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Archive for January, 2009

Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.

[…]

Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.

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From his latest column:

[W]rite off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

I cannot make any sense of this purported analogy. Even ignoring the ridiculous comparison that glosses over distinctions between regulating commons and regulating private property, it seems that Krugman believes that if the government did not provide something, then it simply would not exist.

Here’s Nick Gillespie’s post on Krugman’s stimulus arguments.

Krugman is right about one thing though; there are both good and bad faith arguments going on about the economic crisis. I will let the reader decide which category Krugman’s column falls in.

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The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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Ashutosh points me to this fine article by Atul Gawande on healthcare reform in the US. While the overall viewpoint of the author is pragmatic liberal, the emphasis is definitely on the pragmatic — indeed, his insistence on the value of building upon existing institutions rather than attempting a drastic overhaul gives the piece a slightly Burkean conservative flavor. In any case, it is an article worth checking out, even if you, like me, don’t agree with much of what he says.

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TOI is a haven for extraordinary writing but today they have surpassed themselves. Have a look at this piece, titled “Have a heart.” It begins:

Manmohan Singh’s sternest critics will not deny that the prime minister is, if nothing else, all heart. And, regrettably, that heart is in trouble.

What eloquence, what depth of feeling. I wish I could write with half as much heart.

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I am a long time reader of Radley Balko’s outstanding blog, The Agitator, and I have seldom seen him this jubilant.

From yesterday’s post:

Credit where it’s due: Well done, Mr. Obama. I’m sure we’ll have our differences, but afer your first 40+ hours on the job, this libertarian couldn’t be happier.

The tally:

  • Obama rescinded Bush’s 2001 executive order allowing former presidents, vice presidents, and their heirs to claim executive privilege in determining which of their records get released to the public. Even better, he’s requiring the signature of both his White House counsel and the attorney general before he can classify a document under executive privilege.
  • Issued a memorandum to all executive agencies asking them to come up with a new plan for open government and complying with FOIA requests. […]
  • Put a freeze on the salaries of top White House aides.
  • Suspended the military trials at Gitmo, and is expected to issue an order closing Gitmo as soon as today.
  • Said this:

    “For a long time now there has been too much secrecy in this city.  […] The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and holding it accountable. I expect my administration not only to live up to the letter but the spirit of this law.”

  • Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

    That’s something even a cynic like me can celebrate.

    And today:

    Rock ‘n’ Roll:

    President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. […]Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

    It’s worth emphasizing again here these steps Obama’s taking effectively limit his own power. That’s extraordinary.

    […]

    In that regard, if I may borrow a phrase: mission accomplished.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say mission accomplished. But these are certainly very important steps and ones that libertarians ought to applaud the president for. 

    I have criticized Obama on several occasions on this blog. Undoubtedly I’ll do so on many more. His basic economic philosophy is some kind of pragmatic statism, his ideology stresses on sacrifices and obligations rather than liberty and he displayed some disturbing tendencies towards censorship during the campaign. But he is also a sensible and highly intelligent person and his actions so far have been far more friendly towards freedom than his rhetoric has been (that’s a trade-off I’ll happily take).

    So credit where credit’s due. Well done.

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    Freedom has taken a battering in Netherlands lately and this latest news is a sad day for those of us who believe in free speech.

    On a related note, it might be interesting to try and figure out what’s the best place for free speech today.

    USA? Perhaps has the broadest protections for speech anywhere (thanks to the greatest piece of law ever written) with one sad exception: the obscenity statute. A culture of political correctness that is stronger than continental Europe does, however act as a social deterrent against certain types of speech.

    Denmark? You will certainly not be prosecuted for obscenity, but hate speech laws exist — though they are rarely enforced.

    Switzerland? Similar to Denmark, but also has laws against holocaust denial.

    Netherlands? Till recently this would have been my answer, since their hate speech laws are not as broad and they will certainly not censor porn. Unfortunately they do have laws against discriminatory speech, which is what Wilders is (presumably) being charged under.

    Ireland? I don’t know too much, but seems to be a good place. Technically laws against speech that ‘undermine public morality’ exist, but they are never enforced. They do not appear to have hate speech laws or holocaust denial laws.

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