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Archive for October, 2008

Eugene Volokh has a thoughtful post about the matter. There’s not much I need to add. A sad day for freedom.

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Via a post by Althouse, I was alerted to this recent Richard Dawkins quote about children reading Harry Potter and other fantasy fiction:

I think it is is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know…

I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious [e]ffect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.

In fact, Dawkins goes further than simply advocating that children should not read Harry Potter. He thinks identifying children by their religion or even teaching them your religious views, is child abuse:

Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child – that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality [...]

It’s a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn’t want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it’s as bad as many forms of physical abuse.

It is worth noting that Dawkins also once advocated that legal action be taken against astrologers under trade laws.

Now, I am an atheist. However, on the Harry Potter issue, I am more inclined to agree with the Althouse commenter who writes:

Does he have kids? Does he remember being a kid? Does he approve of the way our culture infantilizes children through and beyond the age of 18?

To which I could add some more — does he understand freedom? Imagination? The simple fact that indulgence in fantasy is a necessary component of growing up?

Also, I am disturbed by his tendency to impose rationalism via coercion. For a very personal take on coercion vs science, read this old entry of mine.

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I am not an American citizen and hence not eligible to vote. If I did though, I’d vote for Bob Barr.

Yes, that Bob Barr. The guy who authored the insidious “Defence of marriage Act”. A former drug warrior extraordinaire.  Socially conservative ex-Republican.

And the Libertarian candidate for President.

Suffice it to say that Barr is the real deal. There are many who have always stayed — by luck, circumstance or vision — on the correct side. This post is not meant to dishonour them but to praise Barr. For he is a man who actually saw the error of his ways. He didn’t start off libertarian but was won over by the power and reason within our ideas.

The Libertarians were responsible for Barr’s loss in 2002, when he was a Republican running for Congress. They opposed him because of his stand against medical marijuana (one of the many positions that he has reversed since). That loss and disillusionment with increasing government power under Bush caused Bob Barr to look hard at some of his basic political stances. Here is what Barr said during the Libertarian convention:

Well, let me tell you: I have made mistakes. But the only way you make mistakes, the only way you get things done, is by getting out there in the arena and making those mistakes, and then realizing, as things go on, the mistakes that you’ve made. And I apologize for that.

Cynics may say Barr is a hypocrite. I have watched countless interviews of his and here’s what I think. He is the real deal.

Reason Magazine has a wonderful feature on Bob Barr, read it if you wish to know more about the man.

If you care about individual liberty and are eligible to cast a ballot on November 4, please go out and do so for Barr. Why waste my vote, I hear some say. My answer is, you won’t. I fact, voting for the Barr is your best shot at not wasting your vote.

Yes, Barr is a third party candidate. He won’t win. But it is important to make a statement. The libertarians need more votes to make their voice heard. And here’s the deal, the outcome of the election is no longer in doubt. Barack Obama is going to be the next president however you vote. But — bigger shares by the third parties are essential to break the stranglehold of the big two. A substantial Libertarian total will perhaps make those guys take us more seriously, for purely selfish reasons of course. And libertarians who vote for Barr will be voting for the person closest to their beliefs. If you prefer Obama over McCain, like I do, and would like to ensure that the Republicans lose, consider this: Obama has a healthy 6 to 7 point cushion currently. He won’t lose even if all Obama supporting libertarians pull the plug for Barr. In particular, if you live in a non-swing state, there is absolutely no reason to add to Obama’s totals. So please consider voting for Barr.

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From the Fox report:

Lawyers for the pop princess asked that the temporary co-conservatorship (which was due to end on Dec. 31) be made permanent on Tuesday afternoon and Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Riva Goetz granted the request.

Britney’s father Jamie will now have long-term control over her assets, estate and business affairs and Spears’s mental health will be closely monitored by a team of experts. The order will remain in tact until the 26-year-old has made a full and stable recovery.

Well, she doesn’t seem to mind it very much. Recently, she credited her father with saving her life.

“I’ve met several times with (Britney) and she requested that I not object to the permanent conservatorship,” her court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, said in court.

It just strikes me that I would never accept such a situation, whatever my mental or physical state. If I am placed in a conservatorship against my will or involuntarily committed, I would fight to overturn it with everything I have. And…if I fail to do so, I would kill myself as well as the person primarily responsible for my incarceration (yes, I am serious).

But hey, that’s just me! Everyone’s different — so good for Britney.

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“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality”

- Dante Alighieri

[Edit: A reader points out that this quote is actually due to JFK, who (incorrectly) attributed it to Dante]

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Charles Krauthammer in October, 2006:

When just a week ago Barack Obama showed a bit of ankle and declared the mere possibility of his running for the presidency, the chattering classes swooned. Now that every columnist in the country has given him advice, here’s mine: He should run in ’08. He will lose in ’08.

And the loss will put him irrevocably on a path to the presidency. Obama’s political challenge is to turn his current fame and sizzle, which will undoubtedly dissipate, into something concrete. In physics, it’s the problem of converting kinetic energy into potential energy: Use the rocket fuel behind his current popularity to propel him to a higher national plane from which he would eventually move almost laterally to the presidency.

[...] In any circumstance, it is fairly audacious for any freshman senator to even think of the presidency. When freshman Sen. John F. Kennedy began his preparation for 1956, he was really seeking the vice presidency. And, unlike Obama, he had already served three terms in the House, which in turn had followed a celebrated military tour in the Pacific in World War II.

In 1956, Kennedy was preparing for a serious presidential run in 1960.

Obama should be thinking ahead as well — using ’08 to cure his problem of inexperience. Run for the Democratic nomination and lose. He only has to do reasonably well in the primaries to become such a compelling national figure as to be invited onto the ticket as vice presidential nominee.

[...] He’s a young man with a future. But the future recedes. He needs to run now. And lose. And win by losing.

Now that Krauthammer’s unlikeliest nightmare is about to come true, his columns contain less prediction and more valiant captainship.

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Three New York policemen gang-rape a man with a walkie-talkie antenna, for, you guessed it, smoking some pot.

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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I am out of town for the next three days. So there will probably be no posts till Sunday night.

Have a nice weekend.

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Pandagon has a post criticizing libertarianism, and it has generated an enormous number of similarly veined comments. Most of them are inane but some of them are surprisingly well written (that is not to say I agree with them).

Why am I linking to this? Well, there’s too much of an echo chamber going around these days and it is not entirely healthy. I think that it is both fun and necessary to spend a little time on the other side and check out your opponents’ opinions, biases and misconceptions. It helps, really.

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There are at least two good reasons why libertarians should not be supporting McCain this election.

One of those is fairly straightforward: Obama is better. I have written several posts in the past elaborating on this point. To put it briefly, Obama is no libertarian, not even close, but on some of the most important issues facing us — foreign policy, civil liberties, war on drugs, thwarting the Christianist agenda — he is better than McCain. Even on the economy, where libertarians usually agree with the conservatives, I’d go with Obama — McCain has been an erratic, populist, nightmare.

The second issue is one that I have not posted on as often but it is as important, if not more. The libertarians and the country need to teach the Republicans a lesson. The party of Goldwater and Reagan — once a friend to so many libertarian principles — is in its present avatar a populist, dogmatic, anti-intellectual, collectivist nightmare.

No one has expressed this second viewpoint more eloquently than Radley Balko. In a recent article, published at Fox and Reason, he writes:

While I’m not thrilled at the prospect of an Obama administration (especially with a friendly Congress), the Republicans still need to get their clocks cleaned in two weeks, for a couple of reasons.

First, they had their shot at holding power, and they failed. They’ve failed in staying true to their principles of limited government and free markets. They’ve failed in preventing elected leaders of their party from becoming corrupted by the trappings of power, and they’ve failed to hold those leaders accountable after the fact. Congressional Republicans failed to rein in the Bush administration’s naked bid to vastly expand the power of the presidency (a failure they’re going to come to regret should Obama take office in January). They failed to apply due scrutiny and skepticism to the administration’s claims before undertaking Congress’ most solemn task—sending the nation to war. I could go on.

[...] A humiliated, decimated GOP that rejuvenates and rebuilds around the principles of limited government, free markets, and rugged individualism is really the only chance for voters to possibly get a real choice in federal elections down the road.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that’s how the party will emerge from defeat. But the Republican Party in its current form has forfeited its right to govern.

Here’s the whole article.

And while I am at it,  if you are an eligible voter and a friend to individual freedom, do consider voting for Bob Barr. I’ll post more on Barr in the future, but suffice it to say that he is the real deal — a man who was won over by the power of libertarian ideas. He is an intelligent and experienced politician and his conversion to libertarianism — from every piece of evidence I have seen — is a genuine one. So do consider him,  especially if you live in a non-swing state.

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David Bernstein has a fine post where he explains the perils of having ‘reasonable restriction on free speech’ such as hate speech laws:

When I was in law school, advocates of weakening First Amendment protections to restrict “hate speech” pointed to Canada as a shining example of how egregious expression could be banned without threatening freedom of speech more generally. At the time, the Canadian Supreme Court was holding that Holocaust denial and violent, misogynistic pornography are not protected under Canadian constiutitional law. And, really, who wants to defend Holocaust denial and violent pornography? Yet, less than twenty year later, we have Canadian citizens being prosecuted for quoting biblical injunctions against homosexual activity, or for merely reprinting the Danish Mohammed cartoons. (For the latest outrage, see here, courtesy of Instapundit). So the Canadian example hasn’t quite worked out as its prior advocates had anticipated. Instead of being an example of “reasonable” restrictions on freedom of expression, it has become an example of the slippery slope problems inherent in allowing restrictions on freedom of expression based on subjective views of what is sufficiently offensive or problematic to be banned.

I have pointed out the same thing in several old posts. And even leaving aside the slippery-slope argument, there is something fundamentally immoral about censoring someone’s opinions because it is distasteful.

Bernstein’s post also goes into other issues, such as the intrinsic arbitrariness of tribunals that end up enforcing such laws. Read the whole thing.

By now, the most important truth ought to be obvious to all — freedom of speech needs to be absolute in order to mean anything. Thus one cannot have a thing such as a “right to never have your feelings hurt”.

Unfortunately, as Orwell famously said, to see what is one front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

So I repeat myself, ad nauseum, for that is all I can do really.

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My car radio is usually tuned to FM 91.5, better known as classical KUSC. The channel plays beautiful classical music, but because they are listener supported, every three months they go on donation overdrive.

So, I was listening to them go on and on about how I should help keep the music going, and that if I pledge $180, that is $15/month to them for a year, I would receive a 6 CD collection of the 100 best Opera classics.

Don’t get me wrong — I love KUSC and I totally appreciate the fact that they need the support of those who listen to them. However, I really prefer their music to recitals of their phone number, repeated ad nauseum.

They must have realized what I was thinking, for they started playing songs from the promised 6 CD collection. In particular, they played this miracle.

Who said music can’t move you? To cut a long story short, I am now a donor and waiting for my promised CDs to show up.

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In an article published at Newsweek and Slate, Jacob Weisberg says the current crisis proves that “[libertarianism] makes no sense”. In fact he goes further than that:

Like other ideologues, libertarians react to the world’s failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong. Their heroic view of capitalism makes it difficult for them to accept that markets can be irrational, misunderstand risk, and misallocate resources or that financial systems without vigorous government oversight and the capacity for pragmatic intervention constitute a recipe for disaster. They are bankrupt, and this time, there will be no bailout.

Just In case you did not get his point, the article is titled “The end of libertarianism”.

The libertarian response has been swift and predictable. The Washington Post has an editorial today that makes several nice points:

The problem with the U.S. economy, more than lack of regulation, has been government’s failure to control systemic risks that government itself helped to create. We are not witnessing a crisis of the free market but a crisis of distorted markets.

[...] Government must be more selective about manipulating markets; over the long term, business works best when it is subject to market discipline alone. In those cases — and there will and should be some — in which government intervenes on behalf of social goals, its support must be counterbalanced with taxpayer protections and regulation. Government-sponsored, upside-only capitalism is the kind that’s in crisis today, and we say: Good riddance.

Meanwhile Matt Welch over at Reason points out that the rational approach is to weigh things against the alternative:

I just think that, all things being equal, capitalism is vastly superior to socialism, government is by definition inefficient, and would be much better off focused on essential tasks, rather than, say, nationalizing hundred-billion-dollar chunks of the mortgage industry, or trying to guarantee that asset prices never depreciate. In my world, at least, not all regulation is automatically evil, just ripe for being gamed by the very interests being regulated, and so better when pruned back.

Ilya Somin’s rebuttal at Volokh has several nice points, including this one, which seems to echo Welch:

No ideology can be judged solely by its performance in one particular crisis. Any set of policies is imperfect and therefore may provide flawed answers in a particular situation. Here is where Weisberg’s analogy with communism circa 1989 breaks down. The problem with communism was not that communists had handled some one isolated crisis poorly. It is that communism’s overall record over many decades was one of repression, mass murder, and economic decline – all with few or no offsetting benefits. Economic liberalization over the last several decades, by contrast, has lifted millions out of poverty around the world and greatly increased both personal freedom and standards of living. As Gary Becker points out, the period of economic liberalization in the twenty years or so prior to Bush’s “big government conservatism” saw enormous economic gains. He suggests that if today’s crisis were indeed an inevitable result of that liberalization, the overall balance sheet (25 years of massive progress vs. 2-3 years of painful recession) might be worth it.

Others, such as Cato’s Brink Lindsey have taken Weisberg to task for his simplistic analysis:

So serious people will be debating what triggered the current crisis for a long time to come. I’ve been reading voraciously in recent weeks, trying to get some handle on what’s going on, and I can tell you that there is nothing like a consensus among scholars yet — and certainly not a consensus in favor of some simple, monocausal explanation.

With regard to government interventionism as a cause of the crisis, Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison have marshalled strong evidence that Fannie and Freddie played a major role in inflating the real estate bubble. Despite the fact that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about financial markets than Weisberg will ever know, Weisberg dismisses their analysis as not only wrong, but risible.

Here’s what I think, at least at this point. I think the whole system failed. Without a doubt, private actors succumbed to bubble psychology and perverse incentives, and their risk-taking grew increasingly reckless. Yet Weisberg’s simplistic morality tale that good prudent liberals were foiled by go-go free-marketeers doesn’t come close to mapping reality accurately. When exactly did Democrats try to arrest and reverse the steady relaxation of lending standards? When did they try to rein in the GSEs? Meanwhile, European banks are being battered by this crisis as well. Does anybody really think that European financial regulators are closet libertarians?

Aristotle The Geek, on the other hand, says that utilitarian apologies for libertarianism are self-defeating — liberty must be defended on purely moral grounds:

I dislike (hate is a better word) utilitarianism and utilitarian defenses of liberty. Since a lot of liberals and weak kneed capitalists defended capitalism on utilitarian grounds and went on about how capitalism and free markets were good because they raised standards of living, brought about competition, etc, instead of saying that free markets are right because they are free, because freedom is right, because freedom is moral, these “defenders” find themselves unable to answer criticisms regarding “market failure”. Blaming bad laws and excessive regulation, though these are to blame, does not cut it.

I will not go into a detailed analysis on why the libertarians are right and Weisberg is wrong (or at least dishonest). The question I want to address in this post is of a different flavor:

What do Weisberg’s article and its libertarian rebuttals achieve?

Here’s my radical suggestion: They achieve nothing.

There are some features that are common to every article — by both sides — on this topic I have seen. They cherry-pick facts. They deflate the opponent’s views and inflate their own. Every sentence is intended to further their own cause. In short, they counter, not analyze.

I am not saying that both sides are wrong. I do happen to think my side has the better arguments. In sum though, we are approaching this whole issue as if it were a debate.

Now there is nothing wrong with a debate. The problem though is that we have seen all these points many many times. None of the articles I have quoted above contain any fundamentally new points of view. Basically, there has appeared a flood of arguments since this crisis started but little attempt at unbiased analysis. We are all guilty of this extreme partisanship — yes, I am too.

It’s like we are stuck in different ideological echo-chambers. And there are intelligent people on both sides. And you know what, none of them are changing their minds. Weisberg’s article is not going to convince anyone who is not already on his side. And the libertarians aren’t going to win any Weisberg types — or even any moderately liberal types — over with their responses.

So here’s my humble suggestion to everyone. Analyze rather than attack. It will be difficult, especially when you think that the other side is spouting nonsense. But bite the bullet and address your opponent’s strongest arguments. Do so logically, unbiasedly. Take the best arguments from both sides — if you feel the other side isn’t making its point correctly, try to help them — and the most accurate data available to you and reason as if there was nothing at stake, except rigor and accuracy. Get beyond bumper-sticker sloguns and into details. Ultimately your ideas and arguments must stand on their own. Do not be afraid of the possibility that they may lose, at least temporarily.

There is a word for this approach. It is called intellectual honesty. And it is our best bet at conversion.

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“Many philosophers of the present day are convinced that every existing thing and event is logically unconnected with any other and could disappear from the world without necessarily affecting anything else. Such a rubbish-heap view of the world I cannot accept.”

Brand Blanshard.

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Milton Friedman, Nobel prize winning economist  — and one of my personal idols — was among the most influential libertarian thinkers of the last century. Friedman was primarily a consequentialist, meaning he advocated libertarian policies based on the fact that they work better. Such an approach has the great advantage of political effectiveness. If you can demonstrate that greater freedom also leads to better economic results — better solutions to the Roti, Kapra aur Makaan issues — you will have a much easier time swaying the public to your point of view.

However there were some issues were Friedman advocated for liberty on purely moral grounds. The video below — one of Friedman’s last interviews — is a wonderful example:

This is not to say that there is no consequentialist argument for drug legalization — on the contrary, it is perhaps the finest candidate for such analysis. Hell, even Barack Obama accepts that the war on drugs has been an utter failure. The reason, I think, that Friedman took the moral path here is that some things are just too fundamental to leave to utilitarian analysis. They are worth fighting for their own sake, discounting everything else, for they go to the heart of human existence.

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