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Quote of the day

Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second.

So spake Lt. Fran Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner of Philadelphia, in response to questions about the police arresting and detaining 9 people who had committed no crime.

Sometimes I wish I was a vigilante, with power and means to confront the Healys of the world and deliver some well-deserved comeuppance.

(Hat tip: Radley Balko)

Bravo Bloomberg

I have written derisively about Michael Bloomberg on this blog before. His positions on various issues are patronising, insulting and completely antithetical to individual freedom.

Yet, there’s one topical issue where his strong stand has won my wholehearted admiration — it is this one. It takes courage to stand up for your principles even when doing so is deeply unpopular, and in the last couple of months Bloomberg has shown he possesses both courage and certain right principles.

A better death

I was surfing the web aimlessly when I came across this sad news:

Swedish mountaineer and professional skier Fredrik Ericsson died Friday while trying to summit K2 in Pakistan, his friend David Schipper told CNN in a telephone interview.

The incident occurred between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. as Ericsson was attempting to become the first man to ski from the summit to base camp, said Schipper, who said he learned of the accident on the world’s second-tallest peak in a satellite call from fellow climber Fabrizio Zangrilli.

[…]

Ericsson, along with his climbing partners Trey Cook and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, had begun the summit push between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. in low-visibility weather.

After several hours of climbing, they approached the bottom of the bottleneck. At this point, Cook returned to Camp 4, leaving Kaltenbrunner and Ericsson to continue their ascent.

As Ericsson was attempting to fix ropes to the snow and ice along the route he “lost his purchase and was unable to arrest his fall,” Schipper said.

Ericsson’s body, resting at about 7,000 meters, will remain where it fell, Schipper said on Ericsson’s website.

“His parents have requested it remain in the mountains he loved,” he wrote. “Retrieval would be exceptionally dangerous.”

Such incidents are of course not uncommon — many climbers die similarly each year.  The comment thread to this news report was also fairly predictable. One user wrote: I never understood poeple that would do a suicidal activity then call it sport! Another was full of scathing sarcasm: At least he died for a cause. Oh thats right he didn’t!

But what really caught my eye was one particular comment that I post below. It was in response to the derisive “Oh that’s right he didn’t” comment, and it is the reason why I am writing this post. It expresses exactly what I feel about such activities and says all that’s needs to be said to those who don’t get it.

“He didn’t even die for a cause”…

Yes he did; he died doing what he loved. He died pushing himself to his personal limits. He was in better shape than all of you combined. He didn’t rant on web sites, he was living life to the fullest for… (God forbid), HIMSELF. How many of you will die for a “cause”?

Ericsson isn’t a martyr. He isn’t a hero. He is just a man who went ahead and pursued his particular passion. How would the world look like if everyone else did the same?

I rarely agree with the NY Times editorial board, least of all on matters of free speech and association rights. But I think they get it exactly right in this oped that sharply criticizes the recent Supreme Court judgement upholding a federal law against providing material support to terrorist groups.

The trouble with this ruling, as the editorial points out, and others such as Eugene Volokh have described, is twofold.

The philosphy behind the ruling doesn’t seem to have been laid out with sufficient clarity, and that creates a not insignificant risk that this will pave the way for further speech restrictions, such as on independent advocacy, when this conflicts with state interests.

The law that this ruling upholds, criminalizes actions that are purely political speech. For instance, the law would allow prosecution of any newspaper that coordinates with the spokesperson of a designated terrorist organization and publishes their point of view in an oped.

In sum, the Supreme Court of the United States got it terribly wrong on this one. I am surprised and saddened that this Court, which got it so right on other recent free speech cases has chosen this time to legitimize expanded executive powers and curtail precious freedoms. As for the Obama administration — who have proved themselves as bad as the Bush one when it comes to civil liberty abuse — they are probably relishing the fact that they have yet another tool to harass and prosecute journalists, academics and independent organizations that stand in their way.

An interesting debate about anonymous speech on the internet, CDA 230, and the related issues of privacy, information flow and libelous harm. My position on the issue is expressed in my two comments on the thread.

To the best of my knowledge, there exists absolutely no scientific evidence today in favor of any statistically significant genetic difference in mental abilities across races. Yet, I do not think we understand genetics well enough to absolutely rule out such a possibility. So I do not rule out the possibility that African Americans, are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. In fact, I do not rule out this possibility for any race — Whites, South Asians, Mongoloids, Eskimos.

My position on the matter is identical to Eugene Volokh’s. “Whether there are genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups in intelligence is a question of scientific fact. Either there are, or there aren’t (or, more precisely, either there are such differences under some plausible definitions of the relevant groups and of intelligence, or there aren’t). The question is not the moral question about what we should do about those differences, if they exist. It’s not a question about what we would like the facts to be. The facts are what they are, whether we like them or not.”

The same is true for other group classifications, such as gender. In fact, according to noted Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and many other experts, there is fairly good evidence of differences in mental abilities between males and females. For certain mental tasks it appears that males, on average, are genetically better equipped; for certain others, females are.

What is important is this: Even if some differences in mental ability exists across groups, given the extremely large variation between individuals in any group, these differences are irrelevant from a  moral or legal standpoint. It is not racist or sexist to suggest or believe that differences exist on average; it is racist and sexist to suggest we should treat people differently purely because they belong to a certain group.

What is even more important is this: The culture of pervasive political correctness today that makes is impossible to ask such questions without facing a huge backlash and social ostracization is stifling to intellectual curiousity, degrading to our intelligence and speaks only ill of our open-mindedness; in short like everything else associated with political correctness it is evil.

In a huge victory for free speech, the Supreme Court of the US today struck down a law that banned recording, possession or distribution of videos featuring animal cruelty. The Supreme Court concluded that as written, the statute is overbroad and limits all sorts of speech that the Court believes is protected by the First Amendment.

The decision also strikes down the notion of “serious value” as a legitimate criteria for determining if certain offensive speech is worth legal protection. However, as Eugene Volokh notes, by the same logic, the obscenity law should also go. Will that happen anytime soon? Volokh opines, and I agree that it is very unlikely the Court will go that far. Weight on tradition will probably prevent the Court from overturning Miller and declaring all obscenity legal.

This naturally still leaves the question: How can all this be reconciled with the use of “serious value” as part of the obscenity test? I think that as a matter of logic it can’t be. But the Court isn’t just after logic; among other things, it also gives some weight to tradition, and the obscenity exception is very deeply rooted in American law.

Still, I dare hope. For this court has given us Heller, Citizens United and Stevens — three great decisions in favor of liberty in a span of two years. So maybe, just maybe, it is not completely absurd to hope for a day when the Supreme Court declares the obscenity law unconstitutional. (And such an occurrence will surely make the NY Times readership’s collective head explode. After fiercely criticizing the ‘right-wing’ court for Heller, Citizens United, and to a lesser extent Stevens, they will be flummoxed about what to do with a ruling that the progressive base will applaud and the conservatives will despise. What fun!)

Update: A NY Times commenter, clearly in the minority, expresses exactly what I feel about matters of free speech.

Thank God. The point of freedom of speech isn’t to protect the content that everyone agrees is acceptable or even desirable–there’d be no purpose to an amendment that protected what everyone agreed was worth protecting.

The point of freedom is speech is to protect the content that exists at the margins of society; the things that many people find to be objectionable or even reprehensible.

Without such protections, core values of our civil society are at risk (namely, the free flow of ideas and information).

As a practical matter, it is also worth remembering that the tables can quickly be turned on what is ‘acceptable’ vs. ‘unacceptable’ discourse–in a matter of a few years, the good can become the bad and the bad can become the good. The 1st Amendment offers protections against these vicissitudes of social norms.

In short, despite the terribleness of dog fighting–and I agree, it is a terrible and immoral sport–this was an excellent decision. No, wait, let me change that a bit: BECAUSE of the terribleness of dog fighting, this was an excellent decision.

Colour me weird..

..but I feel happier about the death penalty being awarded to these guys that I have for any other case I can remember.

There are people whose crimes have led to far greater destruction and death. Terrorists, mass murderers, genocidal dictators. But there is something particularly chilling about a group of men hunting down and murdering a young couple in love for no other reason than to uphold their notions of collective honour. If individual liberty is the greatest moral good, and collectivist coercion the greatest horror,  then the murder of  Manoj and Babli was evil in the purest way imaginable. When their killers die, I will rejoice.

Judge Stevens has announced his retirement from the Supreme Court of the US.

He had a long career on the bench, spanning 35 years. His most prominent opinions include the following.

  • He wrote the majority opinion in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica, 1978, in which he held that the FCC has the power to ban ‘indecent’ speech in radio broadcasting.
  • He dissented in Texas v Johnson, 1989, the case where the Supreme court held that flag-burning as a means of political protest is protected under the First Amendment. In his dissent, an embarrassingly incoherent and ad-hoc piece of writing in my opinion, Stevens claimed that because the ideas of liberty and equality are worth protecting, the flag (which uniquely symbolizes these ideas) is also worth protecting.
  • He wrote the majority opinion in Kelo v City of New London, 2005, the egregious decision which handed the government the right to seize private property from individuals and hand it over to privately held corporations.
  • He dissented in D.C. v Heller, 2008, the landmark case which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for private self-defense.
  • He dissented in Citizens United v FEC, 2010, where the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the right of incorporated organizations (which includes NGOs, labor unions and companies) to fund independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. In my opinion, this case was the biggest victory for free speech in the last five years.

As the above examples make clear, Judge Stevens was on the wrong side of individual liberty in some of the most important cases of his time on the bench. Yes, some of his other opinions did further the cause of liberty, typically cases that involved detainee rights. But on the whole, this libertarian is glad to see Judge Stevens go.

I know you visit this space sometimes. You might be amused to know I dreamt of you last night.

It was a funny dream. Some math conference: you were there and so was I. I saw you and didn’t take my eyes off. A couple of minutes later, you looked in my direction.

We said hi, we sat down on a couch. We talked for ten minutes without rancor or awkwardness before it was time to go.

I was happy because I felt we were actually going to be friends again.

Then I woke up and it took me ridiculously long to realize it truly was just a dream.

I spent the rest of the morning reading your diaries which I still have, skimming though a million old emails not necessarily related to you and generally engaging in activities which stir memories and tend to fill me with pain and wonder and nostalgia.

Dear Amit Varma,

A year ago, in a post on your blog, you vigorously opposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s position that the burqa should be banned. You wrote:

But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.

In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.

That is my view too, and I was glad to see it seconded on one of India’s most popular blogs. If freedom means anything, it means the right to make choices both good and bad, the right to pursue actions that liberate or enslave. Anyone who truly believes in liberty will oppose government attempts to ban the burqa as strongly as they would an attempt to ban the skirt. In the absence of explicit coercion, it’s not the state’s business to protect people by regulating their “bad” choices.

Yet, last week, in a tweet, you approved of a Muslim group’s campaign in Canada to get the burqa banned.

I wonder if your position has changed or if you just weren’t thinking it through when you wrote that tweet? If it is the former, I lament your fall from the libertarian you once were.

Sincerely,
Abhishek

The last human right

The Atlantic has a fascinating — though not wholly sympathetic — article on Dignitas and its founder Ludwig Minelli.

I have written on Dignitas before. They believe that people have an absolute right to die on their own terms and they help some of those people (those suffering from a terminal disease) achieve it. There are all kinds of horror stories associated with botched suicide attempts — people who have been paralyzed for life, or those who suffered a extended painful death weeks later. Dignitas helps those who have decided to take their life do so with dignity.

Switzerland’s libertarian law on the issue certainly helps:

Assisted suicide is also legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, as well as in the American states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But in all those places, the practice is restricted to people with incurable diseases, involves extensive medical testing and consultation with physicians, and requires that applicants be permanent residents. By contrast, Switzerland’s penal code was designed such that, without fear of prosecution, you can hand someone a loaded pistol and watch as he blows his brains out in your living room. And there is no residency requirement. There are only two conditions: that you have no self-interest in the victim’s death, and that he be of sound mind when he pulls the trigger.

Minelli is passionate about the cause. He views himself as fighting for a fundamental human right, and he does not care who he offends in the process. His employees mostly agree.

“Minelli always tries to motivate people to make more of their lives,” he continued. “That’s why I work for him, his human approach.”

But Dignitas is concerned with not life but death—a fact Luley not only accepts, but promotes with enthusiasm. “Suicide is not bad,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to end your life. Sometimes life is great, sometimes life is shit. I have the right to say that I’m pissed off with my life, and I want to end it.” Fine, I said, but why involve others in your self-destruction? Why not just sit in the garage with the engine running?

Luley smiled. Late-model cars won’t do the trick, he said. In the early 1970s, auto manufacturers began installing catalytic convertors that filter out as much as 99 percent of the carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes. You might cough, but you’re not likely to die. Other do-it-yourself methods can be even more problematic. Luley described some of the people who, having failed in their own suicide attempts, had contacted Dignitas to finish the job. “One lady jumped eight stories down to a paved parking lot. Now she is in a wheelchair. Then there was a man who shot himself in the face, but survived. Another leapt in front of a train and lost both his legs.” Dignitas exists to prevent these outcomes, to see to it that those wishing to kill themselves may do so without fear of pain or failure. The fact that most people lack legal access to a death like this is the group’s organizing principle. “Our goal is to make ourselves obsolete,” Luley said. “It should no longer be that one has to travel from his home country to Switzerland to end his life.”

Assisted suicide — suicide in general — carries a stigma today. (It didn’t two thousand years ago when it was normal for Athenians to drink hemlock when they viewed their life had not sufficient meaning left.) Minelli and his organization are fighting for the right to do with one’s life as one wishes, and end it when one wants. He is a brave man, and while not many share his ethical beliefs, I happen to do so completely.  To me, Dignitas represents freedom as few other things do.

Living on the edge

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

(Read all “quote for the week” posts on this blog)

Silly lawsuit of the day

The widow of the IRS worker who was killed by Joe’s Stack’s horrific plane-crashing act is suing Stack’s widow for ‘negligence’.

Valerie Hunter, the wife of Vernon Hunter, is accusing Sheryl Stack, wife of Andrew Joseph “Joe” Stack III, of negligence, alleging she she knew or should have known that her husband was a threat to others and, thus, could have prevented the attack, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Travis County District Court.

“Stack was threatened enough by Joseph Stack that she took her daughter and stayed at a hotel the night before the plane crash. [She] owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid a foreseeable risk of injury to others including [Vernon Hunter],” the suit says.

I am sorry for Ms. Hunter but no such duty exists in the American legal code and for good reason. It is one thing to say that there is a moral duty to try and prevent violence (even this is not clear-cut: it depends on whether you think that the violence is justified or not). It is quite another to declare that there ought to be legal obligation to do so. (A government that enforces such a do-good law is, in my view, dangerous and violative of rights.)

But back to current law. From the legal standpoint, it does not matter whether or not Sheryl Stack knew her late husband’s state of mind or even his exact plans. The law is very clear on this point: as long as Ms. Stack was not directly involved in the planning of the attack, she is free of all liability for this act. (There are exceptions to this, such as when a person is under the legal care of another and so on, but this case does not fall under any of those categories.)

I realize that Ms. Hunter is in a traumatic state of mind but I hope that her lawyer has informed her that the case is a complete loser.

Update: I guess someone nicely explained to Ms. Hunter the above facts. She has now dropped Sheryl Stack from the lawsuit. She is now only seeking damages from Joe Stack’s estate, and that I have more sympathy for.

A doomed alliance?

A pretty fair article by Ed Kilgore on the widening rift between progressives and libertarians.

One mini-saga of the past decade in American politics has been the flirtation—with talk of a deeper partnership—between progressives and libertarians. These two groups were driven together, in the main, by common hostility to huge chunks of the Bush administration’s agenda: endless, pointless wars; assaults on civil liberties; cynical vote-buying with federal dollars; and statist panders to the Christian right.

This cooperation reached its height during the 2006 election, in which, according to a new study by David Kirby and David Boaz, nearly half of libertarian voters supported Democratic congressional candidates—more than doubling the support levels from the previous midterm election in 2002.

Well, you can say goodbye to all that. The new Kirby/Boaz study reports that libertarian support for Democrats collapsed in 2008, despite many early favorable assessments of Barack Obama by libertarian commentators. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has raised the salience of issues on which libertarians and Dems most disagree. And there’s no question that during Obama’s first year—with the rise of the Tea Party movement and national debate over bailouts, deficits, and health care—libertarian hostility to the new administration has grown adamant and virtually universal.

[…]

So could “liberaltarianism” make a comeback in a not-too-distant future, when today’s passions have abated? You never know for sure, but the next major obstacle to cooperation may well be the Supreme Court’s decision on corporate political spending in Citizens United v. FEC, which libertarians celebrated as a victory for free speech, and most liberals denounced as a travesty if not a national disaster.

Cancel the Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers; this romance is dead.

I agree that “liberaltarianism” is kinda dead at the moment. Ed Kilgore thinks that progressives shouldn’t mind that too much. I disagree with his reasoning.

But 2008 showed that libertarian support is hardly crucial: Obama still won “libertarian” states such as Colorado and New Hampshire handily, even without their backing, and he generally performed better in the “libertarian West” than any Democratic nominee since LBJ.

I am sceptical of the claim that Obama lacked the backing of libertarians. Yes the Kirby-Boaz paper does say that McCain won libertarians about 70-30, but I suspect that study  oversamples southern conservatives. It is unfortunate they do not have a state-by state cross-tabs, which would give some indication how the libertarians voted in Colorado and New Hampshire. Moreover, even Kirby-Boaz conclude that Obama won the younger libertarians, the ones who will really matter in future elections.

True, most libertarians disagreed with large parts of the Obama agenda, but they also typically thought that McCain was far, far worse. Reason magazine’s survey of its writers in 2008 showed almost no support for McCain, almost everyone supported Obama or Barr. A majority of libertarian intellectuals, despite their misgivings, certainly preferred Obama over McCain.

Many of these people are now turning away from the Democrats. Kilgore is probably right about the inevitability of this break-up. From the point of view of electoral politics, however, the Democrats will ignore the libertarian vote at their own peril.