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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

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A new French law criminalizes “psychological violence” against a spouse or cohabiting partner.

Pretty great I say. The French are geniuses. They have already outlawed pesky things like free speech, unsexy clothes and hard work. Now all those domestic arguments must stay within strict rules laid down by the government. Think about all the hours saved. No endless bickering, no name-calling, no emotional blackmails. Ah, what a life. Relaxed, stress-free and productive. A nice, fat, motherly government to keep deviants in line and make sure no one ever hurts another’s feelings. What’s there to worry? Big momma will always watch out for you.

“Why can’t you be caring and romantic again, like when we were seventeen? I wonder why I still stick with you!

“No one’s forcing you to stay honey. Feel free to move your fat ass and leave me for good. Just stop subjecting me to your endless blabbering.”

“Sob! Police!! I have been PSYCHOLOGICALLY abused!!”

On the French agenda for next month: rules forbidding laziness, rudeness and jealousy.

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The reaction of the TSA — the umbrella organization formed after 9/11 to regulate airline security in the US — to the recent terrorist attempt has been along expected lines. More lines, more meaningless regulations, more stifling security measures. When Richard Reid had the bright idea a few years ago to hide explosives in his shoe, the TSA reacted by asking everyone to take off their shoes henceforth for the security check. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped the explosives onto his underwear, we ought to be thankful that the TSA’s imagination has so far been..um…restricted. I mean, sure, it has issued an order that all babies be put into overhead luggage bins during the last hour of the flight, but consider the much more sinister possibilities.

My thoughts on this issue can be summed up in one sentence: Umar Farouk failed, but we are doing our best to make sure his goal succeeds.

Stephen Bainbridge puts it well:

Has TSA ever considered the possibility that maybe the terrorists aren’t really interested in blowing up a plane. Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures.

Now Professor Bainbridge may be ascribing more subtlety to the terrorists’ modus operandi than they probably possess, but it is worthwhile to pause and think about what he is saying. A free society, by its very nature, offers many targets for terrorists. It is impossible to shut them all down. Nor is terrorism as transcendent a presence as some might want to believe. With smart, mostly non-intrusive measures, the threat can be further reduced. Sure, there will be attacks from time to time, just as there are crimes every day, but the real damage from these attacks are not caused by the incidents themselves, but by our terrorized reaction to them. It is when we fearfully overreach and put into place crippling regulations that cost us time, money and curtail our civil liberties, that the real harm occurs. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

At some point, we need to do a cost benefit analysis: how much hassle, fear and security clampdown is too much? Is it worth going through so much TSA tyranny, much of it a charade,  and give up so much of our convenience, liberty and well-being in an attempt to make our existence slightly more secure against terrorist attacks?

Update: Nate Silver crunches the numbers and concludes that your chances of being on a given flight departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. So you could take 20 flights a year and still be less likely to be attacked than you are to die of a lightning strike.

Update 2: This is hilarious:

Anyway, I have a better idea. Let’s ban all clothing from all flights. Both the shoe bomber and Abdulmutallab used clothing — not Wi-Fi and not live TV — to make their failed attempts. In addition to taking away the possibility of hiding incendiary devices, a total ban on all clothes will also have the following positive results:

1. Terrorists will have a further disincentive from targeting flights, because religious extremists tend to be squeamish about naked people.

2. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because shy people wouldn’t fly, thus reducing the number of flights overall.

3. I don’t know why, but I think people would be more courteous. Talk about friendly skies!

Of course, I’m not serious about the clothing ban. But it makes a lot more sense than the TSA’s new ban on Wi-Fi and in-flight TV.

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I love reading Paul Krugman’s NY Times columns and especially the comments that follow because they offer a fascinating glimpse of certain moral principles that are completely alien to my personal philosophy. It is like going into a country where they seem to speak the same language; yet their words mean completely different things than what you are used to.

For instance, in today’s article, PK rages against the practice of high speed trading and certain kinds of financial speculation on the ground that they are socially worthless. But at least he merely suggests higher income taxes to deal with such practices. His commenters go several levels further. They are so — oh so — outraged that some rich people are merely following Capitalism 101 rather than contributing to some “social good” that they want the guys arrested; some go further and demand a popular revolution to fundamentally steer the nation towards social democracy.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia and countries under its influence measured not just economic activity but everything from art to films according to their social utility in furthering the principles of communism; those that did not pass the test were banned or worse. So the NY Times readers are continuing a worthy tradition.

What can I say? In my universe, freedom — freedom to invest or speculate, to be foolish or smart, to give back to society or be a rich miser — is of far, far greater importance than judging whether the exercise of freedom actually contributes to some social good. So the morality of the NY times commenters with their particular sense of justice and fairness is alien to me. Once upon a time, when faced with such morality, I would rage and scream silently inside at the grotesque sense of entitlement displayed. These days, I am merely amused; it is a bit like going to an alternate universe full of strange creatures.

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Nicolas Sarkozy wants to outlaw the wearing of the burqa in public places in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France.

I suppose the logic goes something like this: The burqa is demeaning; it offends my values. So the woman who chooses to wear it, whether out of social pressure or personal choice (*), is not truly free. Thus, I must make them free by taking away this choice from them.

Come to think of it, this kind of argument is a remarkable tool. Sarkozy did not invent it — precisely the same justification is used all the time to critique everything that the vanguards of public morality consider degrading: from prostitution to pornography, taking drugs to working for low wages. But he — like other petty dictators of this world — sees the real power of this infantilizing logic, because it allows him to restrict individual freedom by invoking supposedly liberal values. That’s masterful. Of course, most people do not understand or care about the fundamental difference between the moral and the legal, the personal and the political, social disapproval and actual coercion; thus this charade continues.

*I am discounting from this discussion any women who are actually coerced (by threats of violence or similar means) to wear the burqa; obviously we need to prevent this from happening, but there are already laws to deal with such situations.

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Ryan Avent on the incompatibility of climate science and some libertarians:

That is to say, confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. 

I agree completely with Avent’s last sentence. I am also a libertarian. So what goes?

First off, Avent is wrong in his basic claim. There are very many libertarians who approach scientific questions scientifically. And most of them conclude that human induced climate change is real. Sure, some libertarians do turn their backs to science, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse to tar the whole movement.

Secondly, what Avent and others of his ilk forget is the question of how to deal with the problem of climate change is not merely a scientific one. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable to accept that AGW is happening and still reject most of the solutions being proferred. The question of what to do about any problem (or indeed, whether to do anything at all) depends not merely on an analysis of the problem (this is the scientific part) but also of how much value, that is costs and benefits you attach to each aspect of the problem and the possible solutions (and their consequences). This is where analysis and ideology interact in a complex manner.

I had a conversation with a friend a week ago. He asked me the following question: what would I do if I had to choose between truth and libertarianism? I answered that such a choice would never be necessary. Sure, the pursuits of truth and happiness do conflict, and so do freedom and happiness. But I cannot conceive of truth and freedom ever conflicting. I believe my moral axioms are good enough to ensure that.

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Oregon wants to raise the (tobacco) smoking age to 21.

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? Don’t Oregonians love their mountains and their freedom? I mean, come on, Oregon  is a pioneer in assisted suicide laws. It was one of the very few states to oppose ski-helmet mandates in an online TIME poll from last week! And they really like gays and unconventional individuals.

And oh, they love their pot. Marijuana for medicinal use is legal and simple possession for personal use has been decriminalized. If there is one state whose residents would be comfortable with legalizing most drugs, it is Oregon. So how can they get paternalistic about tobacco?

You see, tobacco is just not in. Hell, rednecks smoke it all the time. Some of the lowest taxes on tobacco are in states where gay-haters and religious conservatives rule.

For that matter, fatty foods are not in. Pleasures that are not good for your health are usually not in unless supplemented by some kind of culture. Free speech is in but hate speech is not. Trying to explain to them that hate speech is part of free speech is most certainly not in. Protesting exploitation and capitalism and going to jail for political persecution is in. Woolly sweaters and vegetarianism are in. For a detailed list of things that are in at cities like Portland or Seattle or SF or NY, head over to SWPL.

So I was thinking of all this and that’s when I realized this: Oregon’s supposed libertarianism is an accident. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral principle of individual liberty. It has to do with certain value judgements.

It is the same everywhere. It is cool in San Francisco to be stoned for days doing weed or cocaine or heroine but smoke a pack of  cigaretters over there and you will be treated like a demon. Hookah is somewhat in though and will draw no more than mild disapproval. Wine  and most other alcohol is awesome. Prostitution is a private matter and should not be interfered with. However trans fats are banned.

Then head over to Texas or Utah and do all of the above things San Francisco residents approve of wholeheartedly. You will be dragged to jail kicking. But don’t get too despondent! In Texas, they will give you other freedoms than are in over there. Like guns and cigars and low taxes and the right to eat trans-fat laden foods.

Jeffrey Rosen said it best. On the surface it might seem that restrictions on freedom are getting more unacceptable. Horrendous laws like those against sodomy no longer exist. But the truth is that morals legislation is alive and well. The problem with sodomy laws wasn’t that they were based on moral disapproval; the problem was that the public consensus about the immorality of sodomy had collapsed. It all depends on the value judgements of the majority and the influential; the things they consider ok become legal. Defending freedom for freedom’s sake … not just in.

And that realization would ordinarily make me sad but today it makes me smile. For it reminds me of another insight I had when I was very young. Of all the insights I’ve ever had that one is my favourite. And it’s simply this: The world we live in is a ridiculously funny place.

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