Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To Israelis and Palestinians

I don't want your fucking war.

Don't try to sell it to me. Don't tell me how evil or barbaric "the other side" is. Don't try to delegitimize entire nations or deny their right to basic freedoms -- whether individual or communal. When you do that, you only discredit yourself.

If you want me to respect you and your institutions, then don't allow fanatics to gain influence in those institutions. I will not support any institution that implements the agenda of fanatics. I don't care if "the other side" is more fanatical.

Your nationalist squabble is on the other side of the planet. Don't bring it here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

PATRIOT Act extended

After my earlier post accusing Tea Party types of not being particularly libertarian, there was some talk about them possibly blocking the reauthorization of the PATRIOT act. Well, it has finally gone through, and here's how they voted. Of note, Bachman "aye"; Sen. Rand "nay" (same for Rep. Rand, of course).

Corruption is worse than terrorism

Chetan Bhagat, writing from India, asserts that corruption is worse than terrorism:

Corruption is worse than terrorism. Terrorists blow up existing infrastructure such as roads, airports and power plants. Corruption prevents such infrastructure from being made in the first place. Terrorists take innocent lives. Corrupt politicians prevent hospitals from being built, which means innocent lives that could be saved are not.
The rest of the letter is worth reading for its perspective on corruption in India, but I wanted to focus on this particular excerpt because it mirrors a dispute that occurs in our own country also. This dispute essentially boils down to "utilitarianism vs. moralism". From the utilitarian perspective, our efforts should be focused on those issues that have the greatest impact on our welfare; in contrast, moralism insists on focusing on the individuals who are most evil. This creates a tension between giving our attention to evils that are mild but ubiquitous (driven by the petty sins that are common in humans) and giving our attention to the evils that are extreme but rare (driven by the exceptional sins of a few individuals). From the utilitarian perspective, terrorism is a relatively small threat, definitely not deserving of the great efforts we have gone to in order to reduce it (not to mention the suffering we have caused). However, from the moralist perspective, there really isn't anything worse than intentionally killing civilians.

I often wonder how to reconcile these two impulses. Maybe the "moralist" focus on evil actually has a utilitarian basis, arising from the great variation in the damage done by people with ill intent. While terrorists only kill a few hundred people a year worldwide, there's a slight chance that they could kill several million next year. It is easy to focus on these worst case scenarios when we talk about terrorism, but I suspect that these are nothing more than rationalizations for the venting of our anger. We don't need evil intentions to create catastrophes -- we have created numerous disasters just by our ubiquitous indifference to the harm that we are doing. The prime example of this is the collateral damage that the USA has caused in our "wars on terrorism", which was easy to predict beforehand.

Ultimately, I am discouraged from finding a justification for moralism because it is increasing clear that the moralists are themselves immoral. Using "collateral damage" as an example: it is immoral to knowingly cause a person's death, even if that was no the desired outcome. These moralists often cloak their crimes in rhetoric of "personal responsibility", but there is no personal responsibility when a person causes actual harm in the hopes of reducing the potential harm that someone else may cause. Each person is responsible for the harm that they cause, and talking about another person's irresponsibility does not provide any excuse for one's own actions.

And so we come full circle, and we ask "how do we achieve the greatest good with the resources that we have?" To do so, we seek good wherever we can find it. We face down evil if that is necessary, but otherwise, we allow the evil ones to wallow in their own filth. As long as we create faster than they can destroy, we will win.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Patents and progress in the method of discovery

I am often shocked by the rapid advances of scientific techniques, and how major accomplishments from a decade ago can be repeated with a tiny fraction of the effort. Recent advances in biology -- particularly with DNA sequencing and synthesis - may be exceptional, but the basic principle surely holds across all sciences: advances in the methodology of discovery will increase the ease with which future discoveries are made.

Through the recent past, the most general advances are probably related to computing -- the storage, transmission, and analysis of data. These advances are continuing, along with advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. Regardless of whether these advances will create a technological "singularity", they will surely contribute to additional discoveries in all fields of science.

Recently, a "robotic scientist" has even been built. Specifically, this "scientist" is a geneticist, with a very limited toolkit (both in design and implementation of experiments). However, as a proof of concept, it does raise the specter that robotic systems will soon be able to make discoveries that traditionally required a lot of time from highly trained scientists. Perhaps over the course of a decade, we will see 100-fold reductions in the price of discovery, across many fields of research.

If we put this rate of advancement in the context of patent law, we see a startling incongruity. Patents grant a 20 year monopoly to the inventor of a new tool or process, supposedly providing incentive for research and development. This monopoly allows the inventor to capture all of the benefits of the new invention for himself -- which makes like more costly for everyone else, but seems fair as long as we assume that it was necessary to produce the invention in the first place. While this assumption has always had some problems, it seems extremely shaky in light of the current rate of progress.

Great Book: Founding Myths by Ray Raphael

Having finished Ray Raphael's "Founding Myths", I want to reiterate my recommendation of this book. It was exceptionally enlightening for a book that is so short and accessible. I effectively covers historical aspects of the Revolutionary War that are typically ignored, while also providing an overview of how the study of the Revolution has been changed over time.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Guns: Liberty or Authority?

When in comes to gun laws, I am typically "pro-choice". There are several reasons that I oppose restrictions on gun ownership:
  1. Simple liberty: in general, a person should be able to do what he wants to do unless it directly interferes with the right of another person to do as they wish. To prohibit gun ownership is to instigate actual violence in the hope of restricting a remote potential for violence.
  2. Economic liberty: Guns play an important economic role for some people, particularly for use in hunting or removing predators from the vicinity of livestock.
  3. Personal security: some people reasonably feel that owning a gun increases their personal security.
  4. Political security: Political authorities have a tendency to transform into tyrannies; in these situations, guns may be useful as a last-resort form of resistance.
While those are my reasons for supporting a right to own guns, much of the "gun lobby" clearly does not share all of these concerns (even if we ignore the people who sell guns for profit). For one thing, much of the gun lobby is specifically pro-gun, rather than being pro-freedom, regardless of their rhetoric. Many of them clearly do not embrace the general libertarian principle of "live and let live", since they often favor drug prohibition and various other "conservative" restrictions on personal liberty. For all their talk about "free markets", they aren't even supporters of general economic liberty, since they are quite comfortable with restrictive zoning, professional license regulations, and state-granted monopolies, among other things. But it's really over the notion of political security that we part ways.

The mainstream gun lobby (e.g. the NRA, Republicans, and socially conservative Democrats) has quite an authoritarian streak. They may talk about the right to resist tyranny, but I often get the feeling that they are most concerned with their own ability to intimidate others into submission. This desire to intimidate and control others is apparent in their militaristic foreign policies, their obsession with severe punishment of criminals (even petty or victimless criminals), and their desire to limit the sexual options of others (e.g. restricting information about pregnancy and STD prevention, disparaging homosexual relationships).

So how is this desire to intimidate others displayed in their conception of political security?

First, despite their assertion of the importance of an armed citizenry, this group has no real critique of government, nor a theory of tyranny. Most of them regularly embrace the expansion of the state's surveillance and detention abilities. The only serious thought of resistance comes from the fringe militia movements, which are anxiously awaiting the initiation of mass arrests or a systematic civilian disarmament program, at which point they will rise up. The other place where people talk of imminent armed resistance is at the Tea Parties. But here, they assert the right to armed resistance even in the absence of any serious assault on our liberties, or any assault on the people's ability to resist tyranny. They speak as though abstract and mild restrictions on liberty are sufficient to warrant armed resistance -- "threats" as limited and fleeting as losing an election, or the implementation of moderate health care reform. Michael Austin documented and summarized how easily some conservatives turn to the rhetoric of rebellion:
[O]ur modern revolutionaries...have tried to co-opt the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers without accepting any of the responsibility that they pledged their lives to, who have repeatedly called the President of the United States a tyrant and a dictator, who have insisted (without a shred of evidence) that he is not a citizen of the United States, and who have equated government spending with slavery and health-care reform with satanic evil. People within this faction have accused entire congressional majorities of trying to destroy America, and they have called for revolution by any means necessary.
Here we see a startling partisan double standard -- a strong and active state is a good thing as long as their people are in control, but as soon as this group finds themselves in the minority and the state does anything that they dislike, armed resistance is appropriate. This is not a freedom movement: when one faction within society clings to power, that is tyranny.

It isn't only in their rhetoric that pro-gun conservatives show their authoritarian tendencies. If you look at the National Rifle Association's "law enforcement training staff", you'll see a man who had to resign from the Fort Lauderdale police after being video-taped abusing his authority. This obviously does not bother the NRA. As with many gun loving conservatives, they worship the police and military, and almost any excess on the part of the government's gunmen can be excused as either being necessary to keep the riffraff in line, or an unfortunate but unavoidable mistake resulting from the demands of the job. This is not the attitude of anyone who has seriously contemplated resistance to tyranny.

Their authoritarian streak is also apparent in how they respond to constitutional crises in foreign countries. At the only Tea Party rally that I observed, there was outspoken support for the coup in Honduras. These people who claimed to represent "regular Americans" were obsessing over an issue that most Americans could not have cared less about. While the coup was arguably a win for democracy, it was clear that their concern was with the specter of socialism, and fears that President Obama would support the ousted socialist President Zelaya.

While Zelaya may have been leading Hondoras towards a dictatorship (albeit a popular one), the current crisis in Egypt has presented a clear alternative between a brutal tyrant and a popular uprising. Yet in this case, popular "anti-government" conservatives, such as Glenn Beck, have sided with the tyrant. They have chosen fear-based "stability" over the uncertainty of a democratic election, where socialists or Islamists could win power. This decision has clearly demonstrated that these conservatives fear freedom more than they fear tyranny. In such a context, the apparent purpose of the "right to bear arms" is to keep the rabble down.

Look to the rhetorical foundation for this "right to armed rebellion"--the Revolutionary War--and the "imperative to suppress slave rebellions" will be clearly seen as an equal basis for this concern with guns. As described in Founding Myths, one of the main fears of the rebellious colonists, particularly in Virginia and the southern states, arose from the risk of "domestic insurrection", i.e. slave revolts. In essence, if the British crown had disarmed the Southern colonists, then the colonists would have had this sword dangling over their heads, restrained only by the will of the British military. Much of today's pro-gun rhetoric evokes the same fears of a rampaging underclass.

Given the evidence above, there is good reason to suspect that their concern with gun ownership is driven by a desire to exclude poor people from political power. My final evidence for this takes us back to the gun lobby's dismissal of any form of direct resistance other than armed rebellion -- they don't talk of non-violent mass actions such as boycotts, strikes, or the less-violent disruption of commerce; instead, the conservative gun advocates go straight for bodily violence. This suggests that they do not expect to have the numbers needed to effectively implement the less-violent strategies. Their power depends on their control of property, including weapons -- not their numbers.

Having seen the authoritarian nature of the conservative (i.e. mainstream) pro-gun lobby in the USA, what is a libertarian to do? Participation in mainstream, single-issue advocacy groups is often presented as a strategy to achieve the limited goals of that group and to publicize libertarian ideas. However, if these mainstream groups are providing support to anti-libertarian activists and politicians, then any achievements on that single issue may be outweighed by regression on other issues. To anyone with a libertarian perspective on government, protection of the right to own guns would have to be a lower priority than resistance to military adventurism and the expansion of a police state.

Is there any way to protect the right to own guns without undermining more fundamental rights? Might there even be some synergy to be had? An extreme strategy would be to subsume all pro-gun activities inside of the libertarian movement -- essentially creating a "gun rights committee of the Libertarian Party". What this gains in purity, it loses in popularity (even if "Libertarian Party" is understood to be the decentralized, informal libertarian movement). The alternative is to try to establish non-political organizations that appeal to gun owners. Competing with the NRA may be difficult, but there may be other constituencies of gun owners who are not well served by the NRA -- the Pink Pistols may be a prototype for such a group, as may others who are turned off by the NRA's authoritarian and Republican tendencies.

In the end, I won't personally do much about this because I am not a gun owner, and I don't think that they are a terribly important issue. However, every time that I give a passive defense of the right to bear arms (e.g. "live and let live") or point out the numerous weaknesses in the arguments to ban guns, I'm going to get branded as one of those people (described above). While the actual prohibition of guns would not be a crippling blow to liberty, this issue is one of the main battlegrounds against the authoritarian mindset. Any time someone tells me that we have to establish a structure of systematic and widespread violence against non-violent people (e.g. confiscating property and arresting people) in order to prevent sporadic and relatively rare violence by others, I'm going to have to respond.

Update: Shortly after I wrote the above post, news came in that the PATRIOT act re-authorization had a mild setback in the House, as several Republicans defected from the party leadership and voted against re-authorization. Rumor was that this had something to do with the Tea Party, strengthening their claim to being a libertarian movement. Upon further consideration, there seems to be no difference between the Tea Party and the Republican Party in general, both groups overwhelmingly supporting the re-authorization.

I also came across a nice example of a conservative trembling at the thought of Democracy, because most people just can't be trusted.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Erosion of the rule of law

From Time Magazine:

Opinion: Tea Party's Rand Paul Correct, Laser-Pointer Law Absurd - TIME

It takes only about five seconds of thought to see that Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's amendment to impose federal penalties — up to a five-year prison sentence — for [aiming a laser pointer at a plane] would be completely useless. How exactly would it be enforced?
That is a VERY important question... how is the law enforced? One way to enforce a law is to identify situations where it has been broken, and then catch the perpetrator. The other way to enforce the law is to choose a person to prosecute, and them watch him until he commits a crime. In a country where the vast majority of crimes are never prosecuted, and the "criminals" often don't know that they are breaking the law, it won't be to hard to follow the later strategy.

Those reasonable anarchists

It's no secret that I find much value in anarchist writings; particularly in anarchist criticisms of statist ideology and institutions. When I see the clear thinking of such essays, I sometimes wonder how anarchists got the reputation for being unreasonable. Of course, there are less "rational" or "realistic" aspects of anarchism. For instance, anarchists put a lot of effort into dreaming up institutions that will replace the state, and the problems of establishing these institutions may seem insurmountable, making the anarchists into a bunch of dreamers. At the extreme, there are frequent calls of alarm and the repetition of conspiracy theories (aside from those "conspiracies" that have been well documented, even if ignored by most people).

Anyway, even the most extreme and alarmist anarchists are no more wild-eyed than plenty of "respectable" voices in mainstream political debate. Over the past few days, I checked in on the local talk-radio station, and got an earful of conspiracy theory and alarmism from nationally syndicated conservative stars -- Glenn Beck and Michael Savage.

If this type of stuff is respectable these days, then there is no good reason that anarchism shouldn't be mainstream.