tend to make both camps accept the same general outcome as inevitable.

I suppose, in part, our problem is that drug use has expanded5, though in part that is because what we consider a drug has expanded as well. Patent medications were at one time freely sold, and even when prescriptions became common, unauthorized use of prescription medication was not viewed as criminal until more recent times. For that matter, many of the more popular drugs of today -- methamphetamines, various sedatives, even LSD -- are relatively recent additions to the list of criminal drugs. For that matter, marijuana and cocaine were added well after the first drugs laws, those criminalizing narcotics*, were created. So, in part our increased number of drug users is a social phenomenon, but it is also in part the outcome of redefining what constitutes an illegal drug.

Regardless of the reason, it is clear that the number of drug users, if we include everyone who ever uses an illegal drug, is far too great to punish them to the fullest extent of the law. Especially with drug dealers receiving increasingly lengthy sentences. (Not to mention the off and on pressures to keep other felons in jail for increasing periods as well.) Thus, it is almost inevitable that some form of treatment would become the norm for drug users. Of course, it is an easier realization for those who seek to rehabilitate drug users, to save them from themselves, and so on, but even for those who see drug users as the villains, who wish to punish them, to apply negative reinforcement to keep them from harming others, and so on, they must eventually realize, if they wish to punish drug sellers and other felons harshly, there is no choice but to either force drug users into some alternative, or simply let them go. And so, even for those who would punish drug users, treatment becomes the only viable alternative, as, while it may not apply the desired negative reinforcement, or isolate the user from those he might harm, it at least provides some penalty, and gives hope that, perhaps, the drug user might be discouraged from continuing in his habits.

At this point, many are likely asking why I object to this trend. As I have pointed out, it does at least keep us from imprisoning drug users, which should be seen as a favorable development for one who favors decriminalization. And, even if I argue that forced treatment is no different from probation or parole, or in the case of inpatient therapy, even the same as imprisonment, how is it any worse than the criminal approach? In other words, while I may see it as no improvement over the criminal approach, why would I claim it is actually worse?

The answer is twofold, and one part is likely to be objectionable to some, though oddly the quick explanation is almost a conservative truism, it is only when I describe in detail that many will find my reasoning troubling. But, perhaps it would be easiest if I stopped summarizing, and simply proceeded with my argument

First, and most obviously, I have strong objections to the use of the government to control behavior. This argument has often been the subject of heated debates between other conservatives and myself, but considering how strongly conservatives object to the "nanny state" they should be fully on my side. In my mind, it is only because of inconsistency in these beliefs that they fail to see how some conservative beliefs are just as much part of the nanny state as liberal policies are. As I have argued many, many times, the policies involved here establish precedents which create objectionable outcomes. These can extend from something as limited as bringing politics into medicine, to something as far reaching as allowing the state control over all manner of individual decisions that I believe should be private. Of course, drug laws themselves justify the same policies, only in a slightly less obvious, more indirect manner, but I believe by adding the ability of the state to force treatment, these principles become more obvious, more direct, and thus are more easily used to justify the extension of the state's power into new areas.

My second object, unlike the first, is the one I believe conservatives will understand, and approve, and the one which truly inspired this essay. While my first comparison will likely be seen as a bit of hyperbole, please read on, as the comparison is more fully justified than may be apparent at first.

When first I read the article cited above, what immediately came to mind was the way in which many authoritarian states used diagnoses of mental illness to imprison dissidents and others in mental hospitals.

Now, many of you will object to that, as I mentioned already, arguing that our desire to send drug users to treatment has nothing to do with control, or political views, and is hardly comparable with the totalitarian abuse of mental health laws. And to a degree, I agree, those enacting these policies most likely do mean well, and intend to help those they are sending into treatment. That is not the aspect I have in mind6, instead, what is of concern to me, is the procedural part of the question, what the shift from arrest and prison to diversion and treatment means for those in the system.

The essay itself actually gives a good indication of the problem in describing the procedure. You see, it claims, unlike traditional criminal cases, under the diversion system, the prosecution, defense and judiciary have to "work together" to get the "patient" the "treatment" he needs. And that is what troubles me.

Traditionally, our system works because of an adversarial prosecutor and defense, with an impartial judiciary. Once you change that, and allow them to "work together", the system becomes defective, as it becomes a single, unified body seeking "the best treatment", rather than an adversarial system attempting to find truth and arrive at a just sentence. And it is worse in drug cases, as the defender is usually a government employee, who has pressure to compromise quickly. But even with private lawyers, the fact that they regularly bargain with prosecutors, they are likely not to be much better. In the end, this "working together" ends up as little more than a system into which the state feeds those it arrests to have them sent to treatment. And, since it is not jail, likely no one will object. In short, by turning arrest to treatment, and having defense and prosecution work together, and with the judiciary, there is no longer any check on the state, and everything following the arrest becomes mere formality.

And that is what bothers me the most. Even more than enshrining the principle that the state exists to make us do good or protect us form ourselves. The procedural changes that come from this process7 make it possible for the state to act with little check on it, at least in the area of small scale drug arrests. Worse, even if the arrest is a bogus one, likely those arrested will be convinces, as it is just "treatment" to go along rather than spend money and time fighting. All of which means the system slowly shifts, in this area, from one in which the state must prove its case, to one in which the defendant is discouraged from questioning his arrest. And, if that is the case for drugs, how long before this cooperation shifts to other areas? To misdemeanors where patients undergo behavior treatment? To assault charges and "anger management" and so on? How long before the police have no check as they no longer arrest but simply divert to "treatment"? And, once that is the case, if "treatment" goes from outpatient to inpatient, and treatment once again begins to resemble jail, what check will there be?

I know, many think I exaggerate, or worry needlessly, but I fear that too much collaboration between prosecution and defense, too much routine "diversion", making punishment too innocuous, makes us forget that the system exists to limit the power of the state. We start to see the state as helpful gents who send sick people to get help, and we fail to recognize when that "sickness" gets applied more and more to those the state dislikes. It is far too easy, once we stop watching the state, when the checks are removed, for the state to abuse its powers. Call me paranoid for thinking so, but in the end, I think if we lose our freedoms, it is far more likely to come from the state trying to "help" us than from it openly stripping us of rights.


* We tend to use "narcotics" to cover all illegal drugs, but, properly defined, narcotics are only those drugs derived from opium, or synthetics which have similar structures and produce similar effects. It is in this sense I use the term in this essay.


1. In the past, I pointed out how, when driving, even the most law abiding citizen, the most ardent fan of the police, suddenly sees police as enemies because it is so trivially easy to violate traffic laws, making one suddenly the enemy of the law. Likewise, those who use drugs, though they may otherwise have no criminal tendencies, see the police as enemies because of drug laws, reducing overall respect for law, and eliminating the otherwise positive attitude most have for the police. See "How the Government Corrupts Relationships" and "The Consequences of Bad Laws".

2. See "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "The Problem of Pornography", "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of 'Social Costs'", "Racketeering Through Legislation", "Power and Disorder", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Of Wheat and Doctors", "Three Ideas That Never Work", "A New Look at Intervention", "Slippery Slopes", "Of Ants and Men" and "The Danger Inherent in Banning 'Bad Ideas'".

3. I tend not to dwell upon the implications of taking the logic of drug laws to its logical consequences, as so doing is as foolish as looking only at the practical impact of drug laws. Still, it is worthwhile at times to point out, for example, that the same rationale that bans drugs is used to argue for gun control. (See "Guns and Drugs".)

4. See "In Loco Parentis", "Harming Society", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Inconsistent Understanding", "Nonsensical Beliefs", "Another Look At Exploitation", "The Magic Bureaucrat", "The Problem With Mental Health Laws", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Government by Emotion", "All Hail the Victim", "The State and Morality", "For Your Own Good", "Drug Legalization", "Standing By My Principles", "Mental Illness", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law" and "Help and Harm".

5. In "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions" (and later "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "A New View of Liberalism" and "New England Versus Virginia (And Venice, And England, And Rome...)") I discussed how our society has been gradually shifting from using social controls to using the law to discourage behaviors. It is a topic I hope to cover at greater length elsewhere, looking into how our tendency to abandon moral pressure in favor of legal pressure (and how the change in liability laws and other regulation have made social pressures discouraged or even prohibited) has led to a breakdown in societal norms. In the case of drug use, however, the problem is not entirely to be laid at the feet of collapsing norms. In fact, if anything, social pressures actually favor drug use in a way. As I mentioned in the same essay, conformity has become our strongest social force, and many believe that to appear "individual" and "rebellious" (ironically, conforming to images they call individualism), they must be involved in the drug culture. Thus, many use drugs, not form any personal interest, but more because of their desire to be perceived in a specific way. It amuses me that, as a teen and even in my 20's, I would have scoffed at this "peer pressure" logic, but the truth is, experience has shown me many who use drugs also follow a number of other characteristic trends, demonstrating quite clearly that drug use is just part of a larger image they desire to project.

6. Actually, I am not discounting the possibility some in the Soviet system meant well as well. I know we assume diagnoses of "creeping schizophrenia" and the like were politically motivated and cynical abuses of the system, but is it not possible that some true believers in communism might believe that dissidents were mentally ill? I can imagine quite easily that some functionaries saw such commitments as reasonable use of the mental health system. (See "Deadly Cynicism" and "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity".)

7. Even routine plea bargains have some element of this problem and cause me to worry a bit. However, in most cases plea bargains are usually only pressed on those who admit guilt, at least to their attorney. Those who profess innocence, in all but the most petty charges (traffic offenses, for example) are encouraged to plead their cases, rather than take a plea bargain for convenience. I fear that with drug cases leading only to "treatment", not fines, jail or other punishment, many lawyers may see a plea as easier and less costly than a defense, even for those who insist they are innocent.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Be Very Careful

There is an old saying about whether something is a problem or not -- or sometimes a crime or not -- depends on whose ox was gored. It is especially apt in politics, as we often find things we do ourselves perfectly acceptable, yet find them unconscionable when done by our opponents. Many times the very same, or quite similar, political activities, are praised by the right when done by the right, or by the left when done by the left, but found unthinkable when done by the opposition. The "nuclear" option comes to mind as a particularly simple example. When the right was considering eliminating the need for a supermajority, the left considered it an unwarranted break with tradition and a threat to our very democracy, but when they needed the same change, it was considered a necessary modernization and a very minor technical or procedural change.

However, that is not my point here. Instead I want to look at a related issue, the question of politicians "pragmatically" using various procedural or legal changes to their advantage, without thinking about the fact that at some point they may easily be turned against them.

Let us look at a simple example. The left fell in love with "hate speech" laws during the 90's, using them as a convenient way to bully critics of gay rights, women's rights and the rest of their agenda. However, in enacting these laws, the left made one very large tactical mistake, they forgot that they would not always be the majority, would not always control the justice department, the courts and so on. And so, in creating this weapon, they also managed to create a tool that could be used by, for example, religious groups, facing criticism from various left-leaning organizations. If hate speech could silence those opposed to gay rights, it could just as easily silence critics of traditional religious groups. Granted, it has rarely been so used, but still, it is a tool which could easily cut both ways.

And the same applies to a host of other pieces of legislation, all intended to silence critics, or give advantage to one side. From campaign finance reform to FCC regulations, laws are regularly drafted by one party to try to gain advantage, which are then used, when the other party seizes control, against the interests of those who drafted them.

Of course, for a time, these laws allow one side to claim to be winning, so I suppose there is some short term advantage, but, it still seems a rather silly process, given that neither side ever gains enough advantage to prevent the opposition from eventually taking control and turning those weapons against their creators. And, of course, the bigger problem, that, regardless of which party wins, in the long run, by reducing freedom, silencing criticism and generally creating an entrenched government of incumbents of both parties, the biggest loser is the ordinary citizen, whose interests are rarely served by such "pragmatic" moves.

Would it not be much better, rather than trying for the right to counter the left move for move, finding their own versions of the fairness doctrine and the like, to instead spending their efforts in eliminating the left's tools, and restoring a bit of freedom and a more fair playing field in politics? I grant, thanks to the left's dominance in popular media, they may still have an advantage in such an environment, but that is why the right needs to focus not on political maneuver, but on educating the public on the virtues of liberty and limits of government.

Then again, with so many nominal right wingers being little more than career politicians more interested in maintaining office than pushing any agenda, it seems unlikely we will see much movement in this direction.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Very Brief Aside

It is amusing, but it has occurred to me there is nothing so absurd but that, at some time and place, it still might not be taken seriously. This struck me recently when I sat down in a restaurant. You see, years ago, in a book of snarky, silly movie reviews, Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theater 3000) made a joking reference to "salt mills (for that fresh ground salt taste)". At the time, it was just a throw away line, a mention of something self-evidently absurd. Or so I thought. Until I sat down and saw, in the middle of my table, a little pepper-mill device, but filled, not with pepper corns, but lumps of rock salt. Apparently, someone DID think it was a good idea. Worse, at lest enough people did that they managed to manufacture and sell the thing.

As I said, nothing is so absurd that it won't be believed by someone.

A similar thought struck me again when visiting northern Virginia. In the television show Grand, many years ago, one of the main characters was trying to regain his fortune by pitching new business ideas. The joke being that -- well at least at the time -- the ideas were so absurd no one could take them seriously. For example, based upon the idea that "people love to shop and people love convenience" (or words to that effect, it has been over 20 years and I'm doing it from memory), he proposed building shopping malls with apartments (or maybe condos, I forget) above them. And, I assume, you can see where this is going. Not only have many towns built just that, but in Virginia at least, they not only built an entire shopping district beneath condos, but created a whole pre-fab town based on the idea. In short, what was once a punchline has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Which makes me wonder, what laughable idea of today will be seen as brilliant by our children?  And, on a more philosophic note, which point of view is correct? Were we right to laugh at these ideas, and we are behaving foolishly now? Or are we behaving sensibly now, and were wrong to laugh at these ideas in the past? Or is there no answer to those last questions?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?

I have been recently reading about the many theories of neolithic matriarchal societies. As I have written before, I agree with the majority of legitimate historians, archaeologists and anthropologists in finding the theory absolutely absurd, and the book I am presently reading is actually a pretty good debunking of the theory (oddly by a fairly orthodox feminist, but a scrupulously honest one). But that is not my topic for now. It may be later, as my reading has kept it in my thoughts, and the attachment many show to this discredited thesis, and the arguments they offer*, make it an attractive subject for future essays, but for now I have other matters in mind.

No, what I want to discuss now is something related but separate. While reading the many hazy and ill-defined descriptions of the supposed pre-iron age utopia ruled by clan mothers and the like, listening to all the paeans to a very vaguely defined society without property or violence or competition and so on, I asked myself "I know we cannot possibly run a modern, technological society without private property; I know for optimal economic outcomes we need to have minimal government involvement; I know I argued in 'The Basics' that by any conceivable measure laissez faire systems are optimal; but is it possible, if you valued some other outcomes, if you had a different metric for success, could primitive socialism be made to 'work' by some definition?"

I immediately discounted this argument, for the same reasons I gave in "The Basics", that so long as you desire to make people content, so long as the happiness of your citizens matters, there is no other metric than the one I used, the greatest total satisfaction, and by that measure there is no solution but laissez faire. I grant, if you value a uniform profession of faith (regardless of actual belief), or coerced obedience to some code of religious behavior, or a uniform distribution of goods, or something other than the happiness of the members of society, then I suppose you could call some other system successful, but since most who profess to have a utopian vision claim happiness among one of its merits, then there is no other solution.

But try as I might, I could rid myself of the nagging thought that maybe, if I truly thought it through, maybe by some definition, using some specific perspective, perhaps these primitive communist arrangements could be made to "work" in some sense. Maybe they would end war (though I argued the opposite in "An End to War"), or provide artistic expression (also debunked in "A Question for Artists of the Left", "Patronage" and "My Censorship is Your Discretion"), or create less internal strife (no, see "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord" and "How the Government Corrupts Relationships"), or allow greater social mobility (nope, argued against that in "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "The Price of Equality", "A Great Quote" and "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth"), or, well, something.

However, after giving it far more thought than it truly deserved, I came to but one conclusion, a civilization run on truly communal principles, with property held in common, without anyone controlling it, would never rise above subsistence level. Worse, it would create an environment which would favor deceptiveness, laziness and gluttony, would stifle any degree of creativity or inventiveness, and, even if run by the most ethical and well meaning people would be rife with violence. In short, without some sort of private property rights, and without a government to protect those rights, society would degenerate into a society that would appeal only to those who enjoy inflicting or receiving pain, the sado-masochist society.

Some may be puzzled by my description of violence and conflict, as the one advantage so often found in eliminating private property is that it would end violence, and perhaps crime. However, the truth is quite different, and for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who gives but a moment's thought.

For example, let us suppose one morning you took some time to make a soup, put it on the fire, and went to tend the fields. Coming home that night, hungry and tired, looking forward to dinner, you find that another farmer has come in and eaten the "community soup" you made, leaving you nothing. Worse still, let us assume that the nice bed you spent days making from wood you cut, and cloth you wove, is also occupied by another citizen-freeloader who doesn't even thank you for your contribution to the communal stores. is it not clear how such circumstances could lead to rampant violence?

In addition, it should be obvious how such a system would lead to the twin vices of laziness and gluttony, and even greed, the supposed failing brought about by private property. After all, if all is communal, then all is also run by the principle of "first come, first served". So, if you do not grab as much as you can, and either consume it or hide it away in some stash away from others, you may not get it. And so you will always eat as much as you can, as early as you can, and grab whatever goods are available, whether you need them or not, as they may not be available later. Similarly, there is little incentive to do extra labor, or even enough labor, as your reward is the same. Not only that, but work keeps you away from grabbing and guarding, which may result in losing your stash of goods, or missing a chance to grab some that become available. In such a system, it makes more sense to appropriate form others, or the common stock, rather than to produce, as one's produce may be stolen, which is much less painful if what was lost was already stolen goods.

But, for the sake of argument, let us imagine a truly self-less masochist, one who is willing to put out extraordinary efforts for the common good, who is not put off by getting less than the more crafty and greedy citizen-freeloaders. Let us imagine the perfect worker bee, and better yet, one who is creative and clever as well. let us ask, why could not the system work with such citizens.

The answer is, because even then, his work is still not his own. Let us imagine, for example, he decides to irrigate the fields. He spends weeks digging trenches, building water screws and so on, only, near the end of his efforts, to have someone come along and fill in his trenches as they got int he way of the plows, or steal his water screws to use somewhere else. Or, maybe it isn't simple vandalism, maybe someone thinks they know better and undoes his work to make it do something else. How long do you think he would keep this up? Similarly, if every artist might see his work "fixed" by someone who knows better, how long will he keep working? Without ownership, one's work is always at risk of being destroyed.

The best analogy is that table of legos at my son's school. Every kid builds and builds and then, when the day ends, is devastated to realize some other kid will tear apart his work tomorrow to build something else. Or maybe even does it during the day when his back is turned. is it any wonder most kids quickly give up on their big constructions and make little cars or men or something and play out simple games rather than make efforts to build something that may be torn apart before their eyes without warning?

Some will argue the free market is just as bad, as creators may not have the means to test out their own ideas either, but that misses the point. In a communal society, the builder must make sure everyone agrees to never touch his work until ti is done, and then hope its value is evident to everyone forevermore, or else it may be destroyed. In a free market, a creator can build on his own property, or, if he lacks it, need only convince someone, a single someone, of the potential value to give him a chance. He need not persuade the entire society the way communal ownership would require.

Obviously, there is much more argument one could make on this topic, but much would overlap my arguments about more conventional communism, or even interventionist government (eg. "The Case for Small Government", "Competition", "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" ), and so, for the moment, I will end my argument here. Perhaps, later, I will revisit the while question of property and the many ways it provides benefit to mankind. As it has been blamed for so many ills, I feel almost obligated to provide at least one small voice arguing the case that property is a good, a boon, a blessing to mankind, and nothing like the evil that so many imagine it to be.


* I found a sentence which has to win the award for self-contradictory argument. The old contenders were (1) the statement I once read on Townhall comments that "only conservatives generalize about people because of their political beliefs", and (2) the laughable line from from the last of the new Star Wars films "only a Sith deals in absolutes" uttered by the (presumably non-absolute) Jedi Obi_Wan. But the best line really has to be this one: "[T]he recognition of rigid gender distinctions is characteristic of males but not female", made by a quite female writer.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast

I found an interesting example of backwards thinking among respectable academics recently, one even repeated in the transcript of a lecture from Yale. It is interesting or two reasons. First, because it shows how these arguments can achieve superficial plausibility. Second, because it demonstrates that backwards logic is not always limited to conspiracy theories, or politics, or even highly emotional arguments. Anytime one has invested a lot in a particular outcome, it seems backwards logic can take place.

First, let us look at the original thesis that led to the backwards logic. In the Revelation of St John the Divine (aka The Apocalypse of John, The Apocalypse or Revelations) one of the more puzzling elements is the number of the beast. Of course, for believers, the number simply IS, it has a meaning, but one that may not be obvious until some future time. On the other hand, those who perform textual analysis on the Bible always look for some deeper meaning. And one of the most popular theses seems to be that the Revelation is a coded message about present woes, that it talks of current* events, and thus the number of the beast is, in some way, a hidden message about the present, at least the "present' when the book was written.

Based on such theories, a number of interesting ideas have been put forth about the number of the beast**, a number of them based upon gematria, that is, assigning numeric values to letters. The most common of these assigns the Hebrew words "NRON QSR" -- Hebrew for "Nero Caesar" -- to the number, as it adds up to 666. I can spot a number of problems with this, notably that Nero's name could be written a hundred other ways, and most commonly would probably contain his first name and family names as well. Not to mention that adding the "n" makes the math work, and is sort of "Hebrew Looking"***, but is not all that common a spelling in Hebrew. On top of that, while Nero did persecute Christians, he was hardly unique in this regard. Pliny tried a number of Christians, as did several provincial governors. Yes, his persecution of Christians in Rome was unique for an emperor to that time, but it was not empire-wide, which makes it seem unlikely a Christian in Asia would see him as the paragon of evil.

But others pointed out a much larger problem, and one that led to a small bit of preliminary backwards logic. You see, the theory is based upon the idea that the book was written while Nero lived. but most historians place the date of composition well after Nero's death. And so, the explanation is offered -- based on a single line of Latin text vaguely hinting some thought Nero would return, or perhaps had not really died -- that the number was made to match Nero's name because many believed he would return, or maybe, because he was just such a bad guy. In short, if the date doesn't work, then it mentions Nero because he was just so bad, everyone was recalling him (ignoring the equally horrific reign of Domitian which would be more recent?), or else they thought he might return.

It all smells of backwards logic to me, trying to salvage a failing theory by special pleading and inventing evidence, or, at best, placing undue emphasis on small scraps of evidence.

But it gets worse.

What is now held forth as evidence is the fact that alternate versions of Revelation contain 616 rather than 666 as the number of the beast. To the Nero theorists, this is supposedly proof, as an alternate Hebrew spelling adds up to 616, so obviously the two numbers prove the name was used, just in two different spellings...

Which makes almost no sense.

What this forgets is that the original text, whether a coded message or not, still used one number, not both. So the text went out either 666 or 616. So, for both numbers to exist because of the two variations on Nero, we have to assume the scribes, rather than copying the script, sat down and said "What is the value in gematria for Nero, again?" and then used the wrong calculation.

Is it not far more likely scribes simply copied a page wrong? Now, I grant, if everyone reading were secretly decoding the text to figure out what the number meant, they would not notice the change because of the two alternate spellings****, but that strikes me as pretty far fetched. Far more likely, this is simply a scribal error that became common in one area, or one scriptorium, and thus appears in several copies, but is nothing more than a frequently copied error. And, since the number itself is cryptic, it is a hard error to catch, as the number itself has no clear meaning.

In short, again, those pushing a given theory are using backwards logic, starting from a conclusion and fitting all available evidence into their conclusions.

And that brings me to the end of this short argument. As I said, it really has no deeper significance, no more meaning than this, that backwards logic is a problem we can find many places, and one which we should be wary of accepting. As in this case, if one does not thinking things through, backwards logic can seem rather persuasive. However, it is still a mistaken means of arguing, and one we should reject.


* One problem for these theories, as we shall see, is the date of the book is not entirely established. Some place it in the 60's AD, while the majority assign it a later date, sometime close to 100 AD. This plays a part in another bit of backwards thinking.

** Anthony Burgess created an amusing acrostic using the Roman numerals DCLXVI to spell out in Latin "Domitian Caesar is brutally killing the legates of Christ". Though the date fits better for the composition of the book, obviously with a writer using Greek or Hebrew, Roman numerals will not work. And Burgess was clever enough to know as much, so I assume it was intended as a jest.

*** Some justify this because of a single Aramaic scroll that used this form when dating an event to the second year of the emperor Nero. The fact that the form can be justified by a single source tells you just how common this form is. (Even if it is more common, there are more than enough other arguments against Nero being "the Beast" of Revelations.)

**** The whole gematria theory is a bit far fetched, for reasons I will explain in the postscript.



The entire idea of the number being some sort of gematria code is absurd for a reason that should be clear. While many Hebrew writers did use codes, even numeric codes, the codes they used for messages intended to be translated was not based on simple gematria. And it should be obvious why. Gematria are a many to one mapping, that is, any number of words have the same numeric value. Codes need to be one to one. So, if they wanted to make clear it was Nero who was the beast, a transposition code, or some symbolic naming would work, but a numeric value based on gematria would not.

To make it simple, let us say there is a word that adds up to 65. If I just send you "65", you may be able to guess my meaning, but, unfortunately, there are hundreds of other words that also add up to 65. So you will never know for sure what I meant. Try it yourself. Assign values 1 to 26 to our alphabet based on their normal order, then convert some words to numeric values. Pretty quickly you will find a lot of words add up to the same values.

And that was what gematria was used for. It was a mystic tool for finding unseen connections between Hebrew words, names and so on. It was not used for encoding secret messages. And thus, if one wanted to secretly indicate Nero, it is also not the tool one would use to hide his name. There were plenty of substitution cyphers common in Palestine that could have been used, or else symbolic representations such as referring to his "beard of bronze" (ahenobarbus" being part of Nero's name), perhaps using some allegorical connection to "Phineas". But a straight numeric value drawn from gematria is a miserable way to hide a message, and thus this whole theory seems quite unlikely.

{UPDATE [inserted 2014/08/08]: I did not do the calculations when I wrote this, but afterward sat down and started adding up the values of English words, using the values suggested above, and found several that were identical. HELLO (8+5+12+12+15=52) has the same value as WHAT (23+8+1+20=52) and even PEARL (16+5+1+18+12=52), and I am sure a host of others as well. So, seeing the number 52, you could not know whether someone was saying "Hello" or "What" or "Pearl" or something else. And that is why gematria's many to one mapping will not work to explain the number of the beast. If they wanted a code others could understand, it would have been a one to one mapping, as with ordinary cyphers. 

And, for those interested in more evidence of how useless gematria are for encryption, in my English system, the same value represents LIBERAL (12+9+2+5+18+1+12=59), CRACKER(3+18+1+3+11+5+18=59) and EMAILS(5+13+1+9+12+19=59), as does another value for KNOCK(11+14+15+3+11=54) and WOOD(23+15+15+4=54) . But enough of those, I am sure if you want, you can find dozens more on your own.}


Is it just me, or does it seem the less plausible a thesis is, the more space it receives in Wikipedia? From this thesis about Nero, Roman legions playing hopscotch (cf "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn piece of paper'"..."), to the origins of "gallic" I dispute in "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", and let's not forget the riotously funny bit on the "ship of fools" (cf "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously"), it seems the most outlandish ideas get the most space in Wikipedia. I expect any day to see a lengthy wikipedia entry on how Welsh archers explain the middle finger/two finger gesture. (For those who believe this, there are references to similar gestures about 1500 years before Agincourt. ) And people wonder why I wrote "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Era of the Cocky Know It All" and "Some Libertarian Analogies", among others.