Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sound Bites vs. Complexity

I don't want to spend a ton of time talking about Rand Paul... But recent events certainly provide a fine jumping-off point for something I've wanted to discuss on this blog for a long time. For those who don't know (who could that be at this point?), Rand Paul was on the Rachel Maddow show the other night and she sort of "caught" him with some loaded questions about the Civil Rights Act.

The gist of it is this: On NPR and on a few other news shows, Dr. Paul was asked about whether or not - were this 1964 (which as I wrote recently... it most certainly is not) - he would support the Civil Rights Act.

On those programs, much like on the bigger platform of The Rachel Maddow Show, Rand's answer is a complicated one. Here's a chunk of the transcript:
MADDOW: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?
PAUL: I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race.

But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific "gotcha" on this, but asking the question: what about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it. I think the problem with this debate is by getting muddled down into it, the implication is somehow that I would approve ofany racism or discrimination, and I don't in any form or fashion.
There's a lot more, but that's the basic idea... Maddow, predictably, keeps pushing for a sound bite - in general one where Rand Paul would say something akin to "I support segregation!"

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in libertarianism in the mainstream thanks to Ron Paul & the Campaign for Liberty, and the generic anti-government/anti-tax sentiments flowing from the Tea Parties and for whatever reason, that's set a number of the statists out there on high alert. I'm not really sure why the basic ideas of liberty are so incredibly threatening to some people, but a lot of effort has been spent lately on trying to brand people like Dr. Paul as regressive racists who want a segregated nation or to go back to the days of Jim Crow.

Now, nothing could be further than the truth, but it is true that a lot of people - like me - in the libertarian camp hold a number of views that go wildly against the mainstream.

A lot of these views are the product of many years of extremely deep study in history, philosophy & economics... In my case, it's the culmination of thousands upon thousands of pages of literature, hundreds of hours of media consumption, and probably tens of thousands of hours of serious thought and debate on a lot of different issues. I know it's the same for a lot of libertarians... And it kind of has to be!

Think about it... Like most Americans, I had an entirely public education for 13 years.  I was taught the same stuff as everybody else... I was constantly inundated with wonderful tales of the Federal Government sweeping in and making everybody's lives better. Best President EVERtm, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery; FDR saved us from the Great Depression; the Civil Rights Act help end racism; the ADA makes life better for disabled people; Unions & Minimum Wage laws protect workers from the evils of the Robber Barons.  Yep, the list goes on and on and I was taught 100% of it, just like you.

But upon deeper study, I've come to realize that most everything I was ever told was complete bullshit.

And it's that real education & deeper understanding that leads to a serious conflict between sound bites & the complex arguments that might produce them.  Let's try a few:
Sound Bite: Abraham Lincoln wasn't really a great president.
Abraham Lincoln really didn't care all that much about ending slavery - in fact, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to those states that had left the Union, in other words it only "freed" slaves in states where Lincoln had no power... States like Tennessee, Louisiana and eventually West Virginia which were controlled by the Federal government, were exempted. Additionally, any state that returned to Federal control was promised that they could return to having slaves.

Sure seems like "The Great Emancipator" wasn't all that principled about expanding liberty... And that's without mentioning some of Lincoln's seriously unsavory, even - dare I say it - tyrannical moments like imprisoning people without trial and suspension of Habeas Corpus. So I really don't like Abraham Lincoln that much, nor do I think he should be mentioned in any list of "American heroes".  He definitely shouldn't be the poster boy for liberating slaves...

Know who might be a better choice for that moniker?  Libertarian philosopher; Lysander Spooner, who was opposed to slavery on principle, rather than just because it served his purposes of increasing Federal power... Even better might have been Frederick Douglass - who, instead of having a meaningful place in classrooms on this topic winds up being relegated to "Black History Month".

So there's one... What else?
Sound Bite: FDR's "New Deal" was a horrible thing for America".
The FDR myths are some of the most pervasive and the most annoying... Especially the economic ones.

There are so many to choose from.  I wrote about the ridiculousness of viewing Herbert Hoover as a "hands off" sort of guy a year ago. The irony of that is that FDR basically expanded on a lot of the horrendous policies that Hoover engaged in and - not at all unlike Barack Obama's policies compared to Bush - just took a situation from bad to worse.

What blows my mind is that with all the other depressions in U.S. History, like the one in 1920 for example, which lasted a year - the one that included the New Deal lasted almost 15. In what possible universe is that the one we call a huge policy success?!?

The myth is that without the New Deal, the depression would have lasted longer - but in reality, there was nothing special about the 1929 stock market crash. The depression 10 years earlier was just as bad, if not worse, and we don't even learn about that one in school.  That one also didn't have a government grabbing immense new powers over the economy.  Hmm... If you actually heard about it, it might make you wonder if there was some kind of correlation.

All sarcasm aside, the logic of New Deal economics is completely and utterly insane.

As I've had to explain repeatedly in the last few years, government gets its money from three sources: taxes, borrowing & printing.

Taxation merely takes from the private sector today, thereby reducing people's ability to take risks, start businesses & employ workers. Borrowing takes from the private sector tomorrow, putting a strain on people's future ability to do those things. And printing money merely robs people of purchasing power & sets up immense potential for artificially induced booms. No matter what they do, to pay for massive public works programs, they do so at the expense of private investment, completely negating the effects of the employment.  What's worse, since government has no way to learn what people actually need and want without prices, profits & losses, they invariably put people to work on projects that are just purely a waste of people's efforts - the WPA was a depressingly massive example of that.

There is so much to cover with New Deal myths that I couldn't possibly do so in a few paragraphs... Bob Murphy did a fine job in his book; The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression & the New Deal, but there's so much reading & research to understand all this... Murray Rothbard's economic history in; America's Great Depression is crucial, understanding Bastiat's "Seen and Unseen", Say's Law & other economic principles is crucial... No one could possibly cover all that ground in a 4 minute segment on TV.

Yet that's the only way to make a sound bite that completely goes against mainstream myths make any sense.

Ok... I'll do one more:
Sound Bite: Minimum wage laws hurt the very people they're intended to help - minorities and uneducated people most of all.
Everybody knows that Minimum Wage is a great thing for workers - without those laws, companies would have a "race to the bottom" where they just pay people less and less and less and everyone would become a "wage slave", right?

Aside from the fact that prior to minimum wage, competition for workers had raised incomes for everyone in America, minimum wage legislation is essentially a price control on labor - and like all price controls, the result is shortages.  In this case, unfortunately, the "good" in short supply is... Jobs. What minimum wage laws do is essentially set a legally enforced hurdle for potential employees.  I've explained this all in detail on this blog as well, so I won't re-do all that here, but the problem is that people see higher wages for those lucky enough to get jobs, but they don't bother to connect the dots and understand why such laws (and others) have contributed to the 25% unemployment rate among teens and the massive number of jobs leaving the United States for other countries.

Eliminating minimum wage laws would probably result in some drop in wages for some menial jobs, sure... But it would also result in a lot more opportunities for employment across the board and maybe, just maybe, encouraging some companies to bring some of those much ballyhooed manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Had those laws never existed in the first place, we'd be in a much better position than we are today...

So there they are... Did they teach me any of this in school?  Nope. Is this information actually pretty easy to find & verify? Hell yes!

But before any of the explanations (especially the far more complex "real" ones that I can't afford the space to put here) could possibly leave my mouth, saying something bad about FDR or Lincoln, the Civil Rights or Americans with Disabilities Acts or Minimum Wage would have most people in hysterics.

The real problem here is that there's simply no way to explain any of these kinds of things in a couple minutes. I'm used to doing this in forums where I can have lengthy debates, but I'm quite clearly aware of how any of these things sound without understanding them in context. So it's no surprise that mainstream America - who've all grown up with the myths & lies taught to them by lazy school teachers just like I did - are shocked and dismayed when someone like Rand Paul says something seemingly contrary to everything they grew up with.

Unsurprisingly, the only way many people can process these kinds of things is by questioning the motives of those making the "outrageous" claim. They also struggle immensely to understand the idea that even something abhorrent like racism shouldn't be legally outlawed for really important reasons.

Freedom is only meaningful if people are free to do things and to say things that other people don't like.

When we're talking about the Civil Rights Act - as Dr. Paul said, the vast majority of it is wonderful - because it repealed all of the laws that restricted the liberty of certain groups of people and limited citizens right to equal access to publicly provided services. It also did some more illiberal things that even if you made the argument that they were "necessary" in 1964, are certainly not necessary today - one of the worst of them is the government control of hiring and anti-discrimination laws that prevent private individuals from exercising their own rights to property.

It may sound like I'm defending Jim Crow racism, but the opposite is true - Jim Crow Laws prevented business owners from exercising their rights over their own property and added massive barriers to entry for blacks who might have wanted to set up their own competing businesses. The market actually punishes racism because artificially limiting your customer base results in lower revenue than someone who would accept everyone.  This is precisely why states made those laws to begin with.  Racists would have lost business to non-racists if those laws hadn't existed in the first place... People forget that it was the legal structure in place at the state level that was the problem, not at all a result of free people exercising their rights to association & property.

It was the laws that were the problem to begin with!

We wrote new laws that over-compensated for the old ones and set up a precedent where the government - and not private individuals - got to choose who business owners are allowed to hire, fire and who they can have as customers.  That's a dangerous game to be a part of and even what we have now largely amounts to thought crime.  If I hire someone who is the wrong skin color, I can be accused of racial discrimination, regardless of why I hired him.... How does one prove he isn't a racist? In the case of the employer, the cost of compliance winds up being keeping detailed records of applicants and hoping no one demands that you prove yourself.

That's the challenge many of my fellow libertarians and quasi-libertarians like Rand Paul have been forced to address lately and it's completely insane.

Arriving at the positions I hold today has taken years of fairly rigorous study, and the arguments in favor of the things I believe are well constructed, historically sound and have been repeatedly tested against the overwhelming majority of people in the world who believe in forcing people to do what they want... But it's taken about a decade to get here.  There's simply no way I or anyone else could explain the ins and outs of the whole thing in 2 minutes on TV. I'm happy to explain why I value freedom and individual rights over all types of egalitarianism, but it requires subtlety, intellect and a considerable amount of background - that's why a lot of my blog posts wind up being several pages long.

Unfortunately, arguments for the state are easy to turn into sound bites, and they almost all invariably invoke some form of scapegoat... "There's a problem, so we just write a law and force person X to do something about it".  Problem "solved". The state is little more than a hammer, and with such a tool it is possible to bludgeon many, many things with no concern for collateral damage. It is, as Washington recognized; force. A dangerous servant and a cruel master... Force is very easy to understand.

Do what the state wants or go to jail. Ok, then... But sadly, in the real world, it rarely works as intended.

The lesson here, I hope, is that the sound bite might be great at conveying ideas to the masses with no effort and no thought... But unfortunately the sound bites are almost invariably idiotic. We shouldn't be aiming for these "gotcha" moments, but actually developing the complex arguments and engaging in real debate. I doubt very much that will happen until people in the U.S. and around the world start thinking more critically and more deeply about philosophy & history, and actually realize that what they learned in 5th grade might not be the whole story.


Anonymous said...

Society is evolving and getting more complex for individuals and businesses. How can we deal with this increasing complexity where people and companies try to influence our decisions with false or unfounded claims?

Sean W. Malone said...

I actually don't really understand this line of reasoning... Yes, things are more complex now, but the internet and other mass communication tech has made it hundreds of times easier for the average man to fact check any and all claims.

20 years ago that wasn't really even possible. It is unquestionably easier to prevent those types of frauds today than ever before in human history. Besides, the real number of such cases where this is even an issue are exceedingly small.

Of course this isn't really what I'm talking about with "complexity", I'm talking about sophisticated arguments and points that may require more arcane & interdisciplinary knowledge to make.