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I don't know whether to laugh or cry

Is this hilarious or tragic? A reviewer describes the message:

Kao's prescription is exactly right--creating innovation hubs around the country. His estimated cost, $20 billion for 20 innovation hubs, is cheap compared to the cost of continuing to lose ground in innovation to emerging regions like Asia and Eastern Europe. Witness successful U.S. examples, such as Silicon Valley and San Diego, which Kao writes about at length.

Kao points out that achieving this audacious goal will require setting a national innovation agenda and appointing a national leader to champion the cause (á la Jim Webb with NASA and Apollo). Challenging? Yes, particularly given the current political environment. But, as Kao states, "We have no alternative but to try...We must the face the future." Agreed.

I'm not even going to comment on this. I think what I would say about it is too predictable to actually bother saying.


Micha wants proof? Here's proof

Proof of what, you ask? Who cares?

Obsoleting education

The market (i.e. money) costs of learning include: cost of textbook, cost of lecture, cost of interaction and grading. There remains a substantial non-market cost of learning: the time and effort required to study a subject in enough depth to make a noticeable difference in the student's life. You will learn something by reading Stephen Hawking's easily digestible popular books on physics, but it will make little difference in your life. Put a lot of effort into the subject over several years, and it's a different story.

In recent years universities have been putting a lot of their course material online, but it hasn't led to an intellectual revolution among the non-university-attending public. Doubtless there must be individuals who are ravenously consuming all this free education, but for the vast majority of us, it simply requires more effort and time than we're willing to put into it. Since it is costly to learn, we might try alternative ways of making the knowledge work for us, ways that sidestep the process of becoming educated.

When it comes to trivia, and to certain other kinds of knowledge, Google and other online resources that provide answers as they are needed are effective substitutes, sometimes. So we can in some cases skip the step of learning the knowledge we need to have at our fingertips. One might imagine taking this to an extreme: just anybody might fix a car or perform heart surgery or do any other task that in today's world requires specialized knowledge, by using some device that feeds him the knowledge he needs on an as-needed basis, much as Google today feeds us knowledge on an as-needed basis.

Or the knowledge might not even need to enter our heads at all in order for us to employ it and benefit from it. We can embody some kinds of knowledge in devices. It used to be that in order to create a photograph, somebody had to prepare and operate a darkroom, which was a complicated process that required training. Now that digital has almost completely replaced film photography, all the knowledge needed to create a photographic print from beginning to end is embodied in devices which can be bought for a few hundred dollars - less if your only ambition is to share the image electronically. As technology develops, more knowledge is being embedded into devices. Of course, the manufacturer needs to have that knowledge, but the end-user is now spared any dependence on experts such as local photo lab technicians.

So, why can't we just Google just anything that we need to know now, or use a device that embodies the knowledge?

The most obvious difference between education and and ignorance-plus-database is speed. A translator who knows both source and target languages is much faster than a translator who knows only one and relies entirely on a dictionary for the other. Searchable online databases narrow that gap somewhat, but there's still a large gap in speed between an expert and a novice using electronic tools.

Another difference is that some kinds of knowledge are not easily represented in an as-needed format. To ride a bicycle you need to have practiced it over a certain period of time. There is no way you can Google each twist of the handlebars. That's partly a problem with speed (there is no way to search for the answer quickly enough), but that's only part of it. We just have no way of turning linguistically or pictorially represented instructions into the actual skill of staying balanced. Really, nobody actually teaches anybody else how to ride a bicycle (or, for that matter, to walk). It's something that the student has to do on his own. All that anyone else can do is put the student in an environment where he can teach himself. And this necessarily takes effort and time. There are no short cuts. (On the other hand, in the future, all bikes might come equipped with Segway-like self-balancers, just as cameras increasingly come with technology that compensates for shaky hands.)

Another difference is that in many cases the key question is, "okay, now what do I do?" Google can't answer that, and even an expert would have trouble answering the question unless he was essentially looking over your shoulder. Experts can take in a situation and know what to do, but an online database needs a specific question in order to produce a specific result, and knowing what question to ask may itself require knowledge which a non-expert does not have. Still, it might be possible to abbreviate the learning process by learning what questions to ask when, rather than tediously memorizing all the answers.

Eliezer on happiness (hedonism)

Another entry in the discussion of hedonism. Remember the experience machine? Discussed on this blog a while ago. Same topic, I would say. Eliezer:

I value a life complicated enough to be challenging and aesthetic - not just the feeling that life is complicated, but the actual complications - so turning into a pleasure center in a vat doesn't appeal to me. It would be a waste of humanity's potential, which I value actually fulfilling, not just having the feeling that it was fulfilled.

Nozick's experience machine argument (Wiki outline):

  • P1: Hedonism means that the only thing that affects our well-being is pleasure
  • P2: If hedonism were correct, then we would plug into the machine because we would want pleasurable experiences
  • P3: We would not plug into the machine because we are concerned about the reality of our experiences
  • C: Therefore, there is something other than pleasure that affects our well-being and hedonism is therefore defeated.

Kling on Health Care

He hits four key points. Don't go looking for earthshattering new arguments. The interest to me is that he put together key points in one place. Maybe I just like lists. Here are key elements of the argument against a free market in medicine.

  1. The U.S. system is flawed.
  2. Other countries' systems work much better.
  3. The U.S. system relies on the free market.
  4. There are two systems of health care in the developed world--ours, and the one every other country uses.

1 is true, 2 - 4 are myths. So far the main point of contention in his comments seems to be (2). I've argued elsewhere against 2 and 3, while the falsehood of 4 is a fresh point I've not seen explicitly made but is something that has become clear recently as closer attention has been paid to the subject.

Greed - Milton Friedman clip

Want to argue politics with the benighted? This is how you do it.

From the excellent Cafe Hayek blog.

Knowledge, or how to clobber an economy

Everything we do requires that we can predict the future, at least a little bit. If we try to take one step forward, we need the ground to be where we think it’ll be. If we’re wrong, we trip. If we’re really wrong, we die.

We don’t know the future. We’ve never seen it. We don’t even know the present. At best, we know the recent past, because it takes time for signals to get to us and more time for our brains to realize what’s going on – or more precisely, what was going on just a moment ago. If we think of our life as a journey, then it’s a trip we take facing backwards. We don’t know what the road looks like ahead, we can only try to predict it based on what it looks like behind.

We’re not very good at predicting the future. We’re best at predicting the future in the short term and on a small scale. Drive down the road with your eyes open and you can predict the future well enough not to crash – most of the time. But shut your eyes for a second, two seconds, three seconds, and you will start to panic, because it gets hard to predict the future even three seconds ahead. And even if you keep your eyes wide open, you have no idea what is happening in the next street over.

And yet we do work that will not bear final fruit until some remote time in the future, and often somewhere far away, to benefit someone we’ve never met and may not care about. We manage to do that even though we’re bad at predicting the future and know so little about the world around us.

The knowledge that we do not possess nevertheless must be there in some form. As Milton Friedman said, “Nobody knows how to make a pencil.” But the pencil is made, so in some way, the knowledge is there. Bits and pieces of the knowledge (e.g. how to chop down trees, how to mine graphite) are in people’s heads, but those bits and pieces don’t constitute the knowledge of how to make a pencil just by sitting around in different people’s heads. Those bits of knowledge are stitched together by the economic relationships between people.

But how did those relationships appear? They evolved from slightly more primitive relationships and so on back to a time when people were drawing with a piece of charcoal which they personally dug out of a dead fire.

The evolution of long chains of production like that which makes a pencil doesn’t require very much from the people involved. It does not require that we have much awareness of the world or of the future. All it requires is that we can learn the ropes of some job or other and that, on occasion, somebody does something new which constitutes an incremental improvement on what he was doing before. It can even be a chance discovery.

When a government does something that impacts the economy, it disrupts those economic relationships, and in doing so, disrupts the knowledge they contain. It induces partial amnesia, as hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat might do.

As mentioned earlier, we’re not very good at predicting the future beyond the short term and the small scale. How can legislators possibly know in advance what impact their legislation will have? They can’t. They can at best have a vague notion, and even that is probably wrong. Economic legislation is a heavy weapon swung wildly in the dark. It is born from ignorance, destroys knowledge, and turns back the clock on progress.

We are all wrong

We're all profoundly wrong about something fundamental. Probably the same thing. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm sure we're wrong about it. By "we" I don't just mean people commenting on this blog, or like-minded people (i.e., libertarians).

Think about any time long enough ago. With maybe the exception of a tiny minority, people were profoundly wrong about something. People were wrong about slavery. People were wrong about witches. People were wrong about the divine right of kings.

Why should today be any different? I doubt very much that it is different. There's something that we all take for granted, something that we think it would be loony tunes to doubt, but that is deeply mistaken.

Of course, libertarians stand on the outside of some of today's unquestioned assumptions - unquestioned by the vast majority, that is. The libertarian blade cuts deep. I propose, however, that there are still assumptions which we ourselves do not question, but which one day will be considered as wrong - as obviously wrong - as slavery is considered today.

On the other hand, things could reverse. Scientific and moral truths understood today could be forgotten, particularly in a totalitarian future. I do think that the modern state has managed to bamboozle the majority in ways which they would have escaped a thousand years ago.

Since libertarians stand outside of so many profoundly wrong assumptions, we can at least observe the signs. One possible sign is slapdash rationalization, rationalization that would never convince a skeptic but that allows the believer to think there are good reasons for the belief. Another possible sign is the presence of serious personal consequences for loudly contradicting the majority opinion, making it likely that the belief is held in order to conform rather than because it is true. These are imperfect signs (possible false positives and false negatives), but it's a start.

You've probably witnessed somebody from Country A go on at length about how people in Country B aren't right in the head, how they do this, that, and the other thing backwards and upside down, and how clearly the sensible thing is what people in Country A do. This is a two bit version of what I'm talking about.

But a universally or near-universally held falsehood will tend to be invisible because it is not likely to be much discussed. Discussion tends to center around points of controversy, not points of agreement.

Inconsistent paternalism

Robin Hanson conjectures:

we are much more paternalistic toward the low in status. We allow rich people to invest in most anything they like, but limit poor people to investments approved by regulators, and we are far more concerned about alcohol and illegal drug use by the poor than the rich, even though both groups use them at similar rates. An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.

Rings true to me. The evidence he offers isn't knock-down but is suggestive, and we can pile up examples.

There is the similar phenomenon of the rich getting away with murder or other offenses (real or just legislated), or actually being found innocent when they're innocent, in part because they can afford competent lawyers who are actually motivated to defend them in court.

A low status person with no political pull and no other defenses can be more safely used by the police to meet their quotas or to exercise petty authority, and more easily manipulated by the government without ramifications to show that it is doing something, and more easily toyed with by the voters who want to express their personal commitment to virtue by imposing rule after rule on total strangers.

One stark example of the rich being better able to fend off government: when Castro overthrew Batista and imposed totalitarian communism on the Cuban people, it was the rich Cubans who managed to get to Miami in time. The poor were trapped, and now live under the dictator's thumb.

Generally, yeah, the rich do get more respect. Reminds me of the old saw - goes something like, "the poor are insane [lock them up], the rich are eccentric [leave them alone]."

If there's a take-home lesson here: don't be poor.

The resourcefulness of the rich does have its uses for the rest of us. After all, it was the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and started that ball rolling. 

Civil libertarian litmus test - Shirley Phelps

Seems pretty open and shut to me. I might be missing something, of course. I side with the Phelpsians. Never mind that it was a private lawsuit. I think that the plaintiff carried the day - especially to the extent he did (eleven million dollars) - only because the defendant's speech is politically incorrect in the extreme. Moreover the plaintiff was open about the political motivation of the lawsuit. He described himself as intending to suppress hate speech that reached public ears.

Albert Snyder sued the Topeka, Kan., church after a protest last year at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. He claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

A jury agreed. On Wednesday, the church and three of its leaders - Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis - were found liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. Jurors awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages.

Snyder, of York, Pa., said he hoped other families would consider suing.

"The goal wasn't about the money, it was to set a precedent so other people could do the same thing," he said.

Appearing on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Sndyer said that while his son was fighting for freedom for Iraqis, "my son did not fight for hate speech.

"And that's basically what it is," he said of the church's protest. "Everybody's under the impression that the First Amendment gives them the right to do anything, say anything any where, any time. And along with the First Amendment also comes responsibility."

Snyder said that on the day of the funeral, he didn't see the protesters or their signs, only the tops of the signs. "But a lot of people at the church did see it," he said. "And it was splattered all over the newspapers the next day."

As I read it, the lawsuit wasn't to recover damages ("wasn't about the money"), it was to suppress a certain political message in the present and the future ("it was to set a precedent", "he hoped other families would consider suing"), because of its content ("hate speech"), so that it would not reach the public ("splattered all over the newspapers"). His lawyer's comment emphasizes that the real offense was the content of the speech:

Trebilcock later called the verdict "Judgment Day for the Westboro Baptist Church."

"They're always talking about other people's Judgment Day. Well, this is theirs," he said.

My emphasis. Meanwhile, the Phelpsians are in some additional legal trouble. Here, too, I'm convinced that the underlying offense, what reallly has landed them in trouble, is the abhorrent content of their message. Personally, I find their message so over the top that it's amusing rather than offensive. Especially the song. It might be mistaken for a comedy bit, if it didn't go on so long.

Looking for smiles

I'm sure this has been thoroughly discussed on some psychology blog or website. But I didn't find it, so...

Speculation: we have an instinctive drive to see faces, and in particular to see smiles, and in particular to see genuine smiles. This is not something we learn but something we are born with. On the other side, we are born with an instinct to genuinely smile when we are genuinely happy, and we cannot produce a genuine smile otherwise.

These trivial-looking instincts have far-reaching consequences.

Our drive to see faces causes us to seek out company. Our drive to see genuine smiles causes us to seek out genuine smiles in others. We can't force others to produce genuine smiles. Coercion makes a genuine smile next to impossible for the victim to produce. We are driven, then, by this simple-looking instinct, to avoid coercing others, and more generally to avoid pissing them off, and furthermore to supply others liberally and unendingly with genuine pleasure, so as to produce genuine smiles. A simple way to do this is to smile at them (for real, of course). Once the smiles get started, they may never stop.

If you don't smile a lot in company, people will not seek your company.

Television, by cheaply satisfying our desire to see faces, may substantially replace our social life.

Anyway, the libertarian tie-in is that this provides a simple, if soft, mechanism to enforce non-aggression.


Stealth Marxism in books - a pet peeve

I collect books. I don't mean to be a collector, I simply can't resist buying particular books, week after week. I've developed some pet peeves about books.

One pet peeve is stealth Marxism. I'll pick up a book that purports to be about this or that topic. I open it up, and it turns out to be Marxist (or more generally familiar-academic-leftist) analysis of society's ills.

Here's an Amazon commenter who has succeeded in turning me off a book. He writes:

Expecting a fun book reflecting on images of the future, I was disappointed to read things like "The visual cacophony of the advertising-laden landscape was for him [Edward Bellamy of Boston in the 1880s]...the most palpable of symbols for the general depravity of the capitalist system."

And how about this quote from the section on space toys of the 1940s and '50s: "Girls who yearned to project themselves into a fantasy future through their toys had few media role models beyond the stereotype of the hero's girlfriend. The dual message to the younger generation seems clear enough--the future will be violent [too many space guns], and it will belong to men."

And here is how the book reviews the "Star Trek" series: "Though the crew, with black Uhura and the Asian Mr. Sulu, seemed to reflect newly enlightened attitudes, the program, like its 1930 relatives, was dominated by brave white males."

In discussing the future of housing, the book diverges from any discussion of future technology, and instead offers: "We ask whether the home of tomorrow will be inhabited predominantly by single-parent families, by working mothers and children. Will it contain greater numbers of couples without children at all, couples of the same sex, or other groups of adults living together, and if so with what social consequences?"

And as a final example of the social messages of the book, how about these phrases from the section "The Weapons and Warfare of Tomorrow":

"Although Americans have long cherished the myth that they are an unusually peace-loving people..."

"...just one more instance of the American habit of believing in that ultimate weapon, a technological fix, as a substitute for politics in eliminating world conflicts."

And finally: " ironically symbolized the country's broader policy on Viet Nam, an effort to refashion a foreign environment better fit to American needs and expectations." [from an Amazon review by Bernard K. Skoch]

To check Bernard's comments, I opened up the book to a random page (it participates in the "Look inside this book" Amazon feature) and read some text. The text read:

For the middle-class readers of the late Victorian era, Looking Backward and other utopian novels of the day allayed fears of imminent class warfare.

In hindsight, there was something odd about the title of the book: Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. The American future? Why not just the future? Now I know why. The book was an opportunity to bash America and capitalism on the pretext of exploring the history of science fiction illustration.


Natural law arguments

What follows is a catalog of actual arguments that have been made against the proposition that natural law exists, along with responses. The catalog is preceded by a presentation of what the natural law position is - more specifically, a particular natural law position (or rather, three, as explained). It was written by Mikel Evins in April, 2001, and can be found here.

This message is a summary of arguments for and against the proposition that natural law exists. Naturally, this message will be very long.

The natural law argument is this:

People by their nature inevitably come into conflict from time to time.When they can't resolve a conflict peacefully between themselves and don't want to resort to violence or drop the conflict, they turn to someone else to resolve it. People will naturally and predictably find some methods for resolving such conflicts more congenial than others. There are some classes of conflict for which people will naturally and predictably find certain kinds of resolutions more congenial than others. The procedures people find more congenial will also produce the resolutions people find more congenial. And the procedures and resolutions that people find more congenial will tend to resemble each other across times and cultures.

In summary, that's the natural law position. The phrase 'natural law' is used to refer to the proposition that there is a way of resolving conflict that is natural to people. It's also used to refer to an imagined body of custom that people would find more congenial than any alternative, though we may not know exactly what customs those are, and it's logically possible that there may be more than one such set of customs. It's also used to refer to certain specific bodies of received custom that are generally believed to approximate natural law in the second sense.

It is possible to believe in the correctness of any of the above three propositions without believing in the others, though I observe that most people who accept one tend to accept the others. For my part, I tend to provisionally accept all three on the basis of historical evidence and economic argumentation.

Below are arguments against this position that have been posted to the threads 'Original discovers' and 'natural law (was: Original discovers)' since April 13th, along with my answers to them. They are numerous, and I may have missed one here or there. Logical fallacies are, as usual, overrepresented, and I'll simply note some of these without developing much in the way of counterargument; an elementary fallacy should not require much in the way of refutation.

By way of summary, I'll just remark that most objections to the natural law position seem to misconstrue what its claims are, or to reject the claims without regard for whether they are true. I didn't always buy the claim that natural law existed; I was persuaded by a combination of practical examples, readings in the history of common and customary law, and in the literature of the behavioral sciences. I could be persuaded by reason and evidence that my provisional acceptance of natural law is wrong, but I have not encountered an argument from an opponent that begins to address the reasoning and evidence that persuaded me. Most of them amount to either 'well, I don't have to believe that' or 'you're a bad person for thinking that.'

1. [Luke Webber, 4/14] Lawmakers define what is legitimate.

Legitimacy means what people accept as right and just. If people unanimously, or even generally, accept anything lawmakers say as right and just then positive law and natural law are the same thing: whatever the lawmakers say is right and just by definition. In that case there is no natural law as a distinct category; there is only positive law and in the absence of positive law there is no law at all. But that is not the case; there have been many peoples who have lacked positive law but who nevertheless have had law. And people do not in fact accept whatever lawmakers say as right and just. On the contrary, they often protest and resist laws made by lawmakers, and sometimes go so far as to entirely overthrow the lawmaking apparatus. So it must be that legitimacy is not defined after all by what lawmakers say.

Lawmakers do not define what is legitimate.

2.[Luke Webber, 4/15] Natural law is a purely theoretic construct without practical use.

The Kapauku Papuans resolve serious disputes by turning to a third party who is not party to the dispute in question, presenting the claims of the two sides, and agreeing to abide by the decision of the third party. In virtually all cases that arise, the two parties in fact abide by the decision of the judge, though the judges have no means of enforcing their decisions, and the winner of the case has no means of enforcing the decision that he didn't have without the judge. Judges refer to precedent in making their decisions, and similar disputes tend to be resolved in similar ways. In virtually all cases when a judgement is issued its terms are payment of restitution to the plaintiff.

The Kapuku Papuans have developed a purely voluntary institution for dispute resolution, and so we may presume that they find their institutions more congenial than other alternatives they know about. Their institutions have converged on customary resolutions for known classes of disputes, and so we know that they find these resolutions generally fair and just (if not, they would not accept them -- their institutions are voluntary). Thus the Kapauku Papuans' istitutions agree with the first two claims of natural law: that people will naturally find some methods of conflict resolution more congenial than others, and that these institutions will converge on customary resolutions for known classes of disputes.

But the Kapauku Papuans might be anomalous; perhaps there are no other people with such institutions. That would mean that there is a sort of natural law for Kapauku Papuans, more accurately called a customary or cultural law. Or perhaps there are other people with such institutions, but the conventions that they evolve voluntarily are very different. That would mean that there is a natural law in a weak sense, a natural 'meta-law', a tendency to develop customary laws. Only if very different peoples in very different times and places evolve similar institutions whose content is similar would we have reason to think that the claims of natural law are true and have practical use.

Peoples who have institutions nearly identical to those of the Kapauku Papuans include tribal peoples on every continent, Dark Ages Anglo-Saxons, medieval Icelanders, colonial and modern Somalis, Renaissance European merchants, and 19th-century settlers of the North American west. Commonalities among the systems of dispute among these peoples include (but are not limited to): the disputing parties rely on the decision of a neutral third party of good reputation; judgements are pecuniary; the only sorts of disputes decided are torts; killing is a tort if not in self defense; stealing is a tort; fraud is a tort; judgements for unlawful killings are more expensive than most or all other torts; etc.

Natural law is a theoretic construct, but one that describes real phenomena with practical application to the affairs of real individuals.

3. [G*rd*n, 4/15] Natural law theorists are liars who pretend to derive natural law from evidence and reason but do not. Instead they cherry-pick evidence to justify their ambitions to acquire lots of power.

FALLACY: poisoning the well.

4. [Tito, 4/15] Natural law is unreal; it is a made up 'spook'.

FALLACY: bare assertion

5. [Tito, 4/15] If a huge majority of people agree to a standard then natural law is unnecessary.

Natural law is the claim that a huge majority have, do, and will agree to certain standards. If that is what in fact happens then either natural law exists or else empirical observation just happens by random chance to correspond with the predictions of the natural law theorists. No natural law theorist I know of claims to prove the existence of natural law rigorously; instead they say that natural law is a more likely explanation for the commonalities observed in argument (2) above than random chance.

6. [Tito, 4/15] Natural law theorists are collectivists.

FALLACY: Poisoning the well

7. [Tito, 4/15] Natural law is a religious ideology.

FALLACY: Genetic fallacy (whether the claims are true is independent of whether they are religious).

8. [Tito, 4/15] Science generates and tests hypotheses; natural law theorists instead believe that they will discover reality.

FALLACY: Straw man. Showing that natural law is not science disproves no claim made by natural law theorists.

9. [Luke Webber, 4/15] Natural law is indistingishable from 'the winners [of a battle] make the rules.'

Natural law theorists claim that some resolutions of disputes will naturally be more likely to be generally accepted as fair and just than others, thus more likely to actually resolve the disputes. The winners of a battle are in a position to impose whatever terms they like on the losers, regardless of whether anyone, even the winners, think that the results are fair or just. Doing that is unlikely to resolve disputes; it is likely to create them. If we are to believe Luke's claim that the two are indistinguishable then we must believe that the winners of battles will always and necessarily impose conditions that the losers just happen to find fair and just. I think this claim is quite unbelievable.

More rigorously, Luke might be claiming that natural law is logically equivalent to 'the winner [of a battle] makes the rules'. This claim is prima facie untrue: the claim of natural law is that people cannot simply make any rules they like and expect them to work, even if circumstances give them to power to impose those rules against the wills of others.

10. [Luke Webber, 4/15] Natural law does not exist because there is not universal rejection of any particular act.

FALLACY: Straw man. Natural law theorists do not claim that there is a set of specific acts that will be rejected by every single person who ever exists in all possible circumstances. It claims that human characteristics constrain the procedures that people will find acceptable for resolving disputes, and that human characteristics and the characteristics of those proceudres will constrain the space of possible resolutions.

11. [Chris Byler, 4/15] How do you know that what you think is natural law isn't just your personal preferences instead?

It might be. In order to determine whether it is, we must find a way to arrive a resolutions that do not depend on the preferences of an interested infividual. That is why a voluntary court is appealing. Even with voluntary courts, the results might be random, or they might reflect the particular prejudices of the judges. The fact that examination of the history of such courts shows broad voluntary acceptance of their decisions and broad commoanlity across times and cultures in many particulars persuades me that the commonalities represented do not simply reflect my particular preferences or the particular preferences of any single person.

12. [G*rd*n, 4/16] Nature does not care what people do.

FALLACY: Straw man. Nobody said it does.

13. [G*rd*n, 4/16] Natural law does not exist because human conventions are not completely reliable in producing all consequences, nor are they without variation.

FALLACY: Straw man. Nobody said they are.

14. [Tito, 4/16] Natural law refers to thoughts that particular individuals happen to have. The fact that a majority of individuals have these thoughts does not make them more natural than thoughts other individuals have. The opinions of some cannot be used to derive laws of behavior to all individuals.

Natural law refers, not the particular thoughts that particular individals have, but the observed tendency of people to find common procedures of dispute resolution, and the observed tendency of those procedures to produce common outcomes.

15. [Matt Ruff, 4/17] Natural law is no different from subjective preference.

Natural law is different from personal preference in the same way that market price is different from personal preference. As a seller in the (free) market you may wish to obtain an arbitrarily high price for your goods, but you can only obtain what people are willing to give. As a buyer you may wish to pay an arbitrarily low rpice, but you can only get the goods for what the seller is prepared to take. The price reflects the preference of both parties, but it is not the same as anyone's preference.

Similarly, natural law arises from what individuals prefer, but is not identical to it. You may wish a dispute to go your way, and no doubt your opponent wishes it to go his way, but at least one of you, and possibly both of you, will be disappointed in some respect with the decision of a judge. If the two of you accept the outcome voluntarily anyway, that is evidence that it is in accord with natural law.

16. [Matt Ruff, 4/17] The natural law position is indistinguishable from the observation that laws have consequences for people and people care about the consequences to themselves.

That's right, but is not a refutation of the claims. Rather, it is a restatement of some of them.

17. [Tito, 4/17] Natural law is simply religious superstition where God is replaced by 'Nature'.

FALLACY: Genetic fallacy.

18. [G*rd*n, 4/18] Natural law is simply community convention.

Rather, natural law claims that it is possible for a community for deveop conventions for dispute resolution, and that if the individuals of the community are free to accept or reject such conventions as they please then it is possible to predict the sorts of conventions that will emerge.

19. [Tito, 4/18] Natural law supporters advocate a system in which people converge on conventions for punishment. Such a system would be indistinguishable from a state.

My answer to this objection is the same as my answer to the previous one.

20. [Tito, 4/18] Natural law is indistinguishable from majority rule

'Majority rule' describes a convention in which the individuals in a group vote and the alternative preferred by the majority is taken as binding on every member. Natural law describes the hypothesis that there exist natural characteristics of human beings that contrain the space of possible methods of dispute resolution that people will find congenial. Tito argues that the method I suggest for discovering what natural law is (if it exists) amounts to majority rule, presumably because I expect a majority of people to find the results congenial. If I claimed that majority approval *defined* natural law, then he would be right. I do not. Instead, I expect a consequence of the congeniality of natural law provisions to be that a majority accept them as fair and just. But I allow the logical possibility that a majority could be mistaken in their ideas of what conventions will actually work best in terms of human nature.

21. [Tito, 4/18] Natural law is unfalsifiable.

Natural law theorists claim that the conventions people spontaneously and voluntarily choose to resolve disputes will not be randomly correlated across times and cultures, that the relation between conventions chosen and Pareto improvement is not random, that the relation between conventions chosen and adaptive fitness is not random, and that the relation between conventions chosen and solutions to N-person non-zero-sum games is not random. Any of these claims is in principle falsifiable.

22. [Tito, 4/18] Natural law is not what it is represented to be; instead it is the expression of a wish that law should be natural.

FALLACY: Ad hominem. Tito is ignoring natural law claims and saying that we are lying about what we are actually claiming.

23. [Paris, 4/18] The logical antecedents of natural law (i.e. right, wrong, evil, justice, etc.) are purely subjective

FALLACY: Non sequitur. Even if true (and natural law theorists claim it isn't), it does not follow from the subjectivity of logical antecedents that an effect is not objectively real; c.f. the discussion of market price above.

24. [G*rd*n, 4/19] Natural law is a vague concept for which few or no claims can be made

The claims described in (2), (5), (9), (11), (14), and (18) above are reasonably precise, falsifiable in principle, and, if correct, have significant practical implications. For example, in (2) I claim that many very different peoples have spontaneously and voluntarily developed and accepted very similar institutions for dispute resolution, and that those institutions have developed very similar sets of rules of resolution. If true, that implies that another people in another time and another place could adopt such institutions (if not forcibly prevented) and that they would have positive practical implications for those people's daily lives.

25. [G*rd*n, 4/19] Unlike other kinds of laws, natural law does not consist of specific laws about specific things

English common law does not consist solely of specific laws about specific things. Instead, it consists of a method of arriving at resolutions of disputes together with a reference body of previously-resolved disputes for comparison. International law is much the same. Positive law more often consists of specific laws about specific things, but it also consists of laws that are not specific laws about specific things, such as the tenth amendment to the US Constitution. Thus, the observation that natural law doesn't consist of specific laws about specific things is no objection to its characterization as law.

26. [Tito, 4/19] Natural law is pseudoscience because it purports to identify right and wrong by scientific means. Scientific means cannot be used to identify right and wrong.

FALLACY: Straw Man. The claim of natural law is not that right and wrong can be identified by scientific means. [Tito's claim is an interesting bare assertion; how does he know?]

27. [Tito, 4/19] Natural law obliges individuals to anticipate all the ways in which they might be found in disagreement with religious zealots and openly disavow them.

Natural law imposes no such obligation. I challenge Tito to show how any claim on behalf of natural law leads to such a conclusion. If natural law exists it constrains the resolutions, and methods of resolution, of disputes that people will voluntarily accept as fair and just, that is all.

28. [Tito, 4/19] Voluntary courts require disinterested third-party judges, but there can be no disinterested third-party judge if people in the community believe that natural law exists.

Again, I challenge Tito to show how this conclusion follows from any claim on behalf of natural law. A disinterested judge in a voluntary court is any person that the two parties to a dispute agree can be expected to render a fair and just decision on their behalf. Tito would have us believe that no such person can exist, and yet many peoples in many times and places have used such procedures evolved spontaneously and voluntarily, which means they must have been able to agree on such judges.

29. [Tito, 4/19] Voluntary courts will lead to lynchings.

They have not. Historically, defection from judgements is rare, and execution almost unknown.

30. [Tito, 4/19] Voluntary courts will lead to the establishment of a state.

I challenge Tito to show that this is true. Systems of voluntary courts have existed in some circumstances (e.g. among the Kapauku Papuans and among the clans of Somalia) for centuries without turning into states.

31. [Paris, 4/19] Moral codes are arbitrary.

FALLACY: bare assertion

32. [G*rd*n, 4/20] mikel's reference to Nazis demonstrates that he has no reason or evidence with which to support his case.

FALLACY: argumentam ad populam

33. [G*rd*n, 4/20] In order to test natural law claims we would have to examine all human history and all acts defined as crimes by anyone. Unless we do that natural law is a religious belief. FALLACY: Genetic fallacy (G*rd*n implies that unless natural law claims are a certain kind of claim then they are not true.)

34. [Tito, 4/20] There are no common standards.

See arguments (2) and (28) above.

35. [Tito, 4/20] If there are common standards, they are irrelevant

See arguments (2) and (24) above.

36. [Tito, 4/20] If there are relevant common standards they will be used to repress individuals.

FALLACY: argumentam ad misericordiam. Tito argues that natural law claims cannot be true because it would be bad if they were.

37. [G*rd*n, 4/21] No scientific proof of the existence of natural law has been offered. The claim has not been scientifically confirmed.

FALLACY: Straw man. No one claims that natural law is a scientific hypothesis. (In any case, science does not confirm; it disconfirms.)

38. [G*rd*n, 4/21] Supporters of natural law do not agree on its contents.

FALLACY: Straw man. The claims of natural law do not entail agreement among its supporters on what policies are in accord with natural law. For example, if the claims of natural law are true it could still be the case that some or all people are mistaken about some or all policies' relation to natural law.

39. [G*rd*n, 4/21] The existence of something cannot be proven if it cannot be defined.

FALLACY: Red herring. This observation is true for a certain kind of proof that is wholly irrelevant to the kind of claim that natural law is. Neither can it be proved that dogs or emotions exist in that sense of proof. Supporters of natural law make no stronger claim for the existence of natural law than would be uncontroversial for dogs or emotions.

40. [Matt Ruff, 4/21] There are acts that some people think are wrong and other people do not.

FALLACY: Straw man: natural law claims do not entail that there will be no controversy over any acts.

41. [G*rd*n, 4/22] The concept of natural law is incompatible with freedom, peace, and equality. It leads to rule by an elite that knows the law.

I challenge G*rd*n to show that this conclusion follows from any claim on behalf of natural law. I claim that voluntary court systems will reflect natural law. Such court systems have existed for centuries in circumstances where their continued existence depended upon the voluntary participation of free individuals. It is hard to understand how a principle incomaptible with freedom could survive for centuries on the sufferance of free individuals.

Schneier on terror scares

Schneier has a worthwhile entry on the false alarms that are plaguing the home front in the war on terror. He presents a straightforward theory of decision-making in a bureaucracy which I think has application outside this particular issue:

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to -- a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant -- now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it's a false alarm, it's not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he's wrong, it'll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he'll be praised for "doing his job" and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we're done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.

This story has been repeated endlessly, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Someone -- these are all real -- notices a funny smell, or some white powder, or two people passing an envelope, or a dark-skinned man leaving boxes at the curb, or a cell phone in an airplane seat; the police cordon off the area, make arrests, and/or evacuate airplanes; and in the end the cause of the alarm is revealed as a pot of Thai chili sauce, or flour, or a utility bill, or an English professor recycling, or a cell phone in an airplane seat.

Of course, by then it's too late for the authorities to admit that they made a mistake and overreacted, that a sane voice of reason at some level should have prevailed. What follows is the parade of police and elected officials praising each other for doing a great job, and prosecuting the poor victim -- the person who was different in the first place -- for having the temerity to try to trick them.

Some points are worth making.

There is a disconnect between intention and reality. The intention is that an optimal balance will be struck between false positives (terror scares that turn out to be nothing) and false negatives (ignored reports of suspicious activity that turns out to be genuine terrorism). The reality is that the political environment creates incentives which hardly encourage the agency in charge to strike such a balance.

Case number 1: if there is a report of a suspicious activity which is ignored but which turns out to be real terrorism, then heads will roll. It does not matter that it was reasonable to ignore the report because it was like so many other reports. The public will not be thoughtful about this, and even if they are thoughtful, any after-the-fact consideration of the matter will be plagued by hindsight bias. They will blame the agency for not following up on the report. And there will be a particular individual within the agency who chose not to escalate the report. So blame will have a strong tendency to find the person who chose not to escalate the report.

Case number 2: if there is a report of a suspicious activity, and this is followed up, and eventually leads to a a pointless scare and to embarrassment for the agency as a whole, individuals within the agency who were involved in escalating the false positive will tend to be protected from repercussions, for the simple reason that they will not be alone. Everyone in the chain of escalation will be equally guilty of participating in the escalation. No one will want to blame one particular guy for escalating the false report, because if they do that, then logically they'll need to blame everyone else who okayed the escalation, and some of these people will be high up within the organization. There will be a strong incentive, then, to place the blame entirely outside the organization - most probably on the individual whose suspicious activity inspired the false report in the first place.

These two cases suggest that there is a powerful incentive to escalate every report, and scant incentive to carefully consider the report and to optimize between false positives and false negatives.

Additionally, it is simply much easier, much less work, to escalate every report without considering it carefully, than to take the time and make the effort to consider it carefully. This only compounds the incentive to escalate reports unthinkingly. This is sheer laziness. But unless there is an incentive not to be lazy, people will be lazy. And Case 1 and Case 2 taken together suggest that thoughtful handling may actually be punished, which does the opposite of providing an incentive not to be lazy.

I think Schneier is overoptimistic about the possibility of fixing the situation. As I have tried to show, the bad incentives have their origin in the public reaction, combined with the logic of the situation. Regardless of how the responsible agency operates, the public will still be plagued by hindsight bias and will still look for scapegoats if there is a terror attack and reports were ignored, however reasonably. And regardless of how the responsible agency operates, a false positive, i.e. a terror scare that turns out to be nothing, will inevitably have many fingerprints on it and so there will be every incentive not to point fingers at any individual within the agency. Schneier writes:

But these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. [...]

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

He is asking people to act against the incentives that they're faced with. Exhortation to act against one's incentives is not a real solution. A real solution will take into account what the incentives are. (No, I don't have a real solution.)

Reply to RKN

In reply to this comment.

My point with the car example was that you don't need *any* concept of
ownership to measure the properties of the intrinsic part(s) of a
system, none.

I think you do and you're using it, you're just not recognizing it explicitly. You need to have some concept which carburator pertains to which car in the relevant way. Key concepts here: pertain, and relevant way. It is this, or rather its analog in the case of biology, that I am pointing out.

we often use the possessive form of verbs to imply association

Not just any association. In different realms we re-use the same form to refer to quite different but highly specific relationship. In the realm of biology there is a certain relationship that holds between body parts and the organism. I pointed it out briefly: the 'glue' that joins the body parts into an organism is biological function. The parts function in concert as a single whole whose biological function ultimately is to produce copies of the whole. This is the relationship which holds among the body parts of a single organism, making them form an organism rather than being only a random collection of bits of matter.

Similarly, the carburetor pertains to that car and not some other car in the relevant way because, and only as long as, the function of the carburetor is to help that car (and not some other car) to go. The relationship is functional in the case of made things as well as biological, though it's a derived function, derived from the intention of the human maker.

Though one is left wondering why you needed several hundred words in a blog comment to point this out.

Depending on what comment you're referring to, maybe because I was addressing you?

Uh, yea, but like isn't that obvious?

Yes, it's obvious. But the thing is, intellectuals have the bad habit of convincing themselves that the obvious is not true or isn't real. And when that happens, it's rather difficult, can take a lot of words, to restate the obvious in a way that allows them to see it again. It takes a lot of effort to convince someone who has previously blinded himself by a herculean effort of intellect, that something is in fact there.