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Archive for December 18th, 2008

A fortune teller in Montgomery county went to court to try and overturn a local ban on fortune telling. The fortune teller claimed his free speech rights were being hindered. The county claimed they were justified in having a law to prevent fraud.  The county won, as you might have expected (unlike in movies, the little guy usually loses in real life).

This case might seem like an intellectual riddle to some. Should we stop fraud or uphold free-speech? However, it really is quite simple. There is a fundamental difference between fortune telling and actual fraud. A guy who purports to sell milk but gives you coloured water (I believe this used to be common in India) or a pharmacist who sells you a different drug from the one you asked for is giving you something that you did not want and did not pay for. More precisely, the customer in those cases has a expectation, built upon unambigously laid out terms and well-defined history, of what he or she is supposed to receive — and this expectation is violated in an objective manner.

In fortune-telling on the other hand, the customer gets what he or she should expect to get. The product in this case exactly matches the average consumer’s reasonable understanding of it.

Suppose that in a hypothetical world where it is really possible to predict the future and lots of people do so successfully, I (in my current state of ignorance) decide to set up shop and represent myself as equivalent to those other real fortune tellers. Then I will be committing fraud, because I will be giving the customer an objectively different product than from what he asked for and had reason to expect. But in our world, the average customer knows what fortune telling entails. In fact many people who go to these tellers are there just for the fun of it. As Matt Bandyk puts it, “To say that the local government needs to `protect’  its citizens from the `fraud’ perpetrated by these businesses is giving the fortune tellers too much credit, and its customers too little credit. These customers know what they are getting into when they sit in front of the tarot cards or a crystal ball–if it makes them feel a little bit better, and a local business benefits, who is really being hurt in that exchange?”

If you still think fortune-telling should be outlawed by the government on grounds of fraud, consider that by the same expanded logic, all religious institutions are committing fraud. Do we really want to live in a world where the government has the power to decide the correctness of speech to this degree and ban your speech whenever it doesn’t meet their test?

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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If you wish to effectively advance liberty — yes the kind of liberty that I talk about in this blog — or just make a real difference to the life of someone in need, who should you donate to?

Check out this great list by Radley Balko. Liberty can thrive only if people who care enough about it do something, and surely a check of $25 or so won’t pinch you too much. Radley’s list include key libertarian organizations, charities that actually work and people who have been unjustly persecuted by the state.

Among the entities that Radley lists, I currently donate to Reason and the Institute for Justice; excellent organizations both. Once I stop being a poor grad student and get a real job (hopefully in six months or so), I hope to significantly expand my giving for liberty. But those of you reading with a real job already, you really have no excuse ;-)

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