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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.

Aliens against egalitarianism

A lot has been written on the evils of egalitarianism, my point is not to reaffirm it but rather to forge convincing anti-egalitarian bullet. Next time you are spoiling a friendly dinner party by arguing against any form of welfare system, opposing egalitarianism and its bastard child opportunity-egalitarianism, here's some ammo. I don't recall reading that argument elsewhere, it's not very original but the analogy is good as few will extend egalitarianism to it.

Assume we discover a peaceful planet populated by intelligent humanoid creatures. Through the marvels of convergent evolution, they are actually very similar to us, only they have 100 years of advance in almost everything (a ridiculous drop considering the length of evolution). They have much better machines, better education, quality of life, better health care and so on.

According to the defender of egalitarianism, the very day we discover this planet, every birth of human child suddenly become "unfair" as the unprivileged human child doesn't have the same chances in life as the alien child.

Had we not discovered the planet, we should not consider the birth unfair, but as soon as we barely know of the existence of that civilization, the whole meaning of fairness should be altered to reflect that any birth of a human baby is unfair.* After all, what did the alien babies do to deserve a better life? Nothing!

That alone undermines I think the whole idea behind egalitarianism. In order to finish (and definitely kill the mood of the party):

Since the alien are privileged it is only fair we force them to share their wealth, thus we should build a fleet, invade their planet and take their resources, machines and most valuable things back to earth.


On further thoughts, that argument is most efficient against someone defending equality of opportunities rather than pure egalitarianism. A pure egalitarian would claim the only "unfair" thing us the alien's attempt to prevent us from grabbing their ressources, the opportunity-egalitarian however must consider that being born human suddenly becomes unfair.

* Yes, that is the rothbardian view of egalitarianism as a revolt against nature, nothing new here but the framework.

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.

Supply side, Martin Gardner, and Tomorrowland

One of the problems I have with the anti-supply-side is that they repeatedly go one ambitious step too far, and you get a sense that, all along, that's actually the step that they've been pushing.

It's not just the anti-supply-siders. Another recent example is China Mieville's attack on the more unrealistic seasteaders: he takes his attack one massive step too far, using an ultra-obscure, long-forgotten (if it was ever noticed), ludicrous example of seasteading (which is itself a topic so obscure that the two-line article stub it has in Wikipedia has the comment that it should be merged into Ocean colonization, which is itself a pretty lonely topic) to launch an implied attack on libertarianism, attempting to tar libertarianism by association with unrealistic plans that in all probability very few libertarians take seriously outside of the actual utopians whose brainchild the Freedom Ship is. And these supposedly libertarian utopians may not, in fact, be libertarians, as Dave points out at the end of his entry. What might have been a valid (if not particularly interesting) critique of the Freedom Ship had Mieville kept to the modest goal of critiquing it, is invalidated by his transparent attempt to tar libertarianism with the same brush, an attempt that evidently worked with his intended audience (the jubilation of the choir at which his article was aimed testifies to this). What would have been a valid attack on a tiny and not particularly interesting target, becomes a straw man attack on libertarianism (one that dupes its intended readership, which is not, it must be said, all that much of an accomplishment). As Patri has pointed out, Mieville's attack does not even refute seasteading, never mind libertarianism. It refutes the Freedom Ship, but in that it is superfluous, since a moment's glance refutes the Freedom Ship. The Freedom Ship meanwhile remains as charming as it ever was, because it is an unmistakable throwback to the science fiction visions of the 1940s and earlier. The computer illustrations of the boat remind us of the visions of tomorrowland, which we remember and miss even today.

The anti-supply-side has a point, a limited point, which is defensible. If only they'd stick to it. The particular tax cuts did not obviously increase revenue above what it would have been without the tax cuts. Okay, that's certainly possible. The data seems to support their critique. Supply side was, evidently, oversold.

But they don't quit while they're ahead - probably because it's not really the game they were hunting. They have bigger quarry in mind. For starters, they go on to say that it's "foolish" to think supply side might possibly have been right, for such-and-such basic reason. Well, no, it's not, as JTK has pointed out. Zubon has also raised a valid point about the long term effects of tax cuts. The anti-supply-sider quote that Zubon is reacting to mentions Cheney's comment about the long term effect of a tax cut, misidentifying it as yet another expression of debunked supply-siderism, but as Zubon points out, Cheney's claim is not the debunked short-term claim of the supply siders. Here again we see the anti-supply-siders overreaching, trying to refute more than they really can refute. Anti-supply-siders mislabel as "supply side" any suggestion that lower taxes might be good for the economy and therefore, indirectly, good for the government.

One contributing factor to the survival of support for supply side ideas may be that the attacks on it insisted on more than they had any right to insist on, thereby refuting themselves. In their overeagerness, they trip over themselves, like the Keystone Cops.

There was another attack on the Laffer curve that bit off more than it could chew. I'm referring to Martin Gardner's parody of the Laffer curve, dubbed the Neo-Laffer curve. Gardner's argument was that the Laffer curve assumes that the relationship between tax rate and revenue is a simple one (represented by the simple Laffer curve). Gardner pointed out that it might very well be complex (represented by the tangled Neo-Laffer curve). Well, that might be true, but there's an immediate problem with Gardner's attack on the Laffer curve: his attack, by the very same token, constitutes a critique of the idea that increasing the tax rate will increase revenues. This idea also assumes that the relationship between the tax rate and the revenue is a simple one. And this is the key idea that the Laffer curve critiques, and the idea that the anti-supply-siders are, ultimately, defending. Gardner's attack on the Laffer curve, then, is equally an attack on its critics.

Mieville and the Lefty Killjoys

I read the anti-libertarian article by China Mieville. OK, the big ship concept is an easy target, but not on libertarian grounds.

In fact Mieville is a good wordsmith who launches some pretty deadly torpedoes at the floating paradise, but his real target is libertarians. His motive, like most leftists nowadays is not to propose any credible plans for humankind’s improvement but to cut down or hollow out the plans of anyone who doesn’t agree with their authoritarian, collectivist, universalism.

Just what upsets Meivlle so much about the idea that people might want to pursue this enterprise or any enterprise for that matter?
His analysis of libertarianism is not entirely off base. For example he points out that most libertarians are not the super rich. He correctly points out that the people who have made it are already comfortably ensconced in their protected and controlled venues and need not take to sea in order to live like royalty. Many are politically connected and protected and feast at the public trough. A trip to Palm Beach or Ft Lauderdale, Fl will suffice to inform the uninitiated that the truly rich need not board ships peopled by 40 thousand. They already have their own 5 million dollar yachts parked behind their 20 bedroom mansions. When libertarians see the cozy relationship between the powerful wealthy and government, it does not make them love government. For doing things for themselves and succeeding anyway, the hungry, hard working, creative searcher gets cut down by the collectivist intellectuals.

It is not dreamer utopians sitting idly under trees that Meiville attacks but those entrepreneurs who would actually take the financial risks to do something. He hates the “free-market vulgarians.” The thing that Meiville and other intellectuals can’t stand is that a lot of Americans are individualistic, competitive and acquisitive. At the same time don’t love or trust the government and want it out of their business. In other words they are libertarians whether they verbalize it or not.
One observer ( Nicholas Capaldi) has identified intellectuals as secular individuals who believe that there is objective righteousness that is perceived exclusively by their own cognitive community and which gives them legitimate claim to direct the various institutions of the world. And they don’t want selfish, vulgar, freedom loving people to be able to escape this by boarding a boat. This the way Meiville thinks.

Of course the leftist intellectual can not literally shoot people who disagree with them and only want to escape, like they could when they had the Berlin Wall. They can’t even keep them from building a boat. Their weapons are not guns but words. Essentially they just call people names. Maybe they can make other people hate them and thus damage them. So you get “(Libertarians are)tragically non-ambitious, crippled with class anxiety,-- and maundering about a mythical ideal-type capitalism, libertarianism betrays its fear of actually existing capitalism, at which it cannot quite succeed. It is a philosophy of capitalist inadequacy.” Becoming ever more shrill- “Whites live among Whites and separate from Asians and blacks,” - and winding up with “The libertarian seasteaders are a joke. The pitiful, incoherent and cowardly utopia they pine for is a spoilt child’s autarky, an imperialism of outsourcing, a very petty fascism played as maritime farce---”
Stephan Hicks” Explaining Postmodernism” has described this snide attitude as the result of the collapse of leftist ideology due to of the failure of Marxism and its derivatives and the persistence of vigorous capitalism. Post modernist thought, reduced to utter fatuity, lashes out venomously hoping at least to ruin other people’s fun.

If you really want to have fun and a good laugh, look at the Freedom Ship’s website. For instance, why build the thing in Honduras? Oh it is too big to build in a shipyard. So it will be built by natives whose experience in ship building consists of building small coastal fishing boats. The Freedom Ship will get around the problem of big waves breaking the keel by making it like a barge like they use to transport bulky stuff along the protected waters of the intercoastal waterways, except topped by a massive city complete with airport, subways, storage for private and commercial planes, a marina, shopping malls, a football field, a hospital and plans for a medical school.
Environmentally pollution free toilets will electrically vaporize all human waste, thus saving the local waters from contamination by filthy bilge water. The thing will be the world’s slowest ship and will be driven by 400 high tech propellers driven by undisclosed means. Just don’t be late with your monthly mortgage payments. Since the thing is unsinkable, it won’t carry any life boats. I don’t think Katrina would have much trouble chasing down and dismantling this tub.

There is not one word in the document touting the project that mentions libertarianism. It clearly states that the investors who own this seagoing condominium will abide by local and international law and pay taxes in their country of origin. Its schools will teach all children bilingually and encourage the children to think environmentally and internationally. It will move in a circuit around the world every two years. Sounds pretty progressive to me.

Torture versus dust specks, pollution, and natural law

In Overcoming Bias, Eliezer writes:

Now here's the moral dilemma. If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

I think the answer is obvious. How about you?

Read the whole post if you don't immediately get what Eliezer is getting at here. His intention is to create a puzzle that challenges certain utilitarian assumptions. He doesn't mention utilitarianism explicitly, but it is so dominant in today's ethical thinking, and so obviously implied by the puzzle, that this is how I take it. To lay my cards on the table, my intuition is that the horrible torture is more wrong even if it does not, in some key sense, amount to the total suffering experienced when sufficiently many people get a speck in their eye. I think that most people would have a similar intuition. If they had any other intuition, then the example wouldn't be the interesting example it is, but would simply be yet another straightforward application of utilitarianism. [Edit: I don't mean to imply that Eliezer rejects the assumptions; he may accept the assumptions and reject an intuition if it goes against them.]

I'll try to explain this intuition by using a concept of natural law: What is against natural law (and, also, what is immoral, what is wrong, what is unjust) is what would tend to receive punishment (e.g., retaliation) under certain paradigmatic conditions (which will remain undescribed, but let us briefly call it "the state of nature", a condition that often comes up in discussions about natural law). Nothing more, nothing less.

The concept's application to minuscule harms: Annoying a very large number of people sufficiently slightly would receive no punishment in a state of nature, because it would be too costly for any individual annoyed person to deliver punishment. It would be even more costly (in the paradigmatic condition, the state of nature) for all the annoyed people to find each other, coordinate, identify the culprit, and deliver punishment (a public goods problem; I recognize that the state "solves" certain public goods problems, and so under a state the offender may be punished - but I am talking about how things would work out in a state of nature, without such an entity to facilitate retaliation). However you slice it, there is a per-person threshold of offense below which the offended person will not retaliate because it is too costly, and even if you multiply the harm by a large number of people, each offended person will not retaliate and so the offender will get away with the offense.

To recap, a wrong is what, under certain conditions, would be punished. A harm that is sufficiently small to each victim would not be punished, regardless of how many victims there were, and therefore regardless of the total size of the harm. Therefore, as we are defining "wrong" here, a sufficiently small per-person harm is not wrong, no matter how great the total harm is when all the harmed people are added up. This is in contrast to the severe torture of an individual victim, which is wrong even if its magnitude is much smaller than the total magnitude of a harm that is sufficiently small per person. This victim of torture would, in the paradigmatic condition, retaliate.

An example: pollution seems to fall into this category. An automobile throws out enough exhaust to kill a person many times over, but the exhaust is dissipated and the total harm it causes is shared by a very large number of people. Considering the costs of retaliation, it is not worthwhile for the victims to retaliate against the car owner. People are killed by pollution, but there are so many polluters that it would be astronomically costly for a killed person's family to track down each individual polluter and retaliate against him in an amount commensurate with his role in the death.

Utilitarians are committed by their philosophy to weighing the harms, the lost utiles or the disutility of the different afflictions (speck versus torture), and at some point the sheer numerical weight of a sufficiently large number of specks forces them (unless, of course, they manage to squirm out of it by some clever means) to conclude that barely noticeable specks in the eyes of sufficiently many people outweigh severe torture. And yet intuition says otherwise. I maintain that our actual moral intuitions are not really utilitarian calculations, but have their origin in our sense (evolved and learned) about what would receive punishment under certain paradigmatic conditions. Over long-enough stretches of time, those paradigmatic conditions re-assert themselves, in part or in whole. For example, for the most part, in their day to day interactions individuals deal with other individuals far away from the purview of the state. So in large part, something close to a state of nature exists between most people most of the time, and so natural law re-asserts itself as a guiding force regulating human interaction.

To sum up, something that is a puzzle for utilitarian morality is no puzzle for natural law.

Ah the Perfect Evening for a Mad Scientist

I volunteered to do some halloweed decorations for a local charity event.    So I bought a Time Fountain Kit and I am assembling it right now.   It will be part of my mad scientist display.    I'm going to mount it inside an acrylic aquarium so the kids don't knock it over.

I am also watching Bordello of Blood on TV, and it's raining outside.  That shouldn't be too distracting and it sets the mood.

I am also trying to get a non-newtonian fluid display going.  I have an old subwoofer and a theramin which I hooked together but so far it isn't working.  I think because the subwoofer is too blown.

I better get back to work.  Bwahhahaa....

Brits resort to pulling own teeth

Socialized medicine. There's the theory (well, the half-baked theory), and then there's the practice. 

Desperate dental patients are pulling out their own teeth with pliers and fixing broken crowns with glue, a survey out today revealed.

Falling numbers of NHS dentists are forcing many to go without treatment because they cannot afford private fees.

Almost a fifth admitted missing out on vital work because of the cost. The research, involving more than 5,000 patients in England, also found that as many as six per cent had treated themselves because they could not find an NHS dentist.

One Lancashire patient claimed to have used pliers for 14 extractions while one researcher came across three people in a morning who had pulled out their own teeth.  

Mirror  (emph. mine. Via Google News. Title from CNN.)

Protest Against Whom?

The New York Times reported on a student protest that followed an unidentified racist hanging a noose on the office door of a teachers college professor at Columbia. The protest happened on Wednesday, one day after the noose was discovered on the professor's office door by a colleague. ABC News reports that the protest drew around 200 people including Columbia students that walked out of class and students from other New York colleges. My question is, a protest against whom or what? General racism in society?

The protest came only a day after the incident and everything I've read indicates that both Columbia and the NYPD are taking things seriously. Beyond cooperating with the NYPD to find the identity of the coward that hung the noose and expelling/firing the student/faculty member responsible, what else is Columbia responsible for? I couldn't find any criticism of the current Columbia administration's handling of the case.

There were some things that did catch my eye. From the Times article linked above:

“It’s like throwing a match on a haystack,” said Christien Tompkins, 21, a senior who is co-chairman of the United Students of Color Council. “This obviously really touched a nerve for a lot of folks.”

Mr. Tompkins was one of about two dozen students who met with Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, to discuss the case yesterday afternoon.

At that meeting, Mr. Tompkins said, students have used the noose as a point of departure to talk about other issues, including Columbia’s plans to expand into adjacent neighborhoods.


At a separate meeting, 600 Teachers College students and faculty members gathered to air their own grievances before Susan H. Fuhrman, the president of Teachers College, and other administrators.


Dr. Fuhrman said yesterday that she would work to retain and recruit more minority faculty members, and offer students more scholarships.

“There’s nothing good about this incident, this is horrible,” she said. “But we should be doing this talking, and if it takes this thing to make us do this, so be it.”

The Times piece mentioned that the targeted professor is involved in a lawsuit with another professor at Columbia. So, when (most likely) an angry colleague does something reprehensible and inexcusable to a coworker, immediate termination of employment and criminal and civil charges aren't enough? The University of Columbia itself must up its minority hiring quota and avoid expanding?

I sympathize with the targeted professor, who shouldn't have the threat of violence hung on her office door, but the peripheral demands of the protestors, tied into broader Progressive concerns, just don't carry a strong enough connection to the original incident for me to take all of the protestors seriously in light of people like Mr. Tompkins using the incident "as a point of departure to talk about other issues." If it takes all of a day for the co-chairman of the United Students of Color Council at Columbia to use the incident as a springboard to talk about the University's proposed expansion among other issues, it brings into question the sincerity of some of the protestors when the original incident is deserving of outrage.

Creeping totalitarianism?

I don't know if this is just journalistic detritus or if there is something to it.

Thanks to guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and supported by the commonwealth, doctors across Massachusetts are interrogating our kids about mom and dad’s “bad” behavior.


The paranoia over parents is so strong that the AAP encourages doctors to ignore “legal barriers and deference to parental involvement” and shake the children down for all the inside information they can get.

And that information doesn’t stay with the doctor, either.

Debbie is a mom from Uxbridge who was in the examination room when the pediatrician asked her 5-year-old, “Does Daddy own a gun?”

When the little girl said yes, the doctor began grilling her and her mom about the number and type of guns, how they are stored, etc.

If the incident had ended there, it would have merely been annoying.

But when a friend in law enforcement let Debbie know that her doctor had filed a report with the police about her family’s (entirely legal) gun ownership, she got mad.


“I still like my previous pediatrician,” Debbie told me. “She seemed embarrassed to ask the gun questions and apologized afterward. But she didn’t seem to have a choice.”

She very well may not have a choice if she wants to retain her license, despite the view of the article's author that she has a choice.

What next: nationalized health care and the nationalization of creeping totalitarianism?

via Reddit


A True Case of Being Above the Law

I think this was and is a stupid incentive to set up. 

"Security contractors have immunity from Iraqi law under a provision put
into place in the early days of the U.S.-led occupation."

Even if there truly is some other legal framework under which they operate it sure looks bad.