Friday, October 31, 2008

Open and Shut: Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Legal?


Despite the rather confident tone in which I wrote this article, I now believe that I was incorrect. Please see my followup post here.

A lot of the issues we deal with in political thinking are genuinely difficult, where no obvious answer presents itself, and controversy and disagreement are nearly inevitable. But same-sex marriage is not one of them. It is entirely inexcusable that this discussion has gone on as long as it has. Here is what I take to be the crux of the problem:

1) According to some people, marriage is a sacred institution, and its sacred status is somehow linked to homosexual couples not being allowed to be married.

2) In our country, marriage is not only a religious institution, but is a distinct legal status. The fact that this legal status is only available to heterosexual adults seems to be discriminatory to homosexuals. And institutionalized discrimination is contrary to our government's founding principles.

Oh heavens? What is to be done? Watch:

3) Our government is founded on the idea that church and state should remain separated. Because marriage is a sacred institution, the state should be barred from being involved with it in any capacity. If the government wants to accord a special legal status to cohabiting parties to certain kinds of contracts, then fine. It can't be "marriage," because that's a sacred institution. It would be like according a special status to people who have been Bar Mitzvah-ed. Not allowed.

See how easy that was? Good. Now we can all go home.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Technological Development and Society: A GRE Practice Essay

So I'm taking my GRE today. I've been practicing for a while, but I realized this morning that the miniature essays I've been writing to practice for the Analytical Writing portion of the test might make decent blog posts. So here's the last prompt; let's see what I can make of it:
Too much time, money, and energy are spent developing new and more elaborate technology. Society should instead focus on maximizing the use of existing technology for the immediate benefit of its citizens.

Alright, 45 minutes...go!

The first thing that comes to mind in reading the above quotation is that in most cases, "society" neither focuses on developing new technologies nor on maximizing the use of existing ones. Outside of the realm of government directed research, technologies are developed and perfected by enterprising individuals acting on their own volition, either for personal gain or fulfillment or for monetary profit. Where personal desire is involved, it would seem odd for one to assert that these individuals ought to want different things; their personal choices are their own, and a blanket statement like the one offered in the prompt for this essay seems to ignore the fact that people may have very good reasons for wanting to develop new technologies. Where technologies are developed for profit, the prompt again seems to be making a normative claim about people's wants: new technologies are profitable because they allow for the production of new goods and services which consumers desire. To suggest that there is a problem with this state of affairs seems to imply that consumers ought not to desire the kinds of things that new technologies can offer, without demonstrating any understanding of why consumers desire these things.

The reality is that new technologies enable us to live our lives in fundamentally different ways, allowing us to avoid some of the hardships of the past and to have a broad range of experiences unknown to older generations. The internal combustion engine, the airplane, the refrigerator, the x-ray machine, the satellite, and the computer have made it possible to live the way we do, and as technology further advances, new ways of life will be possible that may be unimaginable to us today. In demanding the products of innovation, consumers and self-motivated inventors are expressing their view that the status quo is not entirely satisfactory -- that there are improvements to be had, and that these improvements can come in the form of new technologies.

It must be noted that consumers do not necessarily demand entirely new products to the exclusion of improved existing products. Nor do producers and innovators only focus on developing "new and more elaborate technology." Where improvements on existing products are economical and competitive with the development of new products, we might expect to see that existing technologies would continue to flourish alongside new ones, and indeed they do. In fact, the influence of brand recognition and customer loyalty might result in older technologies sticking around longer than their merits alone would dictate. But as new technologies come to provide the consumers of those technologies with better options, we should both expect and embrace the demise of the older technologies they replace.

As we have seen, the development of new technologies is often undertaken by individuals who are motivated by their own desires or the desires of consumers, and these desires are not generally unreasonable, but rather reflect the fact that our lives are not perfect and can often be improved by more advanced technologies. To focus on the improvement of existing technologies rather than on the development of new ones, then, would seem to be quite dubiously beneficial for the very citizens whom the suggestion is ostensibly meant to help. It seems fair to say that insofar as citizens' preferences are a decently effective proxy for what would benefit them, allowing their demands to dictate the allocation of resources for development would likely benefit them more than would an externally imposed emphasis on existing technologies.

One qualification must be made to this statement with regard to development undertaken by government-funded entities. In many of these situations, innovators are provided with resources which do not reflect the demands of consumers for the products they create, since their funding is sometimes isolated from market processes. Accordingly, it is possible that many of these programs are making use of resources which have been misallocated towards inferior uses by government decree. Insofar as there are programs of this description which focus on the development of new technologies, it might be coherent to speak of them as spending "too much time, money, and energy" on "developing new and more elaborate technology." But because these types of programs certainly do not represent the norm for product development, because the existence of some of these programs would not justify the blanket statement offered in the prompt, and because we have good reason for believing that much of the focus on developing new technology is perfectly justifiable, it seems reasonable to reject the statement issued in the prompt.

Rights as Interests vs. Overall Wellbeing

My goal: I want to answer a question posed by Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia in discussing rights and compensation:
Are others forbidden to perform actions that transgress the boundary or encroach upon the circumscribed area, or are they permitted to perform such actions provided that they compensate the person whose boundary has been crossed?

I take it (controversially, I should add) that in at least some instances, we can knowingly infringe on others' rights without acting immorally, provided that we are willing and able to pay compensation (for now, I'll set aside the question of whether such infringements would be justified in the absence of compensation). In a sense, then, the willingness and ability to pay compensation to the victims of one's actions serve as justification of certain actions which would otherwise be unjustifiable. Let's go to Feinberg's hiker example:
Suppose that you are on a backpacking trip in the high mountain country when an unanticipated blizzard strikes the area with such ferocity that your life is imperiled. Fortunately, you stumble upon an unoccupied cabin, locked and boarded up for the winter, clearly somebody else’s private property. You smash in a window, enter, and huddle in a corner for three days until the storm abates.

I want to avoid the question of whether or not the hiker would be justified in breaking into the cabin if he were unwilling or unable to compensate the cabin's owner for the damage. The point is that it seems like the willingness and ability of the hiker to compensate the owner of the cabin for the damage would be sufficient (though again, perhaps not necessary) to justify the hiker's breaking into the cabin. That is to say that if a person were in the hiker's situation, and were willing and able to compensate the cabin's owner for damaging the cabin, then she would be justified in breaking into the cabin.

But things get a little complicated from there. Over the course of several posts (the rest of which will likely not be written any time soon, knowing me), I'd like to discuss a few factors that seem important to the conversation about a proper role for compensation as a justification for rights-infringements. In this post, I'll discuss the notion of rights as specific interests which must be considered apart from overall wellbeing, and in doing so I'll call into question the coherence of the concept of "wellbeing" itself. Second, I'll take a look at the suggestion that interests can be categorized as being "basic", "peripheral", etc., and that this framework can be used to distinguish between legitimate boundary-crossings and illegitimate ones. Third, I'll consider the mechanisms by which "proper compensation" can be determined, in light of the absence of a negotiated agreement between the victim and the boundary-crosser. Finally, I'll consider the interplay between the utilitarian argument in favor of compensated boundary-crossings and the rights-based argument in favor of deference to rights in the absence of negotiated consent.

So on to the subject of this post. There's this idea, which comes from the very old notion that beings have "a good", that we can think of a person as having a level of "wellbeing", and that things which detract from that overall level of wellbeing are "bad" for the individual, and things that increase that overall level of wellbeing are "good". Adopting this mindset, I think, leads an observer to an interesting way of thinking about things. As Michael Toman wrote in his essay, "Values in the Economics of Climate Change":
One...critique of climate change economics as a guide to policy involves the use of a single-dimension net benefit measure for evaluating different outcomes. This reflects the standard assumption in economics that all costs and benefits are commensurable and interchangeable once expressed in a common metric (a monetary metric as a representation of unobservable utility). There may be serious measurement problems in implementing such a reductionist metric, but as a concept the notion of full tradeoffs and thus full potential compensability of losses from climate change is ubiquitous in the economic model. This view differs from alternatives that see different kinds of values as less commensurable, e.g., some losses of natural beauty or function simply cannot be compensated by other welfare gains...

Though Toman was talking specifically about the issue of climate change, his point seems to be a general one. Take, for example, this definition from Nozick:
Something fully compensates a person for a loss if and only if it makes him no worse off than he otherwise would have been; it compensates person X for person Y's action A if X is no worse off receiving it, Y having done A, than X would have been without receiving it if Y had not done A.

Notice that when Nozick says "worse off", he seems to be implying an "all-things-considered" sort of worse off. If we were to reject the notion that all benefits and harms can be thought of as being commensurable and interchangeable, then the only way to fully compensate someone for some kinds of invasions would seemingly be to never have performed them in the first place. To illustrate this, imagine that Cletus punched Suzie in the nose, causing harm to Suzie (she is not a masochist, and did not consent to this). If it were not the case that benefits and harms are commensurable and interchangeable, then we would need to think of how we could make Suzie no worse off in the way that Cletus made her worse off (than she would have been if she had not been punched in the nose). We could not accomplish this by doing something good for her after the fact, because this would be making her better off in a different way, as if this would somehow outweigh what had been done to her through the punch in the nose (by stipulation, we're not allowing this sort of weighing). I submit that nothing that Cletus could do would accomplish the task of compensating Suzie if benefits and harms were not commensurable and interchangeable.

The question Nozick posed, which is what I'm looking to answer, was whether or not a boundary crossing could be justified if compensation were paid. What I'm saying is that if there is not such a thing as an overall "wellbeing" -- if some kinds of benefits and harms are not commensurable and interchangeable -- then it might not make sense to talk about compensating Suzie for the punch; the only way to avoid making Suzie worse off in that particular way would be to not punch her. Accordingly, if certain costs and harms are not commensurable and interchangeable, then compensation of the Nozickian brand would sometimes be incoherent, and therefore could not legitimize a boundary crossing where the kinds of costs and benefits discussed here are involved. [I don't mean to suggest that this would rule out post-hoc restitution, only that this restitution would be a different sort of animal than compensation.]

Nozick anticipated this possibility when he wrote:
If some injuries are not compensable, they would not fall under a policy of being allowed so long as compensation is paid. (Rather, they would be allowed provided compensation was paid, but since the compensation could not be paid by anyone, in effect they would be unallowed).

Take, then, the example of Edith Macefield. Edith Macefield, who passed away last month from pancreatic cancer, was an elderly Seattle resident whose tiny house stood in the way of a commercial development which was being constructed on her block. Edith refused to sell the house, though the developers offered her far more than the market value of the house, claiming that the money would be relatively worthless to her compared to the house, which she had every intention of inhabiting until her death. And so she did.

Now, if it were true that Edith's interest in living the rest of her life in her house were completely incommensurable with any other interests, then Nozick would seemingly be committed to saying that we would never be justified in forcing Edith out of her house, since to do so would be to treat her improperly, as a subordinate or a mere tool for the satisfaction of others' desires and not her own. But the kind of situation embodied in Feinberg's hiker example comes immediately to mind. What if, we might ask, we discovered that a rare substance was buried immediately underneath Edith's house, and that without access to this substance, many hundreds of people would die from a condition which only that substance could cure? What if the only way to get to the substance would be to dig underneath Edith's house in a way that (with existing technology) could not help but eliminate her ability to continue living there? Might we be justified, in order to save these hundreds of people, in destroying Edith's house or her capacity to inhabit it?

If we buy Nozick's claim entirely, the answer must be no. Edith, being an end-in-herself, is not to be sacrificed for the good of others, and so we would regrettably have to tell the hundreds of dying individuals that they had no recourse but to plead with Edith for permission to dig underneath her house, and if she refused, then that would be the end of things. As Nozick points out:
…there is no social entity with a good that undergoes a sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good for his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him.

In the "rare substance" case, we must note that not only does Nozick's argument directly indicate what we should do, but the reasons one might offer in defense of destroying Edith's house are precisely the sorts of reasons that Nozick is rejecting as being amply justificatory of the kind of act in question.

But some people might find this argument implausible. Taking account of the separateness of persons might not mean, as Nozick argues it does, that we must treat them as infinitely inviolable. Some might argue that Edith's claim to have her house left alone is a very serious one, but would not lead us to condemn as unjust an action contradicting that claim which would save hundreds of lives. To properly evaluate this line of reasoning, though, we need to discuss the idea of evaluating the relative importance of different interests which, as we have seen, are not likely to be clearly commensurable. But that's a conversation for another day.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some Thoughts on Equality of Opportunity: A Long-Winded Response to Neverfox

I received a really interesting comment on a previous post from someone named Neverfox, and due to the complexity of the subject, I wanted to address it in its own post. So before reading this, you might want to check out the comments section of that post. I also apologize in advance if this doesn't end up being an example of my best writing; I'm going to be rambling here, so if something doesn't make sense, feel free to ask!

I think that equality of opportunity is a tricky concept to deal with, and I'm not sure that even its advocates can really present a clear case on its behalf. The problem, as I see it, is that there is no thing that is "opportunity," such that we can somehow make sure that everyone has some satisfactory level of opportunity.

Further, it seems clear to me that certain opportunities are inherently tied to the kind of person one is. As a prospective philosopher, different things will count as important opportunities for me than would count for my good friends Gizelle, who has studied fashion design, Hogan, who is working towards his degree in landscape architecture, Eric, who is pursuing a job in chemical engineering, or Andy, who is looking for work in the public sector (trampling on my freedom!). Trying to accord each of us an equal opportunity would not simply be difficult; it would be an incoherent objective.

Further, the quality of an opportunity seems to be contingent on what someone will do with it. Two philosophy students could both be given a chance to pursue the same degree in the same school, only to discover that one of them could not comfortably keep pace with the rigorous curriculum, while the other breezed through her work without any trouble. Even though the program being offered to both was the same, it seems like we would want to evaluate the opportunity afforded to each differently.

So what egalitarians of opportunity seem to be committed to is some notion that we should all be granted an equal opportunity for self-realization, whatever form that might take. In this view, I don't think we'd want to confine ourselves to attempting to categorize opportunities by "number and nature," because ultimately those ideas are either going to be irrelevant (who cares how many different opportunities you have if the ones you want are available to you?) or circular (if you want to talk about "goodness" or "aptness" as being a part of the nature of the kinds of opportunities we want to provide for people, then isn't it definitional that we would want to provide them?). But the basic idea, I think, is not an unreasonable one: in a good society, we will all have an equal chance of living the kinds of lives that represent a Hegelian sort of ideal of self-actualization, where we are able to break free of the constraints imposed upon us by our material realities, in order to bring an order to our existence which reflects our true spirit and soul. Worded this way, it seems odd -- even vulgar -- to suggest that we should come out in favor of a system of social organization which affords such opportunities to some, but happily denies them to others.

A few problems arise, I think, in trying to apply the egalitarian framework just discussed to a system of social organization. First, it is unclear how one would want to administer the provision of these opportunities. Even if we pretended, for the sake of argument, that giving power to some people would not result in the kinds of exploitative and undesirable outcomes discussed by Public Choice economists and readily observable around the world and throughout history, it seems likely that providing everyone with opportunities would require some kind of knowledge about what kinds of opportunities would help individuals. But of course, this knowledge is not available to anyone, and attempting to gather it would undoubtedly be a Herculean task. In a post-scarcity Marxian paradise where everything is readily available to everyone at no discernible cost, it's clear that anything but egalitarianism would be crass. But in our world, the difficulty of knowing what things are actually necessary or conducive for individuals to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives represents a serious hurdle.

Complicating things further is the fact that the opportunities that egalitarians favor typically involve either the use of other people's property, or actual effort from other people. Providing these opportunities, then, would very often require that we make impositions upon people, either forcing them to do something that they did not choose to do, or using something which belongs to them without their permission (and in both cases, punishing them if they resist). I think you're quite right to notice that using someone's property is a very different sort of thing from coercing them into actively doing something, and so I'll try to discuss these kinds of impositions separately. But I want to defend the conclusion that it's not clear that these impositions would be justified in the way that egalitarians have in mind, even if we ignored the problems raised by knowledge problems and non-benevolent administrators of egalitarian programs.

I'm not sure what needs to be said in defense of the idea that we should generally not be compelled to do things for other people against our will. The obvious point is that this sort of thing is slavery. But I do think that the issue is a little bit more complicated than that. As others have pointed out, there are certain situations where withholding our effort from others would be morally horrifying. Peter Singer brings up the example of a drowning child whom we could rescue if we wanted to, and Peter Unger discusses a dying man by the side of the road who we could save if we only drove him to the hospital. In these situations, I don't think it's clear that we would defend someone who chose to let the child drown, or the mad die. And further (some libertarians have disagreed with me here, most notably Tony Carilli, for whom I still have enormous respect in spite of this position), I think that many of us would think it justified to use force if necessary to get someone else to exert this kind of effort if they refused to do so voluntarily (for example, if I couldn't swim out to the child, but you could, or I didn't know how to drive the car).

Nevertheless, I think it's clear that the sorts of situations that we discuss above are categorically different from those which egalitarians seem to think would justify coercion. If, for example, I chose not to hire a particular individual to work in my company, but my hiring him were necessary for his self-realization, would it be permissible to force me to work with him? One thing that comes immediately to mind in thinking about this question is that an important part of my life plan seems like it would be the ability to make that decision for myself. In our story, we are not assuming that this person is going to die, or lead a terrible, miserable life without my help (I will discuss this a little later on). We are here considering a scenario in which one person's life plans are to be coercively derailed somewhat so that someone else can have an opportunity that would be meaningful to them. Now on one hand it might seem that this would be only a slight inconvenience, and the decent thing to do would be to tolerate the guy. But I don't think that this is the kind of inconvenience we would be justified in imposing on someone; people should be free, I think, to decide how they want to live their lives and who they want to associate with. If that seems counterintuitive, though, I would be open to exploring the issue more deeply. So if we accept this idea, which I think makes a lot of sense, that we shouldn't be forced to go out of our way to help people who don't actually need our help, but would simply be made better off for it, then that seems like it throws a wrench in the egalitarian machinery.

But the egalitarian could rightly point out that in many cases, no one would need to be forced into doing anything as long as we could legitimately take stuff from some people and use it to convince other people to voluntarily provide the efforts and goods we want. As the discussion so far should suggest, this almost certainly wouldn't be possible in all cases: for some people, the opportunities that would really bring them fulfillment are unattainable without the use of coercion, and sometimes they're simply unattainable. And it's a really important problem for egalitarians, I think, to address the question of whether these out-of-luck individuals would lead us to call into question the acceptability of our own opportunities. But that's another discussion. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to note that if we are hesitant to use blatant coercion (where we actually make people actively do stuff) whenever necessary to bring about the opportunities demanded by a consistent egalitarian position, we will need to accept that some opportunities will be unprovided for, and we will have taken an important step in the direction of a libertarian point of view.

But for many circumstances, if we could only legitimately take a bunch of stuff from some people and give it to other people (without forcing anyone to do much of anything, except maybe having to go through the hassle of filling out tax forms and mailing checks and whatnot), we could go a long way in ensuring that people had the opportunities that an egalitarian framework would desire. So then the next step in my argument must be to show why these kinds of takings would be ethically questionable. To do so, I'll try to take a rather unconventional route for a libertarian account: straight through the philosophy of Karl Marx.

In his essay, Estranged Labor, Marx argues:
It his fashioning of the objective that man really proves himself to be a species-being. Such production is his active species-life. Through it, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of the species-life of man: for man produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created. In tearing away the object of his production from man, estranged labour therefore tears away from him his species-life, his true species-objectivity...

Now, it's important to note that Marx's account is fundamentally grounded in his acceptance of the labor theory of value, which leads him to believe that in laboring, we directly transfer value from ourselves to the objects which we produce. Accordingly, we need to divorce the element from Marx's account which implies that we are literally taking objectified value from someone by taking from them the object of their labor. In severing this connection, we may also notice that Marx's point seems to go beyond simply the products of our labor. What's left seems to be the basic idea that a central part of a person's formation of her identity and ordering of her reality involves the use and manipulation of material objects. By tearing away these objects, we dispossess individuals in an important sense of the things which give their lives meaning -- of the things which compose their reality, and represent their attempts to create a world in their own image.

On this basis, then, it seems fair to say that we must be extremely hesitant to advocate taking individuals' possessions. To justify such an invasion of someone's personal space -- to interfere with their projects, as many say -- one would seem to need a reason for their actions similar to the kind of reason one would have to provide for coercing someone or harming their person. Again, this is not to say that such a justification could not be found, or that the right to one's property is absolute (or even that the right to property should be understood in the way that libertarians often think of it). But it does seem to me that equalization of others to oneself fails to provide the kind of compelling justification that we would want before we condoned the taking of one's property. Again it will be helpful to note that while an individual's interest in a particular piece of property may be small, it seems reasonable to think that we have a serious interest in not having our stuff taken.

What we're left with, I think, is a basically libertarian way of looking at things. If what I've said so far makes sense, it seems like we would have a reasonably good reason to hesitate at advocating the coercion of individuals and the theft of property in order to equalize opportunities, even if such a thing were possible and we knew how to do it. But on top of that, I'd add another layer of skepticism arising from the fact that it's often unclear what equalizing opportunities would entail, and sometimes when we do know what it would take, the actual equalization would be impossible or tremendously difficult. Further, putting a group of individuals in charge of actually affecting the provision of these opportunities seems like it would open the door to gross abuse and corruption, in many cases bringing about worse opportunities for the very people the system was meant to help.

You'll note that nowhere in there was an appeal to "self-ownership" as such, or to the "Non-Aggression Principle," as commonly understood. I did rely heavily on the idea that we should be free to pursue fulfillment and meaning in our lives without the interference of others unless they can provide good reasons for their actions, and I did suppose that the mere fact of inequality is not a compelling reason to interfere with this prima facie right to self-determination, especially in light of the knowledge problems and Public Choice problems faced by would-be equalizers. But I think that those ideas are appealing to most people, and don't put me too far off the reservation as a libertarian wingnut.

So Neverfox, hopefully that functions as a basic response to your question. I'm sure I missed something along the way, and I anticipate that you'll have some objections to some things I said, so feel free to ask any questions that come up.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama's Intertemporal Wealth Redistribution: A Reponse to Kotecki

It appears that James Kotecki has uncovered a diabolical plot by presidential candidate Barack Obama (pronounced "o-BAM!-uh" by non-elitists) to travel through time in order to redistribute money from today's citizens to individuals in need of assistance in the past.

The implications of this discovery are astonishing, but I think that Kotecki has only scratched the surface of the truth. If Obama had in fact taken money from Joe the Plumber in the future and given it to Joe the Plumber in the past, I think it would be unlikely that we would find Joe the Plumber in his current state, which is deeply entrenched in his very obviously anti-redistributive worldview:

If the money taken from Joe the Plumber in the future had in fact been going to Joe the Plumber in the Past, we would expect Joe the Plumber to be happy about it, rather than resistant. It seems reasonable to think that as people gain more money, the utility derived from the marginal units would generally drop. So Joe the Plumber would be rational to want to allocate some of his future wealth to his past self, who likely would have been made much better off for it (unless the increased wealth in the past led him to work less, decreasing the amount of money he would eventually be able to send back to himself in the past through Barack Obama's redistributive plan). Joe's resistance to the plan suggests that Obama did not actually follow through on his promise to travel back in time to bring Joe's future wealth to his former self (or that the plan didn't work as planned, but I would expect Joe to raise a different sort of objection in that case).

This has apparently led Kotecki to posit a parallel universe theory of "time travel," where Obama's travel "through time" is in fact a jump from our universe to a universe identical to ours except in that it's four years younger. But if Obama were doing this, then the separateness of these universes would mean that the Joe the Plumber receiving the money would be a different person than the Joe the Plumber receiving the money. Now, given that Obama appears to be in favor of redistribution across individuals, it's likely that this would not trouble him. But what if Obama's time traveling power allowed him to actually travel through time, and not just travel to parallel universes?

Given that Obama has clearly not used this power like he's promising -- to redistribute wealth over time -- what has Obama been doing in the past? I think the answer can be teased out through a sober assessment of the evidence. Please skip to the 6:30 mark in the following video:

I think it's clear that there's almost no reason that it should ever have occurred to anyone that Sarah Palin would be a good candidate for Vice President. Of course, no one is a good candidate for being allowed to wield the kind of power granted to today's government officials. But if one did support electoral politics in its current form, it would seem odd to advocate significant power being put in the hands of someone with almost no visible understanding of any substantive issue that even approaches what one could achieve from reading most of the newspapers and magazines in existence.

So I think the puzzle pieces should be coming together by now. Obama reveals an ability to travel back in time, but does not seem to have used it in the way that he suggests that he would, and somewhere in America a few years ago, some random guy starts vigorously advocating the selection of an attractive but unknown and almost entirely uncompelling governor to public office. Coincidence? I don't think so. That Barack HUSSEIN Obama done gone wint back in time 'n showed that boy some pageant vidjuhs!

Looks like someone would rather mess with the space-time continuum than lose an election.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cooks, Physicians, and the American People

I try to avoid talking about national politics on this blog, but I couldn't resist this one. Apparently, a poll of children under 18 has been nearly a perfect indicator of how an election will end up, with its lone two mistaken predictions coming in extremely close elections. Adults, in other words, are making roughly the same choices as children. It makes me think of a metaphor offered a few gazillion years ago on the subject of rhetoric:
Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children, as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death.

The implication, made explicit a few lines later in the dialogue, was that as cookery is to medicine, so rhetoric is to justice. Yet if a decision were up to a bunch of people whose ability to judge was comparable to that of children, one would surely end up with cookery and rhetoric instead of medicine or justice. And so we have cookery.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

You Tell 'Em, Jan!

God damn. Just wanted to share with the world a little piece of Jan Narveson's mind:
…the idea of collective ownership of the earth is, really, a myth, a dish of romantic political nonsense. And like almost all romantic myths when they are politicized, the results of taking it seriously are inevitably evil. Some general story of the Lockean stripe is all there is, because it is all there can be. Individual people pick fruit from individual trees, dig up particular patches of soil, kill particular deer, grow particular pigs, and the rest of it – up to and including inventing the digital computer and putting on productions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. That is how mankind is fed, and clothed, and entertained, because there is no other way. To “collectivize” agriculture is not, because it cannot be, to cause the plants to grow in some other way; it is, instead, to force people to work differently: to work under the direction of others who need pay no attention to the worker’s interests, and to disconnect those workers from the incentives and disincentives that have always impelled people to work. It is not surprising that it does not work very well, but it is important to appreciate what it is and that it cannot be what it appears to pretend to be.

That, my friends, is some philosophical ass-kickery that we can believe in. Check out the rest of Narveson's excellent essay, "Collective Responsibility," in the Journal of Ethics if you have access to it. That quotation comes from pages 196-197.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Labels, Labels, Labels

So I've been in the middle of an identity crisis of late, as I'm discovering that I don't believe that most of the basic tenets of libertarianism, as generally understood by the rest of the world. That is, self-ownership seems like kind of a weird way to think about things; the idea that all rights-infringements are rights-violations seems clearly wrong, as is the suggestion that rights-violations provide the only warrant for infringing on one's right to self-determination; the simple Lockean picture of property rights seems incomplete; the Non-Aggression Principle is right out...

On what grounds, then, can I coherently call myself a libertarian? The problem is not that I'm a statist, or a collectivist, or anything like that. I think it should be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I'm none of those things. But it seems like the rigidity and dogmatism that I've been fighting since this blog's creation are not the bad parts of libertarianism: they are libertarianism. Once you start breaking down the absolutist structures, libertarianism seems to blend fuzzily into what people generally think of as liberalism. So what makes me a libertarian and not a liberal? At this point, I'm really not sure.

But I've been thinking for a while about the idea of actually starting to work out a way of thinking about ethical problems which incorporates the different points of view I've been exposed to, and I think it may be worthy of a new label: respectarianism (the accent is on the first syllable). So from now on, I'm a respectarian. Eat that, categorizers of the world.

Anyone who's followed my work should have a pretty decent idea of what sort of view it's going to end up being, so if anyone wants in, shout me a holler!

The Economic Role of Alarmism and Overreaction

Food for thought:

Lots of innovations and improvements are not economically viable in the short term, but would make our world a better place over the long term if implemented today. If people always recognized that their "better" choices today come at a cost which often outweighs the present value of the improvement, there would be less incentive to develop the "better" technologies in the first place. For example, people are freaking out about global warming and spending way more money than makes sense on environmentally friendly technologies. From a present value perspective, these choices seem unreasonable, and perhaps they are. But the presence of these unreasonable, overreaction-prone people in the marketplace means that change can be funded even when it, in some idealized sense, "shouldn't" be economically profitable. So if you would prefer to see the kinds of end-states that alarmists are clamoring about, but don't think that the costs of making them happen would be worth bearing, be sure to say a word of thanks for those irrational alarmists who'll gladly pay on your behalf!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Typical Response to Some Typical Climate Change Skepticism

I was recently informed that the fine folks over at Bureaucrash have started a social networking site, and so I set up an account. And almost immediately, I discovered a fun little climate scientist bash session. I figured I'd weigh in, and quickly found that my post had reached rather epic proportions. Given that I get questions about climate change all the time, I figured I'd post my response here for easy reference.


Kevin, it's critical to realize that in the broadest planetary or biological terms, there's nothing wrong with global warming. You're right to point out that the Earth has been much warmer than it is today, and life did just fine. In fact, it flourished. So the problem is not that a warmer Earth would destroy life. Rather, the problem is that human civilization has been built up in a relatively narrow range of normal climatic conditions, and permanent shifts in those normal conditions would force people to undergo extremely costly adaptation. As John Broome writes in his book, Counting the Cost of Global Warming, "Unless there is a great ecological catastrophe, however, most of the harms that one can foresee from global warming could be classified as adjustment costs. I can see no reason why, in equilibrium, a warmer world should not be able to sustain just as good human life as a cooler one. The problem is that, over thousands of years, human beings and nature have become adjusted to a cooler world" (15).

Some indviduals' property would likely be destroyed by changing global conditions, and many would be put at increased risk of damage from extreme climate events. Some groups of people would find that the ecological conditions on which their livelihoods were dependent had changed, and this would create many problems, particular for many of those who are already among the worst off. So while a warmer Earth could likely eventually support lifestyles of equal or greater quality than it currently does, the difficulty of adapting the entirety of humanity to new conditions should give us pause. And that's not even to mention the impacts on the Earth's other species which, whether or not we attribute them intrinsic value of their own, certainly help to enrich our lives. As I've discussed in a paper that I'd be glad to send to you if you'd like, some of these effects could reasonably be thought of as infringements on rights, while others simply as objectionable consequences. But insofar as rights are involved, it seems like the proper libertarian response if we knew that climate change were occurring would mean something more than simply allowing people to adapt; we certainly wouldn't advocate that sort of solution for the victims of theft.

As for the scientific case for climate change, I think Stephen Gardiner put it well in his essay "Ethics and Global Climate Change" when he pointed out that "The skeptics are right…when they assert that the observational temperature record is a weak data set and that the long-term history of the climate is such that even if the data were more robust, we would be rash to conclude that humans are causing it solely on this basis. Still, it would be a mistake to infer too much from the truth of these claims. For it would be equally rash to dismiss the possibility of warming on these grounds. For, even though it might be true that the empirical evidence is consistent with there being no anthropogenic warming, it is also true that it provides just the kind of record we would expect if there were a real global warming problem" (567).

You point to several lines of evidence which you take to contradict the mainstream hypothesis, and I think that those should be addressed. You first point to the time lag between historical shifts in temperature trends and increases in levels of CO2. It should be made clear that no one is alleging that amphibians were driving their SUV's around, warming the Earth in time for the age of the dinosaurs. Rather, as temperatures rise, we would expect CO2 levels to rise, as they [higher temperatures] stimulate biological activity among heterotrophic organisms and cause aqueous CO2 to bubble off from the oceans. But these increased CO2 levels would be expected to create a feedback effect; the equilibrium temperature should be higher in those periods than it would be expected to be without any effect from CO2 warming, and indeed paleoclimatologists cannot explain climatic conditions in those time periods without citing the effects of an amplifying CO2 feedback. The problem is that today, we are adding a temperature amplifying agent to the atmosphere; this should be expected to produce some warming (ceteris paribus), no matter how skeptical you are about the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis (there may be counteracting consequences of increased CO2 levels, of course, in our current time period; I don't mean to marginalize that possibility, but those mechanisms have not appeared to be present in the past, as far as we know). It's simply a scientific fact that CO2 absorbs long-wave radiation.

You then point to the lack of temperature increase in this century, in the face of continually rising levels of CO2, as counter-evidence. I'd point out that your counter-hypothesis is based on the idea that practically all of the temperature variation we saw in the 20th century can be attributed to natural variability, and yet you are apparently pointing to a point in time where temperatures are not rising with the implication that there could not possibly be any natural trends which are currently counteracting the warming influence of atmospheric CO2. This seems like a structural problem for your position, but you could still be correct if we had no way to even begin to understand why global temperatures might not be increasing right now. Perhaps unfortunately (since it would be very nice if you were right), I believe that many scientists are claiming that the sun (which is certainly important in driving climatic conditions) has been in a relatively quiet period, and that this should be expected to cool the Earth. Given that the Earth has not cooled, this is unfortunately somewhat legitimate as evidence in favor of the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis: if the Earth gets warmer during times when natural trends alone would be expected to warm it, but does not get cooler when those trends would be expected to cool it, then it suggests that natural trends might not be able to provide the whole story, and the CO2 forcing may be the missing component.

Finally, you point to the fact that water vapor is the most significant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and on this point you are absolutely correct. Without the greenhouse effect, scientists believe that the Earth would be almost 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is today. We have water vapor to thank for most of that warming, without which life as we know it would be completely impossible. Current estimates of future climatic conditions tell us to expect a change about an order of magnitude less significant than the total warming produced by the natural greenhouse effect. And that makes sense, given that the overwhelming majority of the greenhouse effect is the result of atmospheric water vapor. I'd also point out that predictions about future temperatures are not solely based on the greenhouse effect from increased levels of CO2, but also on a number of feedback mechanisms, including decreasing planetary albedo and, incidentally, increasing water vapor.

I'm sure you have a large number of further objections to the mainstream hypothesis, likely including but not limited to claims about cosmic rays, the incapacity of models to properly account for cloud activity or other intracellular activity, the proscription of variables in GCMs, the uneven vertical distribution of warming between the lower and upper atmosphere, the inherently cyclical nature of the climate system, and the apparently strong relationship between global temperatures and solar activity in the mid-20th century. I'd only suggest that perhaps you take some time to study the IPCC report and a basic textbook on the scientific basis for the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis, rather than regurgitating talking points from climate skeptics, and also recognize that uncertainty about the scientific basis for concern about climate change does not free libertarians of the responsibility of explaining what they would say if they knew that climate change were occurring.
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