Archive for November, 2008

The terrorists killed over a hundred innocent people yesterday. This wasn’t an act that took place in some distant part of the world. It happened in a city I care about, one that I have spent four summers in and where many of my friends live or have family. The attack was astounding in its scope and daring — no suicide bombers this time around but machine gun wielding militants taking hostages in posh hotels. The country is outraged and for good reason.

Yet, and yet. This is just a small thing compared to what could and looks likely to happen now. There are calls for much tougher anti-terrorism laws, possibly more draconian than what the US introduced after 9/11. In a poll conducted today by an Indian newspaper, 95% supported such measures. If laws like these are passed, the Indian police will relish in using them. Thousands of people will be rounded up on mere suspicion, many of those unrelated to terror. Some will be locked up for months, perhaps years. Phones will be tapped, due process suspended. You are thinking, all of that won’t happen to me. And you may be right, but rest assured that it will happen to many people just like you. It is when this atmosphere of panic and police-statism takes over our nation that the terrorists will have truly won this one.

QI hits the nail on the head:

The easiest reaction in a situation like this is to call for tougher laws, all of which aim to circumvent the adherence to due process. Due process anyway gets short shrift here in India, and do we really want to legitimise that? […]Shouldn’t better investigation, more co-ordination and better training be looked at first, instead of giving the police arbitrary powers to harass citizens? […] I am just terrified by the knowledge that by bringing in such laws, we have pretty much capitulated to terrorism – their objective of destroying the civil and democratic fabric of India will have been achieved. And contrary to what people feel, these won’t be effective deterrents. Simply because, in my mind, they do not address the root of the problems plaguing our law-enforcement esablishments.

He is right. The Indian police and intelligence agencies suffer from severe deficiencies. They need to be revamped. There needs to be better training, coordination and other changes. But these will have to smart changes. We don’t need knee-jerk reactions here. The deterrence value of laws that suspend due process is small and costs to essential freedoms huge. The Indian establishment could do much worse than read Bruce Shneier’s excellent blog on security measures to get some pointers.

A heavy handed law that curtails civil liberties will be a tragedy far greater than any terror attack. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We should keep this in mind and fight to preserve the intangible things that are truly valuable, even as we take measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

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I could give many (true) reasons for the lack of substantial posts over the last eight days or so: I have been travelling, I have been applying for postdoc jobs, I have been very busy otherwise. But why bother explaining myself when I can point to blogging without obligation?

(Hat Tip: A commenter in QI’s blog)

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Click here to read an updated version of Atlas Shrugged in light of the current financial crisis..

(Hat Tip: Marginal Revolution)

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Barack Obama’s economics appointees have been great so far. Indeed, from my viewpoint, they represent the very best of the realistic possibilities. The triumvirate of Geithner, Summers and Romer are all qualified, smart, have an excellent grasp of the issues and most significantly, none of them subscribe to the kind of protectionist, far-left ideology that Obama has espoused in his campaign rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, these ‘centrist’ tendencies are not pleasing the far left. Here’s Chris Hayes writing in the Nation:

Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care. And I don’t just mean in that in a sectarian way. I mean to say that the emerging establishment consensus on all of these issues came from the left. There’s tons of things the left is right about that aren’t even close to mainstream (taking a hatchet to the national security state and ending the prison industrial complex to name just two), but hopefully we’re moving there.

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I wrote a short story (“Middling”) sometime in early 2002 (or late 2001?) that I remember not being particularly pleased with. It was one of many results of a period when I tried my hand at fiction and poetry; doesn’t everyone go through such a phase? But anyway, I think it was a bad story. So I was really surprised yesterday when an old friend (let’s call him T) who had read the thing back then, mentioned it to me saying he had found it beautiful. “One of the most relevant to the human condition stories I have ever read”, were his words.

This prompted me to take a second look at it, and alas, I do not agree with his assessment. Middling strikes me as cliched in content as well as poorly written — corny is the word — and if I ever publish a collection of my writings it will not be included. Nonetheless, T’s reaction suggests that at least some people might think of it somewhat more highly than I do, so here it is. I made some minor edits but it is essentially the same as the version I wrote seven years ago.


Mahesh Rao smiled.

It wasn’t a simple everyday smile of the kind we see in people around us everyday. It was a smile that was an odd mixture of defeat, irony, self-derision and triumph. An observer would probably have mistaken it for a peculiar frown.

Softly, he muttered to himself, “Your time has come.”

All his life he had never excelled in anything except at being middling. He always got middling marks in school, he was middling in all the games he played, he wore middling clothes and he lived with his typically middle-class parents in an unremarkable part of the town where the sun seemed to rise and set at the same times each day. He couldn’t remember a single field in which his accomplishments could be described as good or bad. It was always middling.

All through school, his teachers had predicted that he would definitely fail that year. He had proved them wrong each time by always passing, albeit by a slender margin. Sometimes he felt it would have been better if he had failed…

“But how could I fail? I am not a person who fails or succeeds! I am just middling!” Mahesh abruptly realized that his thoughts had broken free of the shackles of his brain and he was screaming at the top of his voice; he shut up as suddenly as he had begun.

He needn’t have. Standing alone at the top of Majestic Tower, the tallest structure in the city, there was not the slightest chance that anyone could have heard his outburst.

But why? Why did everyone have to be good? Was there no chance in this world for the mediocre? He wasn’t born a genius. It wasn’t his fault that he was middling. Why should he denied the happiness, the success that everyone else seemed to have? Of course, he was allowed to succeed. But it didn’t make a difference. He was, after all, middling. But so what? That’s the way the world worked. But why? Why not? Why? He wasn’t talented! So? Why should only excellence be rewarded? To hell with the outstanding! What did he, Mahesh Rao, lack that the smart rich kid who stole his love have? And even if that smart kid had something he didn’t have, why should that matter? Excellence be damned! And why was he called Mahesh Rao? Why not Mahesh Sakzo? Or Huyrn Rao? Why such a commonplace name like Mahesh Rao?

Because you are middling, you fool, he told himself wearily.

He was weary. But then he had been so for almost as long as he could remember. Weary of being average. Weary of his inability to say with regard to anything, “Yes, I am good.” Weary of his firm belief that he would never be able to say it. Weary of the fact that he was never particularly happy or deeply sad. Weary of the sameness that he felt all around him and above all in himself. Weary of all the comparisons and realisations. Weary of every second of the 17 years he had spent on earth. Weary of life…

But not for much longer, he thought.

There was once, and only once, when for a short time he felt that he wasn’t middling. That was when he had loved Sheetal, the most beautiful and the most intelligent girl he had ever met. He had risen above his mediocre self and wooed her in style. He had spoken to her in the most charming manner he could imagine He had tried to make her feel like a princess.

He still remembered the shrill, cruel laughter with which she had rejected his proposal. Shrill and cruel as the jagged edge of a piece of glass. Or a piece of rock maybe? He wasn’t sure.

Sheetal had ever since been in a ‘steady’ relationship with Vikram, Mahesh’s classmate. Of course, Vikram and Mahesh were as different as chalk and cheese. Vikram was the first boy in class. He excelled in every sport. His father was one of the richest men in town. He was anything but middling. So it wasn’t too surprising that Sheetal preferred Vikram to him.

Yet that rejection had hit Mahesh harder than anything else in his middling life. He sometimes wondered why. Was it because he had tried his hardest, played all his cards and yet failed to succeed?

Since then he had planned for this day. The day that would prove that even an ordinary, middling boy could do something extraordinary. He had played his cards well this time. Considering that Majestic Tower was 25 stories high, he couldn’t see the slightest chance of failing. And he had also arranged for sufficient publicity. All his friends, the police, the media and even the local politician knew by now what he planned to do. He could already see the huge crowd building up under the tower.

In his mind’s eye he could see the next day’s newspaper headline. ‘An ordinary person commits an extraordinary suicide’. Or maybe, ‘Middling in life, but not in death’. Wow, what publicity he would get the next day! Maybe they would even organise a gala funeral for him! Or a grand dinner maybe. Where everyone would remember him and shed tears. Why, even Sheetal might be there! He would be the toast of the town. After all, who had ever heard of a middling youth jumping from the tallest tower in town in full view of a television crew and half the local population? A middling person was expected to die in an ordinary manner. Not like this, he thought triumphantly.

He stepped over the railing and on the thin slab that separated the terrace from nothingness. He still held onto the railing by one hand. He leaned forward so that his hand supported his entire weight. He now only needed to let go, and…

Yes, now was the time. He could see the television crew, the scurrying policemen and the vast crowd watching him in dreaded anticipation. They would be watching him succeed. He prepared to let go.

He could hear a faint voice from below. It was that of his mother. She was pleading with him not to jump. For a moment he wavered. Then he steeled himself. No ma, don’t stop me now. For once I am going to succeed. I am going to succeed this time, dear mother. I promise you, I won’t fail, he whispered to no one in particular.

He let go of the railing…

When he opened his eyes, he was on a long white bed. Everything around him seemed to be a blur. Then as his senses cleared a bit, he could hear voices around him. “Brave fellow, risked his life to save this idiot…” “Caught him just as he dived…” “Have you heard, the police have announced a reward for Vikram Agarwal!” He could also see Vikram standing a short distance away, the toast of the town.

He closed his eyes again. He had failed, after all.

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A professor at UC Irvine refuses to take sexual harassment sensitivity classes. Here’s why:

First of all, I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ, primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

What’s more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of the insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do it for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/cultural interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don’t particularly agree with.

The imposition of training that has a political cast violates my academic freedom and my rights as a tenured professor. The university has already nullified my right to supervise my laboratory and the students I teach. It has threatened my livelihood and, ultimately, my position at the university. This for failing to submit to mock training in sexual harassment, a requirement that was never a condition of my employment at the University of California 30 years ago, nor when I came to UCI 11 years ago.

I also found this bit interesting:

I am not normally confrontational, so I sought to find a means to resolve the conflict. I proposed the following: I would take the training if the university would provide me with a brief, written statement absolving me of any suspicion, guilt or complicity regarding sexual harassment. I wanted any possible stigma removed. “Fulfilling this requirement,” said the statement I asked them to approve, “in no way implies, suggests or indicates that the university currently has any reason to believe that Professor McPherson has ever sexually harassed any student or any person under his supervision during his 30-year career with the University of California.”

The university, however, declined to provide me with any such statement.

(Hat Tip: Instapundit)

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It is a sign of how far anti-discrimination laws have gone when a dating website is sued for not including homosexuals in the matchmaking service. I completely agree with Jacob Sullum:

In a settlement with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, the online dating service eHarmony, until now limited to heterosexuals, has agreed to start matching men with men and women with women. The deal resolves a complaint by a gay man who claimed that eHarmony’s failure to accommodate homosexuals violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

[…] I’ve never bought the argument that gay marriage—i.e., the government’s evenhanded recognition of relationships between couples, without regard to sexual orientation—is a way of forcing “the gay agenda” onto people who object to it. But this coerced agreement, compelling a private business to provide a service it did not want to provide, certainly is. As Michelle Malkin notes, “this case is akin to a meat-eater suing a vegetarian restaurant for not offering him a ribeye or a female patient suing a vasectomy doctor for not providing her hysterectomy services.”

Also read this old article by Jason Dixon.

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Sometimes, Tyler Cowen is in a class of his own.

Via Angus (and do read his snark on TFP), here is Paul Samuelson:

Libertarians are not just bad emotional cripples. They are also bad advice givers.

[…] When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent.  Because, indeed, that is how one’s brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind.  As you are reading, think “Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!”

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Britain, where prostitution is now legal, wants to turn back the clock and criminalize it again. And like the Swedish, they have taken a bizarre but politically correct position — it will now be illegal to pay for sex but legal to sell it.

As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it:

Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing.

Never mind the fact that you are preventing consenting adults from engaging in an activity that should be no one else’s business.

Smith’s statement also implicitly accepts the proposition that if something is ‘good’, the government ought to force it by law. This assumption is sadly, rather widespread, and goes to the heart of my post from yesterday. The basic premise of libertarianism is that while there may be various levels of ‘badness’, most of them do not qualify for state censorship. The personal is not the political. The moral is not the legal.

It’s funny how governments worldwide share a common disregard for individual liberty and a collective disrespect for reason in their glorious lumping together of the illegal, the immoral, the bad, the unpopular, the merely unpleasant and the illogical. Or maybe it is not so funny.

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Radley Balko has some unsolicited — and thoughtful — advice for the new president elect.

Even if Barack does just one (any one) of the things Radley suggests, it will be wonderful.

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And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.


That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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I would not be doing my job as a libertarian blogger if I did not link to the blog war between Todd Seavey on the one hand and Kerry Howley/Will Wilkinson on the other (with minor roles played by Helen Rittelmeyer and Julian Sanchez). The best link (in the sense that it points to almost all the other relevant links) is the post by Todd above; navigate from there! Keep in mind that all the characters in the fight are multiply related — not only are they all writers for Reason magazine but there is a complex boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-boyfriend web that connects them — as Todd triumphantly describes. Enjoy!

I will not take sides except to say that in their own ways, both Todd and Kerry are right. Todd is right in what the political or legislative aspect of libertarianism ought to concern itself with. State coercion is fundamentally different from social coercion, maximizing negative liberties is the correct political prescription, property rights do lie at the heart of freedom.

Let me be clear — I am not dismissing the importance of positive liberty. However, demands that too much positive liberty be provided by the state invariably leads to authoritarianism, as history has shown again and again. Moreover, the curtailment of your basic property and personal rights, in a purely moral sense, is in a different plane from not being able to make the most of your life. If anything, this distinction between negative and positive liberty (and between state and social coercion) is the essence of libertarianism.

But Kerry is also right that situations exist that do not involve state coercion but nonetheless are liberty-restricting, at least in the way the term ‘liberty’ is commonly used. The question is what is the right way to address these problems. If Kerry believes the correct way is through voluntary, social means, then I am completely with her. If, on the other hand, she thinks that the law should step in, then I agree with Todd that her views are incompatible with libertarianism.

As for Will Wilkinson, I do not quite know what to make of him. He is obviously very smart. He has written gloriously intelligent posts in the past — like this one — that are logically and intellectually perfect. He has, on multiple occasions, authored passionate defences of libertarianism such as this post from only a few weeks back. He has also written sentences like this:

[If libertarianism is the view] that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian.

which convince me that in his moral core he is not a libertarian but a liberal; it is only his impeccable analysis that so often lead him to libertarian solutions. I guess I’ll still take the bargain!

All this of course, reminds me of this gem of an anecdote by Milton Friedman:

I particularly recall a discussion [by a group of libertarian economists] on this issue, in the middle of which Ludwig Von Mises stood up, announded to the assembly “You are all a bunch of socialists”, and stormed out of the group.

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Musical bliss

I received the 100 Best Opera Classics in the mail today!

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There is still no cure for AIDS, but science has come a long way towards controlling it. Antiretroviral therapy has progressed so much in the last two decades that, according to current reports, a person who started taking the drugs at age 20 will on average live another 43 years.

And we can expect the science to keep getting better. Thus, a man in his 20’s who gets infected with HIV today can probably expect to live — by a conservative estimate — to his 70’s. That’s a remarkable state of affairs for a disease that only a decade ago was equated with a death sentence.

Of course, I still recommend that you use condoms when there is no intent to procreate!

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A post over at the Art of The Possible asking for libertarian perspectives on blackmail law morphs into an interesting discussion on private property, coercion, reputation and related philosophical issues.

I have detailed my position on blackmail law and related issues in the comment thread linked above, so I will not expound on it here. However there is one sentence from one of the comments that is worth repeating, especially for the benefit of non-libertarians:

[a]n insight that appears elsewhere in libertarian thinking (e.g. prostitution), namely that it shouldn’t be illegal to sell what one can legally give away for free.

This is of course, standard fare for libertarians, as it follows directly from the non-aggression principle. Nonetheless, I think it is an important insight that deserves to be highlighted separately because it clarifies the libertarian position on a lot of issues (blackmail, prostitution, minimum wage, social gambling vs for-profit gambling)  and applies to a great many situations in a more obvious manner than the NAP does.

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