Saturday, February 28, 2015

Slight Delay

Apologies to those who have been following the Stupid Quote of the Day series. As you may have noticed yesterday and today I have failed to post a new installment. I am afraid, due to many things arising which have taken all my time, I have not been able to post anything. I was hoping to catch up today, but have not had time to find the quotes to analyze. So, as of this moment, I think it will be tomorrow before I catch up on the posts for this series. So please check in tomorrow or Monday to catch up on the backlog of posts.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Follow Up to "The Single Greatest Weakness"

As I have recently cited  "The Single Greatest Weakness"  several times in recent essays, I sat down and re-read the essay this evening, just to see if it inspired any new ideas, as well as to see if I might have overlooked something in the essay, or perhaps even made some shoddy argument upon which I could improve. Fortunately, after reading through the essay, I could not find anything that needed to be rewritten. However, there was a small omission I felt I had to correct. That was, quite simply, that, while I made a good case for my position, I failed to present a number of real world examples, which could show precisely how failure to appreciate the written law can lead to acceptance of laws explicitly contrary to that law.

For example, in the essay, I argue as follows:
Even if we do not want to just abrogate the constitution, if a substantial majority wants to turn the government into a vehicle for expropriation of wealth and leveling of incomes, the right to amend gives them a simple tool to do just that. They can simply call a convention, cross out everything that prevents them from doing what they wish and vote it into law. But, then again, why even bother? If the majority is large enough, it is far easier to simply ignore the constitution. The courts may object, but without an enforcement arm, their complaints can be ignored the same way they ignore the legislature in Boumedine[...], and with public support there is likely to be no outcry in their support. And, after a while, popularity seeking presidents will appoint friendlier justices, and even the courts will come to agree with the public prejudice. Before long, ignoring the constitution, at least on some topics, will have become the de facto law of the land.
It seems a simple enough argument, that, given sufficient public apathy, there would be no need to even change the Constitution, as the indifferent public would simply acquiesce in explicitly unconstitutional laws. However, having read my argument, I could see that some readers might find this unlikely, imagining it far more likely those wishing to abrogate the Constitution would choose to amend it rather than simply ignore it. Fortunately, the real world has provided one great example to the contrary.

The Bill of Rights, for example, provides pretty explicit limits upon the powers available to the federal government*, the first being probably one of the most clear cut, providing, among other things, that freedom of speech shall not be limited. A position which ran contrary to the populist spirit which was quite influential at the beginning of the 20th century, especially when it came to matters such as advertising. Also a position which was quite popular among many groups, including many of those otherwise supporting populist measures. Thus, it would have been, if not suicidal, at least quite risky, to propose amending the Constitution to allow even limited controls on free speech. And so, a second solution was reached, the Constitution was left intact, but the courts ruled that free speech was "really" intended to protect political speech, and maybe art and philosophy and science, but that commercial speech was something else entirely, and thus outside the pale of constitution protection. A position in accord with a broad enough range of the populace that it was not challenged, even if it went against the obvious meaning of the Bill of Rights.

But such fig leaf measures, such as implicit rewriting or repeal by court ruling, are often not even needed. For example, the campaign finance laws, which are clearly both a restriction on speech, and also contrary to very obvious intent of the first amendment -- protecting political speech being unarguably one of the most clear intents of the amendment -- have still been enacted, and expanded, without even court cover for the most part. They simply rely upon the public's acceptance of populist rhetoric about "buying campaigns" and the need for "a level playing field" and that is more than enough to create laws that are clearly unconstitutional by even the most generous measure.

The same applied to any number of other violations. War time censorship during both world wars was clearly outside the scope of government authority, yet popular support for the war made it possible to do so. Similarly, the internment of Japanese, Italian and German** nationals, and American citizens of those ancestries, without any formal charge or trial comes into conflict with several pieces of the Bill of Rights (not to mention being rather dubious as federal rather than state action in any case***), yet again happened because of public support for the war.

In other cases, the Constitution is circumvented by bamboozling the public, for instance the FCC speech codes, which are supported because the "public owns the airwaves". However, that sort of sophistry seems a bit of a dubious means of getting around the first amendment. If the government were to restrict what one could say on sidewalks or highways on the grounds that the "public owns the roads", we would see it as a violation of our rights, so does it not follow that, precisely because they are publicly owned and administered, the government should not impose restrictions upon speech in broadcast media****? It seems to matter less and less now as traditional broadcast media become less important for news, but at one time, when radio or broadcast television were the primary source of news, the fact that the government held sway over licensing, and controlled what could be said -- not just in terms of improper words, but even content (eg the Fairness Doctrine, or the PSA/Educational requirements)-- seemed to give the government a degree of influence quite contrary to the intent of the Bill of Rights.

I could go on, but hopefully I have provided enough examples to make up for my prior oversight. I hope that it was not too tedious a recitation, and maybe even provided a little additional insight.


* I know the 14th Amendment imposes these same limits upon the states, but I always found that an unjustified extension of power. The Constitution is supposed to be a compact between equal, independent, sovereign states, making agreements about their interaction and cooperative acts. Using that document to impose obligations upon the internal affairs of those sovereign states is simply wrong. However, I also know I am in a minority in thinking that way, especially since the 14th gets a good reputation from its role in civil rights arguments, but I still find it an improper extension of federal power.

** The number of German and Italian citizens (as opposed to resident aliens) was relatively small, but there were still cases. And, of course, the Japanese, including citizens as well as aliens, were interned in quite large numbers, as most Japanese citizens lived in the exclusion zones. Granted, in the case of German and Italian citizens, they were only interned if classified as suspect, but that is not the same as being charged and tried, and there was little one could do to challenge the designation.

*** By 1941 the federal government had established what I think is a dubious role in law enforcement ("Minimal Reforms"), but still, even at that late date, it had a pretty modest scope in which it could act. I know it justified internment by arguing they were preventing treason and military sabotage and thus it fell in the federal jurisdiction, but treason is a very limited and well defined crime, and presumption of treason, or probability of committing treason is not a crime anywhere I can see. So it seems the government far overstepped their authority. Whether it was justified by the existence of some real spies or not misses the point. Constitutionally, and under criminal law in every state at that time, it was an unjustifiable action. But I am sure that may spark some angry responses, so I will leave it there.

**** This is not to say I support the idea of "public airwaves" and licensing, or FCC monitoring. It terrifies me the FCC is getting involved in "net neutrality" and may have some say over the internet. The airwaves should have been treated like any limited resource, the government should have created broadcast licenses as it did, based on region and frequency, and then sold them at auction, leaving it to the market to figure out the best uses. But, so long as we are stuck with this defective, overly authoritarian model, the government should exercise as little control over content -- in any way -- as possible, as doing so both limits the ability to communicate with the public, and reduces the utility and value of the broadcast channels for the license holders.



For those who trouble with my objections to internment, I have a rather simple response. I have long argued that freedom means sometimes you have to allow others to hold ideas you consider wrong or offensive, and to take actions with which you disagree. Likewise, rule of law also means sometimes criminal justice may let a guilty man go or fail to prevent a crime. For example, imagine what the effect would be if we allowed police to arrest those they thought likely to commit crimes. It probably would prevent more crimes than our present system. On the other hand, it would also likely end up with a number of innocents in jail. But our system, being predicated upon protecting rights, more than preventing harm, decided that it is better to allow a few crimes to take place than to make our society a prison or asylum. After all, if we were all restricted in our actions and under constant surveillance, crime would be nearly nonexistent, but so would freedom.

And that is where I stand on internment. Even if there were real spies, and even if internment maybe stopped a few from acting (though the fact that we know of historical spies suggests it did not stop or deter all of them), the fact remains rule of law requires we prefer giving citizens the benefit of the doubt even if it means a spy may be able to act for a time. I know Ann Coulter argued to the contrary, but I would suggest in this case she is wrong. Think of it this way, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and other abuses were one of the turning points in our history, paving the way for the earliest stages of strong, centralized government. If that was wrong, how can we then justify FDR's complete suspension of due process simply because it was expedient? And what other abuses could be justified by that same logic in the future?

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 26, 2015)

Following on yesterday's quote, I have decided to start another trend, stupid quotes by the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries, immediate successors and the like. In this case, a quote from John Adams. Purely by chance, this quote is doubly interesting, as it is, in essence, the opposite error to the one we examined yesterday ("Stupid Quote of the Day (February 25, 2015)"). Where Madison argued that moral men would not need the state, Adams argues that the state will only work for them. But, perhaps I should provide the quote itself before discussing it:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Of course, this is not exactly a novel concept. For example, how often have we heard conservtives argue that business needs regulation because of the "excesses of managers and owners? ("Et Tu, Town Hall?") Likewise, we often hear those on the left concede the free market is efficient, but because men are greedy and immoral, it needs to be "corrected" by government. Or, even closer to the original quote, how often have we heard certain conservatives argue only Christians can be conservatives, or even good citizens? All of these are quite similar to the logic of Madison's quote.

The problem here is that no people, no matter how good, is ever going to be made up of nothing but perfectly moral beings. The scope of questions covered by criminal law makes that clear. If government rests on nothing but the morality of its members, then likely it is going to fall apart, as no body of men will perpetually maintain that high moral standard.

But even in specifics, this quote is somewhat dubious. After all, what is the purpose of the Bill of Rights, if not to prevent immoral excesses of those in government? Is it likely moral government will perform warrantless searches? or institute cruel and unusual punishment? No, the Constitution itself argues it is written as  check on men who have lost their way and seek too much control. And thus, far from being a document suited only for moral men, it seems instead a document intended to make sure fallible ordinary men behave in moral ways, which is quite a different thing.*

I suppose there is one, and only one, way in which one can make sense of the quote, though even that is not precisely what Adams is arguing. The Constitution does have one requirement, that men understand its value. Otherwise, as with all written law ("The Written Law", "The Single Greatest Weakness"), if the people do not feel it important to ensure the written law is followed, then it ceases to function. But that is a problem we do not need strongly moral men to resolve, only those with enough intelligence to see the benefits of the Constitution, who have also been properly informed of those benefits. Granted, we lack many of these today, but that too is not due to a lack of ethics, but because many of our contemporaries, and those of the last generation, failed to see the value of the Constitution and passed that ambivalence along to the next generation.

Again, that does not support the thesis of this argument, it simply points out another, and in this case real, shortcoming of any effort to restrain power by written words. Without the men who believe in those words, they lack any sort of power. But that does not mean we need more moral men, simply better educated ones. Because, in the end, it is not morality, but understanding, that makes constitutional government function. Moral men are not required.


* It is interesting, the Constitution, in a way, mirrors the free market. I have often argued the free market is a brilliant system as it takes the base emotions of men, especially greed, and ensures the only way to fulfill them is to serve others. So, in the end, the stronger the base emotions, the more diligently one will have to provide for his fellows.

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 25, 2015)

It seems we have started something of a theme with these last two posts, that being stupid quotes by otherwise intelligent people, even geniuses. Today;s quote is a little, different, being from, not a scientist, but a politician and political thinker, and one I respect quite a bit. However, I have to be honest about these quotes, even when it comes from one of my heroes, and so, though the quote is less foolish than some, I must present the following quote from James Madison:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

On the surface, I suppose there is little to which one could object. As I have said that the primary purpose of the state is protecting rights, and angelic beings would not think of violating the rights of another, it is easy to assume Madison is correct. However, that misses an important point, and one we often forget, that disagreement, and even crime at times, can arise, not from malice, but from disagreement, or a difference in understanding. And as I understand angelic beings, while morally beyond reproach, they are not infallible. Thus, even within this hypothetical world, there is still a role for the state.

The first issue we must consider is the simple question of contracts, essential to business, presumably, even in a world of angelic men. ("In Praise of Contracts", "Contracts and Freedom") Even men who are perfectly moral can still disagree over matters, maybe not agree on what was included, what was excluded or what was intended in an agreement. Thus even angels would have a need to have recourse to the civil courts, in order to settle such disputes.

Then again, as I have argued repeatedly, civil courts could be replaced with some sort of arbitration, with or without performance bonds given in advance (presumably angels would not have a problem with compliance), and so, in a way, government could still be eliminated, as these angel-men could agree to arbitrate privately, making their agreements work without any true government.

On the other hand, there is another area of civil law which is not so easily handled privately, the stumbling block to any plan to replace the civil courts with a private solution, and that is the realm of torts. Again, presumably angels are not infallible, and thus may from time to time have an encounter with a stranger where some harm is unintentionally done. Even if these angels are without flaw, and want to do their best to make amends, it is still quite possible they would not always agree as to the harm done, the cost of restitution or even if real harm was done. And thus, they would have a need for civil courts capable of compelling attendance and ensuring performance. I suppose, again, angels would show up without the need for compulsion, so maybe even here there would be the ability to handle problems without a government to provide assurances of compliance.

Which brings me to the third issue, crime. Now, even if men are angels, there are still cases where they may seem to commit crime. Conversion, for example, while considered theft, may be brought about through mistake in some cases -- though in that case it is no longer a crime, but a civil wrong. Likewise, presumably even angels might be negligent, which can, in some cases, support charges of crime. Or angels might justifiably dispute the ownership of some property, causing the sides to allege the other to be guilty of theft. In short, even with no intent to commit crime, it is still possible that the criminal courts and police might have more than enough work to keep busy.

In a way, I suppose this is a silly argument, as we know men are not, and never will be angels. On the other hand, I think it is quite useful, as the Madison quote is just another in a long line that reinforce the incorrect idea that government is a "necessary evil". ("Caution, Not Fear") Time and again, I have argued this is a dangerous idea, as taken seriously, it argue that the ideal is a state without government, that we only have government because of our flaws, and suggests that it might be possible, in some conditions, to live without the state, which is simply wrong. ("The State of Nature and Man's Rights" , "The Benefit of Society", "A Beast's Life", "Learning From Crows", "Knights and Bandits", "The All or Nothing Mistake", "Of Ants and Men")

In truth, contrary to the implications of this quote, the state is a tool. Granted, most of that tool's functions are intended to deal with human immorality, though some part is also intended to deal with disagreements and mistakes. Still, even if most of the tool's functions are aimed at man's shortcomings, that does not mean it has no other purposes, nor that it can be safely eliminated. The state, for better or worse, is not jut a tool, but an essential tool, and one we would be foolish to eliminate, even were we to become angels.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 24, 2015 - Also a little late)

Today's quote is -- while literally a quote, in the sense of something written by someone -- not exactly our usual sort of quote. That is, I am using a statement I found particularly troubling to illustrate a point misunderstood by many. Thus, it is not a particular statement by someone famous, or a statement famous in itself, or even a statement so ubiquitous I can treat it as such, it is just something I stumbled across which needs to be analyzed. In a way, it fits the third model, as a number of people seem to accept this reasoning, but it is not exactly our normal type of quote:
[W]e distinguish between three senses of capitalism: 
capitalism-1: an economic system that features property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services 
capitalism-2: an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government 
capitalism-3: rule -- of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state -- by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production)
As you can see, this statement definitely comes from a group with a particular perspective, in this case self-avowed anarchists. However, even those who hold fairly mainstream views often seem to make this mistake. In fact, some of the errors, or parts of specific errors (eg. that "capitalists" are a distinct subset of the populace, or that the government must be pro- or anti- business) are held by a number of conservatives as well. Which is why I wanted to address this one.

Well, let us start by asking ourselves "who are these capitalist?" I know the Occupy crowd and others love to talk about "the 1%" who supposedly control so much, but, well, first of all, their numbers are always a bit suspect. That supposed 1% has been gaining rhetorical wealth at such a rate, soon I think they will own 125% of the economy. (See "The Other 99%".) And second, this ignores that there is a divide between supposed "wealth", in the sense of one's net worth and ownership of "the means of production", which in the case of the US usually means actually ownership of the businesses which produce wealth. One can be quite wealthy, yet have little or no control over any businesses. Thus, it makes little sense to confuse the two. And certainly if we are trying to define "capitalists", ownership of enterprises is the defining characteristic, is it not?

However, in truth, a large percentage of most companies is held, not by this mythical 1%, but rather by about 3/5 to 4/5 of the economy, that is stockholders. And stockholders does not mean that little guy form the Monopoly box, or some caricature plutocrat wiping his feet on his serfs and lighting a cigar with $100 bills, but rather anyone who invests, or holds insurance, or a pension, or a 401K. In addition, because banks invest savings as well, anyone who has any savings, any CDs, any money market, any banking investments, is also indirectly a "capitalist". In truth, the US has a pretty broad distribution of ownership. If anything, the people closest to the caricature of capitalist, those who own their business outright and don't have to care what anyone says, are the small business owners, most firmly middle, or sometimes even lower class (in the case of self-employed cab drivers, peddlers, and any sort of owner-operator of any venture). Most large companies tend to have some sort of more distributed ownership, and, as a consequence, are owned by a pretty broad spectrum of the populace.

Which makes the third line above pretty meaningless. After all, if there are no distinct "capitalist", or if they make up 4/5 of the people, then the scaremongering implicit in the third formula is meaningless, is it not?

Which brings me instead to the second quote, the one that assumes "capitalism" is some sort of system where business and government are in bed together. Well, yes, that sort of system does exist, but it is not capitalism. it is protectionism, mercantilism, or, in many forms, certain stages of socialism. After all, who arranged bailouts and "public-private partnerships"? A few were on the right, but most were solidly left wing. In truth, most businessmen, at least in a free economy, don't want the government involved, as it ends up being more trouble than it is worth. Those who rely on patronage are not usually the "capitalists", or to be more accurate, those who have enjoyed success in business, but rather those who didn't, those who failed, and see patronage as a means to short circuit the market. If you doubt this, look at how much arm twisting it took to get banks to take Obama's bailout funds. (See "Anti-Business Businesses", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice", "The 'Lucky' Rich", "Misunderstanding the Market", "Symmetry and Greed", "Big Box Stores and the 'Climate of Greed'", "Those Greedy Bankers", "Placebo Economics", "Greed", "Greed Part 2", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Minimal Reforms", "The Basics", "Competition", "Greed Versus Evil" and "The Case for Small Government".) So, yes, government which are "partners" with business do exist, and our current economy is sadly some way down this road as well, but it is not a form of capitalism, it is a consequence of over powerful and over intrusive government.

All of which brings me back to the first quote. And this is the one which is a true description of capitalism, or, better, the free market or minimalist government. However, I would add a caveat even here. While this description is accurate, those form whom I obtained this quote argued that this first form leads to either the first or second, which is simply not accurate. When the government is limited to protecting rights, it will not magically create a situation where business runs things. Instead, a free government with minimal powers will leave everyone free. The second definition above is the result of government intervention, of regulation, inflation, monetary manipulation and all those other extensions of government power. And, once that occurs, then begins the "war of all against all" (cf "The War of All Against All", "The Road to Violence", "Chaotic Government", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights" and "Power and Disorder") and we have people fighting over whether government must be pro or anti business. When, if we simply left government to its minimal, but proper, role, there would be no need for such conflict, and government could remain, not pro or anti anything, but simply an impartial protector.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 23, 2015 -- A little late)

Continuing the trend from our last quote ("Stupid Quote of the Day (February 22, 2015)"), I found yet another in my series of "stupid quotes by clever people". In fact, this quote and its predecessor form an even more clearly defined subset of stupid quotes, "stupid quotes by clever scientists speaking about war." And, as you shall see, just as with the previous quote by Sagan, this quote from Einstein shows a similar blindness to the realities of human behavior:
You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.
I suppose, if I were lazy, I could just point to my previous argument showing how the nuclear arms race prevented conventional war, but that would seem a bit of a cop-out, so let us look at this in  a different way.

In a way, war can be compared to crime. After all, in a properly run state, war is used as a means to protect us against the foreign use of force, while the police, again in a properly run state, exists to protect us from the domestic use of force*. So, we could draw an analogy between police and army that is pretty convincing. However, would one accept the statement "you cannot both prevent and punish crime?" Of course not! We recognize that by punishing criminals, we also create a deterrent to future criminals. (At least most of us do.) And it is pretty well accepted that a state which is too lenient in punishing crime will see a rise in crime.

Which all makes sense. If I am thinking of committing a crime, I will consider the risks as well as rewards, and if the risks are particularly high -- that is if crime is punished harshly and criminals usually caught -- I will be more reluctant to act, while if criminals routinely walk away scot-free, then I am going to be far more likely to undertake a crime. And thus, by punishing crime, we, to some degree, also help to prevent it.

And the same is true of war. A nation without a strong military, or which never uses its military, may enjoy peace, if circumstances are right. Switzerland comes to mind, though it does a fair job of making clear it is prepared for war, with a strong citizen militia, so it is hardly a pacifist state. However, a more pacifist state may, if times are peaceful, or if a strong nation or group of nations is enforcing peaceful relations, do just as well.

However, if times are not so peaceful, or even in peaceful times if a particularly hostile state might arise, then the nations which have prepared the most are far more likely to be left alone than those which have not. For example, relatively weak Lithuania made an easy target for Germany in the 1930's, while they had to basically involve Britain in order to dismember well-defended Czechoslovakia. (And history records many of those involved in later conspiracies against Hitler were ready to revolt in 1938 had Hitler gone to war, which shows that a risky venture may not stop a somewhat mad leader bent on war, but may provoke his inferiors to remove him, which serves to prevent war just as well.)

Or to look for more felicitous examples, the Roman Empire, during its peak, enjoyed quite a bit more peace than it had during comparable periods in its past, or than was enjoyed by the lands beyond its borders. It was not perfect peace, something I doubt the world will ever know, but the much mentioned pax Romana did exist, and largely depended upon an empire which was prepared for war. If anything, it was when the Romans themselves relied upon others to fight for them, and the state became less prepared that there followed decades of chaos and bloodshed and eventual collapse.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that being prepared for war is not incompatible with preventing or avoiding war, it is likely the only certain way to achieve those goals.


* I traditionally define the purpose of police to be protection against force, theft and fraud, but, in the end, the whole list is essentially based on force, as without using force to retain those things stolen or gained by fraud, it would be easy enough to reclaim one's property. Even if you disagree, and distinguish force, theft and fraud from one another, the purpose of a proper police force and a proper army, excluding against whom they act, is much the same. Only the targets and methods of action differ.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 22, 2015)

Today's stupid quote is a bit of an unusual one, as it comes from someone that I actually agree is a smart man. Not always right, by any means, but someone I agree is quite intelligent. You see, for all the praise he gets, i just can't say, for example, Keynes is smart, he makes too many simple errors, blurs definitions too much, and writes too many things that are obviously deceptive. He just seems like someone who is glib and clever, but without any real insight. On the other hand, Karl Marx, for example, for all I disagree with him, and all the harm he has done, I am willing to argue he may have been quite bright. After all, though quite wrong, his work is a valiant effort to answer long standing questions about value, interest and a number of other questions. That he completely misses the mark is beside the point. After all, if it takes Boehm-Bawerk, an indisputably bright man, three large volumes to refute your theories, you must have something going for you.

However, today's quote is from someone whose intellect is even less arguable. And that is Carl Sagan. As I said, he is not without his faults, some of his theories have since fallen by the wayside, and some of his ideas seem a bit out there, but then again, so do the thoughts of most very clever men. We tend to forget Isaac Newton's alchemy, or Goethe's confusion over whether the urpflanz really existed or not. Bright men tend to think of so much that sometimes they go a bit too far out on that limb. However, if they hit the ball out of the park every other time, that is still quite a considerable record. And, of course, clever men have one other failing, being clever in one or two areas, they begin to try to branch out and come up a bit short when they drift into areas where they are less qualified. For example, Linus Pauling's completely unsupported (and provably wrong) claims about megadoses of vitamin C, or, Noam Chomsky, quite a competent Cartesian linguist, who drifted into political thought, becoming what one writer described as "the Doctor Demento of American politics". And similarly, this quote represents one of Sagan's forays into politco-military thought, and shows some similar problems:
The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.
I admit, he is hardly unique in this description, the whole doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which was part of the logic of the arms race even before being given explicit form, has struck a number of thinkers as mad, but mostly because they fail to consider the larger picture, a problem they would not have were they thinking about their area of expertise.

If you want to see the error of Sagan's thinking, just roll back the clock a little more than a century, or, if you want, even two centuries, as the problem really arises with the French Revolution*. Immediately following the Revolution, France found itself surrounded by hostile foes, mostly a number of monarchies fearful of revolution spreading. At the same time, France had been subjected to a policy of "encirclement" by its foes since at least the reign of Louis XIV, and actually even earlier, and so had a longstanding military tradition of seeing itself as a fortified island in a sea of hostile nations. As a result, it was inevitable France would end up at war with most of the world. However, after that first flash of ostensibly defensive wars, things started to settle down, even moreso after Napoleon established himself as "first consul", and monarchs began to see him as a surrogate-monarch with whom they could deal. Yet, France still retained both a hint of its revolutionary zeal, and a fear of hostile coalitions. And so, when they saw alliances forming between Britain and Russia, along with a few other lands, two power blocks arose, leading to the inevitable continent-wide war.

After Napoleon fell, things settled down again, for a time, but slowly the power blocks began to form once more. Russia, feeling her oats after the many Napoleonic victories, sought to expand into the Mediterranean, while other nations interested in the region, mostly England and France, sought to protect their interests, and, inevitably, once again, war broke out.

Following the era of the Crimean War, the blocks began to shuffle themselves a bit, with the unification of Italy and Germany shaking up things a bit. However, by the turn of the century, it was becoming increasingly clear that the existing power blocks, the central powers of Germany and Austia-Hungary, and the Anglo-French alliance (with or without Russia), were going to end up in a war before too long. Which happened in the Great War (which we now call the First World War). And, then again, quite similar power blocks formed in the inter-war period, so that by the mid-1930s, once again, war seemed all but inevitable. And, like clockwork, war broke out once more in 1939, giving us the Second World War.

What is interesting is, following the Second World War, there are no more continent-wide European wars, much less World Wars, such as we saw in the early to mid 20th century. Despite the world being broken into two, sometimes three (when China and Russia were at odds), power blocks, th world somehow managed to largely avoid war entirely. Oh, there was the coda to the Second World War (or perhaps to the communist takeover of China) that was the Korean War, but that settled down into a stalemate, likely in part because, though he was denied the ability to do it, MacArthur even dared to mention dropping nuclear bombs. (Or Truman said he did. In either case, the topic was raised.) Likewise, the Vietnam War, though quite prominent in US social history, was, in truth, a relatively minor conflict by historical standards, with little consequence for the balance of powers, as the years following 1975 show.

So, if we were madmen standing in a pool of gasoline holding matches, lunatics poised on the brink of a collective murder-suicide pact, why did that same period represent one of the longest periods without war in Europe**? In fact, one of the more peaceful periods in history, with most conflict limited to relatively small border conflicts and civil wars***?

The reason is simple, no one wanted to risk the use of nuclear weapons. Even in the very early 1950s, before hydrogen bombs or full scale ICBMs, before long range nuclear submarines and mutually assured destruction, when nuclear war meant only the leveling of a few prominent cities, people still hesitated before risking such a fate. Nuclear weapons brought the possibility of destroying the leadership home to nations traditionally isolated from such things. Yes, London had been bombed in the Second World War, and Moscow taken in 1812, but both of those nations still had a sense that their leaders were largely outside the range of enemy troops. Much moreso the US, Canada, China, Australia, South Africa and all the other non-European nations, at least until nuclear bombers came into the picture. Suddenly a single bomb would not just level a single building, and hiding in a bomb shelter was not likely to be good enough****. War meant death not just for the front line troops, but possibly for the generals, the admirals, the politicians and their families too. And that made war a little too horrible to contemplate.

This does not mean war was completely eliminated. Under some circumstance nations would fight regardless. Perhaps if the issues were serious enough (though fortunately we avoided that in the Cold War era, at least in terms of the superpowers and their allies), or, as we saw in a number of petty "proxy wars" if the war was far enough from either nation, with the stakes small enough, that nuclear retaliation was off the table. But, for the most part, the threat of the bomb kept history from repeating itself. Where, in the past, large, well defined power blocks normally devolved into a massive war in 20 or 30 years at most, in the Cold War such blocks existed, taking openly confrontational stands, for almost a half-century without even a minor European war resulting.

And that is why the nuclear arms race was not mad. It kept the superpowers from becoming openly hostile, and as a result ended up saving more lives than anyone wants to admit.


* Actually, you could even take this back even farther, maybe as far back as the Hundred Years' War, if you wished, as that too was the outcome of hostile power blocks making war all but inevitable. But I wanted to keep this essay to a manageable size.

** Interestingly, look at the modern era with conflict in Georgia (arguably part of Europe), and the Ukraine, to see how peaceful the period of the Cold War truly was. Other than the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising, there was no military action in Europe from 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Union.

*** India and Pakistan (and earlier India and China) are the few exceptions, and it is interesting to note that since the participants became nuclear capable the scale of those conflicts have become much more modest as well. The only other larger conflicts were in the middle east, where Israel fought with various combinations of the Arab League, yet, for all the press they received, and as important as they were to the nations involved, they still were essentially somewhat larger scale border conflicts, as is obvious when compared to the scale of wars in the preceding two or three centuries.

**** To a lesser extent the firebombing of Dresden brought a similar reassessment of the risk of war, but that required such a commitment of resources, and could be prevented in theory by an adequate air defense. On the other hand, nuclear war meant that just getting one bomb through the defenses could bring about a result that took hundreds of bombs in Dresden.



Some may agree with my basic point but ask why we then proceeded to build more bombs, as well as continue to improve them. And the answer is that times change. Where, in the past, individual bombers, or single missiles might have been threat enough, at some point one side or the other may imagine it could use a first strike to wipe out the other's weapons, or that using anti-ballistic missiles it might survive a foe's attack. And thus, over time, more and better weapons were needed to continue convincing the other side that war was still something to be avoided. It did not matter if we had "enough weapons to blow up the world 5 times" if our foes thought he could prevent them from being launched or detonated.

And that ignores the second use to which this weapons race was put, the way that the threat of a working US missile defense system (the wrongly dismissed "star wars" system) offered to the Soviets, both forcing them into bankrupting themselves trying to build countermeasures, as well as giving us a very valuable bargaining chip in negotiations. (Nor does it matter that since that time many have argued it would not have worked, the fear that it might work, or even might be partially effective, was more than enough to force the USSR into massive armaments projects they could no longer afford.)

A Wikipedia Amusement

I was looking at a wikipedia page on (James) Anthony Coburn, who wrote the script for the first story to appear on Dr Who, when I found something terribly amusing. The son of Mr. Coburn complained that the "facts" presented were inaccurate and had made changes, yet the Wiki editors refused to allow him to write of his first hand experience, as it was "original research", and allowed apparently incorrect material from written sources to stand.

Obviously, this is a problem I have discussed before. Just because something is published means nothing. If we believe that it does, then the Merovingians are descended from Jesus, there were probably upwards of fifty different groups involved in killing Kennedy, the pyramids were built by aliens and various herbs and minerals will let you live forever. (The son himself makes this point as well on the talk page.)

What makes this even more amusing is that the son could avoid all this through an absurd expedient. Were he simply to write a web page with all his claims, he would then be able to cite it, and suddenly everything he said would be true according to Wiki standards of proof. Of course, I could also put up a website saying Mr. Coburn was a werewolf and also be true by Wiki standards.

And therein lies my main objection to Wikipedia, by removing all human thought from the evaluation of sources, by rejecting any "original research" (meaning any use of individual experience or reason), you can "prove" almost anything. For example, if I wrote a web page saying "gravity makes objects fall away from the center of the Earth", I doubt you could find an online statement to the contrary. Yet, your first hand knowledge that it is false is not allowable in Wikipedia. So, unless someone bothers to post a website declaring the self evident, all Wiki articles must declare things fall upward from the Earth's surface.

Hardly the only objection to Wikipedia (see the postscript), but definitely one worth noting.


The following articles include all of my many complaints about Wikipedia: "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Final Comment on Wikipedia (For Now, Anyway)", "Wikipedia?", "Now I know Why", "One More Wikipedia Problem","Very Short Digression On Wikipedia", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Wikipedia Syndrome", "Wikipedia Absurdities ", "Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!", "Mystery Quotes", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "Funny Numbers", "Endangered Species", "Sterility of Formal Economics", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Proof Positive", "Revealing Too Much", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Deceiving Themselves?", "A Question About Language", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Vindication", "Life is Strange", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "A Near Perfect Definition", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes". (NOTE: As some have not yet been moved to this blog, not all have links. That will be corrected as articles are reproduced.)

Nostalgia Alert -- The Things I Liked About Punk Rock

I know for a conservative blogger that title seems a bit out of character. Perhaps not so much if you call me a libertarian, many of them hold pretty odd ideas, but, despite holding minimalist views on government, I am also a champion of giving tradition the benefit of the doubt (cf "The Virute of Novelty and the Value of Tradition"), so I definitely fall, at least weakly, into the conservative camp. Yet, here I am waxing poetic about a blatantly juvenile movement of my early years, and it seems terribly out of character, at best a bit of maudlin --and misplaced -- nostalgia for my teen years. Still, I ask my readers to bear with me, as there is a point, and, though it may seem hard to believe, there really was some good to punk rock. (And in exchange I promise you, I will never write "Nostalgia Alert -- The Things I liked About the Neo-Hippy Movement of the Late 1980s", as I can't think of much to say.)

Actually, I suppose I should be precise, as those who create the pointless wiki-taxonomy of such things probably have punk ending before I joined the movement in the early-mid 1980s (cf "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons"), they would probably dub the groups with which I associated as "post-punk" or "hardcore" or some such thing. On the other hand, those of us who were actually there called ourselves punk rockers, so I think that carries a bit more wight than the reminiscing of wiki-geeks trying to define movement with precise detail. I grant that we made some distinction between music we called punk and the later (and mostly American) "hardcore", "skate music" and "speed metal", along with a few dozen other categories, but we were also pretty lax in our definitions, and groups seemed to jump from one to the other with little rhyme or reason. But, it must also be clear, even if the Wikis claim otherwise, there was still punk around in the early to mid 80's. The Ramones were still there, so was Iggy Pop, the Damned still played, even if the lineup changed, the Clash was still around and putting out albums, and the Stranglers were still around too, even if they were a bit sui generis*. And the fans were not much different than they had been in the late 70's, the attitude was still much the same. So it seems absurd to arbitrarily draw a line and say "punk died here"**, when the Sex Pistols broke up, or Siouxsie and the Banshees hit the big time, or some other line.

But that is drifting a bit far from my point. So rather than argue with imaginary Wiki-taxonomists, let us just accept for the sake of this essay that we were self-described punk rockers, and the music we listened to was punk rock. It just makes things easier.

I suppose the first thing that appealed to me in punk rock, in fact one of the great joys for me at that age, was that it was rabidly ambivalent about politics. Not that it was apolitical, it was just an equal opportunity mocker, taking on the left and right equally, finding fault with both. Well, at least when I first identified myself as a punk in the early 80's. There were exceptions, and ever more so as the 80's wore on. Some groups clearly had an agenda, mostly left wing but a few right, and a few on the fringe such as openly communist or fascist ideologues, but for most of politics was inherently hypocritical. Later, as more of the neo-hippy movement blended with the remaining punks, this changed greatly and by the early 90's, or even earlier, punk had become almost uniformly left, with the main difference being whether you were socialist or communist***. I was long gone by that time, however, so for most of my time as a punk, punk was largely free of ideology.

That was a big part of its appeal. As I have described elsewhere, my parents were pretty much the two poles of the political spectrum, with my mother "a bit left of Lenin", and my father a career police officer, strongly attached to tradition and distrustful of almost everyone. As a result, I had not grown up with any real political identity, and reaching that age when many children begin to wonder about politics, I found a lot to dislike about both sides. After all, it was the early to mid 80's, so criticism of Reagan, Meese, the Moral Majority and conservatism in general were everywhere. Yet, having grown up with left wing politics in both my home and school, I found just as many things to criticize there. And so, finding a group of peers who thought as I did, who saw that there were a lot of problems with existing ideologies, was a great joy for me****.

The next thing that appealed to me, especially because of my age, was the innate selfishness of the punk environment. Oh, many critics now will tell you about "punk community" and support for one another and "DIY philosophy" and similar, but I find most are coming from a later era, after the neo-hippies and explicitly left wing politics had changed punk rock. Early on, there was definitely a sense of community, the idea that having decided to exclude ourselves from the mainstream, we would stick together, but that only went a very small distance, basically as far as refusing to allow any non-punks to harass another punk. Beyond that, the philosophy was essentially, every man for himself. Not in a Lord of the Flies sense, with fellow preying upon fellow, but rather a sense that, there was no such thing as an obligation to watch out for a stranger, or even a friend, unless you decided to do so. Having come from an environment of mostly left-leaning elementary schools, and a prep school --once a feeder school for the Naval Academy -- which was big on "duty" and "service", the idea that I could exist for myself without any obligations hanging over me was a useful tonic.

The last thing that really struck me as beneficial was that punk rock led me -- though probably not everyone -- to embrace honesty, and not in a weak, metaphorical sense, but truly to become brutally honest. As I said, not all punks got this message, I knew many who lied happily. But between the emphasis on mocking any dishonesty, and the lack of concern for the reactions of others, punk rock gave me both an impetus to be perfectly honest, and leave to do so. I admit, as time went on, and, being a normal teen, I found myself in situations where lying seemed to be to my benefit, I am afraid I failed to live up to the high ambitions my younger self had set, but for a time, I truly did develop a very strong loyalty to absolute honesty, and, later in life, when I came to look back and see that those times I lied my way out of trouble usually end up pretty badly,  it formed the foundation for my outlook in adult life.

I suppose I should follow up these praises with "...and now for the bad parts," but I doubt anyone reading this can't fill that in for themselves. I didn't necessarily go as far down the damaging paths as some did. I made it out without any tattoos, and I only ever had a single earring, though mostly because, at that time, ears were all we pierced, and usually only once, the fad for becoming a walking pincushion came much later. As far as the much worse outcomes are concerned, no illegitimate children, and what diseases I have arose much later in life from much more innocent causes, so I definitely dodged bullets some I know did not. So rather than dwell on all the ways things went wrong, or the ways they could have been worse (or even better), I think I will leave my essay here. After all, nostalgia is usually a form of sanitizing the past, is it not? And so why not allow myself to remember only the good things? In the end, those are the ones I have kept with me, anyway.


* I think the Stranglers get in trouble with many attempts at classifying them because, unlike a lot of punk acts, they had some actual talent. Not that I intend that as a slur against punks, punk was all about making music when you lacked the skills, learning by doing and all that. But the Stranglers, because they could play (and the same is true of the Damned, though to a lesser degree), they could go beyond simply making noisy mockeries, they could do actual parodies, pastiches, they could allow in influences from other styles of music (including such oddities as disco), even use it to mock those styles. In short, they could take a punk message and hide it in a pop song. Later Clash had the same problem as well, so much that by Sandinista -- and certainly by Combat Rock -- some old time punks were asking if they "sold out" as their parodies of pop, or subversive messages hidden in pop songs, were being accepted by the mainstream as actual pop.

** I recall, in my juvenile wit, I used to draw my own version of the popular "Punk's Not Dead" logo (taken from an album by The Exploited). In my version, it read "Punk's Not Dead, It Just Smells that Way". I am grateful to this day that I did not pursue such comedic leanings in my later youth, as I could this day be writing logos that appear on puffy hats and in beach resort t-shirt shops.

*** Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys provides a case in point. Early on, he wrote a song "California Uber Alles" making fun of Jerry Brown. Later. he rewrote it to make fun of Ronald Reagan. And that sort of ambivalence ran through the work of the band, with songs mocking hippies, conservatives, police, vacationers and everything else you could imagine. However, by the beginning of the new millennium, we have him appearing as a pretty much solid left candidate, mocking businessmen and conservatives, only distinct by the degree to which he will play the buffoon to make his point.

**** As I said, punk rock is an inherently juvenile movement. As I grew older, I came to understand that the response to a flawed system is not to throw it out wholesale, but rather to find the parts that work and build upon them, that in almost every case it is easier to fix than burn down and start anew. (Unfortunately, many on the right and left seem to see things differently today, as if punk rock had somehow infected much of mainstream politics -- cf "The Runaway Stagecoach", "Ch-Ch-Changes", "Embracing Change", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "The Threat of Perfection" and "Utopianism and Disaster".) But at the time, I WAS juvenile, literally, so it is not hard to see why I would adopt a juvenile philosophy.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights

My mother made an interesting observation today1. She had been watching a program about those parents who refused vaccination for their children and mentioned that the same people who did not care if their anti-vaccination stand caused disease in other people were also the same people who demanded others not smoke. And she is, in many cases, quite right. Not only that, they are also the same people who demand others be denied the opportunity to eat transfats and other "bad" foods.

Leaving aside the dubious science behind all three positions2, there are still some absurd inconsistencies in these ranges of belief. I suppose one could argue that there is some consistency in the second hand smoking position and the antivaccination one -- at least from the perspective of the antivaccination believer -- as in both cases they are trying to prevent themselves from being exposed to harm. On the other hand, it is somewhat inconsistent in that they accept that their lack of vaccination may increase the risks of others, yet they object to the same risk from second hand smoke. But, ignoring that, there is absolutely no sense to those who claim to have the right to choose not to vaccinate, yet insist that others must not eat certain foods for their own good. Not that they are alone in their inconsistent demands for a mix of liberty and authoritarianism, it is an almost universal feature of modern political thought, left and right. Granted, the amount of each varies from person to person, but it does seem very few people at present hold to a consistent belief in either freedom or control.

Why so many embrace such confused beliefs can be explained in many ways, as is the case with most philosophies, but -- as I have argued a few times in the past3 -- this specific confusion, insisting that some practices enjoy protection while others do not, seems to stem for the most part from a belief in the subjective nature of rights4, or, to be more specific, a belief that rights --or the powers of the state -- cannot be defined with absolute precision, and are instead based upon some sort of collective agreement5.

The problem with such a definition of "rights" -- or even of what constitutes legitimate government action -- should be obvious. A government which is limited by strict and well defined rules leaves little room for conflict and confusion, we may debate what specific cases fall under the rules, but, for the most part, it is pretty clear what is and is not allowed. On the other hand, once allowable government action becomes open to majority rule, arguments from tradition, or so on, there is no way to predict what may or may not be disallowed tomorrow, much less in a week or year. Something we do today in good faith could suddenly become a crime, and a perfectly law abiding citizen transformed into a criminal in a moment6.

Nor is that all. The ability to define rights on the fly, or to create new areas of government actions on a whim, means that the state ceases to be a framework for collective coexistence and cooperation, and instead becomes an arena for never ending power politics7, as each individual seeks to prevent others from doing him harm, while simultaneously seeking to manipulate the law into the shape most advantageous to himself8.

More damaging still is that the belief itself, far from being "realistic" or "practical"9 is in truth a terribly destructive point of view. After all, if there is no right or wrong, if there is no concrete definition of what the state should and should not do, then how can one object to anything the state does? Except for claiming it goes against one's interests, what objection can there be to any given law if one believes laws are nothing more than majority rule? Or tradition? Unless we embrace some sort of external rule, some means of defining what the state should and should not do, there is really no ground for objecting to the current course of politics and the only effective argument becomes "we are more than you", leading to nothing but the continual back and forth of patronage and power politics.

No, worse than that. Saying "patronage" does not make the point clear enough. The problem is, with nothing to stop the state from expanding its power ad libitum10, and with the exercise of that power effectively arbitrary, there is little for one to do but to attempt to grab as much of that power as possible, if not for his own benefit, then as a protective measure, lest it be used to his detriment. Once the state has grown to a certain size, there simply ceases to be anything one could describe as apolitical, the state is in all things, and all things are of the state. And thus, one must either wield that power, or be at the mercy of those who do. And so, in the end, as I argued in several works11, the state becomes nothing but the war of all against all.


1. For those unfamiliar with my many tales of my mother, she is quite far to the left, but has an odd libertarian streak when it comes to certain issues, such as health Nazi measures.

2. To be clear, I am not saying that "second hand smoke" is completely safe. Those who have breathing issues clearly can suffer from tobacco smoke the same as from any other smoke. And, as with any smoke, there are suspended particles, carbon monoxide and other substances that may have some small deleterious effect. On the other hand, the claims that second hand smoke is more dangerous than smoking is simply ludicrous. I won't go into the entire argument here, but will simply point out how absurd some conclusions are based on anti-smoking hysteria. For example, the open air stadium in Baltimore, surrounded by elevated highways on two sides, down wind from a garbage incinerator (and not all that far from steel mills and chemical plants), which decided that smoking was too great a risk to allow.

3. See "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights" and "Power and Disorder".

4. It is tempting to argue it is simply a selfish interest in forcing one's will upon others ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism"), but, in truth, most people want to believe they hold a benevolent, consistent philosophy, and thus, even when doing little more than turning their prejudices into laws, they still seek a way to justify it. (See "The Nature of Evil", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Government by Emotion".)

5. Some manage to split their beliefs, arguing that there are certain definite rights, such as those in the bill of rights, but that then there are additional rights, or perhaps not rights, but some other sort of legitimate basis for government action, which is established by majority will, or convention, or tradition, or some other source, which provides much less well defined, but no less valid, guidelines for the exercise of force by the state. (See "In Loco Parentis", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Harming Society".)

6. One need only think of the many accounting firms which, in the aftermath of Enron, were suddenly told their previously legitimate practices were in fact wrong, and were subjected to fines, and often public abuse at the hands of politicians and pundits, based on little more than having followed the law in a way that later fell into disfavor.

7 See "The War of All Against All".

8. What is most interesting about this is that those who think they gain advantage from state favors often gain less than they would under a truly free market. They may, in terms of market share, enjoy a considerable gain, but when we take into account the harm that intervention does to the market, most often the net effect is loss rather than gain. And, most certainly, the market as a whole suffers as do most individuals, even if a handful of enterprises may enjoy a small gain. (See "Anti-Business Businesses", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice".)

9. Of course, I have been more than a little critical of pragmatism as a philosophy. (In the everyday sense of pragmatism, not the formal philosophy of the same name.) See "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'" and "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship".

10. Again, spell check does not recognize an actual word. Though this time I am complaining about Google spell check, not Firefox. On the other hand, when I checked to make sure I had the spelling correct, I was surprised to find wikipedia missed the meaning I am using here. it defined the meaning in music, and the shortened version "ad lib", but forgot it also mean "at will" or "at one's pleasure", which is quite different from the other meanings they provided. I know some of my usages are archaic, but in this case, I am certain I am not using it in an idiosyncratic way, Wikipedia is simply overlooking another usage.

11. See "The Road to Violence", "Power and Disorder", "Chaotic Government", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships" and "The War of All Against All".

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 21 -- On Time, At Long Last!)

Of late I seem to be spending far too much time reading sites with a very liberal cast. Probably because the fan sites for Dr. Who I have found all seem to have a very left wing, "social justice" slant. (Though I am more disturbed at their fondness for the new series than their leftist slant, so what does that say about me?) In the course of reading these sites, among many varieties of foolishness, I have come across a statement, originally born of feminism, but now common among all manner of left-leaning ideologues, and it is one that is not only stupid, but deeply troubling;
The personal is political
I suppose, on some level is ti vaguely comprehensible, at least from its feminist origins, as early feminism especially complained most about traditional women's roles and such, and thus, of necessity, made home life into a sort of litmus test cum battleground for feminism. However, even on that level, there is something a bit troubling about it, as I shall explain.

The problem with this sort of thinking is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, it makes you insufferable. Well, there are a few more problems than that, but let us start with the most practical problem, which is, that if you make everything political, if you insist on seeing the ideological in every word and deed, you basically turn into the caricature of the politically correct twit, criticizing and correcting every statement in a self righteous frenzy.

Or maybe not. You see, the left is not the only group that has adopted this belief. Unfortunately, a lot of those on the right seem to be slipping into this category as well. What was once the realm of a few extra militant conservatives who always said "traitor" when Jane Fonda was mentioned, and swore never to see a film she made, has sadly begun to slip into the mainstream of the right, with more and more are turning their entire lives into a protest against political foes. From the Dixie Chicks to Johnny Depp, anyone who has aroused conservative ire has been threatened with boycotts from the right*.

I have mentioned all of this before, but I have to mention it again, there was once a time when the rule was accepted that one never discussed politics or religion with strangers, or even with friends in most social settings. We accepted that politics might cause some hurt feelings, and so we avoided it, and thus we kept our political lives and our personal lives separate and apart. But now it seems many of use have come to define ourselves by our politics. Not only has the personal become political, but politics has, in some ways, become the whole of our person at times.

It's funny, I had originally thought to make this about the practice of politicizing everything in one's life, but have instead begun writing a critique of the right adopting all the worst traits of the left. But, as I said, it is a topic which has long troubled me. Especially our habit of branding those on the left as irredeemable villains, something else which seems to be becoming more and more common.

Actually, on one of those left leaning sites I was reading, someone mentioned something similar. He argued if, upon encountering a racist attitude, we make that the defining characteristic of the person, then we completely destroy any hope of correcting anyone, of any sort of redemption. And I think in some ways the right has adopted the same "burn the witch" attitude many on the left have toward racism (or conservatism, for that matter), that upon encountering a person with liberal views, they have a tendency to make that single trait the whole definition of the person, and worse, ascribing that view to some sort of malice, or serious failing.

Ad that is what troubles me most. No longer do we look at those who do not share our political views as confused or mistaken and hope to persuade them. On both sides we seem to have given up on persuasion and instead dismiss all those who hold opposing views as doomed forever to being our foes. It is a dangerous position, and a self-defeating one, as, without hope of persuading the other side, what is left? Eternal strife between a nearly divided, highly polarized population? Hardly seems a promising world view.


* I realize I am out of step with contemporary conservatives. And I have been for some time. Back in the first Bush administration when there were "rallies to support the troops", I think I was the lone dissident, arguing that protests and rallies and the like were the province of the left, basically the adult form of throwing a temper tantrum, and that the right should not follow suit. Likewise, I have always found the practice of taking the statements of actors and others so much to heart a bit distasteful and juvenile. I don't watch actors because of their profound intellects, but because they act well, and thus I really don't care what they think. But, as I said, a bit out of step.

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 20 -- Delayed)

As promised in an earlier installment, even though in many ways it will overlap with the discussion in "Stupid Quote of the Day (February 17, 2015 -- Delayed)", as well as a number of earlier essays*, I will today discuss one of the most dishonest quotes that we still hear with alarming regularity:
A hungry man is not free.
The quote itself comes from Adlai Stevenson (who I feel will appear more than once in this series), though the error itself has a much longer history, embodying as it does the concepts embraced by many Fabian socialist types, as well as Rousseau and his successors. In fact, one could argue the confusion between wealth and political power which is a large part of this error goes back to the beginnings of economics, if not even earlier.

However, before we discuss that topic, let us look at another error for which it provides a perfect example, and one that is, sadly, not limited to the political left. That error is, quite simply, a failure to understand freedom, or at the very least, giving "freedom" a far too expansive definition. In this quote, for example, the argument is, in general terms, that a hungry man, by virtue of hunger, would be a "slave" to one with money, because of his hunger. This is nonsensical, as every one of us has either experienced, or known someone who has experienced, a period of impoverishment, of hard times and the like, yet in such circumstances we, and those we know, did not immediately jump at the first possibility of money, or turn to a life of crime, but rather continued to behave reasonably, just as we would were money not such a pressing requirement.

Sadly, this error has been perpetuated through a number of other foolish arguments. For example, we are told drug addicts are "slaves" to drugs, and thus not free. It sounds reasonable to some, I suppose, but is utter nonsense when one considers the huge numbers of ordinary people who have discontinued opiates and other "addictive" medications when they were no longer needed, without suddenly turning into criminals**.

I suppose it would help if we were to look at a more absurd example. For example, many claim there is an addiction to shopping, for example. Yet I doubt we would believe anyone was a slave to retail goods and had this sacrificed their freedom. And that is because, for the most part, we all have experience with shopping and cannot believe it could be truly addicting***. Many may find it so compelling they have trouble stopping, but that is not the same as lacking freedom. What makes arguments about drug use, or extreme poverty, more acceptable to many is that the experiences in question are much more remote, and people are willing to accept that they may make one unable to control himself. However, the experiences of many others, including myself, make it pretty clear that, whatever we might like to believe, human beings have a great deal of control over their choices, no matter the circumstances, with supposed "loss of control" most often being more a sign of giving up than any sort of overwhelming force taking them over.

But that is a matter for another, much longer essay. I simply mentioned it because it seemed a point that had to be raised before I moved on to the main subject matter, that being the confusion between so-called "economic power" and the very real power wielded by the state. It is an ancient mistake, confusing the two****, and is at the root of many of our most common mistaken beliefs, including the one embodied in this quote.

The first thing to understand is that the power held by politicians is, quite simply, the power to kill. We may say it is the power to use force, or to arrest, to restrain, to compel, or what have you, but in the end, all of those come down to the power to kill, as that is the logical outcome of trying to restrain, arrest or hold one who does not want to be restrained. Taxation, legislation, regulation, all of the other functions of government rest upon the basic foundation that, should you refuse to comply, the state can kill you. Yes, there will be intermediate steps using less dramatic force, but, in the end, if you refuse to pay your taxes, refuse to pay the fines, refuse to leave your repossessed house and then refuse to go to jail, eventually you will be met with physical, deadly force. And that is the bottom line of political power, it is the power to kill.

Economic power is nothing of the kind. In fact, I deny there is truly anything called economic power. In the end, what people imagine to be economic power is mere one individual having greater assets than another. However, this in no way gives on any power over the other. Granted, one may try to use those assets to persuade the other to do something, an employer may try to cajole an employee into some action, but in the end, the individual can always just say no, the wealthy, the employer, they have no other recourse. It is nothing akin to the state's ability to kill, once an attempt to persuade by bribery fails, that is the end of things.

Some will argue that employers, for example, do have some sort of power, as they can fire employees, which gives them some power over them. However, such arguments are rather weak. First, employees always have the option of seeking other work, and so the employer hardly has absolute power over them. Second, in firing employees for noneconomic causes, employers also harm themselves, by forcing out a known and productive employee in favor of seeking a replacement among a market of unknown quantities. (I will grant, thanks to unionization, inflation and other reasons, the employment market may be depressed and job hunting may prove more difficult, but at the same time, such conditions also making finding profitable employees risky as well, and thus, again, it will make arbitrary firing as hazardous for employers as employees.)

The other argument sometimes offered is that those with wealth have the ability to "buy" politicians, or at least to wield excessive political influence. However, that is not economic power, that is the consequence of badly assigning political power, of granting the state too much authority, and granting politicians the ability to exercise it arbitrarily. It is not any sort of "economic power", it is political power being used badly.

And that is why I would argue the whole quote is, in itself,. something of a fallacy. A hungry man, or a poor man, or an employed man, or any man, is of necessity free. His hunger does not in any way negate his freedom. He may have to make choices based upon that hunger, and it may influence his decisions, but that is true of all of us, something always colors our decisions, but that does not make us any less free. And that is why I have chosen this as my stupid quote of the day.


* See "Bad Economics Part 11", "The Basics", "Competition", "Greed Versus Evil", "Everyone Knows", "Deadly Cynicism" and "The Case for Small Government".

** Some have argued those in pain do not experience opiates as others do, but I can attest, though I was in considerable pain, I experienced terrible withdrawal the several times my neurologist decided I was using "too many" painkillers and discontinued them after several months of use. I cannot say whether I experienced the "high" those not in pain experience, but I definitely felt the full brunt of withdrawal a number of times. And though I did seek out another doctor to prescribe medication (because I was still in intense pain in addition to withdrawal), I did so through the ordinary legal channels, and did not turn to crime, or seek out street dealers, as the "slave to drugs" theory would suggest.

*** I know I am in the minority in my views on mental illness, but in this case I think several writers (eg Stanton Peele -- though he too is often criticized) make good arguments that we have begun to misuse the term "addiction", extending it far beyond those substances with a true physiological addiction, and have started to treat behaviors as diseases, with dreadful results. (Mostly that by telling people they are sick and cannot control themselves, we make them much less likely to even try, and also make it far more likely any small relapse will be seen as a catastrophe and result in a total return to their former behavior.) So I am reluctant to apply the term "addiction" to anything other than opiates, alcohol and a few other substances with a withdrawal syndrome. And even then, I do not believe it is impossible to overcome, just uncomfortable and difficult.

**** I suppose, at one time, there was even some justification, as under some systems, for example feudalism (if one ignores the various towns and cities with varying degrees of freedom, as well as the various smallholders, freeholders, and other free peasants), the entire economic structure, or at least considerable parts of it, was owned by those with political power, making wealth and political power synonymous. But in modern times, such situations are found more often in supposedly egalitarian communist states (where one's standard of living improves dramatically with political influence), rather than more libertarian/free market states, even if criticisms usually assume the opposite.



I know I have spoken in the past about how I have failed several times to stop smoking, which would seem to go against my argument that addictive substances are not impossible to overcome. However, I have two counter arguments. First, though several times I went through withdrawal involuntarily, I also did it once voluntarily. Before my condition appeared, I had some problems with my back. I used opiates for pain relief for about six months, until a series of injections made my pain go away. I was told I could slowly "taper down" my opiates, but decided I would rather be really sick for four or five days than a little sick for weeks, and so I went through withdrawal entirely voluntarily, and with the option open to me to obtain medication if I wished. Which brings me back to smoking. In truth, I think my inability to quit has less to do with addiction, and more to do with the fact that I just don't want to quit. From time to time social pressures, the inconveniences society forces upon smokers and all the rest will make me decide to give quitting a try, but after a short time, I realize I just don't feel that interested in stopping. And so, I believe my continued smoking is less a testament to the power of nicotine and more the result of my ambivalent feelings about quitting.

Stupid Quote of the Day (February 19 -- Delayed)

Today I am going to break with tradition and present a quote which, for a long time, was denigrated by the left as being utterly foolish, and later enjoyed a sort of rehabilitation by the right. I say this is a break with tradition because, while there are some obvious objections to taking it too literally, and even to some of the readings given by moderns who endorse it, it is, in many ways, correct.

Thus, allow me to present my first, part foolish, part correct quote:
What is good for General Motors is good for America.
As I said, for many years the left laughed at this quote as an overly simplistic, and wrong headed. It was laughed at as an endorsement of the worst policies imaginable, corporate welfare, opposition to labor reforms and so on.

In more recent times, the right has some what rehabilitated the quote, arguing that, in truth, there is nothing wrong with the government creating a business friendly environment, and that doing so may even be one of the more important functions of the state.

The problem is, the quote is actually both things at once. First, it is, as the right alleges, a pretty accurate description of an important realization, that those things that are good for the country as a whole, such as consistent laws, low taxes, stability, respect for contracts and the rest are the same things that are important for business. On the other hand, the worries of the left are also somewhat valid. If we read too much into the statement, it can easily be seen as a justification of the worst of protectionist and mercantilist nonsense, such as heavy tariffs, business subsidies and unequal treatment under the law. Thus, it is both truth and nonsense, depending upon how one reads it.

At first, I was tempted to argue that the problem is that the quote is written backwards, that the more correct formulation would be "what is good for America is good for General Motors", but that, while true, would also change the meaning dramatically. What is good for America certainly is good for GM, but that is not the same as saying what is good for GM is good for America.

No, I think part of the problem here is that we have a poor understanding of what is good for business. (Cf "Anti-Business Businesses", "The Basics", "Competition", "Greed Versus Evil") In many cases, the supposed benefit of protectionist or mercantilist programs is, even for the business temporarily aided, damaging in the long term. (In fact, one of the best examples may be GM itself, where a history of bailouts and aid resulted in a bloated, inefficient and largely failed business.) But then again, even in that case, it is not exactly true, as certain businesses,  for example the US sugar industry, would probably not exist without tariffs, and so, for specific business, I suppose intervention is essential, the problem being that the businesses themselves should not exist.

All of which helps point out why I selected this quote in the first place, because, depending on how one reads it, as well as which company one substitutes for GM (or which era of GM one chooses), the quote can be arguably an accurate statement of sound policy, or the greatest bit of nonsense ever.

Then again, this should come as no surprise. There is inevitably a problem when someone chooses a specific group to use as a proxy for individual citizens. Whether one is saying tracking the good to GM is good way to evaluate government policy, or that the government's treatment of the middle class -- or lower class, or any class -- is a good measure of its success, it tends to provide both insight and distortions. (See. "Envy Kills", "Envy Kills II", "Envy and Analogy" and "A Few Conservative Caricatures" for a few comments on the absurdity of government favoring the middle class over others, which apply equally well to any other class.)

The simple truth is, the best measure of the success of government is how equitably it treats each individual qua individual, and that the treatment is uniform from person to person. (Cf "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "Power and Disorder", "The Road to Violence", "Government by Emotion", "The Case for Small Government", "Simplicity and Freedom", "Arbitrary Choices", "Elective Government Versus Monarchy", "Chaotic Government", "Follow Up on 'Chaotic Government'") The various groups upon which we choose to focus, those we think the government should especially favor, tend to distort our perspective and lead to really absurd conclusions, especially when we take them too far, or narrow our focus a bit too much. (Cf "The Problem of the Small Picture")