Friday, August 28, 2009

Manned space exploration -- what a crock!

Cross-posted to Freedom Democrats. (note for new readers)
Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.
--Ayn Rand
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
--Henry David Thoreau
One of the things that has always baffled me about Ayn Rand (a self-described rational egoist and free-marketer) was her gushing endorsement of NASA's manned space flight program. She celebrates it as a symbol of the potential of rationality, but completely ignores the fact that this rationality emanated from the centralized, coercive state. The fact that this was a government program should have given her cause to consider whether this sort of project was, or ever could be, the product of free men. Another reason to pause is the recognition that this project was instigated in direct response to a challenge from the USSR--"let's see if we can beat them at their own game"!
Manned space exploration is pure political propaganda, financed by tribute from slaves. Rand should have seen that, but she (and her present-day disciples) are apparently blind to it. Erika Holzer says that Rand treated centralized, coercive planning as a given and figured that we might as well get something worthwhile (i.e. technology-based spectacles) out of it. But when Rand writes "Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical" she is elevating her own wishful thinking over the actual forces that drive human behavior. The Apollo program was political from its conception to its execution. It was conceived to justify corporate liberalism at home, and American hegemony abroad. It was designed to engage the sense of wonder of 10 year-old boys while also speaking to their hardnosed elders by demonstrating the awesome power of the USA.
The issue of practical benefits is absent from Rand's assessment of the Apollo program. Holzer even endorses the view (expressed by Krauthammer), that considerations of practicality are a distraction from the true purpose of the spectacle. However, this illustrates exactly why no rational, free man would expend substantial effort on this project. Krauthammer says that "we retreated" from the moon, but the truth is that "we" had no reason to stay. "We" went there simply to show that "we" could do it. Any attempt to create a permanent human presence on the moon or send people to Mars using modern technology would be the largest boondoggle in human history. Maybe these projects would be feasible after extensive robotic exploration and infrastructure development, but not in the near future.
There's a reason I've been putting we in quotes: the most perverse message from these "individualist" cheerleaders of manned space flight is that they portray human greatness as a social project rather than an individual project. They speak as though the only alternative to manned space flight is to vainly obsess over the eradication of poverty or get lost in shallow self-gratification (egoism, perhaps?). They ignore the possibility of redirecting money from manned space flight to basic scientific research, both terrestrial and cosmic. Most fundamentally they deny the possibility that individuals, left with control over their lives and the fruit of their labors, could ever contribute to anything worthwhile.
Note: The title may lead some readers to expect a full argument against sending people into space (see comments). Instead, these readers will find nothing more than an individualist criticism of Ayn Rand's argument for manned space exploration as a form of ideological propaganda. If there are any other serious arguments for manned space exploration, I do not know of them and this essay does not address them. I have not seen any serious proposals for a manned space exploration program that had scientific or economic goals. If such proposals existed, then I would retract the title, but so far everyone (including Presidents Kennedy and Bush) seem to view manned space exploration as ideological propaganda. My disdain for current proposals for manned space exploration do not extend to robotic exploration, or continued experimentation with long term (but near-Earth) space habitation, nor does it apply to some hypothetical future time when manned space exploration could have a serious economic or scientific purpose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Common sense: it's what they asked for

Cross posted to Freedom Democrats

Glen Greenwald complains about how Glen Beck is presenting himself as a modern day Thomas Paine, by writing his own pamphlet called "Common Sense". I'm not sure exactly what Beck is getting at in the book, but I have no respect for his intellect (though his rants are quite amusing) so I won't be reading it. However, I doubt that Beck and his audience are really ready to hold up Thomas Paine as their mascot.

If you want to read some brilliant writing that contains innovative and profound thoughts (penned by a brave man), check out Pain's writing:

  1. Common Sense: A masterpiece of radical political propaganda. Paine took an idea that had previously seemed like common sense (allegiance to the monarchy) and presented it as pure madness.
  2. Agrarian Justice: An argument for the citizen's dividend funded by a land tax. As a matter of practicality, Paine suggested a lump sum payment to all young adults and regular payments to the elderly, all funded by an inheritance tax (which would effectively be a land tax, since he lived in an agrarian society).
  3. The Age of Reason: A critical examination of Christianity.
  4. Rights of Man: Defending the French Revolution against Burkean criticism.
To top off Paine's anti-conservative credentials, he typically presented elected government as the incarnation of the people's will, and would probably be baffled by the application of "Common Sense" to such a government (but maybe not if he had seen how the American experiment has turned out).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Whole Foods boycott: self-absorbed political fetishism

Reposted from Freedom Democrats

Radley Balko expresses his frustration with the healthcare reform proponents who want to boycott Whole Foods due to a WSJ Op-Ed written by John Mackey. This dispute brings up all types of issues (some reviewed at NYT), from the exaggerated influence of corporate CEOs to how the WSJ opinion pages are typically a partisan vomit pile, but one interesting factor is the revelation of fetishized thinking among the boycott organizers.

Balko's main argument against the boycott is that Whole Foods is a great corporate citizen (we've previously discussed Mackey's views on this topic). To anyone who actually cares about real people living real lives, this should immensely outweigh the fact that Mackey is writing in opposition to a particular health care reform proposal. In his followup, Balko also chastizes those who view unionization as being more important than worker inclusion in decision-making and benefits. He summarizes the union fetish thusly:

If Mackey’s opposition to unions is your reason for hating Whole Foods, sorry, but you don’t really care about workers. You care about unions.

Finally, there is a bit of a partisan fetish behind this boycott proposal. I think half of what set off the boycotters is that Mackey promoted traditionally Republican talking points in a mainstream newspaper full of Republican hacks. I'm sure that was really offensive, especially after the WSJ editors worked their Republican hack magic on Mackey's writing. Fortunately (as my pro-ObamaCare wife points out), most people are not partisan hacks and will not boycott Whole Foods over this.

Balko's final thesis seems to be that the boycott is really about power -- about squelching open open debate on proposals that one disagrees with.

These people don’t want a discussion. They don’t want to hear ideas. They want you to shut up and do what they say, or they’re going to punish you.

In many respects, the quest for power is the epitome of political fetishism--valuing an abstraction over the real value of human welfare. The basic process is that a person convinces himself that once he achieves the abstraction, everything else will take care of itself. The fallacy here is two fold -- first, these abstract goals arise from speculative social theories and we should not have any confidence in the cause-effect relations that are proposed; second, people adhering to different fetishized social theories will struggle over the abstraction (i.e. power) to the point that the original goal is forgotten about. As sung by Axel Rose:

But still the wars go on as the years go by
With no love of God or human rights
'Cause all these dreams are swept aside
By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide
And history bears the scars of our civil wars

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cult of the President; The Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama today awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people. It was top news on Google News.

President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 "agents of change" on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the difference they can make in the lives of others.


Film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery and tennis legend Billie Jean King joined former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in receiving the honor, the first such medals awarded by Obama.

So which president decided it was his role to honor people for achievements that are typically independent of the state? Who decided that the President was the ultimate arbiter of cultural achievement, thereby advancing the cult of the presidency?

It seems that JFK really initiated the Presidential Medal of Freedom in its current form (Truman used it for civilian contributions to the efforts of WWII).


The "Lone Wolf Initiative", profiling, and government by blacklist

Republished from Freedom Democrats

USA today has a cover story about the Federal Lone Wolf Initiative, an Obama administration program to foil the plots of "lone offenders"-- terrorists who plan their attacks in the absence of coordination with terrorist networks. Information about the program is sparse, and USA Today seems to be getting a few vague descriptions from anonymous informers within the FBI. Some of the tactics used by this initiative are reasonable (taking a second look at the records of convicts and the evidence in closed terrorism cases), while others sound a lot like profiling of the general civilian population ("suspicious purchases at fertilizer or chemical suppliers"). The ACLU says that they are concerned about the risk of racial and political profiling. Frankly, I think this type of profiling will be inevitable; the FBI will want to maximize the chance that all would-be terrorists are on this list, so they'll face constant pressure to incorporate any information that could improve predictions. They will inevitably use information that has implications for civil liberties.

The article doesn't indicate how this new watch list will be used. If the lone-wolf initiative casts a broad net, then one likely use will be to tag individuals for the secret no-fly list--which will also be the "no gun" list if some people have their way. If you believe Michael Chertoff (fat chance), there are currently only 250 Americans on this list, but the FBI estimates that 20,000 Americans are in the Terrorist Screening Database, which probably feeds information to the no-fly list, and the ACLU gives even higher estimates. We already know that the Feds tried to use consumer profiling techniques to build this list, and I feel pretty sure that they will try again.

Independent of the risk of profiling, any broad attempt to screen the civilian population will be rife with corruption, resulting either from the prejudices or political agendas of the administrators.

PS. We have previously discussed the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, which places even more extensive restrictions on people. While both lists represent a threat to due-process and a move towards government by blacklist, I believe that the no-fly list is substantially more threatening. In contrast to the SDN list, the no-fly list is secret and can include Americans. I don't mean to dismiss the unfairness of putting an innocent foreign national on such a list, but there is a big difference between being harassed in your homeland and being harassed in a foreign land.