Sunday, May 30, 2010

Impossible to Prove vs. Just Plain Wrong

As most everyone I know knows, I'm an atheist.

I have been for my whole life, and by the time I was around 12, I had started consciously solidifying philosophical reasons why. This post isn't precisely about that, however... It's about how to deal with spiritualism in other people.

Part of the problem is that - unlike most other atheists - I recognize that atheism is actually a philosophical choice, in some ways no different from believing in a god. In reality, proof of god certainly doesn't exist, but it's also impossible to prove a negative. Just because I have never seen or experienced anything "god-like" and just because there is no measurable sign of a supernatural being of any kind ever credibly observed doesn't actually mean that such a being doesn't exist.

He/she/it might be beyond our perception, or might have existed millions of years ago and has long since left our solar system.

I can't know... I recognize that reality. In the absence of that knowledge, I've chosen to take my beliefs one step beyond agnosticism. As far as I'm concerned, there is a wealth of evidence for why & how the world has come to be the way it is and 100% of that evidence has been attained not by positing some supernatural force, but by the exact opposite. So I feel pretty confident in saying that we don't actually need a god of any kind to explain the world or the people in it.

Science essentially relies on the metaphysical assumption that reality is real and operates on consistent principles, and the epistemological assumption that human beings are capable of objectively experiencing nature and discovering what those consistent principles are through observation, testing and most important - logical reasoning.

I believe this very strongly... Thus the name of this very blog.

Without necessarily going into the whole thing, it's also true that the fundamental philosophies you accept - especially the root of your philosophy like metaphysics and epistemology profoundly effect the way you view and interact with the world. For example, if you believe that reality isn't "real" - that is to say, that the "real world" as we all experience it is nothing but a construct of individual people's independent imaginations - then there is no way you can hold the epistemological view that anything is truly knowable. If you believe that, then every person in the world is either a construct of your own imagination, or we're all sharing one strange common delusion...

In that world, then science would be irrelevant, because there would be no consistency in the universe. Every person in the world would exist with a completely different set of physical laws. Everyone would have a different reality.

So different core beliefs in terms of what constitutes reality and how to obtain knowledge on that reality can result in some wildly different outcomes in terms of morality & ethics, political & religious views, and beliefs on art & aesthetics.

Now, fortunately the vast majority of people operate under the assumption that in fact, reality is real and consistent, and that we can observe patterns and use reasoning to learn about reality. People all grow up learning the same lessons... Fire is hot, ice is cold, trees can be climbed, water is liquid and it's not possible  to walk through walls - at least, not without considerable pain.

This is great cause it means that we all tend to be able to fairly easily communicate with each other and have an immense amount of common experiences on which to base interaction.

But... This doesn't mean people are devoid of superstition and belief in the supernatural.

In spite of most people believing - and acting on - provable observations and experiences in 99% of their dealings with the world, many people  are brought up to believe or develop beliefs in the supernatural  - that is:
Date: 15th century
1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2 a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)
The problem with a lot of this is that it goes directly against reason as the basis for epistemology. So even though people will rely heavily on reason & critical thinking in every aspect of their daily lives, sometimes they abandon when it comes to their deeply-rooted religious beliefs or in cases where they've allowed cognitive biases and the shortcuts human brains make to play tricks on them.

Here's where I think the whole thing gets interesting though...

Until a believer in the spiritual or supernatural makes a specific, testable claim, there is simply no way to reject their beliefs out of hand on logical or scientific grounds. A lot of atheists never grasp this and wind up over-simplifying the situation and turning into condescending jerks in the process. 

Richard Dawkins sometimes seems like a prime example of this...

A particularly hilarious South Park two-part story arc lampoons Dawkins for essentially asserting that evolution and science disproves the idea of god. I like the episode because it's actually true... Provided that we recognize that the definition of the word "god" is really pretty nebulous and varies from person to person.

That's the important part though... Depending on how you define god, and depending on the claims you establish with regard to the supernatural, the ideas can easily remain in the realm of unfalsifiable philosophical choice. And that, in general, I think is just fine.


The philosophical issues in play are still limited by what is actually possible in reality...

This is why I always say negative things about astrology. No matter what might or might not be true about fate and destiny, or whether or not a mystical being, "the universe" or anything else has some kind of plan for your life - astrology will not tell you what that plan is, and it can't tell you anything about commonality between people born in the same month or on the same day.

This isn't true just because I don't "believe" in astrology or it's goals, but because there are actively reasons why astrology is an invalid means of attaining knowledge. And there are plenty of studies to show that it consistently fails at achieving it's stated purpose time & time again... Here's one reported by the UK Telegraph back in 2003:
"The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London in 1958 into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. More than 2,000 babies born in early March that year were registered and their development monitored at regular intervals.

Researchers looked at more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, mathematics and reading - all of which astrologers claim can be gauged from birth charts.

The scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins", however. They reported in the current issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success . . . but the results are uniformly negative."
The claims have been tested. They didn't pass.

No matter what you believe, there are valid and invalid means of obtaining information. So even if you strongly believe that the fate exists, the future is predictable and that the stars and the planets have some effect on people's personalities... Even if you're actually right about all that (in spite of extraordinary evidence to the contrary) - astrology is still the wrong way to find out the answers to those questions.

Just like even if you believe that there are spiritual ways of healing yourself from illness, homeopathy still doesn't work.

This puts me into an awkward position as someone who wants to be respectful & tolerant of other people's beliefs and as someone who cares deeply about truth and rational thought. There are plenty of things that on an intellectual and philosophical level I simply cannot prove or disprove. If you tell me your conception of god is a spiritual being that fills you with hope in times of struggle, or - like Deists used to believe - god is an entity that created the Earth and everything in it at the beginning of time but is uninvolved in anything now, I have no way to know if you are correct.

So based on the fact that I have limited knowledge and cannot actually prove those particular beliefs wrong, I think I owe you some base-level respect. As such, I don't usually get too worked up about people's private religious views.

The problem is, a lot of things - like astrology and homeopathy, and even the very paradoxical idea that there could be such a thing as an "all-powerful" god - are simply.... well... wrong.

They are either demolished via overwhelming evidence through testing and scientific observation, or they are demolished by logic. The very statement "all-powerful" is fraught with logical paradox. A common demonstration of this is the phrase;
"Can god make a rock so big he cannot lift it?"
Note that no matter how you answer the question, god is incapable of doing something - either in the creation, or in the lifting. That statement itself disproves the very notion of an all-powerful god...

Point being; logic disproves the contradictory & impossible concepts and evidence can be used to demonstrate the extreme unlikelihood of anything else.

What I'm really trying to say here is that I think a distinction should be made with regard to making comments or "respecting" different beliefs.

I opened this blog by talking about metaphysics & epistemology... I did so for a reason. I believe - as does most of the rest of the world, whether they say so or not - that reality is real and consistent. And I believe that there are effective & ineffective ways of understanding reality. These beliefs have rewarded me constantly throughout my life... Just as they've rewarded pretty much everyone else in the world who's been able to cross the street without getting hit by a bus, boil water at 100°C or fly across the country in an airplane.

But it does mean that some ideas and beliefs aren't just a matter of opinion - but are actually right or wrong.

When people are wrong, I actually think we all have somewhat of a duty to attempt to correct them. There is no benefit to anyone to holding an incorrect view of the world. Being wrong only causes people to misjudge their surroundings and misallocate their resources. For me personally, I want people to let me know when I'm doing something that isn't going to work or if I'm wasting my time pursuing ideas that simply aren't correct.

It's also important to note that being wrong isn't a crime! We're all wrong about all kinds of things all the time, and that by itself is perfectly ok... No one is born with any knowledge of anything.

But choosing to continue to believe things which are wrong in spite of knowledge and availability of evidence and logic just seems to be a tremendously bad choice to me. I'm not sure why I should be asked to respect that choice.

What do you think?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Founding Fathers, Slavery & the Enlightenment

Lately, there has been an immense amount of discussion about the Civil Rights Act. Mostly, this is a complete waste of time... No one - not even villain du jour Rand Paul - wants to repeal the CRA.  If anything, the only thing anyone wants repealed would be Title II, which according to Wiki:
"Outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; exempted private clubs without defining the term "private."
 Now... This provision probably seems totally reasonable to most people, but allow me to explain why not - and then to offer some history & commentary on what the alternatives might have been.

But first... I need to go on a tangent about natural rights:

We - by which I mean classical liberals, libertarians, and virtually all influential Enlightenment Era philosophers who contributed to the founding of the United States - start with the basic premise that all people are self-owners.  This is a sort of metaphorical way of stating that every individual is responsible for their own lives, and has the right to decide for themselves what they want to do with their minds, bodies and time. As axiomatic as this should be, it can also be argued on the basis of evidence. There are no (real) psychics. People cannot read other people's minds, and as such cannot know better than individual people what their hopes, dreams, goals, values are... Nor can they know what skills, talents, interests and other abilities different people have.

As Voltaire put it, in Candide;
"...we must cultivate our garden."
No one can know better than you how to do that for yourself, so the basis of liberty - the very core of it - is an understanding of self-ownership.  Understanding this is crucially important, and is unfortunately something we seem to have lost in recent decades.

But anyway... From the premise of self-ownership, a number of conclusions can be drawn.

First and foremost - murder and slavery are morally reprehensible, as they violate the very essence of an individual as primary controller of his own person. If you own yourself, then only you may decide what to do with your life, and a key part of that right is being alive. Thus it is that we recognize the "natural" rights to life & liberty. Also, just to be clear, liberty here is defined as the freedom from coercion or force imposed by a third party. There are other conceptions of liberty, but they are extremely problematic and irrelevant at the moment.

As an aside - you may have noticed that I just provided a moral reason to oppose both slavery & murder without invoking any type of mysticism of God. Logic for the win, yeah? So I thought...

Now, the right to decide for oneself what to do with one's own mind & body leads us to the right of property ownership... In the desert-island version of the world that economists often like to toy with, this actually a very important concept. Imagine a primitive world where all of us are living out in the open or in trees and caves... It's a rough world, and we're constantly exposed to the elements and other threats.

It's not a pleasant world at all!

So now, let's say that you use your mind and come up with an idea no one else has had... And you put that idea into action with your body; both things which you - and only you - control. The result of all this thought and effort is that you've constructed a shelter for yourself that was impervious to weather and keeps out the animals. Since it was your work mixed with your local - otherwise unclaimed - resources (which in this case we will consider "yours" via a homesteading process), we also consider the product of your mind & work to be yours.

Now, in the earliest stages of childhood development, children learn the concept of ownership. It isn't even until later stages of development that they begin to recognize and differentiate between things they own and things other people own - this is why so often, small children will claim everything as "mine!"

Point being - we all recognize the concept of ownership from a young age, and I think it's safe to say that everyone would understand that if you build a house - that house is yours.

This is the basis for property rights. John Locke summed all this up:
"every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his."
It gets more complicated when we make things and trade them to other people... But not that much more complicated. If I make something that you want, and you make something I want, we can trade those things with each other voluntarily - and now ownership has transfered. These transfers are facilitated by money and all the modern abstracts of investments, loans, banks and everything else, but at root they are the same as any one-to-one barter.

What's important about this is that the right to ownership is fundamental. It, along with the rights to speech & association flow from the right to liberty and from the very concept of self-ownership.

As long as there is no violence or coercion in play - those rights are absolute.

This means that the right to decide what happens with property is left to the owner of that property. Like wise, an individual has the right to decide for himself who he does or does not wish to associate with - and here's the key part... for any reason.

Rights which are not absolute aren't rights at all - they are privileges granted by some imposed authority.

This is actually extremely important of a concept.  And it's precisely why Title II of the CRA goes one step too far. The vast majority of the Civil Rights Act repealed or overruled laws which violated the very rights I just discussed.  Those aspects of the law were crucial and necessary.

And the United States certainly should have started out with equal protections of each of those liberties for all people, but unfortunately... It didn't.

The reason it didn't wasn't actually because many of the founders weren't aware of the hypocrisy in writing...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
...and then explicitly denying those self-evident truths to millions of slaves and women. As a matter of fact, the founding fathers were very aware of this contradiction. Many of the founders were explicitly opposed to slavery.

Ben Franklin wrote:
"Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils."
John Adams, always a staunch abolitionist:
"Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.... I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in... abhorrence."
Even George Washington - himself a slave owner - understood the contradiction:
"I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery."
And as historian David Brion Davis noted, had Thomas Jefferson died young in the 1780s, he would have been remembered as "one of the first statesmen anywhere to advocate concrete measures for eradicating slavery." That may be true.

In 1814, Jefferson himself said:
"There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity."
Now... There is absolutely no question that Jefferson wasn't a remarkably racist individual - especially by today's standards. As such, Jefferson also said:
"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks ... are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."
Now, of course that's a pretty horrible view of an entire group of people... But the fact is, looking back on it 250 years later we have a remarkably different perspective on things than people in the 1700s did.

Jefferson's views on race are much better understood as being a product of his time & culture. Most people - all over the world - agreed with him. That doesn't make them right, but it does - or should - help provide some context under which ignorant statements are viewed. And that's just it, isn't it?

The word is: "Ignorance"
Function: noun
Date: 13th century
: the state or fact of being ignorant : lack of knowledge, education, or awareness
This is acutely different from evil - and I think it's probably worth noting that. It doesn't exonerate Jefferson's views - and it absolutely doesn't exonerate the fact that in spite of the written philosophy, the founding fathers of the United States still accepted a Constitution that included disparate treatment of human beings. However, under the circumstances - and given that most of the world held the same ignorant views (and much worse) than Jefferson - it is quite likely that the Constitution would never have been ratified at all without the 3/5ths Compromise.

Jefferson was a hypocrite, and he didn't do what he said he'd do... But all this really shows is that he was a product of his time and radical shifts in ideas produce cultural changes, not necessarily the other way around. Had he grown up 50 years later, and read Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man" as a young boy? Who knows.

It's extremely easy for people now, looking back on centuries of historical events & cultural changes to judge people like Thomas Jefferson as explicitly evil men, but our knowledge of anthropology today is substantial, and our conception of different cultures is not nearly so antagonistic as it used to be. A strange culture isn't something to be hated, or necessarily looked down upon now or to be considered "inferior". That wasn't always the case... However, we owe a huge debt to the words men like Jefferson wrote 250 years ago to the way we treat all people today, even if the men themselves were perhaps less than we'd hoped they'd be.

Of course... The problem with all this is that hypocrisy sometimes causes people to invoke flawed arguments when dealing with the views of people involved in that hypocrisy.

So recently, in discussing many of these issues with friends and passers-by, one common argument against natural rights and the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights is that many of the authors of the founding documents of the United States were slave-holders and racists. While true, this isn't a valid counter argument against the ideas - it is an ad hominem against the speaker.

Moreover, it was the ideas of liberty - the ideas that people had "inalienable" rights to life, liberty and property, that provided the intellectual backing that completely undermined slavery around the world.

The problem originally, was that there were cultural discrepancies on who was considered "human". As despicable as this is, if you were to make the argument that black people, or anyone from another race or tribe are "sub-human" - as many people throughout history have done - then you can easily rationalize that members of those groups don't deserve the rights which are "inalienable" and "natural" to everyone else. The solution to this problem is to recognize all people as human beings who are, in fact, human beings!

Black, white, red, blue, yellow... American, European, Australian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Antarctican...Doesn't matter.

A human is a human. A is A.

For the most part, this is precisely what the Civil Rights Act attempted to do. Throughout the United States following the Civil War, many states & local municipalities had enacted laws which continued to deny the full "human" status of black people (and other immigrants, and women!) and thus denied them the protection of life & liberty government was supposed to provide.

Black people were denied the right to own property in many cases, and then when they did own property they were often denied protections from theft & vandalism that would have been provided to white property owners. Licenses started being issued for business & marriage - often times purely to deny blacks the right to engage in voluntary trading association with other people or to prevent them from marrying and having kids (especially marrying white people). Lynch mobs would be given a slap-on-the-wrist, if that in response to violating the most primary right of all by murdering innocent people who's "crime" was having the wrong skin color.

Not only that - laws mandating segregation violated the rights of property owners to decide for themselves who they would allow onto their property. The vast majority of these types of laws were direct violations of the natural rights of the people in those communities...

It doesn't matter if the laws were enacted via democratic majority or not. All of this goes against the very core philosophy of the United States as understood in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the totality of the collected writings of philosophers & statesmen during that time.

And that in and of itself is another, extremely crucial, point. Democracy can easily result in tyranny... It takes careful protections and constant vigilance and assertion by individuals of all races, genders & creeds to maintain freedom.

But............ Two wrongs don't make a right.

And violating liberty in the name of protecting it isn't acceptable. The same reason Title II is no good is why the Patriot Act is unacceptable. Freedom is a double-edged sword. The right to free speech and association means that the government cannot prevent people from making heroic speeches against the evils of racism. But it also means that it can't stop people from making evil speeches promoting racism. As long as those people are relegated to speaking, and making only decisions that effect their own property (including their businesses), then they are violating no one else's liberty and should not be interfered with - no matter how repulsive we find their ideas to be.

It doesn't work both ways. Freedom is meaningless if the people in power can decide what speech and what activities are unacceptable.

In the 1700-1960s, the people in power were deciding that freedom of speech and association didn't extend to the unrecognized classes of people in the wrong race & gender. But since the 1960s, the people in power have decided that the rights to speech & association don't apply to people who hold unpopular & un-PC viewpoints. It's still a wrong, even though this time, the people who's liberty we're violating are

I think the Federal Government acted correctly in abolishing and overriding the illiberal laws of the State governments. And it's probably true that the culture had been so ingrained by 1965 that without proactive action, things might have just gone back to how they were... But, as I said... Two wrongs don't make a right.

So... What do I think could have been done instead of Title II?

My alternative would have been to use the various agencies of the Federal government - such as the National Guard or the FBI - to "police the police". The main problems were:
  1. Restrictive Laws Based on Race
  2. Public Segregation 
  3. Selective Enforcement of the Law
  4. Private Discrimination 
The first two were violations of rights which the CRA repealed and fixed purely through legislation.

But the only thing you could do about selective enforcement & corrupt judges is to swoop in from above and either replace those law enforcement officers or very carefully police their activities. In 2010, you could do this easily with YouTube and an impartial judiciary... In 1965... Not so much... So I think it would have been appropriate to set up a (largely temporary) system of weeding out & replacing bad cops. I also think it would have been appropriate to create additional levels of review for every level of law enforcement to be sure that everyone's rights were being protected regardless of race.

ALL of that would have been appropriate, defensive, and pro-actively protected the rights of formerly unprotected groups... Without violating other people's property rights in the process.

Once you've done that, then the private discrimination becomes a matter of property rights and the key would be making sure that "keep off my lawn" doesn't turn into lynch mobs. As long as "Whites Only" signs don't actually translate into an aggressive genocide, then it's not the place for the government in a free country to dictate who people must interact with... Assuming there are actually protections for blacks to own their own property and do what ever they want with it, and everyone is allowed to trade with whomever they wish, then it's not even that big of a deal since the market itself punishes those who arbitrarily limit their customer base.

I hope I've shown here that it is, in fact, possible to be pro-active and to not do so in completely illiberal ways.

This is a lesson I really hope more people eventually learn. To protect the U.S. against despotic regimes, we don't need to become a despotic regime, and to protect individuals against abuses of their liberties, we should not violate others' liberty in the process. And yes, I know the people who's liberty we're violating are the absolute dregs of society who hold abominable views. That doesn't make them not human, it doesn't make them not legitimate property owners and it doesn't mean their rights are any less inalienable.

It sucks to have to defend the rights of intolerable people, but that's the price of admission for freedom.

[Oh... And by the way... Why the hell am I talking about legislation that was passed 21 years before I was even born?  It's never going to change and it's completely irrelevant at this point. The important thing is the discussion of liberty, let's not devolve into whining about awkward politicians' TV appearances, ok?]

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Proper Robin Hood... For Once!

Except for the communist twaddle at the very end of the film, I absolutely loved Ridley Scott's new version of Robin Hood.

All in all, it wasn't remotely what I was expecting... When I first saw the billboards (in Los Angeles, there are forests of them!), I just thought it looked like a generic retelling of the same old story I'd already seen. It was going to be grittier, tougher, and more filled with Russell Crowe than previous versions, but whatever... Nothing new, I thought.

This led me to not even want to see it, because I absolutely loathe the way the Robin Hood myth is presented... Because it's always completely, and incomprehensibly backward.

For the life of me, for the very first time I even saw Disney's cutesy, animated version of Robin Hood - I've never understood how it is that he got held up as this great socialist hero... It seemed to me, and Ridley Scott's version actually gets it right on this point, that he's actually a hero for individualists and limited government power... Even, potentially, anarchy.

Let's think about this - who were the usual enemies?  The Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John.  In other words... The enemy was the tyrannical ruler of the state, and his tax-collector.

So Robin Hood wasn't stealing from the rich and giving to the poor out of any sense of egalitarianism, he was reclaiming property rightfully belonging to the people from an oppressive state that took it from them by force.

The new version makes that element perfectly clear, but it actually takes it a step farther!

A main plot element to the new film is actually that Robin's real father was the author of what I have to assume was the Charter of Liberties, written in the early 12th Century and has been largely forgotten throughout history at this point.  Now... Because I'm such a nerd for the history of liberty, I was actually aware of this document, so when it came up in the movie I was shocked and thrilled.

The Charter of Liberties is one of the precedents for our own Bill of Rights written before the Magna Carta by King Henry I in the year 1100... Like the Magna Carta, it actually didn't apply to the average citizen, but rather was an agreement the King made to the Church and his Noblemen which basically provided a written limitation on the King's power. By today's standards, the guarantees Henry provided were pretty weak. It's little more than a simple contract, and the promises it There were 14 amendments; most of which having to do with debts and marital issues.. Here are a few examples:
3.) Any baron or earl who wishes to betroth his daughter or other women kinsfolk in marriage should consult me first, but I will not stand in the way of any prudent marriage. Any widow who wishes to remarry should consult with me, but I shall abide by the wishes of her close relatives, the other barons and earls. I will not allow her to marry one of my enemies.
7.) If any of my barons should grow feeble, and give away money or other possessions, these shall be honored, so long as the heirs are properly remembered. Gifts given by feeble barons under force of arms shall not be enforced.
Not exactly a protection of life, liberty & property... But hey, it was the year 1100, what do you expect? It was still a lot better than anyone had before that time.  So it was pretty important... Unfortunately, it was also basically ignored for the next 100 years, until there was another uprising and the Magna Carta was written.

Oh well, can't win 'em all, right?

But that's a major component of what this Robin Hood is actually about! It was about getting King John to sign a Charter of Liberties and end the excessive taxation & spending instituted to pay for the previous King Richard's foolish Crusades in Persia which had left the people of England miserable, poor and open to attack from France.

What does that sound like to you?

  1. Oppressive taxation combined with an astronomically expensive 10 years of war in the Middle East which the nation cannot afford.  
  2. Tragic economic conditions at home that are only exacerbated by heavy handed government. 
  3. Widespread uprising against these policies, and special vilification of the tax-collector and the "kings" responsible for imposing these conditions.
  4. General erosion of liberty....


Well, I suppose I get why the New York Times movie folks were so pissed off about this movie... It does hit a little too close to home with modern American anti-government sentiments and it is kind of comical the amount of hysteria that has produced in the mainstream left.

Though, I only get it in the abstract. It's still baffling to me how anyone could be sardonic about such a critical idea as liberty and so cavalier about what essentially amounts to unlimited government powers to tax and control people's lives. How is it that anyone fails to understand how great and important it has been in all of human history to establish meaningful limits on government power? Also, how is it possible that anyone fails to understand that taxation is inherently theft, and continually higher rates of taxation are a gigantic drag on any economy? These things I can't understand...

It's also baffling to me how anyone could have ever gotten the impression that Robin Hood was ever, as author of the Times review believes, a "socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution".

The reason Robin Hood is a heroic figure, and always has been, is because he stood up to an oppressive regime and reclaimed stolen property - returning it to it's rightful owners. This is kind of the opposite of socialism, since it takes from those who have been productive to give to those who are unproductive by force... Not to mention the fact that while the Sheriff and King were explicitly denying their subjects the right to property (which is one of the key elements of socialism), Robin Hood respected private property enough to defend it at great personal cost against much stronger opponents.

There was no "wealth-redistribution" done by Robin Hood! In fact that's exactly what the Sheriff was engaged in, wasn't it?

As self-owning human beings, the poor people of the 1100s routinely had their inherent rights to their lives, liberty and the product of their labors, (i.e. property) ignored & infringed by their governments - that's been the default condition of mankind for centuries, even thousands of years. Hell, even the noblemen of the time had their rights blatantly ignored by the king - to the extent that charters like the one mentioned above were necessary even 900 years ago.

So this has really always been a positive role-model for libertarians if you actually stop for a second to understand that the proper narrative isn't that he "steals from the rich and gives to the poor", but that the government stole from the people and he and his band of "thieves" took it back.

Robin Hood is actually an analog for Ayn Rand's so-called "pirate" character, Ragnar Danneskj√∂ld - who did exactly the same thing, only he reclaimed the government's ill-gotten gains with boats & guns in the alternate 1940s universe of Atlas Shrugged... Of course, saying this is kind of blasphemous because Rand haaaated Robin Hood.  That said, what she hated was the socialist narrative... I suspect she'd have really enjoyed this version, even though it does turn communist for 3 minutes at the end of the movie.

I think I can overlook 3 stupid minutes for 137 minutes of pro-freedom goodness.  You should too... Good flick ;)

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.


I'm shocked and dismayed that it's been nearly a month since I've written any meaningful blog.  I have one to do in a few minutes which will hopefully make up for my absence, but I wanted to make note of why I've been absent.

A ton of craziness has happened to me in the last month.

First off, I was deathly ill for two weeks. Somehow on my last trip to Connecticut I managed to contract Mononucleosis... Not really sure how, but regardless the pathology, it was one of the worst and most painful experiences of my life.  After visits to the doctor, steroid shots and several periods of bed rest, I think I'm cured.  I spent several days not being able to talk or even ingest food, so I'm incredibly happy that I'm able to live again.

Secondly, I'm moving... Out of Los Angeles... In August.

My (married) roommates finally decided they wanted their own place and though it's a little earlier than we were expecting, my girlfriend and I decided that it was time to quit flying back & forth across the country all the time... So I will be moving to downtown Hartford, Connecticut in a couple months.  I'm actually really excited about this.  It's a life changing step for me, and one which will make me immensely happy for personal reasons. As an added bonus, I will be just 3 hours by train outside of Manhattan; so it will be easy for me to still meet with important clients and even see some old friends. I'm really thrilled for this move...

Thirdly... I've managed to secure a generous grant from the Moving Picture Institute to create two educational videos focusing on the Bill of Rights.  One is already under way, and I'm about to begin writing for the second very soon. I also have a major project with the Foundation for Economic Education on why economic education is important.  All in all it's going to be a very profitable next few months for me - personally and professionally.Publish Post

Exciting times :)