Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Few Application Recommendations for the iPhone

I have a few recommendations for applications on the iPhone 3GS. I do this out of love. Certainly no one is paying me to promote these.

1 Ustream Live Broadcaster
I've recently set up an account, so I'll be streaming video here in the future. So far, I've just playing around with it, but if there is something that I plan to broadcast seriously, I'll announce it, maybe here, or just on Twitter. Right in the application you can tweet to announce when you start, but I would give a heads-up before then as well. This app allows you to save the videos that you broadcast, and send them to YouTube. Also, complementary to this app might be the Ustream Viewing Application.

2 NetNewsWire
The popular desktop client has a version for the iPhone, and it is quite nice. It allows you to sort through your items from the past 24 hours in chronological order, in one feed. It syncs to Google Reader. Also, you can send items to Instapaper that would be better viewed on a computer later.

3 Dragon Dictation
This is awesome. The privacy concerns are overrated, according to Pogue, so the reviews on the iTunes Store right now don't reflect that it is a great product, revolutionary even. This is the product that has for years always seemed just a few years away. It's finally here.

4 Tweetie
This is currently the best client for Twitter on the iPhone, and it is worth $2.99.

5 Yelp
Everyone knows Yelp, but I call attention to the "monocle," which is pretty cool.

Having all these great applications might mean that I am a cyborg.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Primitive Political Strategy

Megan McArdle points to an example of primitive political strategy. This kind of thing seems all too prevalent, especially among progressives. People call for ridiculous, giant institutional change for short-term political goals, and can forget about the fact that those institutions have served useful in protecting other policies that they favor. They compartmentalize. None of this is a surprise if you know that politics isn't about policy.

Calling for this kind of institutional change for short-term goals is a form of the belief that if only the proper people were in charge, policy would be implemented in the best possible way. Never do these folks question why these institutions exist. They might have important functions, you know, such as protecting individual liberty.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Life Experience Should Not Modify Your Opinion

When I'm debating some controversial topic with someone older than I am, even if I can thoroughly demolish their argument, I am sometimes met with a troubling claim, that perhaps as I grow older, my opinions will change, or that I'll come around on the topic. Implicit in this claim is the assumption that my opinion is based primarily on nothing more than my perception from personal experience.

When my cornered opponent makes this claim, it's a last resort. It's unwarranted condescension, because it reveals how wrong their entire approach is. Just by making the claim, they demonstrate that they believe all opinions are based primarily on an accumulation of personal experiences, even their own opinions. Their assumption reveals that they are not Bayesian, and that they intuit that no one is. For not being Bayesian, they have no authority that warrants such condescension.

I intentionally avoid presenting personal anecdotes cobbled together as evidence, because I know that projecting my own experience onto a situation to explain it is no evidence at all. I know that I suffer from all sorts of cognitive biases that obstruct my understanding of the truth. As such, my inclination is to rely on academic consensus. If I explain this explicitly to my opponent, they might dismiss academics as unreliable and irrelevant, hopelessly stuck in the ivory tower of academia.

Dismiss academics at your own peril. Sometimes there are very good reasons for dismissing academic consensus. I concede that most academics aren't Bayesian because academia is an elaborate credentialing and status-signaling mechanism. Furthermore, academics have often been wrong. The Sokal affair illustrates that entire fields can exist completely without merit. That academic consensus can easily be wrong should be intuitively obvious to an atheist; religious community leaders have always been considered academic experts, the most learned and smartest members of society. Still, it would be a fallacious inversion of an argument from authority to dismiss academic consensus simply because it is academic consensus.

For all of academia's flaws, the process of peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, informed by logic, statistics, and regression analysis, offers a better chance at discovering truth than any other institution in history. It is noble and desirable to criticize academic theories, but only as part of intellectually honest, impartial scientific inquiry. Dismissing academic consensus out of hand is primitive, and indicates intellectual dishonesty.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Address to The Right Way

This evening The Right Way was put on by some conservative and libertarian groups at UVA. It was an information session for people interested in these groups. I made some comments on behalf of the libertarian student group. Here's the text of my speech.

So why are we here? We don't really consider ourselves part of the political Right, but our relationship with the Right has been complex. Maybe we're more accurately described as "liberals" because we appreciate and welcome the change and progress that free markets bring from their dynamic processes.

Libertarians in America have had a shaky alliance with the Right and the Republican Party for the last few decades. The conservative movement is not often described as heterogenous, but it is. It's full of social conservatives, national security hawks, and economic libertarians. These interests are at odds.

We fear that the conservative movement has strayed. Ronald Reagan told Reason Magazine in an interview in 1975, "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." We are concerned that conservatives have by and large abandoned a rich intellectual tradition of defending the empowerment of individuals, and lost their focus on individual rights and individual responsibility. The way we see it, conservatives have neglected the positive moral and practical cases for free markets, and unfortunately have let the Left frame economic issues. Resources aren't granted to people from governments. The government can't create wealth, but it can easily confiscate it. So, it's troubling to us that conservative responses have been reactionary. For instance, there's no real market-oriented health care reform on the table today.

Libertarians strive for consistency in the way we think about freedom. It doesn't make any sense to us to trust people with firearms but not marijuana. William F. Buckley understood this. We don't care for authoritarian obsessions with individual moral choices. If we're truly advocating individual responsibility, the government has no role to play in legislating personal morality.

We understand that free markets lift the poorest in society up more than central planners ever could. Winston Churchill famously said, "for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle."

Having a free market means that it's silly to waste money by "buying American" when we make more wealth available by purchasing goods and services from abroad for less money. We also understand that free markets include free labor markets, which means that people should be free to move across borders.

A free market means that we don't funnel money from taxpayers to reward mismanagement in the private sector. We believe that it is immoral and impractical to use military force to impose our will on the world. Striving to accomplish such an enormous task through government sounds like something the Democrats would attempt, but it too will fail as with all their quixotic attempts to engineer a utopia. We believe that international free markets intertwine the interests of all parties, so these arrangements lead to freedom, prosperity, and peace. We don't pretend that we can offer a utopia like those on the Left, but we can do better with free markets.

If you're interested in these ideas, I hope to see you at our events this year. We're excited to have the opportunity to participate in events and activities with the other groups present tonight. Thanks.

Friday, August 28, 2009

No Cognitive Dissonance from Bill Moyers

It was fascinating tonight to watch Bill Moyers on Real Time with Bill Maher. He commented how disappointing it is that Obama is becoming entangled in Afghanistan, just as JFK did in Vietnam. Moyers explained that both conflicts were viewed as ventures that were originally regarded as morally justified and well-intentioned, but they would consume more of the nation's resources than was anticipated, and ultimately, more than what was acceptable. He said this right after he called for universal health care.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Private provision of police services in Tanzania

It has been brought to my attention, by a friend who has lived there and knows the country, that police services in Tanzania are mainly provided privately, by a few competing firms. Corruption is low, which is to be expected when there is experimentation on a free market, and these firms have not deteriorated into warring gangs. I know very little about Tanzania, so this information is possibly inaccurate, but a search on Google turned up an interesting book on the subject. Perhaps this is more evidence for a positive case for market anarchy, like medieval Iceland.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Not quite utilitarianism

In a good post defending his paper about inequality against two progressive bloggers, Will Wilkinson writes,

Most importantly, utilitarianism is false...Like Rawls, I think the fact that utilitarianism is completely indifferent to the question of whether an individual’s income and wealth is or is not a result of exchange according to fair procedures is one of the main reasons it is false. How we came to have what we have matters. Utilitarianism says it doesn’t matter. So utilitarianism is false. As far as I’m concerned, the main reason you can’t just take my TV or take the money out of my wallet and give it to somebody who would get more out of it is that it’s my TV, it’s my money. It’s not yours to redistribute.
This surprised and confused me because he recently paid lip service to John Stuart Mill. I guess I need to read more Mill so that I can understand this apparent contradiction.

It seems intuitively correct to me that a true ethical framework cannot be one where a system of violence is implemented to correct for the organic, peaceful actions of people. So, I think Wilkinson's point is totally correct. I suppose this means my position of being strictly deferential to ordinal utility, and not cardinal utility, shouldn't be called utilitarianism.

I only respect ordinal utility because, in a Hayekian way, it is not possible, nor in any way meaningful, to compare the value of one person's enjoyment of an activity or good to another person's enjoyment of the same. Have I stumbled upon some new derivation of a theory of natural rights? I doubt it; I'm just fumbling about as I search for ethical truths. I wonder who the intellectual trailblazers are that have advocated for a justification of individual rights by, at least partially, rejecting cardinal utility.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Massimo Pigliucci's mistakes about health care reform

Massimo Pigliucci's post on health care demonstrates some profound ignorance. This surprised me. I like Pigliucci's writings on scientific skepticism and rationality, but here he seemed to throw his usual rationality to the wind, just to spew vitriol, without defending his points rationally. It saddens me when I see smart people compartmentalize.

The post is a treasure trove of fallacies and mistakes, probably just because he's shooting from the hip. This is to be expected from most people when they comment on politics, but I figured because Pigliucci is normally such rational person, he would at least honestly examine an opinion with which he disagrees. The comments on his post are an echo chamber, so I might be the first to offer dissent. Pigliucci writes:

Steele complained that “this is unprecedented government intrusion into the private sector.” Well, I don’t know about unprecedented, but Republicans don’t seem to have noticed that the almighty private sector has recently managed to bankrupt the country because of its endless (but not mindless, these people ain’t stupid) pursuit of greed. Steele added, again flagrantly demonstrating either his viciousness or his stupidity, that the current plan means “more debt our children will have to pay because this reckless administration has an unrestrainable urge to splurge.” This is rich coming from the chairperson of the very same party that has acted on its unrestrainable urge to splurge on open ended war efforts that have significantly decreased national and international security, or to waste money in huge tax cuts for the richest few in the country. Tax cuts whose cost is comparable to several of the initiatives that Obama wants to pursue with the rather different objective of making our lives a little better. Compassionate conservatism my ass.
This idea that the private sector bankrupted the country because of greed persists in leftist circles. Economists see self-interest as a constant. Does Pigliucci really buy this? If he's actually interested in this topic, has he really not read about how involved the government was in producing the financial crisis? This narrative from the left has baffled me since the crisis started. What does Pigliucci think changed that made people all of the sudden more greedy? Maybe he concedes that businesses are greedy, and deregulation is to blame, but does he really believe that people in government are any less greedy?

He's right of course to challenge the Republicans on their massive spending on the war machine, which is hypocritical, but that's just a partisan point. Let's focus on actual policy, instead of jeering at irrelevant problems. It's just as easy to challenge the Democrats for their failure to end the wars that they campaigned so much against. I doubt Pigliucci brings up Iraq because he values consistency. He's doing it because he's against the war. So is he willing to defend Obama's continued big spending on the United States's military presence in Iraq, since Obama is consistently growing the government? I don't think so.
Do the Republicans at least have a credible alternative to the much despised Democratic plans? Of course not. When asked directly at a recent press conference, Steele’s flippant reaction was: “Look I don't do policy, I'm not a legislator. My point in coming here was to establish a tone.” Right, and that tone included stating that he hopes health care reform is going to be Obama’s Waterloo. Bipartisanship my ass.
So, by "bipartisanship," Pigliucci means that he just wants Republicans to be Democrats. Bipartisanship is a wacky idea that receives much deference in the media. I see bipartisanship as quite ominous. If there's anything that both the Crips and the Bloods in Congress agree on, it's usually expanding their own power at the expense of their constituents.
Let us start with the public vs. private straw man. First of all, Republicans seem to forget that health care is about the welfare of people, not about profit. So even if it were true that a public option were unfair competition for private insurers, who gives a hoot, if that results in better health care for more people? Secondly, since part of the Republican creed is that the private sector always does things infinitely better than the public one, then what are they worried about? Surely the perennially wise “market” will soon make clear for all to see who’s got what it takes to run national health care, no? Thirdly, what keeps being underestimated here is the simple and indisputable fact that we already have a public health care system, it comes in the two varieties of Medicare and Medicaid. The first one is an example of the much dreaded single-payer system, run by the federal government, and which kicks in when people are over 65. The second one aids poor people throughout the country, it is funded by both the federal and state governments and run by the latter. Guess what? These public programs are much more efficient in terms of costs and overheads than any available private option, and they deliver one of the highest quality health care systems in the world. Indeed, I do not understand why Obama and the Dems aren’t simply going for the obvious solution, expand Medicare/Medicaid to the entire nation and be done with it. Oh, and next time you hear a Republican making the stupid pronouncement that government-run programs are by definition bad, ask him why he is so darn proud of our largest government-run program: the US military.
Saying that health care is about the welfare of the people instead of profit is really silly. Is the food industry about alleviating hunger, and not about profit? Grocery stores make profit, and they are not extracting money that would otherwise be used to feed people. Profit is a signal to firms that they are are producing something of value. I "give a hoot" about a public plan that might result in better health care for people, if the cost is higher than the benefits. Pigliucci is conveniently ignoring the existence of costs. Costs are abstract, so they're difficult for non-economists to understand, but they are very real. It's either quite dishonest or profoundly ignorant to just deny the existence of costs.

Pigliucci's description of crowding out is fallacious equivocation. A public plan that outcompetes a private plan has nothing to do with the difference between a free market and central planning. When free-marketeers say that the private sector "does things better" than the public one, they're not referring to the competency and effectiveness of government workers as against people working in a private business. They're referring to the system as a whole. In a free market, profit and loss signal creation and destruction of value, respectively, and profit and loss provide incentives to create value. Central planning has no such signals, and those incentives to create value are missing. The fear from free-marketeers is that the public plan will offer services provided for a much lower price to consumers and cause consumers to switch over to the public plan. Why would they pay more for a plan when they can pay less? This would effectively end private medicine, which one should see as troubling.
Now for this business of putting a bureaucrat between us and our doctors. Perhaps Steele and his colleagues haven’t noticed, but we already have plenty of bureaucrats between us and our doctors. They are the administrators of HMO’s (so-called “Health Maintenance Organizations”) and other private health providers who do precisely what Republicans dread a federal middleman might do: judge whether you have “pre-existing conditions” (and can therefore be turned down from any benefit whatsoever), or if your doctor wants to apply a treatment that is judged to be too costly to the insurance company (regardless of whether it may benefit your health or save your life), and so on. The difference is that a federal employee will not have the same motivation to increase at all costs the already fat bank account of the insurance companies at the expense of your health. Incidentally, what Republicans and some Democrats want to deny you is precisely the sort of high-quality public health care that they regularly enjoy as members of Congress. Now, how disingenuous and hypocritical is that?
This is another example of not understanding what a profit is. Profit doesn't drive up the price of a good in a free market; it provides an important signal. It's also laughable to say that health care in America is a free market, but that's the straw man that we hear from the left all the time nowadays. Pigliucci might actually be correct to be skeptical of profit though, but only because he's describing a sector that isn't a free market. Profit outside of a free market is often rent-seeking. Government interference is the problem, not the solution.
Look, I am not being naive here. I do not think that the government is the solution to all our problems, and I certainly do not think that the private sector is intrinsically bad. There are plenty of things that are best left to entrepreneurs (though I don’t think we should allow any private operation to become “too big to fail,” but that’s another story). I simply think that health care is one of those fundamental conditions that ought to be in place to allow us our constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness (second section of the Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4th, 1776). For one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world to allow 50 million of its people to go completely uninsured, and for many millions of others to risk bankruptcy every time their families might be hit by a catastrophic illness is immoral. Serious health care reform including a public option is the decent thing to do, and Republicans are acting viciously by opposing it. It really is as simple as that.
Well, yes, this is actually extreme naïveté, but nothing that can't be cured by studying economics with some intellectual honesty. Also, it's mildly amusing to see Pigliucci use the reference to Locke from the Declaration of Independence to try to advocate for central planning. I recommend a history book.

Arbitrarily calling attention to the fact that the United States is rich does not mean that costs don't exist! Authoritarian justifications for managing economies are an entirely wrong approach. There is no collective agent that "allows" people to be uninsured. Pigliucci should be asking what the institutions are that create wealth; the vast majority of humans have suffered abject poverty for the better part of our hundreds of thousands of years of existence.

Update: Pigliucci and I exchanged some comments on his original post.


Seth Goldin:
July 24, 2009 2:53 PM

Let me be the first, it seems, to offer some substantive dissent. I don't mean to just plug my blog, but I think that I've written too much as a response to fit into a comment here.

http://paltrypress.blogspot.com/2009/07/massimo-pigliuccis-mistakes-about.html

Thanks,
-- Seth.


Massimo Pigliucci:
July 24, 2009 3:20 PM

Seth,

interesting (though, frankly, a bit insulting) post. Now, I'm sure you realize that the government's involvement in causing the financial crisis was due to the fact that the Bush administration was in the thralls of private corporate interests and dramatically reduced the pertinent regulation, right?

Or am I still "shooting from the hip"?


Seth Goldin:
July 24, 2009 3:33 PM

Massimo,

If I bared my teeth a bit, I apologize; I just wanted to highlight some things with which I found problems.

I love to hate on the Republicans as much as the next guy, but for the right reasons.

I will absolutely not defend Bush. I am no Republican. You are correct, and I agree with you that the Bush administration advanced a kind of nasty corporatism in many sectors.


Massimo Pigliucci:
July 24, 2009 4:52 PM

Seth, no need for apologies. Yes, we need to disagree with Republicans for the right reasons. Of course the discussion is open about what exactly (or even approximately) the right reasons are...


caliana:
July 24, 2009 5:34 PM

"Now, I'm sure you realize that the government's involvement in causing the financial crisis was due to the fact that the Bush administration was in the thralls of private corporate interests and dramatically reduced the pertinent regulation, right?"

No. Bush was working on stronger regulation over lending standards for housing right before 911. The Bush admin realized full well that the standards were too loose. And at that point they made moves in this direction and it is well documented.

After attacks on US soil, those things got placed more or less on a back burner.

That only the entire world wants to see you fall flat on your face economically, that's not cause enough to call Bush's admin an actual failure.


Seth Goldin:
July 24, 2009 5:46 PM

I should clarify. It was bad government policy that primarily contributed to the financial crisis, not deregulation. I suspect that the myth that Bush was a deregulator will persist anyway.

http://www.reason.com/news/show/130348.html

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

More on utilitarianism

I wrote earlier that I'm an individualist utilitarian. That's not quite right; even if I properly describe this personal utilitarianism as only appealing to ordinal utility, I don't ever want to be accused of advancing the idea cardinal utility, and I doubt that the label "utilitarian" meaningfully reflects the difference. Mill had his differences from Bentham, but I don't think Mill reasoned entirely by ordinal utility, nor that Bentham reasoned entirely by cardinal utility.

Why am I so against the idea of cardinal utility? I find it dangerous to make decisions by trying to maximize cardinal utility, because it implies that one agent has the moral justification to make a moral choice for another agent. That's a basis for totalitarianism. So it's not exactly utilitarianism that I advocate, but rather a kind of deference to ordinal utility that produces a consequentialist justification for individual rights.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Peter Singer urges the government to ration health care

Peter Singer offers some thoughts on health care and rationing in the New York Times. It's refreshing to hear a leftist acknowledge the existence of scarcity and costs, instead of asserting wild, paradoxical delusions that a monopsonist could somehow not choose what goods and services to purchase, which is what I often hear from the left, maybe because leftists love to ascribe agency to a group of people and label it a collective will. In the article, today's most prominent utilitarian delivers some fascinating utilitarian calculus:

As a first take, we might say that the good achieved by health care is the number of lives saved. But that is too crude. The death of a teenager is a greater tragedy than the death of an 85-year-old, and this should be reflected in our priorities. We can accommodate that difference by calculating the number of life-years saved, rather than simply the number of lives saved. If a teenager can be expected to live another 70 years, saving her life counts as a gain of 70 life-years, whereas if a person of 85 can be expected to live another 5 years, then saving the 85-year-old will count as a gain of only 5 life-years. That suggests that saving one teenager is equivalent to saving 14 85-year-olds. These are, of course, generic teenagers and generic 85-year-olds. It’s easy to say, “What if the teenager is a violent criminal and the 85-year-old is still working productively?” But just as emergency rooms should leave criminal justice to the courts and treat assailants and victims alike, so decisions about the allocation of health care resources should be kept separate from judgments about the moral character or social value of individuals.
That he keeps adding what factors should be considered for life and death in different instances for different people almost brings him to a moment of clarity to reject cardinal utilitarianism and acknowledge the value of respecting individual rights. It seems to me that when people label utilitarianism, they imply that there is such a thing as cardinal utility. I believe that utility is ordinal, not cardinal, so I'm an individualist utilitarian.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chomsky promulgates the broken windows fallacy

Frequent readers of the Paltry Press know that here, Noam Chomsky is a favorite intellectual opponent. Who needs straw men when Chomsky steadily spouts forth such economic nonsense? Just quickly skimming through the transcript of a recent talk of his, I found the broken windows fallacy:

It's been done before. So, during World War II, it was kind of a semi-command economy, government-organized economy. The whole -- that's what happened. Industry was reconstructed for the purpose of war, dramatically. It not only ended the Depression, but it initiated the most spectacular period of growth in economic history. In four years, US industrial production just about quadrupled, and that -- as the economy was retooled for war. And that laid the basis for the Golden Age that followed.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cognitive Errors and Hypocrisy of the Left

While I wish to avoid pathologizing a political persuasion that is different than my own, I find latent evolved cognitive errors that contribute to popular distrust of markets highly explanatory. These errors highlight how uphill the fight is for libertarians. It doesn't help that humans do not reason to their conclusions. This is not an excuse for irrationality, but information to help overcome such irrationality. Only when a person is aware of their propensity to reason around an intuition can they possibly overcome that flaw and step closer towards intellectual honesty. At least people generally pay lip service to reason, which is probably better than dismissing rationality altogether, provided that lip service to reason is a complement to actual reason and not just a substitute.

The combined wrongness and entrenchment of an anti-market bias is similar to a religious idea, which is similarly grounded in cognitive errors. The difficulty of trying to convince someone who intuitively distrusts markets that markets are actually desirable is on the order of magnitude of trying to convince a religious person to reject their religious ideology.

Humans are prone to all sorts of biases. Let's not forget either that we human beings are in danger of drawing on our own contexts as the source of policy prescriptions for all other people. On the other hand, we can hold beliefs that contradict our own experience. Our brains are complex enough to maintain complicated models of the world, but we can partition those models fairly easily to alleviate cognitive dissonance. A productive person who creates value, helps other people, and takes a wage for that labor can nevertheless believe that a market is fundamentally unfair, and that there is some process by which people with higher incomes are exploiting others, even for purely Pareto-optimal interactions.

All this makes sense considering an evolutionary context. Our ancestors that waged war over resources cultivated the meme of distrust from a zero-sum environment that still plagues us today. We intuit that if one party is richer, it must be because another party is poorer. Biologically based evolved cognitive errors mean that anti-market bias is quite strong, strong enough to remain prevalent even in a modern capitalist society.

Just like religious scientists, leftists can easily compartmentalize contradictory beliefs. Will Wilkinson recently detailed, "American liberals talk a good game about equality, but their rhetoric, like conservative talk about liberty, is mostly empty." The default economic policy prescription of mainstream American leftists to grant more power to government officials clashes with the liberal idea of limiting power to protect the most vulnerable in society. These egalitarian ideas also clash with their authoritarian prescriptions that politicians can know better how to make decisions for their constituents than those constituents themselves.

I hear less from leftists about how to structure government policy than I do from libertarians. My hunch is that because their focus is on alleviating what they perceive as social or economic problems, they just assume that when the government sets out do fix something, the structure of the policy doesn't matter because the government, unconstrained by the profit motive, more easily acts in the public interest. Ignoring how people in government respond to incentives might be due in part to wishful thinking that public officials don't act in their self-interest. It may also stem from unawareness that special interests capture democracy.

College students' consumption of alcohol and game theory

An interesting new study suggests that when college students become aware of how much their peers actually drink, they tend to drink less. Social drinking is best described with game theory; drinking is a game because it depends so much on socialization. I hypothesize that most of the utility derived from drinking is due to signaling to peers, not only because drinking alone is stigmatized, but also because drinkers will always blatantly signal and seek status by displaying, discussing, and deliberating about what they drink and how much they drink. Because of psychological tendencies towards conformity, if a person thinks that their peers are drinking more, they will drink more. So, the Nash equilibrium is an artificially high number of drinks, due to incorrect information available to each agent, about the other agents. Each individual agent believes that the other agents are drinking more than they actually are, which drives up the consumption of each individual agent.

I know at UVA there have been campaigns to inform of how much other students actually drink. The campaigns presented the results of surveys about drinking habits that had been administered to students. The existence of these campaigns were probably predicated on the ideas presented in this study.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sam Shirazi on the situation in Iran

My friend Sam Shirazi recently commented on the situation in Iran, and on what religion has to do with it. He gave me permission to post his comments here. Also, know that the mainstream media has been really awful in their coverage of the situation, so if you want more, Andrew Sullivan has been great.

The Situation in Iran Explained
Sam Shirazi
June 15, 2009; 1:02am

Since the American media is doing such a bad job and I know a lot of people want to learn
more about what is going on in Iran, I have made a note summarizing the situation.

1. Background

Iran was supposed to have an election for the office of President. The initial screening process eliminates many possible candidates and the government selects who can actually run. Off the bat, this means that the election process in Iran are not completely free. However in the past, the actual elections have been rather representative of the votes the people cast. The election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami with over 70% of the vote in 1997 is an example of this. Thus Iranians had a certain amount of faith in the voting process and this is why it was such a shock when the election was so blatantly fraudulent. The people believed that the regime would at least accurately count their ballots and are now outraged when this promise has been broken.

2. The Election Was a Fraud

There are numerous pieces of evidence to suggest why the election was a complete fraud. I would refer you to Juan Cole's article because it does such an excellent job:

http://www.juancole.com/2009/06/stealing-iranian-election.html

3. This Was not an Election; this Was a Coup

It was clear that Mousavi, the moderate candidate, was going to win the election and not hardline incumbent President Ahmadinejad. This win would have meant that the hardliners in power would have to compete with a movement trying to change the system. Instead of accepting this result, the hardliners have effectively perpetrated a coup within the system in order to seize complete power from the moderates. This is significant because it demonstrates deep rifts within the regime with two clear camps emerging. The current Supreme Leader Khameini and President Ahmadinejad represent the faction of the hardliners who perpetrated the coup. Mousavi, Khatami, and Rafsanjani (a former President of Iran who currently hold important positions in the government and has much influence) are in the more moderate camp who are being purged out of the system. This article shows an Iranian journalist's explanation of why the current situation is a coup:

http://www.rferl.org/content/Recognizing_Irans_Election_As_An_Election_Is_A_Crime_Against_Democracy/1754106.html

4. What's Next

The hardliner's have made their move. We must wait and see how the moderates and the rest of the country responds. Questions abound: how much support do the moderates have, will they negotiate with the hardliners, what final outcome do the moderates ultimate want (1. A new election 2. Major changes to the system 3. complete regime change), what is the endgame to the entire situation? Basically all the chaos that is unfolding is the attempts to wrest control from the hardliners who have seized power in a coup. These efforts can be categorized as a sort of counter-coup that is unfolding in the streets of Iran.

One thing is for certain: the situation is far from over.

p.s. One personal thing I would like to add. The protesters you see on TV and the internet are going out there with the possibility of imprisonment, injury, or even death. They are truly brave heroes who are really fighting for freedom and democracy at a time when those words are thrown around like they do not mean anything. I hope we can all realize how lucky we are to live in a country where we can express our political views and campaign for our causes and candidates without fear of anything bad happening to us.



There have been a lot of misconceptions about how religion plays out in the current protests in Iran so I thought I would clear a few things up. I would just want to qualify this by saying that I am not religious at all, but that one of the main ways of looking at the current situation is through religion:

1. Supreme Leader Khameini is not the leading religious figure in Iran

Contrary to reports that Supreme Leader Khamenei is the highest religious figure in Iran, the fact is many other clerics out rank him based on religious credentials. Khamenei is indeed the leading political figure in Iran, but he did not achieve his office as a result of his standing as the leading Ayatollah in Iran. He was designated to be Supreme Leader by the leader of the 1979 revolution Ayatollah Khomeini and draws much of his legitimacy based solely on Khomeini’s decision 20 years ago. Moreover people call him the rank of Ayatollah, but many observers believe he does not actually have the credentials to warrant such a title. Thus Khamenei is not as popular a figure as you would think and that is why his certification of the election did not matter.

2. Supreme Leader Khameini does have a check on his power

Even though people argue that Khamenei has limitless power, there is at least a theoretical check on his power. Under the Iranian constitution, a 86 member body of clerics called the Assembly of Experts selects the Supreme Leader. Theoretically they can remove the Supreme Leader if he does not effectively perform his duties. This fact is important because former President Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts and many call him the second most powerful man in Iran. Rafsanjani is one fiercest critics of Ahmadinejad and is widely seen as a centrist pragmatic politician who supports Mousavi. There are rumors swirling that he is Iran’s holy city of Qom to round up votes to possibly remove Khamenei from power. Thus Khamenei does not enjoy the full support of the people or the religious establishment.

3. This is not the Ayatollahs/Mullahs vs. the people

The news has described this as an uprising against the Ayatollahs and Mullahs in Iran by the people. The fact is that the religious establishment is not unified in one camp or another and some of the Ayatollahs and clerics support the protesters. In fact Iran’s actual highest religious leader is Ayatollah Montazeri and he recently put out a statement in support of the protestors saying, “a government not respecting people’s vote has no religious or political legitimacy.” Ayatollah Sanei issued a Fatwa or religious edict saying that it was a sin to manipulate with the votes of an election. That is not to say that there are not Ayatollahs who support Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but the point is that the people are not protesting against all the Ayatollahs. The people are protesting with the support of many of reformist clerics in Iran against the hardline rulers of the country.

4. The reformist are not secular

The idea that the moderate or reformist elements are secular Western style liberals is not accurate. Mousavi who is the main challenger to Ahmadinejad in the recent election served as Prime Minister of Iran in the years following the revolution. Another reformist candidate in these elections was Karroubi who is a cleric. Moreover, former President Khatami who is a leading reformer in the current protests is also a cleric. The above mentioned Rafsanjani is also a cleric which is a requirement to be in the Assembly of Experts. Indeed Mousavi and other reformist have repeatedly invoked religious imagery in their campaign and have told the people to shout God is Great as a protest. While part of this is to cover their protest as within the bounds of the Islamic Republic, it is clear that many of the protesters are deeply religious.

5. A second Islamic Revolution

There has been a lot of talk that Iran is still a very religious country and thus Ahmadinejad has a large base of support in the country. Thus many have argued that the election may not have been that fraudulent and that the protesters make up a vocal minority of the country. As I have laid out, the reformist are made up of many of these religious Iranians and have a strong base of support within the religious establishment. They represent a new version of Islam that accepts freedom and justice as Islamic virtues. This contrasts with many of the hardliners who have been running the country who believe in a more militant and repressive versions of Islam. The battle between these two visions of Islam is now taking place in Iran, and the winner will determine the future of Iran and possibly political Islam. While there is certainly complicated power dynamics and personal ambitions in play in Iran, much of what is going on can be viewed as a battle between two visions of Islam. That is why I describe much of what is going on now as a second Islamic Revolution to reclaim the true nature of Islam.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Chomsky and Intellectuals of the Far Left

Recently Noam Chomsky was interviewed on Citizen Radio. His position on the war on drugs is strangely wrong, and seriously misguided. LEAP, which is a wonderful organization that I praise, respect, love, and support, has a promotional image on their site of prominent figures from the left and right who "agree" on ending the war on drugs. I don't know about Barbara Ehrenreich or Howard Zinn, but I'm not sure that Chomsky's opinion is really in the same spirit as a libertarian like Milton Friedman or an old conservative like William F. Buckley. Chomsky is not a critic of the war on drugs like these critics are. While it's good to have another prominent critic of the war on drugs, the foundations of Chomsky's objections to the United States' current drug policy are so twisted and bizarre that I wonder if his voice is any help at all for advocacy of this important issue.

In the interview, Chomsky maintains the idiotic view that the government could get rid of drugs if that were the true goal, but this isn't happening because drug policy is actually a cover for a malicious scheme to justify military intervention in Latin America, to stifle leftist movements and make way for evil capitalists to invade and enslave the peasants, by wage slavery of course. There's a certain elegance to the consistency here, but like most things Chomsky says about politics, this all falls apart when examined against the facts. If all this sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, I'm not. The insanity from the far left really is this stupid. The belief in the efficacy of government action, particularly an enormous project like ridding the country of drugs, is a kind of secular mysticism.

Preaching about the ability of government to accomplish such a ridiculously enormous task should set off warning bells to even a minimally competent reader. The U.S. government has demonstrated for decades that it is totally incapable of limiting the supply of drugs in any meaningful way, wasting billions of dollars in enforcement, yet Chomsky thinks, "There isn't any war on drugs. If there was a war on drugs, the government would take measures which it knows could control the use of drugs." This blind faith in government is typical unreason from Chomsky and the far left.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris excellently dissects the troubling latent religious foundation for the war on drugs. He explains that the morality characteristic of religion, morality that justifies authoritarian interference in personal choices is the true underlying cause of the war on drugs. This is useful insight. The authoritarian institution of the war on drugs is justified in exactly the same way as the authoritarian institution of religion. Many secularists find no objection to drug policy, because they see it as perfectly legitimate to use state violence to interfere with personal choices. I find Harris's account accurate and useful because when advocating for a change in drug policy, it's easy to get caught up in factual presentation of the costs associated with drug policy, costs that are disastrously higher than the stated benefits. Jumping to a cost-benefit analysis of government policy can be persuasive to intellectually honest policy wonks, but such analysis misses a more basic point that it is not legitimate to use state power to try to reduce or eliminate recreational drugs.

Chomsky's nonsense reads like a fringe conspiracy theory. He believes that the federal government is intentionally failing the stated goals of the war on drugs to pursue ulterior motives unrelated to the authoritarian moralistic case for cracking down on drugs. That moralistic drive, by the way, should seem perfectly acceptable to leftists who believe that government should act to enforce a collective will, and that better health could and should be achieved by preventing access to dangerous substances. Chomsky names those ulterior motives concerning drug policy, "Out-of-country operations are just a cover for counter-insurgency, or for clearing land in Columbia and driving out peasants so multi-national corporations can come in for mining, and resource-extraction, and agribusiness, and macra production, and so on." So, what explains the billions of dollars allocated domestically to curb the supply of drugs? Chomsky ignores all these inconvenient facts that directly expose his ideas as nonsense.

Economics and psychology have shown that people respond to incentives, yet leftists ignore individual response to incentives. One destructive incentive regarding drug policy is that part of the funding of police departments is directly linked to the amount of arrests they make for illegal drugs. There's no good reason to think that cops are malicious thugs who enjoy terrorizing citizens to stop them from experiencing pleasure. The rhetoric from Chomsky and other figures on the left is riddled with the fundamental attribution error, as if those in government are really just evil and love to oppress the masses. While I agree with leftists that there has been a lot to hate about George W. Bush in the past eight years, I've found it painful to hear leftists act as if Bush agreed with them on everything and did the opposite, just because he's evil. He's not evil. He's wrong. The visceral hatred of Bush in the past decade has been too acceptable in place of solid political reasoning in liberal and libertarian circles. It has induced the atrophy of substantive political discourse.

Chomsky is really smart, or at least widely respected, and yet he so blatantly promotes some of the most backwards, wrong ideas that it would seem he must be doing so willfully. He harps on negative externalities, as if this is a huge problem with the foundation of capitalism, yet he doesn't advocate for Pigovian taxes or efficient tort. He just writes this off as one more reason why capitalism is immoral. That he ignores the obvious solutions is evidence of intellectually dishonest, ideological blathering.

His claim regarding "private tyrannies" commits the fallacy of composition, if his argument is that because private companies have top-down management, a society with an economy comprised of such companies is similarly repressive and dictatorial. Ben O'Neill points out that the more basic reason that his claim is wrong. The relationship to a government is not voluntary. An agreement with a specific company is a voluntary contract between the employee and that company. Leftists get this so wrong. In a free market, private companies do not have institutional legal protection to directly coerce their employees or their customers, though indeed it is problematic when big companies buy off political power. Governments are different; governments grant themselves legal protection to use violence where they see fit. Still, in the wacky world of the far left, private companies are considered oppressive.

Paying taxes is not a voluntary action that demonstrates either a collective will or consent to a social contract, no matter how much leftists say that it is or want it to be so. If you don't pay your taxes, a representative of the government will show up to your home and forcefully imprison you against your will. Chomsky demonstrates so clearly that he doesn't understand the crucial distinction between a private company and a government:

The most extreme banning of a book I've ever experienced -- or for that matter heard of -- was in the US. The first book that Edward Herman (economist at the U Penn business school, Wharton) and I wrote together was published in the early 70s by a small but flourishing textbook publisher. It was called Counterrevolutionary Violence. They printed 20,000 copies, and started publishing ads. One of the ads was seen by an executive at the conglomerate that owned the publisher, Warner publications, now part of Time-Warner-AOL. He didn't like it, asked to see the book, and when he saw it, went berserk. He ordered the publisher to withdraw it, and when they refused, he closed the publisher down, destroying all their stock.

I brought the matter to the attention of civil libertarians, but they didn't see any problem. Ideological fanaticism in the US considers only government interference with freedom of speech to be illegitimate. Private tyrannies can do what they want. Warner also tried to prevent us from publishing it elsewhere, claiming copyright, etc. It was a bit of a legal hassle, but their claim was so absurd that we finally just went ahead and published a much extended version (Political Economy of Human Rights).

His error, which is typical from the left, is to conflate negative and positive rights. A government that bans a book violates the right to free speech, but a company that refuses to publish a book does not. In fact, using the government to force a company to publish a book, a leftist "remedy," violates the rights of the people in that company. Even those on the far left who don't believe in property rights can still recognize that compelled speech is a violation of freedom as well, yet they fail to connect that this is exactly what it would mean to force a company to publish a book. The cognitive dissonance from these leftists must be unbearable.

Chomsky's conception of "private tyrannies" is quite misguided, but his frequent usage of the term "private tyranny" is interesting for another reason. He's well qualified as a linguist to criticize certain uses of language in political discourse that frame issues deceptively, but by promulgating the term "private tyranny," he's trying to deceive with language as well. The term is concise and memorable. It's a rhetorical shortcut that skips over a giant claim that requires much more explanation. Of course, if the actual argument is stated clearly and dissected, it is easily seen as the elementary philosophical error of conflating negative and positive rights. Furthermore, if the top-down management of private companies really embodied tyranny, the oppressive dynamic would be self-evident, and his attempt to influence political discourse with a hyperbolic, sophomoric talking point would not be necessary. He pretends that he's a dispassionate commentator about power structures encoded in language use, but he's very much involved in the game.

In another context, defending evolution from intelligent design, Eugenie Scott coined the term "Gish gallop" to describe a frustratingly effective rhetorical technique. The offender puts forth so much nonsense and gibberish that the person constrained by reason and logic does not have time to effectively communicate their position. I suspect that Chomsky's enormous output of political writing over his career is sloppy, beyond admirable prolificacy; I suspect that this career is a form of the Gish gallop, over a lifespan.

In my experience, when I have explained political power as force to statists, they get uncomfortable yet cannot substantively object. Haidt's Social Intuitionist Model seems to explain these interactions well. Humans generally don't actually reason to get to a conclusion. We just come up with reasons to justify our intuitions. This is an important clue as to why intellectuals lean left.

After Chomsky's nonsense can be exposed for it's incorrectness and intellectual dishonesty, a larger question remains. Why do intellectuals lean left? When I first considered this question, I considered it very a very important question and quandary, because it appeared to me that the smartest people leaned left while I supported free markets. What could I have been missing? I was wrong for a few reasons.

First, it's fallacious to rely on a claim that libertarian ideas are wrong because many smart people say so. This would be a fallacious argument from authority. The claim is wrong for another reason as well. Intellectuals are not the smartest people. They are only the vectors of ideas. During the Bush administration, the smartest people opposed Bush vehemently. Most people opposed Bush, and the smartest figures on the left could easily attack Bush's shenanigans. Bush did not represent a principled case for free markets, so it was easy for the left to gain influence by calling his disastrous fiscal policy "deregulation," no matter how inappropriate that description actually is.

Jonah Goldberg, in his talk at U.Va. this past year, mentioned that the Republican Party has two elements, the economic libertarians and the social conservatives. This is true, but Richard Posner broke the elements of the party down further than that on his blog. Posner describes a third element, the war hawks, and these three groups are in conflict. Both Posner and Becker have written much about the dynamics of the Republican Party, which really has been a shaky coalition for decades. It's obvious that the social conservatives have been dominating the party for decades now. With such a dynamic, it's easy to see why conservatism can be framed as stupid. Social conservatives have crowded out the smart, intellectual defenders of the free market. Members of the left aren't smarter than members of the right; the real intellectual ideas on the right have been widely misrepresented when Republican free-marketeers were totally absent. The economic prescriptions from the left are really as mystical, stupid, and unacceptable as the social prescriptions derived from religiosity on the right. Of course, there exists plenty of that same religiosity on the left, alongside the secular legacy of Marxist traditions.

Perhaps another reason why prominent intellectuals generally lean left is that more smart free-marketeers gravitate towards the business world, realizing that they can earn more money than they would in academia. The leftists remain in academia to become the intellectuals. That's not the whole story though.

The leftist intellectuals have only ever known academia, and academia really conditions them to view solutions to problems in ways inconsistent with the economic theory of a market economy. Central planning seems to work in the classroom, and people accomplish lots of things absent of the profit motive. In the mind of the leftist intellectual, the evolved capacities for empathy, altruism, and reciprocal altruism are extended beyond the point of what is actually feasible. Individual response to incentives is ignored.

Chomsky's "Gish gallop" is really amazing because he has incorporated a technique whereby he can just ignore facts and make up his own version of the events he describes, by referencing the propaganda model. Somehow, magically, he has the rationality to interpret the news and separate fact from fiction, but the public is manipulated by a hierarchy, and public opinion is subverted to corporate interests. It all sounds like a really bad conspiracy theory. The propaganda model of course contributes to common leftist fears of media concentration. The model is really a feat of mysticism. In response to a question after one of his lectures on Gaza, Chomsky actually describes his access to truth about politics through the propagandized news by comparing it to acquiring knowledge through the scientific method.

Chomsky claims that he aims to liberate people from oppressive power structures, but it is clear that he is just another totalitarian, and his anarchism is faux.

Extreme leftism will be around as long as religion is. Naive minds will try to apply evolved cognitive capacities for cooperation to the political process far beyond what is actually feasible or desirable. Because of this and the Social Intuitionist Model, it's best to enjoy the debate, but keep in mind why reason alone won't obliterate disastrous leftist ideas.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Charlie Lynch to be sentenced on Thursday


Charlie Lynch is due to be sentenced on Thursday. All supporters are encouraged to attend.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Excess of police and security in D.C.?

I've been in D.C. for only a few days now, and I'm puzzled by what seems to be an inappropriate excess of idle security guards and police patrolling the streets, more than anywhere else I can recall. My hunch, without any numeric data at all, and with a libertarian bias, is that this is an inefficient allocation of resources. I suspect that there are far more security guards and police officers supplied than what might be a market demand for them. I can imagine some bureaucrats making the decision to hire more and more police and security guards as a way of curbing unemployment in the city, because this is the capital, and they have the funds from the taxpayers. I don't know whether local services such as police are funded purely though local taxes, but I would guess that security guards for federal buildings are paid with federal dollars. I can understand why local police might be federally funded.

Just minutes ago I was bewildered as a police officer sat down in his car, then immediately, within seconds, turned his lights on and pulled over a car that was passing by. Maybe I didn't notice if this car ran a red light or was missing some easily noticeable required sticker, but if it were neither of those, the officer's decision to pull this person over was too fast to have checked the speed or run the plates.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Screening of Nick Tucker's Not As Good As You Think

My friend Nicholas Tucker is screening his latest film, Not As Good As You Think, at the Heritage Foundation tomorrow. The trailer looks great, and if his film Do As I Say is any indicator of how this film is, it is sure to be excellent. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend, but if you're in the D.C area, you should check it out.

NAGAYT Final Trailer from Nicholas Tucker on Vimeo.

Friday, May 15, 2009

New blog by Tade Souaiaia

My friend Tade Souaiaia has an excellent new blog. I particularly enjoyed the post on racial profiling. His writing and analysis is sure to be brilliant and insightful.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

We Won

So, I organized a protest regarding the sign. We won.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Idiotic attempt to restrict photography of new Calder sculpture

This week a new sculpture was installed here at the University of Virginia. It's an ugly, worthless piece, one that I wouldn't even classify as art. Anyone with the ability to cut sheet metal could make this eyesore. I overheard some girls who were talking about it say that this is the same artist who set up the orange gates in Central Park in New York City, as if that project gives this piece any more status. It's a piece by Calder, who died in the 1970s, so I think those girls were misinformed.

I didn't notice this on the display sign the first time I glanced at it yesterday, but upon examining the sign more closely today, I saw that the sign actually tries to prohibit photography of the piece without written permission from the Calder Foundation.


Well, this is totally stupid, unenforceable, and illegal. Remember, UVA is a state school.

For defiance of this idiotic threat, I snapped a photo of both the stupid sign and the ugly, worthless sculpture itself to share with my dear readers. So here's a photo of this piece of garbage, and I did not get written permission from the Caldwell Foundation to take this photo. See, unlike most people who might be deterred by this sign from photographing this large hunk of trash, I know the law. Photography is not a crime when conducted from public property, on the sidewalk, where I was. Bring it on, Calder Foundation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fate on Hold: Will Medical Marijuana Dispensary Owner Charlie Lynch Go to Jail?

Sentencing for Charlie Lynch delayed

The sentencing for Charlie Lynch was delayed. Judge Wu wants to take time to review information from the Justice Department, in light of Attorney General Eric Holder's statement that persons distributing medical marijuana are only to be prosecuted federally if they have demonstrably broken both state law and federal law.

This makes Lynch's situation strange, for a few reasons. In his trial, prosecutors only relied on federal law, which was all they needed to secure a conviction. By Bush's protocol, state law was totally irrelevant. Lynch's attorneys tried as hard as they could to demonstrate that Lynch broke absolutely no state law, but that was irrelevant to any of the charges for which he was actually convicted. It's unclear what information is on the record that demonstrates either how Lynch was totally compliant with state law, or how the prosecution lacked and ignored any evidence of Lynch violating state law. State law was officially irrelevant to both the prosecution and the defense when the trial took place.

Lynch is technically still in the process of being prosecuted, so Wu could read the recent shift in federal policy as grounds to dismiss this case altogether now. He might not do that though, because there doesn't seem to be any actual law that Wu could refer to. Wu may interpret the recent change to apply only to protocol for the DEA to initiate a case, but not to cases that have already commenced. That would seem like an unfair reading, since the prosecution would have had to prove in trial after the DEA raid that that raid was only conducted because of violation of state law. Again, the prosecution never bothered with this because it was irrelevant, and the DEA certainly didn't conduct their raids on Lynch's dispensary or home with state law in mind, because state law was irrelevant.

If Littrell and Cohen provide Wu sufficient documentation that the federal change in policy applies to prosecution at any stage, there's a chance that this whole nightmare for Charlie will be over soon.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Government or Newspapers

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. --Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Growth in Facebook group about Charlie Lynch since the Stossel special


There's been a nice amount of growth to the Facebook group since Friday night's 20/20.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Recent Press about Charlie Lynch

Of course you've seen John Stossel's 20/20 special that ran last night, but you may not have caught all the other press about Charlie. Here's what's popped up from my Google alerts.

In case you missed Stossel's segment on Charlie, here it is.

Also, as always, check Friends of CCL.

Beer: An American Revolution

How the microbrew movement gave rise to massive consumer choice

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eyewitness Testimony - 60 Minutes


Watch CBS Videos Online

Watch CBS Videos Online

Prop 8 and democracy

I didn't notice the contradiction before, but it is strange to see how the most liberal opponents of Proposition 8 are the same people who treat democracy as the ultimate be-all and end-all. I would hope that out of this fiasco, more liberals realize that while democracy is a useful check on the problems of monarchy and other authoritarian forms of government, democracy isn't a political end in itself. The real end that would have allowed gay marriage would be the government protection of individual rights, but such protection was obliterated when the decision was left up to the voters of California.

Is the despair and outrage about the actual policy change, or is it from the realization that so many people still hold backward, bigoted beliefs? The polls leading up to the election were close, so the statewide opinion was no surprise. So the outrage was about the change in policy. Since that's the case, liberals should rethink optimal political structures, because this episode of democracy surely did not produce the desired outcomes.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Come to a Reason.tv Viewing Party on Friday, March 13!

I'll be at the Reason headquarters on Friday for a great event. Come out if you're in the area. I'm looking forward to what I'm sure will be a great time.

Please join Reason for a special evening of drinks, food, and conversation on Friday, March 13, from 8pm til midnight.

We'll be gathering at our Washington, D.C. headquarters for a viewing party of the new John Stossel 20/20 special "Bailouts, Big Spending, and Bull." Featuring segments on medical marijuana, universal preschool, traffic congestion, immigration, and more, the show was inspired by episodes of Drew Carey's award-winning Reason.tv videos and features an appearance by The Price Is Right host.

Prior to the airing of the special, Reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie will lead a fast-paced discussion and audience Q&A on the issues covered in 'Bailouts, Big Spending, and Bull."

The evening's speakers include:

* Rob Kampia, Marijuana Policy Project, on drug policy

* Dana Berliner, Institute for Justice, on eminent domain abuse

* Veronique de Rugy, Mercatus Center, on bailouts and stimulus spending

* Dan Lips, Heritage Foundation, on universal preschool

* Shikha Dalmia, Reason Foundation, on immigration policy

* Shirley Ybarra, Reason Foundation, on traffic congestion and transportation

Doors open at 8pm; program begins at 8.30pm; 20/20 airs at 10pm ET.

Soft and hard drinks and light fare will be served. The event is free and open to the public but space is limited. Please RSVP to events@reason.com.

Reason would like to thank Marijuana Policy Project, the Institute for Justice, Mercatus, The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Golden Door Foundation, and the Lagunitas Brewing Company for their generous help in underwriting this event.

What: Reason.tv viewing party for John Stossel's 20/20 special "Bailouts, Big Spending, and Bull"

When: Friday March 13, 2009, 8pm-midnight

Where: Reason DC HQ, 1747 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington DC

RSVP: events@reason.com

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

reason.tv John Stossel 20/20 Special

Mark your calendar or set your DVR for John Stossel's upcoming 20/20 special.

Bull---- in America!
An ABC News John Stossel Special featuring Drew Carey and Reason.tv


In his next special, John Stossel takes his shovel to six piles of "Bull---- in America!"— the crackdown on medical marijuana, universal preschool, traffic congestion, eminent domain, border walls, and the myth of the struggling middle class—all inspired by Drew Carey's Reason.tv videos.

Tentative Air date: Friday, March 13 on ABC (check local listings)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A libertarian critique of corporate power

Often times libertarians are seen as defenders of big business, because of big business's contrast with government. It's true that the relationship between a government and a corporation is different, because a corporation does not have the legal protection to coerce its customers, at least directly. Still, I'll argue here that intellectual defense of corporations is bad for libertarianism, and actually contradictory to advocacy for a free market.

I don't criticize concentrations of private wealth as unjustified power, but it is a problem that very wealthy entities can buy off political power, creating de jure or de facto barriers to entry, and thus circumventing the free market through government protection. It's a popular left-wing myth that big business is a product of the free market. Big business is actually an enemy of the free market.

I started thinking about this a few months ago from an excellent essay by Roderick Long. Long makes his points better than I can about the subject, but I'll offer my thoughts, after having his ideas brew in my head for a while. As I see it, big business isn't bad intrinsically because of an accumulation of wealth. It's a left-wing fallacy that trade is zero-sum, and that concentrations of wealth are illegitimate because that wealth is being withheld from "the people" out of greed and selfishness. Accumulation of wealth is often be a sign that economic institutions are functioning properly, that people are secure in their property rights. If any entity really attains wealth in a free market, there is nothing objectionable. Corporations today though, haven't achieved their wealth in a free market.

It's important to understand the institutions that produce this regrettable situation. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did government grant illegitimate legal protections to businesses, or did big businesses grow by themselves and buy off political power to protect themselves from market forces? It's definitely both, but one body, to my mind, gets the blame. It's the body that operates by violence, the government. If the government actually limited itself to protecting property rights, and didn't involve itself in arbitrarily and unfairly violating property rights and interfering in market transactions, then no corporate entity would be capable of the abuses that we some coming from these monstrosities today. Furthermore, if you're the CEO of one of these corporations, and popular opinion, indeed both inside and outside of government, holds that a legitimate function of government is to reallocate property and institute legal protections from the big scary market, you'd be a fool not to take advantage of such laws, especially when competitors would be doing so. These corporations, with governmental approval, steal land and resources, pollute with impunity, and prevent good companies from challenging them by legitimate competition. These problems can't be resolved if the body that's supposed to keep such abuses in check, the government, goes along with the corporate plan, granting legal protection. Often politicians get flat-out bribes, or they're simply misguided, when offered higher tax revenues from the productive activities of a local business. So the interest in these two bodies should not align, but they often do. Private-public partnerships are totally unaccountable. This is tyranny.

Some have made the case to me that big businesses are more efficient, which I don't accept. It's true that large businesses might be able to bargain collectively to get especially cheap capital and labor, but this is actually inefficient, for the very same same reasons that cartels are. A competitive market is actually more efficient, but it's more fair. Collective bargaining for cheap prices is not more efficient; it's more coercive. This dynamic is a step closer to exploitation than the dynamic that a free market would produce, because a large business can bargain collectively. In foreign labor markets, large corporations are monopsonies. With their market power in the labor market, they can trade producer surplus for consumer surplus.

This does not mean that I'm an opponent of Wal-Mart because they "exploit" foreign workers. Actually I'm glad that there are lots sweatshops abroad, but I also recognize that these workers aren't getting as much as they should be getting for their labor, what they would get in a more competitive market. Notice that my position is not left-wing. Left-wingers advocate that wages should be set higher by government, because they think that corporations are maliciously withholding wages. Of course, those left-wingers also don't really understand the political institutions that create wealth, and assume that if not for greedy companies, we could just distribute wealth more evenly to people who are poorer. This is nonsense. Such policy is not compatible with sustainable wealth. Alas, I've digressed.

So, I hope I've already made a convincing case that getting cheap goods isn't from the efficiency of big business. There's another reason, which I touched on before, on why big business is actually more inefficient than when operating in a market. As I explained before, big businesses can buy off political power specifically so that they don't have to be efficient in the market. They can afford to produce worse products and charge an inappropriately high price, with impunity, when not subject to market discipline. So the Left advocates for government intervention to correct for these inefficiencies. The position of the Right is just reactionary, arguing that government will produce worse outcomes than what a market would. This is true, but those on the Right miss the fact that corporate monstrosities aren't operating in a free market. Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky actually seem to understand this, but much to my irritation they still do not recognize the superiority of truly free markets. This is typical inconsistency and unreason from the Left. Klein and Chomsky aside, most of those on the Left miss the point entirely, since they're totally ignorant of the fact that a free market wouldn't produce the objectionable inefficiencies from large institutions for which they want to correct. It is idiotic to institute legal protections that produce big business and then call for regulation when these problems ensue. The problems of inefficiency arising from the massive market power of big businesses are intrinsic to the structural political arrangement.

This idiotic cycle happens because politicians, and most people for that matter, only think in the short term. Psychology informs us as to just how irrational we humans are. Such irrationality is much more problematic when there's political power behind decisions. Is it any surprise that we get disastrous policies like bailouts?

I've conflated corporations and big business in my discussion here, but I can offer an excellent critique specifically about limited liability. I find the reasoning in the article persuasive. This is an important point, describing the actual mechanism of illegitimate growth of businesses. A corollary to this point is that bankruptcy laws are at least highly questionable, and at most, totally illegitimate.

So, in short, a free market would not produce the kind of unaccountable big businesses that we see today. That's a good thing, and libertarians should embrace this fact.