Public posts will appear on the Community blog, and may be promoted to the front page.

I come out against illegal immigrants

No, not generally speaking, but in this case, going by what is described here, I come out against the illegals.

This the first time I found myself siding with the American citizen who rounded them up. A novel experience.

An Arizona man who has waged a 10-year campaign to stop a flood of illegal immigrants from crossing his property is being sued by 16 Mexican nationals who accuse him of conspiring to violate their civil rights when he stopped them at gunpoint on his ranch on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Roger Barnett, 64, began rounding up illegal immigrants in 1998 and turning them over to the U.S. Border Patrol, he said, after they destroyed his property, killed his calves and broke into his home.

In my view, property owners have far more genuine rights to defend their property than is currently recognized in law.

At one point, it said, Mr. Barnett’s dog barked at several of the women and he yelled at them in Spanish, “My dog is hungry and he’s hungry for buttocks.”

Good for him. Trespassers do not deserve any better.

One way this may be reversed: if he has not clearly marked his property. A person can't be blamed for trespassing on property that has not been clearly marked.

If you are upset by what this guy is doing and seriously want to help illegals, you might buy property along the border and then simply turn a blind eye to trespass.

More on the Paradox of Thrift

Here's Matt Yglesias, making the argument that I've been trying to cash out for the past week:

Now we’ve entered “paradox of thrift” territory. People are saving more. And the increased saving isn’t being cycled back into the economy as new investment. In part, that’s because of problems in the financial system. But in part, it’s because with short-term demand slumping so much, there’s not a lot of worthwhile investing to be doing. The economy needs someone to decide to borrow some money and start a new firm that employs these newly unemployed people. But with the volume of consumption going down so rapidly, nobody’s really in the mood to start a new business. And existing businesses are busy scaling back production, not interested in borrowing money to ramp it up. The result of this is an overall fall in the average level of income. And that means that even with the share of income being saved going up, the actual level of savings can be going down and we can truly end up in the toilet.

Tyler Cowen thinks Matt's explanation is mostly right, although he says that it's wrong to think of Americans saving more, since they weren't really saving all that much to start with. According to Cowen, it's more accurate to say that the paradox could result instead in rising levels of debt to GDP. Specifically, if people begin to "save" by paying back credit card debts, then that's okay if they're paying those debts to relatively healthy banks that can turn around and lend the money back. But if those payments are mostly going to zombie banks, then the bank might well just hold on to the cash. And that can create problems.

I'm inclined to think that this is pretty much the argument I've been making. Though, obviously, if I could make it as well as Matt and/or Tyler, then I'd be either a famous blogger or an econ professor at George Mason.


Artificial Intelligence is a disorienting subject. A few days ago, I realized for the first time the poverty of human language as a communication medium. It is incredibly imprecise; semantic ambiguity is ubiquitous. If it weren't for vast amounts of shared background knowledge between human speakers, many utterances would be unintelligible.

This accounts for the impossibility of creating computers that can understand the natural language used by human beings. As usual, nature has evolved a twisty, inelegant solution that works well enough. It is very hard to copy her ways.

A Hidden Benefit of Recessions

The reduction in state tax revenue from the recession might, just might, force the government to consider cutting back on imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, if only to save money. From the Washington Post:

Under the proposal being drafted by Senate leaders from both parties, Virginia would expand its use of home monitoring and make it easier for nonviolent offenders to be released after they complete drug treatment programs.

The state would then close one or two prisons, which would free up at least $50 million to help address a $3 billion budget shortfall.

The Senate plan, which is expected to be finalized this week, expands Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's earlier cost-cutting proposal to allow some prison officials to release nonviolent inmates 90 days before the end of their sentences.

It's a start, although it remains to be seen whether this proposal will pass, since, as David Albo says of the House Republicans, "They want to release drug dealers, and none of us are willing to release drug dealers." David Albo, Virginia residents might recall, is the buffoon who views the traffic code as a way to drum up business for his law firm, so maybe he shouldn't be the go-to guy on law and order issues.

Force, Fraud and Question-Begging

Those of you who haven't been following Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson's exchange on Rothbard and the role of fraud in libertarian theory really ought to do yourselves a favor and go have a look. Here's Bryan's initial post, Will's response and Bryan's rejoinder.

I can't do the entire exchange justice here, but the gist of the disagreement is Will's objection that:

Even when I was a believer in Rand/Rothbard-style libertarianism, I found the ‘or’ in the “no force or fraud” formulation of the non-coercion principle a bit vexing and suspect. It seems too frank an admission that fraud isn’t force or agression [sic] at all. It’s another morally questionable way to get someone to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more ‘or’s?

Bryan finds Will's objection puzzling:

Frankly, I don't see the problem. If you accept the initial libertarian equation of "coercion" with non-consensual use of others' property, then the impermissibility of fraud follows. If you offer me a Mitsubishi 5500 projector in exchange for $2000, and hand me a box of straw instead, you are using my $2000 without my consent (which was contingent, of course, on you giving me the projector).

I'm with Will on this one. Indeed, I'm quite puzzled by Bryan's reply, as it looks like it pretty blatantly begs the question. Is it me, or doesn't this exchange really boil down to something like:

    Will: It's strange to cash out "coercion" as meaning "no force or fraud."
    Bryan: It's not strange at all, as long as you accept that coercion really just means force or fraud.

I mean, the question of whether to include "or fraud" as part of the definition of coercion is exactly the question at issue here. To then just define coercion as "non-consensual use of others' property" just is another way of saying "force or fraud." This isn't to say that Bryan's definition is wrong. But it's not a particularly good argument. Indeed, it's not really an argument at all. It's more an eloquent "Is too!"

As for the underlying question...I think that Will is right there, too. It's not clear to me that fraud is really coercion. But that requires a longer post. And maybe a bit more thought and reading first.

Without a King

Tom Bell's son decides he doesn't need a king.

Paradox of Thrift

So it wasn't all that long that Keynesianism was pretty much dead and buried. A 1996 article in the Cato Journal, entitled appropriately enough "The Paradox of Thrift: RIP," gloated that Paul Samuelson's seminal Keynesian-oriented textbook had dropped its references to the paradox of thrift. Yes, Keynes was discredited and the triumph of the Chicago school was at hand.

And yet, it appears to be back again. Witness, for example, Paul Krugman's warning in the NYT yesterday that "we're in serious paradox of thrift territory here." And it's not just left-leaning Nobel laureates who see a danger. Solidly-libertarian Megan McArdle likewise argues that the paradox looms.

Megan's argument seems pretty solid. In Keynes' day, the paradox may have been a threat, since a lot of people hoarded actual cash. Taking money out of circulation really did remove other people's income from the mix, which if done widely enough, would ultimately make everyone worse off, as firms cut back on either production or wages.

In the modern world, not many people stuff cash into their mattress. They put in into banks, which then lend the money back out either to individuals who want to buy houses or send Sally to college or to business that want to retool or expand or just plain ol' start-up. The former stimulates demand which in turn drives business expansion and the latter drives expansion directly, which in turn drives wages. All is good.

Only, in the current climate, banks aren't really lending out money. There are lots of reasons for this. Americans, in general, have too much debt and so are not looking to acquire more in a shaky economy. Banks have invested poorly, are over-leveraged and are now hoarding cash to ride out future declines in their balance books. And businesses are not, at the moment, really looking to do any massive expansions. Indeed, many of them are also over-extended, too. The result? People save, and the money kind of ends up just sitting around not being used. Hence, the paradox of thrift.

So my question (or really questions) to DR readers: Is this a stopped clock sort of thing, where a Keynes is actually right about the paradox, but only because of a particularly unique set of circumstances? Or is there some reason to think that the paradox isn't really looming? And if it does loom, what then? The logic of the paradox suggests that it might count as a genuine public goods problem. So is a stimulus (one that actually stimulates, as opposed to the monstrosities that are working their way through congress now) actually warranted? Discuss.

UPDATE (Feb. 5): The arbitrage possibilities of tax cuts hadn't occurred to me. But as Megan points out today, even if people are simply saving whatever they get, it's worth remembering that the government borrows money at awfully low interest rates. Even tax cuts didn't jump-start the economy, they might still end up increasing wealth. Whether that would produce more wealth than infusing cash into the economy is something I'm not even remotely qualified to address.

On Blessings and Taxes

In his post criticizing the idea that tax rates should be based on income, Brandon writes:

I will grant that there's a legitimate argument to be made in favor of taxing people on the basis of the blessings they have been given. For example, the fact that I'm smart enough to make a good living as a computer programmer while most others aren't is a matter of sheer luck; I haven't really done anything to deserve the cognitive advantage I have over someone with an IQ of 90.

This strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position. Regardless of what we think about the nature/nurture question (and much virtual ink has been spilled over this question right here at DR, with Brandon often leading the way), it's clear that I have very little to do with my IQ. I was either lucky enough to be born with the right set of genes and then develop in the right sort of environment or I wasn't. There's little I've done to earn my natural talents.

That said, I wonder if this sort of concession doesn't set us on a fairly slippery slope. Consider Brandon's own example:

Two men of roughly equal intelligence, from similar class backgrounds, who go to school together and end up going to the same college—men who have been more or less equally blessed. When they reach college, their paths diverge. One decides to become an artist, the other a doctor. Ten years later, the doctor is paying 10-20 times as much in taxes as the artist.

Becoming a doctor is hard; it involves many years of study and very hard work, with no payoff until age 30 at least, and as late as 35 for some specialties. Ultimately there's a large monetary payoff, but the doctor pays a heavy nonmonetary price (not to mention student loans, which are not tax-deductible). The artist doesn't make much money, but he enjoys the nonmonetary benefits of being an artist, such as leisure, more enjoyable work, and art groupies.

This strikes me as problematic on a couple of levels. For one, Brandon is probably underplaying the amount of training involved in becoming an artist. Plenty of people have (some) artistic talent, but moving from potential-artist to actual-artist requires some degree of work. There are, after all, plenty of artists out there who acquire an MFA, or even a PhD, apprentice for years and so on. I've neither been to medical school nor to art school, so I can't at all compare the two. But it does strike me as a tad glib to assume that becoming a physician requires hard work while becoming an artist is a walk in the park. At the very least, the fact that there are far more successful physicians than there are successful artists ought to give us some pause.

More significantly, though, while Brandon does well to consider the role that luck plays with respect to intelligence, he seems strangely to ignore the fact that luck plays an equally big role in a lot of other areas. It is, for instance, really a matter of luck that Brandon happens to live in a society that values physicians more highly than it values artists. Move 200 years into the past and having a knack for open-heart surgery just isn't really all that important: People were too busy worrying about having enough to eat to bother with shelling out a lot of money for surgery. As a result, physician wasn't a particularly high-status profession.

Similarly, if we move 200 years into the future, it's likely that physicians won't be that terribly in demand. Our on-board supply of nanites will be keeping us healthy, and physicians will simply have to keep us injected with the latest batches. Indeed, with our longer life spans and increased leisure time, the artist may be far more valued than the physician.

My point here is just that even people who are similarly smart aren't necessarily gifted with exactly the same aptitudes. Whether my talents happen to line up with the things my society really values is a matter of purest luck. Brandon, I think, has to assume that equally smart, equally advantaged people are also equally talented in every single respect. But that's not really true. In fact, that's not true at all. Some smart and advantaged people just don't like science and thus won't be any good at medicine, however smart they might be.

Now if Brandon wants to make the (very narrow) point that it's unfair that a tax code would treat differently two people with exactly the same talents and aptitudes but who consciously chose two different career paths, then that's fair enough. It's somewhat academic, as I suspect it's pretty unlikely that we'll be able to find all that many real-world examples.

Brandon is certainly right that money isn't everything. And a tax code that based its rates on overall utility rather than income would probably be morally preferable to the one we have. But until we have a reliable utility meter, income is arguably the best proxy we have.

Eat Babies for Galactic Peace

Eliezer at Overcoming Bias has outdone himself, producing a fascinating serial novella that explores the limitations of moral thought.

Maybe it is my own nihilism talking, but to me it serves as a fine illustration of the inherent arbitrariness hidden in the foundation of all moral systems. Once you can imagine creatures with a moral system radically different from your own, it's hard not to retreat to an ad hoc, pragmatic view of morality.

Through part II, my sympathies are with the baby eaters. Is that unusual?


After pondering this story for awhile, I am less impressed with it. I may have missed the point that the author intended for me to get the first time around. It is still an entertaining yarn that will send a charge through your brain-crystals, but it could end up as a simple parable on the virtue of Yudkowsky's preferred morality.

Consider the evidence: Eliezer is known to consider suffering and death to be a great evil. He thinks that people who reject even a small chance of cheating death, such as by use of cryogenics, are attempting to rationalize a flawed world-view. To Yudkowsky, people who think death is a "natural" part of human existence are the babyeaters.

However, there is some art in the story, since Yudkowsky gives us his morality in two perspectives. He next introduces the alien race of the super happy ultra fun fun people (or something like that) who have done away with pain and live in an eternal state of supreme pleasure. They view suffering as a great evil, and view humanities' choice not to use technology to do away with it as something akin to the babyeaters' choice not to use technology to do away with the need for baby eating. At the conclusion of part 4, they are threatening to forcibly take over and remake the human race to eliminate death and pain.

I think Yudkowsky wants us to be convinced by the arguments of the super happy fun fun people and commit ourselves to do away with whatever pain we develop the technological capability to alleviate. I missed this point too the first time I read it. Instead, I thought the super happy fun fun people were sort of grotesque.

I am at peace with the fact that I have a human-centered worldview. My entire personality, identity, and consciousness is tied up with a particular piece of wetware with its own innate moral biases. Yudkowsky won't convince me to give it up that easily.

If I were a babyeater, I'd eat babies.

Alternatively, Eliezer might put some warts on the happy fun people and use them to illustrate some of his ideas on failed utopias. After all, most stories are a function of their authors.

Kelo - the aftermath

From The Liberty Papers:

Interestingly, this new development that was supposed to bring in so much revenue and jobs to the City of New London remains an empty lot. The city has lost a tax base and the only new jobs which were created were for demolition.

I admit: I didn't see this coming. I continue underestimate the stupidity and harmfulness of government.

Burn Notice, Leverage and the Virtue of Con Artists

In his otherwise excellent post on politics and virtue, Constant observes:

A thief is actually a bad person. A thief is morally corrupted. A vandal is morally corrupted. A con artist is morally corrupted. These are bad people.

I realize that this is a bit of a throwaway line, and as a general observation, it's undoubtedly true. There are, of course, exceptions, the clearest of which often appear in fiction (Robin Hood is arguably a non-corrupt thief and V's vandalism is not obviously villainous). Con artists, however, are a bit trickier. In general, they are often the worst of the bunch, frequently preying upon the weakest members of society. As it happens, though, pop culture provides us with a couple of recent examples of possibly-virtuous con artists.

Indeed, the central conceit of TNT's Leverage is that of con men looking out for the little guy. Timothy Hutton's Nathan and his team right some of the world's wrongs by targeting the wealthy and corrupt. And, of course, this being TV land, "wealthy" and "corrupt" are more-or-less synonymous. The Leverage team concocts elaborate scams that end with bad guys getting dragged away in handcuffs and the good guys siphoning off money which they then distribute to those who really need it.

Except when they don't. As Kyle Smith observed over at Culture11, Nathan feels no compunction about keeping some of the swindled cash to buy himself a $100,000 Tesla Roadster. Never mind that the money came via the U.S. government (aka, lots and lots of taxpayers who might have liked to, you know, have it back.) And the Leverage team's scam to short "Bering" Airlines stock ultimately screws over a whole lot of ordinary 401k portfolios.

See, the problem is that while Leverage's writers clearly intend the gang to be an updated Robin Hood, their intentions are done in by their rather unsophisticated understanding of the complexity of the modern economy. Robin Hood stole money from wealthy aristocrats who got that wealth by squeezing it from peasants. So when Robin gives back to the poor, he's just returning ill-gotten gains to the people from which it was taken in the first place. In targeting corporations (even corrupt ones), however, the gang isn't taking money and giving it back to the people from whom it was taken. Rather, they take wealth from some people who got it illicitly while in the process harming a bunch of totally innocent bystanders and then give their gains to a totally different set of people. The Leverage gang reminds me less of Robin Hood and more of the protagonist from one of the great B-movies of all time:

Princess Evie: Oh, so you rob from the rich, and give to the poor?

Deathstalker: No, I rob from the rich, and pretty much keep it for myself.

A more promising example of a virtuous con man is Michael Weston of USA's Burn Notice, a show that's one part MacGyver, two parts Miami Vice, and a sprinkling of Bruce Campbell for seasoning. The show's main story arc revolves around former-spy Weston's attempts to discover who "burned" his cover. But each episode features a Helpless Sap of the Week, someone whose own stupidity, naive credulity and/or desperation has resulted in an unscrupulous bad guy taking advantage. Michael and his friends (mostly Bruce and the alarmingly-skinny Gabrielle Anwar) then target the bad guys with a scam that results in the bad guys going to jail and the HSOTW getting his/her money and/or life back.

But where Burn Notice's cons differ from those of the Leverage crew is that the victims of Michael's cons have harmed specific individuals. And his pursuit of his victims is aimed largely at restoring the status quo ante. Or, rather, his scams mostly end up restoring the victim of the original scam back to the status quo ante while leaving the bad guys in jail. Last week's "Do No Harm," for example, found Michael and company conning a trio who had been running a modern snake oil scam. By the end of the episode, the family had its money back to use on a real treatment and the woman running the scam had called the cops and confessed her crime.

What's the upshot here? I'd argue that Michael Weston is pretty unambiguously a virtuous con artist. The Leverage crew, not so much. But don't try to take too much from any of this. Real-world versions of virtuous thieves, vandals and con artists are extremely rare. But the existence of fictional examples is, quite possibly, sufficient to show a fundamental weakness of virtue ethics, namely, that it's awfully tricky to detach an evaluation of someone's character from his or her intentions.

A Libertarian Use of the Exclusionary Rule

What's wrong with the scenario of 1984, in which the average citizen is under constant surveillance by the government? Surely only those who are breaking the law should be concerned that they are being watched constantly. If you are not hurting or stealing from anyone or committing any other crime against anyone, then why should you be concerned by universal surveillance?

One answer is that the government is apt to criminalize things which are not truly wrong. If innocent activity is criminalized, then universal surveillance threatens the innocent.

But this same answer applies to evidence gathered by the police.

We might generally say, then, that to the extent that the government criminalizes innocent activity, then the less government surveillance there is, the better, and by the same token, the less government is able to use evidence gathered by the police, the better. The exclusionary rule, like the absence of universal surveillance, protects us from the criminalization of innocent activity.

But what about truly evil activity? Doesn't the exclusionary rule protect the guilty along with the innocent? Doesn't the exclusionary rule place the innocent into jeopardy by allowing criminals to more freely prey on the innocent?

The violation of the rights of others is by its nature particularly difficult to cover up. A victim who is not murdered is able and motivated to act as a witness and he is also motivated to invite the police onto the scene of the crime, and as for murder, that is also difficult to hide, and the victim's surviving family and associates are motivated to help in the capture and conviction of the perpetrator. In contrast, for instance, a drug dealer or a prostitute and their customer are highly motivated to avoid betraying each other to the state. For this reason, there is particularly little need for universal surveillance to discover crimes with victims, as compared to victimless "crimes", and particularly little need to brush aside the exclusionary rule to prosecute criminals with victims as compared to victimless "criminals". The exclusionary rule disproportionately protects the innocent against bad law, as compared to the guilty against good law.

I end with some responses to Arthur's article on the exclusionary rule.

John and Jack are supected of murder, but Jack has a good alibi and only John is tried.

Such a scenario is possible, but disproportionately, the exclusionary rule protects the innocent against bad law.

However, saying evidence should be discarded is a poor consequentialist decision that violates people's right over their own brain, over the information they should to take into account.

I disagree that the exclusionary rule is a violation of rights. It is, indeed, an impediment on the use by the government of information for a certain end. But it is not a violation of any individual's rights to place such an impediment on the government. Impediments on the authority of the state are not violations of individual rights. It does not violate anyone's right over their brain, because it does not make it illegal for a person to use whatever evidence is available to them to think any thought that they like. What the exclusionary rule prevents is not a person, even a judge, from thinking whatever he will think, but a court from convicting. Everyone who is exposed to the evidence is free to come to any conclusion they like. What employees of the state are not free to do is to employ the authority of their position as agents the state.

This is not a consequentialist moral argument. Regardless of the consequences, it would not be a violation of anyone's rights to place an impediment on the use of the state's authority. Even if that impediment made things worse, it would not be a violation of anyone's rights, because no one has any right to begin with to use the authority of the state. So the argument is not that the good consequences keep the exclusionary rule from being a violation of rights, but that the exclusionary rule is already, for a different reason, no violation of rights, and that it furthermore has a consequence of protecting the innocent against bad law.

The Berlin Wall of Capitalism

Almost 20 years ago the Berlin Wall came crashing down on top of the Communist system which had dominated eastern Europe for most of the 20th Century. Soon the zealots of capitalism were crying for joy that their religion had triumphed and that socialism had failed.

Capitalism, often mistakenly equated with free market economics, has indeed been a positive force for change in western Europe and North America. The high standard of living which we enjoy has been created by the forces of capitalism which have channeled the desires of millions of individuals and organized the sources of production to provide those individuals with both the needs and the desires of their choosing. When compared to the life styles of the rest of the world we are indeed fortunate and much of that can be attributed to the sheer power of the capitalist system.

Free market economics has proven to be an excellent means of making economic decisions. It allows each person to make the individual decisions that best suit that person and the aggregate of those decisions to come together to make the economic decisions that power the economy. There is no better system to couple with a liberal democratic political system which values individuals and believes that each individual is the best person to make decisions for him or herself.

Having admitted that capitalism and the free market economic system which nurtures it have worked to provide us with an excellent standard of living however does not mean that it has worked without problems. However, the believers in the church of Free Enterprise will never make any admission which is critical of their religion. That is unfortunate.

Suddenly the world seems to have realized that global warming is truly a problem and that we as citizens of the globe are the causes of the problem. With this recognition the wall of capitalism has fallen on top of the western economic system and we can not fail to ignore it.

Even Prime Minister Harper seems to have been forced to admit that there is a problem here. If a committed priest of the religion of capitalism is able to recognize the problem, can the rest of the committed be far behind?

Global Warming is the first issue to bring this realization home, but it is not the only one. Coupled with it are the dwindling supply of oil and other resources, the extinction of species, the over fishing of the sea, the lack of places to dump our refuse and the huge disparity of wealth between the peoples of this planet. Not only has capitalism failed to solve these problems, it is the direct cause of them.

According to free market theory each individual goes in search of the greatest individual good, whether as a consumer or producer. The result of this is that no one looks at the long term effect of his actions, only at the immediate gratification of his needs. Modern capitalism has relied on that effect to power its growth through advertising and the mass media, to encourage consumers to buy products as quickly and as often as they can. Every year more goods are produced and more goods are sold, many of them unnecessary in the grand scheme, but all filling some individuals sense of needs satisfaction. The result - we are using up the resources of this earth faster and faster and at the same time creating larger and larger amounts of waste material that must be disposed of in more and more difficult ways. We have reached the age of disposability where our greatest duty as a citizen is to consume greater and greater amounts of the raw materials of our earth and produce greater and greater amounts of rubbish.

This must end. The realization that global warming is real and that we humans are the causes of global warming is the first of a series of realizations that are going to bring the capitalist system crashing down as we replace the duty of a citizen to be a consumer with the duty of a citizen to be a steward of the environment. The religious zealots of capitalism are going to resist this change, but the wall has fallen.


Bentham on Public Choice

Jeremy Bentham, from the sadly out-of-print Handbook of Political Fallacies:

In his [British M.P. William Gerard Hamilton's] eyes, Parliament was a sort of gaming-house; the members on the two sides of each house the players; and the property of the people, insofar as any pretense could be found for extracting it from them, the stakes to be played for...Whatever question is raised, the one consideration that is never taken into account by anyone is: what course will be for the advantage of the universal interest?

Change "his" to "their" and that's not a terrible nutshell-version of public choice theory.

Bentham, of course, wrongly believed that the problem was that Hamilton was simply a crappy legislator. So it's not as if Bentham was actually anticipating Buchanan and Arrow. Still, it's interesting that he was so close to seeing the problem, even if he didn't quite see that the problem is endemic to representative government. Although, given the obvious need for reform in Parliament during the first half of the 19th century, Bentham can perhaps be excused for thinking that a few structural reforms in Parliament would turn everyone into happy utilitarians.

Having the right politics doesn't make you a better person

And having the wrong politics doesn't make you worse.

Of course, there may be some relationship in some people, but not a necessary one. What makes you a good or bad person (on various levels) is your personal actions, and your attitudes insofar as those attitudes affect your personal actions. Have you hurt anyone? Have you taken pleasure in humiliating anyone? Are you a kind person? Do you help your friends? Do you help strangers?

Things that you do determine whether you are a good or bad person. And while politicians do indeed act on their political views, the vast majority of us are, for the most part, not in a position to act on our political views. One exception is how we treat people with different political views who have not otherwise done anyone any harm. It is not a nice person who vandalizes the property of a person who has not done anyone any harm and who simply has sharply opposed political views. People with the wrong views who have not acted on their wrong views are innocent. A physical attack on people with the wrong views for having the wrong views is an attack on an innocent person and is wrong, even if you're a libertarian and your victim is a communist - or vice versa.

I think this goes without saying. But it goes against one of the principal reasons that people have for adhering to and espousing political opinions. Everyone wants to be a good person, and people espouse certain views in order to feel that they are good and to project to others an image of themselves as good people, and people are afraid of entertaining contrary views because they are afraid that they will be tainted by it, made bad. And indeed, in the view of many, they are made bad by it.

A thief is actually a bad person. A thief is morally corrupted. A vandal is morally corrupted. A con artist is morally corrupted. These are bad people. But someone with the wrong opinions about society, about the way the world works and about the way the world ought to work, is not a bad person except insofar as this makes him do bad things to other people - and for the most part, for most people, it does not.

Fear is the mind killer[*]. Fear of becoming bad, or of seeming to be bad (which, in the social part of our mind, amounts to pretty much the same thing) clouds our thought and freezes our opinion. People's political thinking is hampered by fear. They don't want to explore views which they have come to think of as "evil" because they don't want to become evil themselves, or to seem to be evil to their friends. Fear traps us intellectually.

[*](yes, I love science fiction, though I wish it were better than it actually is)

To be sure, our political views affect how we vote. But the effect of a vote is too dilute for the individual act of voting to be evil. That, in any case, is my view of it.

Macroeconomic Bleg

I have a libertarian-minded friend who works on the street and would like to understand macroeconomic policy better. Does anyone have reading suggestions? I know of the classic primary sources (Keynes "General Theory", Friedman "Monetary History", Rothbard's "Great Depression", etc.), but I never got through any of them and they are a bit dense.

Your suggestions are much appreciated.

A testable claim by the past administration

Bush administration officials have not said definitively how many terrorist incidents have been prevented due to the tools they have availed themselves of. However, they have stated that it has been more than a handful since September 2001.

If they were telling the truth, it would seem that we should experience attacks over the next four years now that many of these tools are being dismantled by President Obama.

Of course, if there is some attack, this would cast some doubt on claims by others that the measures don't do any good.

On Libertarian Progressivism

Like Wilkinson, I'm unsure how I missed Ed Glaeser's now 10-day old post on libertarian progressivism. And also like Will, I find there's much to recommend here.

Here's the nutshell version of Glaeser's position:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

I know the idea won't find a lot of favor with many DR folks. Structural libertarian types, in particular, are going to see this as only a modest improvement (more efficient stealing, perhaps?).

But, for those who do see value in policy libertarianism, Glaeser's post provides important insights. There is very little chance of convincing a large swathe of people that taxation is stealing. (Mostly because it's not. But that's a different argument.) But there is a pretty large chunk of people who think that a big government is a problem. There's also a bit chunk of people who think that government ought to help out those who can't help themselves. And there is a fair amount of overlap between these two sets.

Our current political arrangement currently has four positions:

  1. The Big Government Liberal: This is the familiar FDR type who says there's no problem that can't be solved with a government bureaucracy and a few million taxpayer dollars. Occasionally pays lip service to the market, but mostly bad-mouths it. See Obama, Barack and Congress, U.S.
  2. Big Government Conservative: The Bush Republican who is willing to spend boatloads of taxpayer money on programs that are thinly-disguised corporate giveaways. Prone to enacting mercantilist policies in the name of the "free market." Also known as Big Government Liberals Who Hate Sex. See Bush, George and McCain, John.
  3. Small Government Conservative: The Reagan Republican who wants to slash spending on social programs. They have never met a social program that they like. Unless that program involves limiting people's sex lives, in which case, groovy. See Paul, Ron and Kyl, John.
  4. Libertarians: Small Government Conservatives who like sex. There are pretty much none of these in government.

Libertarians tend generally to despair (aka, turn to structural libertarianism and/or political apathy) once they realize that no one is likely to get elected to office on a pure libertarian platform or else they latch on to the libertarian-like traits of figures in one of the other categories (like, say, Ron Paul or even Obama). But those mired in despair tend to forget that a lot of the people who end up in either the Big Government Liberal or the Small Government Conservative category by default. Many BGLs don't really like the Big Government part and many of the SGCs don't much care for the Conservative part.

Libertarians would do well to remind voters that there is another option. Caring for the poor need not entail massive government programs. Indeed, many such programs (think tax deduction for mortgages, public education or farm subsidies) end up doing serious harm to (or, at the very least, not helping) the poor. If we spent money more efficiently, it'd be possible to cut government and continue to help those most in need.

Better still, moving more people into the "progressive libertarian" category gets us one step closer to actual libertarianism. Though, if the truth be told, it's not entirely clear to me that the basic idea behind Glaeser's "progressive libertarian" direct transfers of cash to the poor is really all that different from Milton Friedman's plain old libertarian negative income tax.

Now it begins

Despite numerous public claims in the past that he would leave gun owners alone, reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban and enacting other restrictions are very much on Barack Obama's "Urban Policy" agenda.

From Confederate Yankee, via Instapundit

We'll see. Obama's recent hires and speeches have been comforting to conservatives and unsettling to liberals, both of whom were expecting something more liberal and less Bush III, but it remains to be seen how he will govern.

Nature and politics

Here are some relationships between beliefs about nature (the nature of the world and of humanity) and political beliefs.

If you think that humanity and society are not especially malleable by a political elite (but nevertheless destructible and enslavable), then you think, in particular, that the way things are and the way people are is pretty much the way they are going to be. You think that the significant alternatives to the way things are is not some other healthy way things might be, but slavery or death, disaster, things falling apart, the end. The role of the government is limited to the following:

a) to preserve society

b) to enslave (or more mildly, to feed on) society

c) to harm or destroy society

You think, furthermore, that the way things are right now, the government is already either preserving, or harming, or enslaving society, but is not in any significant creative sense molding society. You believe, therefore, that the way things are is in large part a detailed reflection of their detailed nature - rather than being imprinted on their malleable nature by the creative state. You think that the productive economy is not run, either secretly or openly, by the government, as that would grant the government creative powers which are denied it by the vision of society as not especially malleable. You may believe that the government has the power to defend, but apart from this you are liable to view government activity as harmful and possibly parasitical.

A subtlety which I did not take into account in the preceding discussion is that the vision of society as non-malleable is not necessarily a vision of society as not subject to spontaneous change. It is a vision of society as not subject to deliberate change (such as by a political elite). Like the weather - it changes, but it is hard to influence.

On the other side: if you think that humanity and society are highly malleable then much of this reverses. You believe in the capacity of government to effect significant positive change in society. More interestingly, this leads to the idea that this has already happened and is happening, which leads to a whole set of (in my view mostly delusional) ideas about the way the world is right now. You are liable to see the government's hand everywhere. Depending on how much positive creativity you assign to the government, you may see society as essentially nothing without the state, as something which, if it has any form at all, necessarily has the form imposed on it by the artist, i.e., the state. You are liable to have difficulty distinguishing totalitarianism from free societies, as you see the government's hand everywhere in both societies - and, in consequence, you are liable to become a totalitarian yourself.

You are liable to believe that society is largely an intentional creation of those who seek to mold it. You are liable to give rather a lot of credit for positive changes to political and other activists who have advocated for those changes. (A contrasting view is that political activists are essentially epiphenomena, having scant actual causal power, though limitless capacity for self-congratulation.)