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Caricaturing libertarian arguments

From an earlier entry: Libertarians seem to [ignore costs] when [they] talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted.

Actually I have read many libertarians addressing the cost of ending the drug war. I've read it in a thousand essays if I have read it in one. To say that libertarians ignore the potential cost seems to me to grossly caricature the libertarian arguments.

It is easy to talk roughly about the number of prisoners because all you have to do is count the prisoners doing time for drug offenses. It's a lot harder to talk about what-if scenarios, so it should hardly be surprising that you will have a harder time finding straightforward numbers. That doesn't mean the issue is being ignored, it only means people are arguing within their limits.

What you are asking for is hard questions that not only libertarians need to answer, but absolutely everyone. If you are a strong proponent of the drug war, then the costs of ending the drug war are precisely the benefits of keeping it, so just as libertarians should talk about the costs of ending the drug war (and they do), so should drug warriors talk about those exact same things, except as benefits of keeping the drug war. If the drug warriors do not do this, then they have no credibility - which is just as you say, only contrary to the way you put it (you aimed the critique at libertarians), it applies exactly equally to both sides of the argument.

The reality of it is that it is not all that easy to estimate the costs and benefits of keeping/ending the drug war, so the best that can really be done by most people is to mention what they are without necessarily being able to guesstimate the size of the cost or benefit. Libertarians will tend to talk about the benefits of ending the drug war more than about the costs because discussion of the benefits is underrepresented in public discourse. Too many people already talk (with massive exaggeration) about the costs of ending the drug war. The moment you suggest the possibility of ending the drug war the first or second thing that gets mentioned is some apocalyptic scenario straight out of a bad movie in which the streets are filled with drug-created zombies, the economy has ground to a halt and the city is burning, and only a shotgun-wielding Milla Jovovich can save the day.

I think one of the best ways to get an approximate fix on the results of ending the drug war is to consider the analogy of the drugs that are already legalized: alcohol and tobacco. While tobacco and alcohol present real health and public safety concerns, on balance I think most will agree that our experience with alcohol prohibition was worse than leaving it legal, and similarly I think most will find little societal value in an outright ban on tobacco.

Is ending the drug war a free lunch?

We all know rationally that there is no such thing as a free lunch but politically everyone is still searching for one. Many Democrats seem to think that universal health care will be a free lunch. They plan to improve care, expand coverage, and reduce expenditures. They plan to do this without limiting choice and rationing coverage. If they ever get to implement their ideas failure is sure to be the result.
Likewise some Republicans seem to think that tax cuts are a free lunch. The government can raise more money by lowering taxes than by keeping taxes high. Thus you don't have to choose between low deficits and low taxes, you can have both. Now as the Laffer curve tells us this true when marginal rates are very high, but the rates where it is true have not been seen in America in decades. Thus the Bush tax cuts are responsible for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the deficits of the past few years. (Whether they were a good idea anyway is beyond the scope of this post)
The reason for not acknowledging the price of these policies is that politicians know that promises of a free lunch will get votes even if they cost the advocates intellectual credibility.
Libertarians seem to do much the same thing when talk about legalizing drugs. The benefits are well articulated, 1/3 less prisoners, more tax money available for other things, and less crime. However, the costs of legalization is that millions more Americans will try drugs and some percentage of them will get addicted. I would like to hear more on how much the cost will be. How many people are addiction prone? How hard is it to break drug addictions? Is the downward spiral of drug addiction inevitable or do only a small percentage of addicts bottom out? How addictive are certain drugs?
Being honest about costs give people more credibility when they talk about benefits. Since drug legalizers are not in a position to worry about elections yet, they need all the intellectual credibility they can get.

Different faces of psychology

We can distinguish between different aspects of psychology. I think one important distinction is between psychology as the empirical study of the mind, and the medical field that identifies and treats diseases of the mind. Call the former "empirical psychology" and the latter "medical psychology" (it might perhaps be better called "normative psychology").

An empirical psychologist can for example study the many behaviors that have been identified by medical psychologists as symptoms of ADHD, without ever needing to agree with the medical psychologist that those behaviors are abnormal or unhealthy. One can equally well observe and record those behaviors in individuals regardless of whether one considers them to be abnormal or unhealthy. Read more »

Parenting and Power

When I was a child parenting was about power. Parents had all the power. They decided when you went to bed, what you ate, where you could go, what you could watch on TV, etc. Their power seemed almost limitless. Read more »

Slander, libel, free speech and duels

A point of contention between libertarians concerns slander and libel. Those who insist on natural rights, say that these cannot be considered crime as they do not invade anyone's property. Indeed, other people's opinion of X is not X's property. On the other hand, consequentialists argue that slander and libel create actual and sometimes measurable damage to an individual or a corporation. However, we have no way to know if the person originating the slander and libel did actually harm X, no one knows what would have happened if he hadn't done it... maybe X, instead of staying home making phone calls to his lawyers would have stepped out and be hit by a car. Read more »

Gut feelings

It occurred to me the other day that we reason with our gut much more often than we let on. I think it is regrettable that intuitionism is taken as seriously as it is - intuitions ought only provide a useful check for a line of reasoning rather than a trump card - and I favour critical rationalism but I have recognised a form of reasoning which can often be "ret-conned" as critical rationalism but when examined takes the form of post-rationalising a gut feeling. Example: in my professional work as an architect I often have to deal with suggestions that I "just know" are a bad idea and find myself constructing a line of reasoning to show that it is indeed a bad idea. If it's the case that, upon reflection, there isn't a good reason for my initial instinct, I'm happy to defer to reason but the point is that for every properly set out chain of reasoning leading to a conclusion a lot of the time there's probably an initial gut feeling which inspired the argument in the first place.

Psychology: Sound Science or Conformist Weapon?

Psychology is a rather young field. It most certainly is not a medical science. Indeed, up until around the beginning of the 20th century, it was nothing more than vague notions and questionable philosophical biases. It is questionable as to wether or not psychology is still more or less the same today. Afterall, it has not been much more than one single century that it has been seriously persued as a science (which is nothing compared to fields such as physics and math, which go back multiple centuries and even millenia) and many of these persuits in themselves are most definitely blunders. The actual medical study of the brain is an entirely separate field from psychology. Psychology is the study of the mind, which is an intangible thing. Psychology is, at best, a highly underdeveloped social science. At worst, it is simply the personal delusions and means of empowerment for men in ivory towers.

It must be pointed out that psychology as a field has an inherent paradox, weakness or loophole within it. Essentially, "the mind" is no less of a philosophical thing to be studying then "the soul" or "the will". If another man tells you that he knows why you acted in a certain way better than you yourself did (I.E. that he knows your will better than you do), there is a 99.99% chance that the man is completely full of it. The mind is not something that was can realistically penetrate with 100% accuracy. We cannot completely deterministically predict the nature and behavior of people's minds with mathematical formulas or testing. Humans are not telepaths, capable of reading eachother's minds, and as such, neither are psychologists. The idea that we can reduce the mind to statistics and actually learn something meaningful from this is nonsense.

The mind is incapable of being measured. Even in seemingly non-tangible or "invisible" areas of science, things can be measured and scientifically observed. Gravity can be measured. Inertia can be measured. Speed can be measured. Time can be measured. Yet the mind cannot be measured. This is what gives psychology such a flimsy basis to begin with. The mind is completely immeasurable by the methods of the natural sciences. As such, the claim that a bunch of men can measure the mind is questionable at best. It is simply impossible to truly "study" the mind in any real scientific sense. It is practically immune to observation. In short, psychology is trapped from the start in that it is impossible to apply any pre-existing scientific methodology to the mind. The mind is intangible to the point where you cannot apply direct observation and traditional scientific methodology to it. Read more »

On private universities

Along with roads and defense, education often comes as a necessary output of the State. Even Hayek claims that, since we need to be educated to value education, it has to be compulsory. I will not go into the details of the implication of State controlled education, nor will I discuss the question of compulsory education. I want to focus on a slightly different question, the cost of universities. There are various statist arguments around State funded universities, based on different angles

- Universities produce positive externalities, a country needs to be smart (although knowledgeable would be more appropriate) to develop, thus we need to finance education.
- Paying universities increases inequalities since rich people get to have education while poor people don't, thus creating an endless separation.
- (Combination of both) It's unfair that smart but poor students have to pay, providing them with free education is necessary.

All of the goals stated in these arguments can actually be fulfilled with greater efficiency by the free market. There are four ways by which university education is funded. Direct payment, grants, work, loans.

Direct payment is of course the easiest. The student's parents will save money in order to pay for the children education. Although this system makes them, it is doubtful it will convince leftist. They'll argue that the poors still can't afford it, come up with the paternalistic argument that parents don't know what's good for their children or argue that relying on ones parents is an unacceptable tyranny.

Grants work fine... basically you're given money by a generous entity. Arguing for grants is like arguing for private charity, it's doomed to fail - as an argument - because no one can actually know the amount that would be spent in charity, men are greedy, etc.

Working is another possibility, but it's not always easy to work and study at the same time. It puts students who cannot rely on direct payment at a disadvantage and there comes the same argument again.

Of all the payments method, the loan is probably the healthiest. It highlights education as an investment. Why should you pay for your education?
a) Because you want to be educated, for your own pleasure
b) To be more successful in your life, make more money

In the first case, education is pure consumption, at that point few people will argue for the need of "free" education. The second case sheds an interesting light on education as investment. The cost of studying becomes a market price signal to know if it's a good idea to study or not.

One problem remains, lending represents a low risk to the bank, since loans are aggregated and collateral can be required. However, it represents a huge risk to the student. If you don't plan on defaulting, you know you'll have to pay a fixed cash flow in the future, but depending on your future, the disutility could be very different. If your studies succeed and you make tons of money, repaying the loan is nothing, if you don't, you face a lot of nights eating spaghettis.

How do we remove this risk? By replacing debt with equity. A student could issue shares of his future work and sell them to ventures capitalists, or rather students capitalists planning to cash in on his future income. However, this is impractical and the much more logical solution is to integrate this task with the university itself.

A university could offer students the choice of paying the whole cost upfront or agree to a future cash flow indexed on this income. For example, you could give up 10% of your income for the next 10 years in exchange for free education. You face absolutely no risk in doing so. Now the university faces the risk that you will choose not to become a doctor but to start living a simple life raising goats. Venture capitalists protect from such thing by having a say in the direction the business is going, the university would only rely on the student's incentive to do something with his life. Maybe he can contractually agree to seek work or pay a fee etc.

What would be the consequences if universities adopted this mean of payment

- The best students would get lower rates since they are likely to make more money, thus the system becomes meritocratic
- Anyone could afford the studies, at no risk to him
- The rates would reflect market demand for specific job and thus create incentive to adapt the supply. If there are too much university educated persons, the universities forecasts that wages will go down and raise their rates. If the universities expects a higher demand for biologists, the rates for biologist fall and more students will opt for biology.

Having a plain upfront price doesn't reflect the market at all and leaves the forecast to the students, while private competing university might be better at it....

- The university has a very good incentive to provide excellent education. Instead of suffering from bad results indirectly, through reputation, they suffer direct financial damage if their education is not good enough.

This is how the free market could provide efficient, meritocratic, market driven universities.

Retrospective Predictions

I haven't had a chance to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable" yet, but I thought that Niall Ferguson's piece in the Telegraph last week, on it and how it relates to the coverage of the Virgina Tech massacre, was pretty eye-opening. The key insight is that there is a human cognitive bias which prevents us from appreciating improbable events - we tend to conflate improbable with impossible - and we are also naturally predisposed towards creating narratives or "retrospective predictions" for such events. It's easy (or rather facile) to see *now* the sequence of events leading to Cho's rampage and it's an easy trap to fall into to (incorrectly) assume that this sequence should have been obvious before the massacre.

By chance a similar discussion about a "family annihilation" has been taking place here in Ireland: Adrian Dunne killed his two young daughters and his wife (the official line is that she wasn't herself involved with the planning and implementation of these killings) before hanging himself. Most of the debate centres around what could and should have been done by the authorities to prevent this tragedy: Dunne had visited a funeral home shortly before and had ordered four coffins and given detailed instructions for the funeral in the event that an "accident" took place. The popular, and in my view incorrect, assumption seems to be that this event was utterly predictable given the (now) compelling narrative leading up to it.

Online discussion ennui

I used to blog at Internet Commentator but have let that pretty much lapse. The principal reason for neglecting it was the overwhelming sense of ennui which had begun to descend (almost) every time I considered any kind of internet commentary, whether by blogging, or even just commenting on websites. This ennui stems from a growing awareness - thanks to discussions here and posts at blogs such as Overcoming Bias - of both my own capacity for bias and - from all sorts of online discussions - of how tenacious and irrationally held many entrenched beliefs are.

The key implication of the former insight is that it's worth checking for over-confidence in the correctness of your opinions and your assessment of the opinions and motivations of your opponents. It's not so much that I'm embarrassed by my blog postings between 2003 and 2006 but I have had cause to revise my opinions on some issues. I don't think that I was overly uncharitable to those with whom I disagreed and if anything my cynicism towards political "activists" has even deepened, but I do think I could have tried harder, say in the case of Iraq, to find the best possible argument against my position as opposed to taking on the median argument or a biased interpretation of a better argument.

An implication of the latter insight is that most online discussions are futile and a wasteful use of precious time and energy. It's so easy to get sucked into a discussion, let it occupy a lot of your thinking and achieve nothing at the end of it save the pointless satisfaction of besting your opponent for the benefit of some hypothetical (and probably non-existent) "neutral" observer. It's not that I seek to restrict online discussions to an echo chamber populated by those with whom I already agree, far from it. It's just that I don't have any interested in getting sucked into debates with those who have entrenched opinions on the matter. Such entrenchment is mercifully rare here so I do hope to get involved.


Here are some things I might blog about:

  1. My unmarked power supply collection. I would describe them in detail and speculate about what device they were for. I have other collections I might want to talk about, such as my obsolete data cable collection and my old mouse and keyboard collection.
  2. Where did I put my cell phone/wallet/keys/power supply for this device? I don't have material every day for this but the topic comes up pretty regularly.
  3. Should I throw this item of clothing out, or can I still wear it for a while longer? With photographs. It has its built-in audience consisting of my grandmother, who will now be able to comment on what I wear no matter what country she's in. Also, is it time to throw out this power supply?
  4. Should I get up? I face this pressing question several times a day. Maybe it is finally time to share my thoughts on it with the world.

Can The Dude post on the main page as an Editor?

Or am I out of my element??!?

I'm an achiever

Or something. Just testing out the journal system...

On Clarity and Ideal Theory

I know that I'm hugely late to the party on this, but better late than never, I suppose. Last week, the lefty blogosphere was all atwitter at Joe Klein's take on left wing extremism. I don't really have all that much to add to Klein's take. I said some fairly similar things once upon a time, though Klein's take manages to be at once both more detailed and less reasoned. At any rate, Klein's take wasn't terribly popular with the leftosphere, but as the debate itself is rather old at this point, I'm not going to try to add anything all that new. I do, however, want to say something about this claim, from Max Sawicky at TPMCafe, interesting:

As you get older, you do not get better. Sorry to break it to you. I am not talking physically; that's obvious enough. I mean in the capacity for moral reasoning. The unfortunate problem is that the valid ideals you learn while young become obstacles to professional, financial, and social advancement. You have to make compromises in order to progress, and you come to believe the justifications you devise along the way. This gives rise to unclear thinking. The better you do, the more muddle-headed you must become.

Now I realize that this is something of a throwaway line, or perhaps more accurately, it's a rhetorical device that Sawicky uses to take a cheap shot at Klein. But still, it led me to wonder whether Sawicky is right. Is it really true that ideals are a barrier to social, professional and financial advancement? The answer, I think, depends on how, exactly one cashes out Sawicky's claim. Consider:

    1. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one engages in immoral behavior.

Now if this is the claim, then its falsity seems obvious enough. Surely it's not necessary to list the hundreds and thousands of everyday, ordinary people who are quite successful without having to resort to overtly immoral behavior. But I suspect that Sawicky actually has something quite different in mind. Namely,

    2. One can advance professionally, financially and socially if and only if one abandons idealism.

I suspect that (2) may well be right. I saw that sort of reasoning pretty frequently when I worked in politics this past fall. Many of my young colleagues lamented having to construct ads that were sometimes...misleading. Most disliked writing negative pieces. Or more precisely, most disliked writing negative pieces on certain candidates; there was a general feeling that at least some of those guys were getting exactly what they deserved. But I digress. At any rate, nearly everyone with whom I discussed the issue said something to the effect of, "You have to get elected to govern and you have to campaign in order get elected." Under the assumption that our guy will be better than the other guy, we gritted our teeth and wrote the ads. Then celebrated when -- in most cases -- our candidates got elected last November. (The jury is still out on the underlying assumption.) Read more »

Public Intellectuals

The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. led Ezra Klein to ask where the next generation of public intellectuals will be found. Mark Schmitt laments that there are few incentives these days for intellectuals -- particularly for intellectuals on the left -- to forgo the academic route. Read more »

Public Intellectuals

The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. led Ezra Klein to ask where the next generation of public intellectuals will be found. Mark Schmitt laments that there are few incentives these days for intellectuals -- particularly for intellectuals on the left -- to forgo the academic route. Read more »

Unity\'08 and Major Strategic Blunders

Despite getting some fairly major props from David Broder recently, it seems that the fledgling political movement, Unity'08 isn't actually doing all that well. For those of you not familiar with the project (and given their numbers, I'd guess that that particular set contains just about everyone), Unity'08 aims to overcome a general disenchantment with the two-party system. To this end, they have set three goals:

1. Goal One is the election of a Unity Ticket for President and Vice-President of the United States in 2008 – headed by a woman and/or man from each major party or by an independent who presents a Unity Team from both parties.
2. Goal Two is for the people themselves to pick that Unity Ticket in the first half of 2008 – via a virtual and secure online convention in which all American voters will be qualified to vote.
3. Goal Three, our minimum goal, is to effect major change and reform in the 2008 national elections by influencing the major parties to adopt the core features of our national agenda. With a group of voters who comprise at least 20% of the national electorate, we feel confident that our voters will decide the 2008 election.

The group set its sights on 10 to 20 million voters at its online convention, reasoning that that sort of support would get its candidate(s) taken seriously. Probably they are right in that assessment. The problem, however, is that so far, they have only 35,000 people signed up. As Whiskey Fire gleefully quips:

Jeez, I bet a smart young advertising professional could get more than 35,000 people to sign an online petition for "Federline '08." Or "Aphids '08." Or the "Dysentery Ticket." Or the "Nigerian Inheritance Party."

Now I could write a well-reasoned analysis of why Unity'08 is such a silly idea. But that would (a) require a lot of effort, and (b) not end up being entirely true. It strikes me that it's at least an interesting idea, one which has the potential to bring together a pair of candidates who manage between them some good fiscal sense, a decent social policy, and some sort of coherent foreign policy. I don't think that there's any chance whatsoever that said candidate(s) could, like, actually win an election. Perhaps more plausibly, however, a run of this sort might help to shift the terms of the debate for '12. That's not enough to make me vote for a Unity'08 candidate, but it's enough for me to support such a run. Read more »

On Hypocrisy

I've been watching the whole Al-Gore-uses-tons-of-electricity mini-controversy with some amusement. Amusement because all the responses are pretty much a complete 180 from the whole Ted-Haggard-likes-gay-hookers mini-controversy of a few months ago. Back then you had lots of folks on the left playing gotcha, calling out Haggard for his blatant hypocrisy. Meanwhile various folks on the right offered lame defenses of Haggard's behavior. Now, many of those same folks on the left are busy defending Gore's energy use while conservatives gleefully mock the former VP.

For the record, I don't particularly care about the controversies themselves. Let's just go ahead and assume (for the sake of argument) that Haggard and Gore in fact did what they are accused of having done (though Haggard denied it, and the initial report on Gore's electric usage may be, well, made up). I'm more interested in the charge of hypocrisy itself. Specifically, I'm interested in what actually counts as hypocrisy. A quick trip to my old, trusty college dictionary (online version here) reveals that "hypocrisy" means

the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; insincerity

Now it's possible to quibble about whether this is really what we mean (or what we ought to mean) by hypocrisy, but let's just take this as our working definition. On this standard, is it really the case that Haggard and Gore are hypocrites? Let's take Haggard's case first. Read more »

Regulations, Energy and the Internet

At TPMCafe, former FCC chair Reed Hunt decides to take on a new topic: the energy sector. Lamenting the noticeable absence of "hundreds and thousands of start-ups that with huge funding and explosive entrepreneurship will wean the world off carbon-emitting energy generation and distribution," Hunt goes...hunting...for a public policy that will drive market-based solutions to our reliance on carbon. Here Hunt draws from his own experience in the communications industry; he asks, reasonably enough, what it is that drove the explosion in communications technology. Hunt's conclusion:

if law opens markets to new entry by adjacent firms and start-up firms, and makes that entry very easy, huge funds will flow from global capital pools into the new rivals in the markets dominated by big firms. In reaction the big incumbents are more likely to increase their own efforts to adopt new technologies.


The rule of law opened the door for this massive entrepreneurial change in many ways, but the two most important steps in the United States were the establishment of an "open" regime for the Internet and the auctioning of spectrum for wireless, which opened the industry to competition.

So far, so good. If you want explosive private-sector growth, then deregulate and privatize the industries. I'm not sure that I see what the "rule of law" business is all about, since in fact, the law that "opened" the Internet was needed only because there had been previous laws that closed it. Ditto for the spectrum for wireless; the state had to auction it only because the state had already claimed ownership of it. Still, the point is a good one: fewer regulations equals more competition and more private sector innovating. Read more »

Mill and Stupid Conservatives

I see that Andrew Sullivan passes along as genuine this bit from Mark Kleiman, who offers the usual misunderstanding of what is quite possibly the most misunderstood Mill quotation of all time. From Kleiman: Read more »