Month: August 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Pitts

When I lived in the D.C. area and subscribed to The Washington Post, I occasionally read a column by Leonard Pitts Jr. This masochistic practice served two purposes. First, it exercised my cardiovascular system (i.e., raised my heart rate and blood pressure). Second, it helped me to keep up with what passes for wisdom among the race-card-playing set.

Mr. Pitts, who is a syndicated columnist operating out of The Miami Herald, comes by his race-card-playing naturally, as a black and — given his age (about 50) — a likely beneficiary of reverse discrimination (a.k.a. affirmative action). I should note that Pitts plays the race-card game clumsily, probably because his mental warehouse is stocked with gross generalizations and logical fallacies.

I was provoked to write this post by a recent Pitts column, to which I will come, where (in passing) he defends the socialization of medicine because other things also have been socialized. By that logic, Pitts would excuse the murder of his wife because millions of murders already have been committed.

*     *     *

I begin my sampling of Pitts’s pathetic prose with “We’ll go forward from this moment,” of September 12, 2001 (a reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001):

Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless.

No, “we” (the citizens of the United States) are most decidedly not a family, not even a feuding one. If there ever was anything like an American “family,” it existed in the years just after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces. The degree of unity and resolve in the America of 1942-45 makes a mockery of the years following September 2001, during which disunity and irresolution became the standard pose of the media, academia, the Democrat Party, more than a few Republican “moderates,” many isolationist paleo-conservatives, and most libertarians.

Americans, now more than ever, are members of millions of separate families, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, work groups, etc. If there is anything shared by a majority of Americans, it is a taste for food in large quantities, vulgar entertainment, and a chance to feed at the public trough at the expense of other Americans.

The most notable schism in American life is one that has arisen since the onset of the Great Depression. It has come to this: Americans are deeply divided (though not evenly divided) about the rightful power of government in foreign and domestic affairs. There are three main camps. The largest favors surrender abroad and statism at home; the smallest favors surrender abroad and anarchy at home; the one to which I belong favors the full exercise of American might in defense of Americans’ legitimate overseas interest, together with a limited government devoted mainly to the protection of Americans from domestic predators and parasite.

It is obvious in what I have just said that Americans today do not even share a tradition of liberty, which has long vanished from the land. Because of this loss of liberty, Americans have become something less than citizens  with a common birthright and something more like hostages in their own land, with little voice and almost no opportunity for exit. Many (perhaps most) Americans like it that way, many others don’t understand what has been lost to them, and some (too few) understand it all too painfully. Pitts and his ilk like it that way because they are in thrall to special-interest politics and cannot see how those politics have abetted our downward spiral into political bondage, social license, and weakness in the face of our foreign and domestic enemies.

*     *     *

Jumping to September 29, 2003, I find “Faithful often give religion a bad name,” in which Pitts proffers this:

People are always pleased to indulge their religiosity when it allows them to stand in judgment of someone else, licenses them to feel superior to someone else, tells them they are more righteous than someone else.

They are less enthusiastic when religiosity demands that they be compassionate to someone else. That they show charity, service and mercy to everyone else.

Consider that last month thousands of people wept on the steps of an Alabama courthouse in support of a rock bearing the Ten Commandments. And watching, you wondered: What hungry person gets fed because of this? What naked person is clothed, what homeless one housed?

It seemed a fresh reminder that religious people are often the poorest advertisement for religious life.

How much more convincing an advertisement, how much more compelling a testimony, if people of faith were more often caught by news cameras demonstrating against healthcare cuts that fill our streets with the homeless mentally ill. Or confronting the slumlord about the vermin-infested holes he offers as places for families to live. Or crusading to make the sweatshop owner pay a living wage to workers who are treated little better than slaves.

From what well of knowledge does Pitts draw his assertions that people are always pleased to indulge their religiosity when they can stand in judgment of others, but are less enthusiastic when compassion is in order? Does Pitts even know, let alone care, that residents of “Red” States — where religious fundamentalism is more prevalent — are much more generous in their charitable giving than residents of “Blue” States — where secular Europeanism is the norm?

And what about those persons who “wept on the steps of an Alabama courthouse in support of a rock bearing the Ten Commandments”? What is wrong with protesting the further distancing of government from morality? I suspect that Pitts doesn’t want public officials to be reminded of the Ten Commandments because one of them says “You shall not steal” — and that is precisely what government does when it taxes and regulates us toward poverty, often in the name of “compassion.”

And why would it be a compelling testimony for religion if “people of faith” were more often seen demonstrating against budget cuts that fill our streets with the homeless mentally ill, or confronting slumlords about vermin-infested holes, or crusading to make sweatshop owners pay a “living wage to workers”? Pitts can offer such advice only because he doesn’t understand or care about the implications of such actions: Higher taxes for hard-working families; more homeless persons, as landlords raise rents to defray the costs of improving their properties; more starving poor, as “sweatshop” owners find new locales in which to recruit willing workers who have less exalted ideas than Pitts about what constitutes a “living wage.”

Pitts reveals himself as an ignoramus or a hypocrite — probably both — who is simply pleased to indulge his moral outrage when it allows him to stand in judgment of others.

*     *     *

Less than a month later (October 20, 2003) Pitts opined that “Race has always benefited whites“; to wit:

As a reader who chose to remain nameless put it, many people wonder if a given black professional “is there because of his/her skills and abilities, or because of affirmative action. Unfortunately, affirmative action policies leave many unanswered questions about a black person’s education and training, as well as skills and abilities. . . . How do we answer these questions?”

I will try my best to answer them with a straight face. It’s going to be difficult.

Because there’s an elephant in this room, isn’t there? It’s huge and noisy and rather smelly, yet none of these good people sees it. The elephant is this simple fact:

White men are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action this country has ever seen.

That’s not rhetoric or metaphor. It’s only truth.


If affirmative action is defined as giving someone an extra boost based on race, it’s hard to see how anyone can argue the point. Slots for academic admission, for employment and promotion, for bank loans and for public office have routinely been set aside for white men. This has always been the nation’s custom. Until the 1960s, it was also the nation’s law. . . .

My correspondents feel they should not be asked to respect the skill or abilities of a black professional who may or may not have benefited from affirmative action. They think such a person should expect to be looked down upon. But black people have spent generations watching white men who were no more talented, and many times downright incompetent, vault to the head of the line based on racial preference.

So, here’s my question:

Would African Americans be justified in looking down on white professionals? In wondering whether they are really smart enough to do the job? In questioning their competence before they had done a thing?

Pitts deploys three shifty debating techniques: He changes the subject; subtly (and inappropriately) redefines a key term; falsely generalizes about a class of persons (white men); and then draws an unsupported conclusion from flawed premises.

The change of subject is obvious. Pitts, instead of addressing the question whether affirmative action leads to the advancement of under-qualified blacks, attacks whites for having been unqualified.

Why were whites unqualified? Because they, too, benefited from something Pitts chooses to call affirmative action, namely, “giving someone an extra boost based on race.” There is a basic problem with Pitts’s shifty redefinition of affirmative action: discrimination against blacks produces different results than discrimination against whites. The real elephant in the room, the one that it is impolite to mention, is that blacks and whites have different skills. And for most jobs, where intelligence matters, there are many more qualified whites than blacks.

It is therefore wrong to paint whites with the same “affirmative action” brush. Despite Pitts’s implication to the contrary, blacks would not have been justified in looking down on white professionals, as a group. But the converse is not true. Certainly, there are and have been superb black doctors and miserably incompetent white ones, but faced with a choice between, say, a white doctor of unknown skill and a black doctor of unknown skill, a person (black or white) would prudently choose the white doctor. The shame, of course, is that in some parts of the United States blacks were not allowed to choose white doctors.

*     *     *

In “Leave education to the principals, teachers, parents” (November 28, 2007), Pitts subscribes to romantic claptrap:

No one becomes a teacher to get rich. You become a teacher because you want to give back, you want to shape future generations, you want to change the world.

Oh spare me! You become a teacher because

  • you enjoy teaching, in general
  • you enjoy teaching a particular subject because you know it well
  • you enjoy the power of being in charge of a classroom (to the extent that you’re mentally and physically capable of being in charge)
  • it’s the best job you can get, given your intelligence and particular skills
  • some or all of the preceding statements apply to you.

Teaching is a job, not a mystical calling.

Pitts is right to say that

much of what ails American schools can be traced to a bureaucracy that: a) doesn’t pay enough; b) does too little to encourage and reward creativity; c) doesn’t give principals authority over who works in their schools; d) makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.

The key word is “bureaucracy.” American schools will not improve until they are privatized, allowed to compete with one another, and allowed to hire teachers who know their subjects as opposed to NEA-approved hacks with “education” degrees. Some schools will be better than others, of course, but that’s true now. What isn’t true — or possible — now is that most schools will improve, or go out of business. (Public schools sometimes are “closed” for conspicuous failure, only to re-open in the same place, and with most of the same students and teachers.)

The problem, for Pitts and other “liberals,” is that it just isn’t “fair” for some children to have access to better schools than others, even though that also is true now, and even though bright children of less-affluent parents undoubtedly would have access to scholarships funded by affluent graduates of better schools. No, in the name of “fairness,” Pitts and his fellow “liberals” would rather hope for a transformation of public schools that will never happen, precisely because public schools are beholden to the NEA, which is nothing more than a union designed to guarantee work for incompetents who cannot master real subjects.

*     *     *

I come now to the column that touched off this post: “The distance between us” (as titled by the Austin American-Statesman) of August 24, 2009. Though the thread of Pitts’s “logic” is tangled, he his main concern seems to be national unity, or the lack thereof.

He rests his point on the fact that not everyone is happy with the election of Barack Obama or his policies, which he traces to racism or out-and-out nuttiness:

Last year, Barack Obama was elected president, the first American of African heritage ever to reach that office. If this was regarded as a new beginning by most Americans, it was regarded apocalyptically by others who promptly proceeded to lose both their minds and any pretense of enlightenment.

These are the people who immediately declared it their fervent hope that the new presidency fail, the ones who cheered when the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession, the ones who went online to rechristen the executive mansion the “Black” House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front.

On tax day they were the ones who, having apparently just discovered the grim tidings April 15 brings us all each year, launched angry, unruly protests. In the debate over health-care reform, they are the ones who have disrupted town hall meetings, shouting about the president’s supposed plan for “death panels” to euthanize the elderly.

Now, they are the ones bringing firearms to places the president is speaking.

The Washington Post tells us at least a dozen individuals have arrived openly — and, yes, legally — strapped at events in Arizona and New Hampshire, including at least one who carried a semiautomatic assault rifle. In case the implied threat is not clear, one of them also brought a sign referencing Thomas Jefferson’s quote about the need to water the tree of liberty with “the blood of … tyrants.”

Is Pitts suggesting that most of the 60,000,000 Americans who voted against Barack Obama (46 percent of those casting a vote in last year’s election) immediately hailed Obama’s election as a “new beginning”? To be sure, there was a honeymoon period around inauguration day, when about two-thirds of voters hopefully approved of Obama and his net approval rating hovered between 25 and 30 percent. But the honeymoon was over almost as soon as it had begun, as Americans began to grasp the bankruptcy (pun intended) of Obama’s policies.

But rather than acknowledge the awakening of most Americans to Obama’s threats to liberty and prosperity, Pitts stoops to barely veiled charges of racism and irrationality. To hope that Obama fails is not to wish ill for the nation; to the contrary, it is to hope that Obama’s policies fail of realization because they are seen (rightly) as inimical to liberty and prosperity. To find racism in talk of secession is a ploy by a columnist who is willing to sell his liberty cheap (or give it away), as long as the president’s skin is of the right color.

Then we have the concatenation of

the ones who went online to rechristen the executive mansion the “Black” House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front.

On tax day they were the ones who, having apparently just discovered the grim tidings April 15 brings us all each year, launched angry, unruly protests.

In other words, some racists oppose Obama and his policies; therefore, opposition to Obama and his policies is racist. Pitts evidently failed Logic 101, for he could just as well suggest that some racists (i.e., reverse racists) support Obama and his policies; therefore, support of Obama and his policies is racist.

A relative handful of those publicly protesting Obamacare — themselves a relative handful of the millions who oppose or question it — happen to have carried guns (legally) to the forums at which they (or others) voiced protests. Pitts verges on a Soviet-style declaration that those who oppose the regime are, by definition, mentally ill and must be locked up, for their own safety.

As noted earlier, Pitts is unfazed by the fact “that our libraries, schools, police and fire departments are all ‘socialized’.” If one more thing — namely medical care — is socialized, so what? And, given the number of murders committed every year, if one more person is murdered, so what?

All of that aside, Pitts’s real point has do with the kind of country America will become:

These are strange times. They call to mind what historian Henry Adams said in the mid-1800s: “There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land and whether one government can comprehend the whole.”

Adams spoke in geographical terms of a nation rapidly expanding toward the Pacific. Our challenge is less geographical than spiritual, less a question of the distance between Honolulu and New York than between you and the person right next to you. . . .

We frame the differences in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but these are tired old markers that with overuse and misuse have largely lost whatever meaning they used to have and with it, any ability to explain us to us. This isn’t liberal vs. conservative, it is yesterday vs. tomorrow, the stress of profound cultural and demographic changes that will leave none of us as we were. . . .

Round and round we go and where we stop, nobody knows. And it is an open question, as it was for Henry Adams, what kind of country we’ll have when it’s done.

“Can” one government comprehend the whole? It may be harder to answer now than it was then.

The distances that divide us cannot be measured in miles.

Pitts is right about the distances that divide Americans, but those distances have divided Americans for generations. (I repeat: “We” are not a family.) The only way to reconcile those differences is to restore the basic scheme of of the Constitution, which is to

  • establish one nation united in common defense,
  • with open internal borders, and
  • free movement of goods across those borders, for prosperity’s sake, and
  • free movement of people between and within the several sovereign States, so that individuals may associate with those whom they find most congenial.

Such a wise scheme will not do for collectivists like Pitts, who cannot abide the thought of a world other than one made to their specifications. If the Pittses persist in their collectivist zeal, America will proceed from a (cold) civil war to secession, a military coup, or even revolution. And the fault will lie with the Pittses, because they are the true enemies of liberty.

*     *     *

Having reacquainted myself with Mr. Pitts, and having thereby exercised my cardiovascular system, I now bid him adieu — not fondly but forever.

The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism

The canonization of Ted Kennedy by the American left and its “moderate” dupes — in spite of Kennedy’s tawdry, criminal past — reminds me of the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton’s defense attorney Cheryl Mills said this toward the end of her summation:

[T]his president’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights is unimpeachable.

In other words, Clinton could lie under oath and obstruct justice because his predatory behavior toward particular women and the criminal acts they led to were excused by his being on the “right side” on the general issue of “women’s rights.” That makes as much sense as allowing a murderer to go free because he believes in capital punishment.

The purpose of this post, however, isn’t to explore the depths of leftist hypocrisy. There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, and it isn’t found only on the left — just mostly, it seems.

What I want to explore here is the question of “character” and its bearing on governance. I begin with the late James David Barber who, in Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, looks at America’s presidents through the lens of personality. Barber concocts four broad types:

“active-positive” (high self-esteem, flexible, goal-oriented), “active-negative” (compulsive, power-seeking), “passive-positive” (genial and agreeable but easily wounded) and “passive-negative” (dutiful, withdrawing from political fights).

Barber writes engagingly and almost convincingly, until you understand that what he offers is simplistic, rear-view-mirror nonsense that happens to justify his political preferences.

Barber prefers “active-positive” presidents. Which is to say that Barber, like most liberal-arts academicians, favors “active” presidents — presidents who seek to expand the powers of the presidency and the government beyond their constitutional bounds — as long as their temperaments are “positive” (think FDR and Truman), as opposed to “negative” (think Wilson and Nixon).

Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, is one of Barber’s “passive-negative” presidents, “sullen and withdrawn, viewing the office as a burden.” Coolidge, though taciturn, was not a sullen person, and he viewed the presidency as a constitutional trust, not a license to reshape the nation and its political institutions to his own liking. As I have said (here and here), Coolidge was

Harding’s dignified, reticent successor. Had Coolidge chosen to run for re-election in 1928 he probably would have won. And if he had won, his inbred conservatism probably would have kept him from trying to “cure” the recession that began in 1929. Thus, we might not have had the Great Depression, FDR, the New Deal, etc., etc., etc.

*     *     *

Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because he was a man of few words. He said only what was necessary for him to say, and he meant what he said. That was in keeping with his approach to the presidency. He was not the “activist” that reporters and historians like to see in the presidency; he simply did the job required of him by the Constitution, which was to execute the laws of the United States.

The contrast between “active-positive” and “passive-negative” points to the real “character issue” in politics: the distinction between opportunistic politicians and wise ones. (Contrast adj. 1 here with adj. 1 here.)

An opportunistic politician disregards or is ignorant of the wisdom embedded in social norms and the laws that derive from them. An opportunistic politician is enamored of change (for change’s sake) — regardless of its costs or consequences — as long as it yields popularity, votes, and power. An opportunistic politician, all rhetoric to the contrary, cares for and caters to only to those who bestow popularity, votes, and power. An opportunistic politician — with the help of dupes in the media, academia, and “progressive” circles — successfully masks his essential ruthlessness behind a reputation for “compassion” and “service.”

A wise politician understands that the first and only duty of government is to defend the negative rights of citizens:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

A wise politician understands how easily government intervention can rend the painstakingly woven fabric of custom — without which humans could not coexist in peace and prosperity — and will seek intervention only where custom tramples negative rights.

Among the most opportunistic politicians of our era have been Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, but they merely stand out from their peers as being more opportunistic than most. Their spiritual forbears include George Wallace, (who played the race card of a different suit), Huey Long, and the two Roosevelts.

The ranks of wise American politicians (and presidents) are led by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Is it fair to contrast Clinton, Kennedy, and their ilk with Washington and Lincoln? Why not? Washington and Lincoln were made of flesh and blood; they were not perfect as men or presidents. But they rose above their imperfections instead of succumbing to them. They respected humanity and — instead of trying to dominate it — sought to protect it from the arbitrary actions of government. Thus Washington fought British tyranny and resisted its replication on our shores; Lincoln crushed the evil that was slavery, rather than accommodate it.

Our historical distance from the likes of Washington and Lincoln should not lead us to assume that their kind is no longer to be found. It is just that their kind is far less likely to be found in politics these days, the currency of politics having been debased as America has spiraled downward into statism:

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for our quandary is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, the polity relies on the state to deal with the problems caused by its previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which leads to further reliance on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action diminishes the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state creates dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action and support efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

The opportunistic politician — seeking popularity, votes, and power — hastens our descent; the wise one tries to reverse it. Which brings me back to Calvin Coolidge . . . and to his only (somewhat effective) counterpart in recent history: Ronald Reagan.

Coolidge’s presidency, as noted above, earned us a respite from the depradations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but fate intervened, in the form of the Great Depression, panic, and the opportunism of FDR.

Reagan’s presidency was more a glimmer of hope than a respite. And the glimmer of hope has been extinguished by mediocrity (Bush I), opportunism (Clinton), mediocrity (Bush II), and opportunism (BHO).

It is my belief (and fear) that wisdom can be restored to American politics only by a major crisis, one which can be blamed unambiguously on the machinations of opportunistic politicians.

The Kennedy Legacy

Luci Baines Johnson:

Senator Kennedy was our family’s cherished friend and the defender of the flame for social justice our parents believed in – decent health care, education, and civil rights for every American. He could have had a life of self service; he chose a life of public service.

Jeff Jacoby:

Born into riches and influence, he could have lived a life of ease, indulging his appetites and paying scant attention to those less fortunate. He chose a different life, and became a towering advocate for the deprived, the disabled, and the dispossessed. I didn’t always like his answers, but I honor him for caring so greatly about the questions.

Don Boudreaux:

While Kennedy didn’t choose a life of ease, he did something much worse: he chose a life of power. That choice satisfied an appetite that is far grosser, baser, and more anti-social than are any of the more private appetites that many rich people often choose to satisfy.

Americans would have been much better off had Ted Kennedy spent his wealth exclusively, say, on the pursuit of sexual experiences and the building of palatial private homes in which to cavort, or to take drugs, or to engage in whatever private dissipations his wealth afforded him.

Instead, Mr. Kennedy spent much of his wealth and time pursuing power over others (and of the garish ‘glory’ that accompanies such power). He did waste his life satisfying unsavory appetites; unfortunately, the appetites he satisfied were satisfied not only at his expense, but at the expense of the rest of us. Mr. Kennedy’s constant feeding of his appetite for power wasted away other people’s prosperity and liberties.

I am squarely with Boudreaux.

As for Kennedy’s “public service” and “caring,” which might be called altruistic, I say this:

There is no essential difference between altruism . . . and the pursuit of self-interest. . . . In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.*

Americans — poor and rich alike — have paid, and paid dearly, for the assuagement of Edward Kennedy’s ego.

That notwithstanding, Kennedy will be remembered, for the most part, as a “compassionate” politician. But his “compassion” was purchased with our liberty and prosperity.

Related reading: “Red Ted” (at Classical Values), “The Dark Side of Ted Kennedy’s Legacy” (at Carpe Diem), and “Kennedy’s Big Government Paternalism” (at Real Clear Politics).


* I do not mean to disparage acts that have beneficial consequences, merely the assumptions that (a) behavior labeled “altruistic” is unselfish and (b) motivation is more important than result. For more on the second point, see this post.

Civil War, Close Elections, and Voters’ Remorse

Apropos the proposition that a new (cold) civil war is emerging, I introduce the following graph into evidence:

victors-margin-in-presidential-elections1Source: Derived from data available at Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

If the closeness of recent elections (as measured by the popular vote) means anything, it means that the United States is about as divided is it was in the the last quarter of the 19th century, when the passions surrounding the Civil War still raged in the country. Not that there’s anything wrong with disunity, as long as you’re on the right side of it. Nor is unity desirable when it revolves around statists (like the Roosevelts and LBJ) or criminals (like Nixon and Clinton).

The apparent “healing” of 2008 — which merely reflected Bush’s unpopularity and McCain’s lameness as a candidate — has lasted about as long as a Hollywood marriage:

obamas-net-approval2Source: Derived from the presidential tracking poll at Rasmussen Reports.

On the subject of voters’ remorse — for that is what it is — I note that just before the election of 2008 Democrats led Republicans by 47 percent to 41 percent on Rasmussen’s “generic congressional ballot,” whereas the most recent poll (August 16) has Republicans ahead of Democrats by 43 percent to 38 percent.

Putting Risks in Perspective

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about eight-tenths of one percent of Americans died in 2005 (the most recent year for which CDC has published death rates). That’s about 800 persons (825.9 to be precise) out of every 100,000.

To put that number in perspective, imagine a dozen dozen eggs (i.e., a gross of eggs, for those who still know the numeric meaning of “gross”). Only about one of those eggs is broken in the span of a year, in spite of all of the hazards to which the eggs are exposed.

Remember that analogy the next time you read or hear about the “threats” posed by heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, motor-vehicle accidents, firearms, etc., etc., etc. The combined effect of all such “threats” is close to nil; more than 99 percent of Americans survive every year, and more than 70 percent of those who don’t survive are old (age 65 and older). But that’s not the kind of “news” of that sells advertising.

(For much more about mortality in the United States, go here.)

The Fed and Business Cycles

UPDATED 06/11/11

The following graphs depict the length of expansions and contractions (and the trends in both), before and since the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.

Source: “Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions,” National Bureau of Economic Research.

The creation of the Fed might have had a hand in the lengthening of expansions and the shortening of contractions, but many other factors have been at work.

What the graphs don’t depict is the relative severity of the various contractions. It is worth noting that the worst of them all — the Great Depression — occurred after the creation of the Fed and, in part, because of actions taken by the Fed. (A note to the history-challenged: The Great Depression began in September 1929 and ended only because of America’s entry into World War II.) Moreover, the worst downturn since the Great Depression — the Great Recession — was clearly the work of the Fed, in unwitting(?) complicity with the politicians who insisted on expanding home ownership through subprime loans.

In any event, the long-run cost of economic stability has been high. (See this, this, and this, for example.)

*     *     *

Related reading: Scott Sumner, “In the 1930s It Seemed “Obvious” That Financial Turmoil Had Caused the Great Depression,” EconLog, February 17, 2014

Related post: Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much

A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?

Max Borders writes:

. . . Toleration and open discourse is, well, no longer tolerated. We are slowly becoming a place of mere de jure free speech. And even that is being eroded by the day. I have to blame so-called “progressives” the most for this. They are people for whom the end justifies the means. So any lip-service they occasionally pay to civil liberties is but a tool of convenience to be employed on the way to getting things their way. A new cold civil war is emerging.

There is much truth in that. But I would go further.

Thanks to the lethal combination of left-statist demagoguery and voter irrationality, Americans are, among other things, saddled with

  • the destruction of civilizing social norms, together with a high threshold of tolerance for criminals and a concomitant softness on matters of national defense
  • the continuing nationalization of medical care, which began in earnest with Medicare and continues in the guise of Obamacare (with all of its potential for bureaucratic abuses of power)
  • severe restrictions on economic output in order to satisfy the dictatorial urge to puritanism that lies behind the “warming” industry

As I have said,

[t]hese encroachments . . . are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal character has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, we have discovered — too late — that we are impotent hostages in our own land.

I am reminded of these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

What we need is not a civil war — cold or hot — but a serious movement toward secession:

The legal basis for the perpetuation of the United States disappears when the federal government abrogates the Constitution. Given that the federal government has long failed to honor Amendment X [among many other parts of the Constitution], there is a prima facie case that the United States no longer exists as a legal entity. Secession then becomes more than an option for the States: It becomes their duty, both as sovereign entitities and as guardians of their citizens’ sovereignty.

Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution

In a recent post about negative rights, I quote Randy Barnett, who explains that such “rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act.” Well, not quite.

Think about it. A libertarian regime would protect these negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

But those rights enclose a cavernous “space,” within which human behavior can find many self-destructive outlets unless it is shaped by social norms — socially evolved rules (as opposed to government-dictated ones) which delineate morally and socially acceptable behavior. Think of the ways in which your present behavior is shaped by the moral lessons of your childhood and by your experiences as a child, student, spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, neighbor, church member, club member, team member, and the like.

In sum, negative rights are meaningless absent a framework of social norms that is consistent with negative rights and which directs behavior along constructive paths. Conversely, constructive social norms are undermined where government fails to protect negative rights or actively denies them. There is, for example, no right of freedom from force in a community where violence is the norm and government is unable to protect residents from violence; there is no right of property ownership in a community where government seizes property as it sees fit to do so; there is no right of freedom of movement for slaves; and so on. (Obviously, I am referring to rights as they are actually enjoyed, not “natural” rights.)

In the United States, the history of negative rights parallels the history of the Constitution:

The original Constitution protected the rights to life, liberty, and property against infringement by the federal government in two ways. First and foremost, Congress was not given a general legislative power but only those legislative powers “herein granted,” referring to those powers enumerated in Article I, section 8. It is striking how these powers avoid expressly restricting the rightful exercise of liberty. The power “to raise and support armies” does not include an express power of conscription, which would interfere with the property one has in one’s own person. The power to establish the post office does not expressly claim a power to make the government post office a monopoly, which would interfere with the freedom of contract of those who wish to contract with a private mail company of the sort founded by Lysander Spooner. (By contrast, the Articles of Confederation did accord the power in Congress to establish a postal monopoly.)…

Two years after its enactment, the Constitution was amended by the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments included several express guarantees of such liberties as the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the right to keep and bear arms. The Bill of Rights barred takings for public use without just compensation. It provided additional procedural assurances that the laws would be applied accurately and fairly to particular individuals.
All of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are consistent with modern libertarian political philosophy. And to this list of rights was added the Ninth Amendment that said, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not
be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In this way, even liberty rights that were not listed were given express constitutional protection. Finally, the Tenth Amendment reaffirmed that Congress could exercise only those
powers to which it was delegated “by this Constitution.”…

While the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude expanded the Constitution’s protection of individual liberty against abuses by states, it was the Fourteenth Amendment that radically altered the federalism of the original
Constitution. For the first time, Congress and the courts could invalidate any state laws that “abridge[d] the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The original meaning of “privileges or immunities” included the same natural rights retained by the people to which the Ninth Amendment referred, but also the additional enumerated rights contained in the Bill of Rights. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment placed a federal check on how state laws are applied to particular persons, while the Equal Protection Clause imposed a duty on state executive branches to extend the protection of the law on all persons without
discrimination. (Randy Barnett, “Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 14-17)


the Supreme Court has upheld countless federal laws restricting
liberty, primarily under the power of Congress “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states” combined with an open-ended reading of the Necessary and Proper Clause. Further it has upheld the power of Congress to spend tax revenue for purposes other than “for carrying into execution” its enumerated powers, thereby exceeding the scope of the Necessary and Proper Clause….

Beginning in the 1930s, the Supreme Court . . . adopted a presumption of constitutionality whenever a statute restricted unenumerated liberty rights. In the 1950s it made this presumption effectively irrebuttable. Now it will only protect those liberties that are listed, or a very few unenumerated rights such as the right of privacy. (op. cit., pp. 15, 17-18)

What the law giveth, the law taketh away. The power of the States, individually, to trample negative rights has been supplanted by the far greater power of the central government to trample negative rights.

Generally, negative rights are trampled by every government enactment that does more than protect negative rights.  Which is to say that most government enactments deny negative rights; for example, they

  • compel the surrender of income to government agencies for non-protective purposes (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • compel the transfer of income to persons who did not earn the income (violating freedom from force and property ownership)
  • direct how business property may be used, through restrictions on the specifications to which goods must be manufactured (violating property ownership)
  • force the owners of businesses (in non-right-to-work-States) to recognize and bargain with labor unions (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to hire certain classes of persons (“protected groups”) and undertake additional expenses for the “accommodation” of handicapped persons (violating property rights and freedom of contract)
  • require private businesses to restrict or ban smoking (violating property rights and freedom of association)
  • mandate attendance at tax-funded schools and the subjects taught in those schools, even where those teachings run counter to the moral values that parents are trying to inculcate (violating freedom from force and freedom of association)
  • limit political speech through restrictions on political contributions and the publication of political advertisements (violating freedom from force and freedom of association).

Such enactments also trample social norms. First, and fundamentally, they convey the message that government, not private social institutions, is the proper locus of moral instruction and interpersonal mediation. Persons who seek special treatment (privileges, a.k.a. positive rights) learn that they can resort to government for “solutions” to their “problems,” which encourages other persons to do the same thing, and so on. In the end — which we have not quite reached — social institutions lose their power to instruct and mediate, and become merely sources of solace and entertainment.

More specifically, government enactments have

  • engendered disrespect for life by authorizing abortion
  • legitimated lewd, lascivious, inconsiderate, and violent behavior in the name of “freedom of expression” and “freedom of speech,” even while distancing children from the moral lessons of religion by declaring freedom from religion where the Constitution only prohibits government establishment of religion
  • undermined the role of the family as a central civilizing force by encouraging the breakup of families (welfare rules, easy divorce)
  • usurped the authority of parents by usurping their authority to instill moral values (as mentioned above)
  • encouraged the absence of mothers from the home through subsidized day-care and “affirmative action”
  • engendered disrespect for constructive economic behavior by rewarding shiftlessness (welfare) and penalizing success (progressive income tax, the “death tax,” etc.)
  • shifted the burden of care for the elderly from families to “society” (i.e., taxpayers) through Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, thus teaching the wrong lessons about the value of life and respect for old persons.

I could go on and on, but I hope that I have made my point: Politicians — in their zeal to pander to special interests — have damaged the general interest through their disregard of negative rights and the framework of civilizing norms that transforms negative rights into constructive behavior.

How could this have happened? Here is my explanation:

The Framers underestimated the will to power that animates office-holders. The Constitution‘s wonderful design — horizontal and vertical separation of powers — which worked rather well until the late 1800s, cracked under the strain of populism, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The Framers’ design then broke under the burden of the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court of the 1930s (and since) has enabled the central government to impose its will at will. The Framers’ fundamental error can be found in Madison’s Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

. . . It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. . . .

But Madison then made the error of assuming that, under a central government, liberty is guarded by a diversity of interests:

[One method] of providing against this evil [is] . . . by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. . . . [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased. . . .

Madison then went on to contradict what he said in Federalist No. 46 about the States being a bulwark of liberty:

It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Madison understood that a majority can tyrannize a minority. He understood that the States are better able to prevent the rise of tyranny if the powers of the central government are circumscribed. But he then assumed that the States themselves could not resist tyranny within their own borders. Madison overlooked the importance of exit as the ultimate check on tyranny. He assumed that, in creating a new central government with powers greatly exceeding those of the Confederacy, a majority of States would not tyrannize the minority and that minorities with overlapping interests would not concert to tyrannize the majority. Madison was so anxious to see the Constitution ratified that he oversold himself and the States’ ratifying conventions on the ability of the central government to hold itself in check. Thus the Constitution was lamentably silent on nullification and secession.

What has been done by presidents, Congresses, and courts will be very hard to undo. Too many interests are vested in the regulatory-welfare state that has usurped the Framers’ noble vision. Democracy (that is, vote-selling) and log-rolling are more powerful than words on paper. Even a Supreme Court majority of “strict constructionists” probably would decline to roll back the New Deal and most of what has come in its wake.

Explaining a Team’s W-L Record

According to

The Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball is a creation of Bill James which relates the number of runs a team has scored and surrendered to its actual winning percentage, based on the idea that runs scored/runs allowed is a better indicator of a team’s (future) performance than a team’s actual winning percentage. This results in a formula which is referred to as Pythagorean Winning Percentage….

There are two ways of calculating Pythagorean Winning Percentage (W%). The more commonly used, and simpler version uses an exponent of 2 in the formula.

W%=[(Runs Scored)^2]/[(Runs Scored)^2 + (Runs Allowed)^2]

More accurate versions of the formula use 1.81 or 1.83 as the exponent.

W%=[(Runs Scored)^1.81]/[(Runs Scored)^1.81 + (Runs Allowed)^1.81]

Expected W-L can then be obtained by multiplying W% by the team’s total number of games played, then rounding off….

The rationale behind Pythagorean Winning Percentage is that, while winning as many games as possible is still the ultimate goal of a baseball team, a team’s run differential (once a sufficient number of games have been played) provides a better idea of how well a team is actually playing. Therefore, barring personnel issues (injuries, trades), a team’s actual W-L record will approach the Pythagorean Expected W-L record over time, not the other way around. Expected W-L is almost always within 3 games of actual W-L at the end of a season (although a recent exception is the 2005 and 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, who both beat their expected W-L by 11 games). Deviations from expected W-L are often attributed to the quality of a team’s bullpen, or more dubiously, “clutch play”; many sabermetrics advocates believe the deviations are the result of luck and random chance.

I agree with those who say that deviations reflect the quality of a team’s bullpen. A more precise formula can be obtained by regressing winning percentage on two explanatory variables: RFA (runs scored/[runs scored + runs allowed]) and saves recorded by a team’s bullpen. The result for the American League in 2008:

W-L percentage (expressed as a decimal fraction) = -0.44595 + 1.66556 x RFA + 0.002747 x saves

Adjusted R-squared: 0.899; standard error: 0.022 (i.e., 2.2 percentage points); t-statistics on the intercept and coefficients: -4.246, 7.319, 3.763 (all significant above the 0.99 level).

That is, the average American League team (RFA = .506, saves = 41) compiled a W-L percentage of .510. (The AL beat the NL in interleague play, thus enabling the AL as a whole to compile a better-than-.500 average.)

According to the Pythagorean formula, the LA Angels were the lucky recipients of 11 extra wins in 2008; that is, the formula underestimates the Angels’ 2008 wins by 11. The regression equation, on the other hand, underestimates the Angels’ 2008 wins by only 2. Generally, the regression equation (indicated by blue) gives much better results than the Pythagorean formula (indicated by black):

“Luck” is a catch-all term for unexplained variance. It shouldn’t be thrown around as if it has real meaning. In this case, the evidence suggests that a decisive factor in a team’s W-L record is the quality of its bullpen — especially the quality of its closers.

Taste and Art


  • “Taste,” as I use it here, is “the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent” (from TheFreeDictionary, taste, n. 7. a).
  • “Art” consists of “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty” (from TheFreeDictionary, art, n. 2. a).
  • An “artifact” is “an object produced or shaped by human craft, especially a tool, weapon, or ornament of archaeological or historical interest” (from TheFreeDictionary, artifact, n. 1).

There is a good test of the faculty of taste at this site, where a visitor can view a series of ten images and designate each as “art” or “non-art.” The viewer’s choice, in each case, triggers a response of “correct” or “wrong.” For example, the designation of  a piece by a recognized “artist” (e.g., Willem de Kooning) as “non-art” triggers a response of “wrong,” even if the piece looks much like some of the “non-art” images, which are called that because they happen to be the scribbles and dribbles of 4-year olds. A discerning viewer will select “non-art” for all ten images, for none of them is aesthetically excellent. On the other hand, a viewer who is anxious to conform to élite opinion will try to identify and label as “art” the four pieces by de Kooning and his ilk. (For more in this vein, see “Modernism in the Arts and Politics.”)

My observation of the “arts” in the modern age leads me to the following conclusions:

  • Taste is not dictated by élite opinion, which is more about exclusiveness than excellence.
  • Therefore, that which élite opinion designates as “art” is not necessarily art — and is likely to be its opposite.
  • In fact, most of the works of modern “artists” are mere artifacts, having no more relation to beauty than rusty tools, derelict boxcars, and abandoned buildings.

The Best and Worst of Times

Bryan Caplan presents the following table:


Caplan’s commentary:

Overall, today is much safer than 1950.  That’s probably no surprise to anyone who knows basic economic history.  What’s particularly interesting is that safety gains are especially large for younger kids.  The mortality rate for kids under 5 was almost five times greater in 1950, 3.7 times greater for kids 5-14, and 2.2 times greater for 15-24 year olds.

I suspect that many people will object, “Yes, but if you break the results down by cause of death, modernity is worse in both homicide and suicide – two out of the five categories.”  My reply: All modernity has done is roughly double two vivid near-zero risks.  In exchange, we are vastly safer from the formerly quantitatively fearsome risks of disease, accidents, and war.

Bottom line: Modernity delivers the children’s paradise that the fifties only promised.  Maybe the nation’s parents should try turning off their televisions for a minute of gratitude that they aren’t Ward and June Cleaver?

Caplan’s conclusions are foolish because he reifies “modernity” (an abstraction without causal or explanatory power) and aggregates mortality rates that, individually, stand for separate and distinct phenomena:

  • advances in medical science (thus lower mortality from disease)
  • safer household products, machinery, and automobiles (thus lower mortality from accidents)
  • vastly different conditions of war (intense, head-to-head combat along “front lines” in Korea vs. sporadic operations against/attacks from guerrillas in Afghanistan and Iraq)
  • greater lawlessness among teens and young adults (thus a higher death-from-homicide rate among 15-24 year olds)
  • greater anomie among teens and young adults (thus a higher death-from suicide rate among 15-24 year olds)

War is a trendless phenomenon, and shouldn’t be included in Caplan’s statistics. For 15-24 year olds, then, the relevant mortality rate is 82 persons per 100,000 in 2005, as against 130 per 100,000 in 1950. But what we really see is a mix of change for the better and change for the worse, and the two can’t be combined to suggest overall change for the better.  There is progress of one kind — scientific and engineering advancement — and regress of another kind — greater alienation of young adults from traditional moral strictures against violence to others and oneself.

Why have young adults become less respectful of others and themselves in the past half-century? Consider these influences:

  • “Entertainment” has become more violent, and graphically so. Compare today’s films and TV shows with those of yesteryear, today’s rap “music” with the tepid tunes of the early 1950s, and today’s computer and video “games” with pinball.
  • Under the onslaught of social engineering by government (e.g., sex education in schools, welfare “rights,” easy divorce, and day-care subsidies) family life has become less coherent and the role of parents has become less central in the guidance of children. Increasingly, mothers are absent (at work), and fathers are absent (period).
  • Even in two-parent homes, parents have less time for their children because they (the parents) are caught up in the pursuit of material goods. Parents try to compensate for their physical and spiritual absence by spoiling their children with material goods, which merely signals to children the primacy of material things over humane values.

The predictable result of these influences is disregard for others and oneself. This disregard manifests itself not only in homicide and suicide but also in substance abuse, wanton sex, venereal disease, and abortion or — almost as bad — the bearing of “unwanted” children who then become targets of abuse.

Unlike Caplan, I see a less-than-half-full glass in the mortality-rate trends. Scientific and engineering advances are all very well, but they cannot prevent or offset the decline of America into hedonism and violence. As the descent becomes more obvious to politicians, they will seize the opportunity to “save” us through various draconian measures, just as they would save us from the pleasures of smoking, a natural cycle of “global warming,” the right to defend ourselves, and on and on.


Can torture be justified? I say yes, because where torture has a reasonable chance of saving innocent lives, it is a proper course of action.

I begin by stipulating that certain practices constitute torture by almost everyone’s standards. Given that there is such a thing as torture, is it ever justified? Let us consider the  objections to torture, which are several:

1. It doesn’t work.

2. Even if it works (in rare circumstances), it is counterproductive because it creates enemies.

3. Torture is wrong — period. Therefore, it does not matter what good ends may be served by torture (e.g., gaining information to prevent terrorist attacks).

4. “We” (i.e., the American government, acting on behalf of Americans) must not sink to the level of those we would torture. Despite all threats and provocations, “we” must stand up for our ideals, which include respect for human life.

5. The practice of torture may be hard to contain, like a contagious disease or a slide down the slippery slope: enemies today, Americans tomorrow.

Here are my responses to the objections:

1. Torture doesn’t work. Never say never, as the saying goes. Of course torture works, sometimes. If you count waterboarding as torture, as do the opponents of torture, there is a strong case that torture prevented post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Those who say that torture doesn’t work really mean something else, for example: it may not work in all cases, it will not work if not done skilfully, or there may be ways — short of torture — to achieve the same result. All such objections may be correct, but their possible correctness does not rule out torture on practical grounds.

2. Torture creates enemies. This may be true, but what is another enemy if his enmity is impotent — as is the enmity of most of the anti-American world. (It should not be forgotten that the most potent enemies of liberty are Americans, who — with increasing success — seek to dictate the terms and conditions of our daily lives.) We are not engaged in a popularity contest; we are engaged in a death struggle against predators. The real issue here is whether anti-American sentiment translates into reliable threats of action against Americans and their interests (as opposed to demonstrations), and — even if it does, to some degree — whether the threat is to be feared more than more imminent threats (e.g., terrorist attacks). Further, there is a strong case that signs of weakness (i.e., inaction, negotiation, the pursuit of “justice” rather than vengeance) do more to encourage our enemies than do signs of strength (of which a demonstrated willingness to torture surely is one). There is evidence, for example, that Osama bin Laden was emboldened to attack the U.S. on 9/11 because of the weakness of American responses to earlier attacks. In general, the historical record — notably in the history of the Third Reich and Soviet Russia — points to the folly of accommodation and appeasement.

3. Torture is wrong — period. How can torture be wrong — period — if it can be used to prevent harm to innocents? To assert that torture is always wrong is the same thing as asserting the wrongness of self-defense. It replaces a noble goal — protection of innocent persons from harm — with an ignoble goal — protection of miscreants from harm. If torture is always wrong, then attacks on innocents which could be prevented by torture are always right. That is the logical implication of an absolute injunction against torture. The proponents of an absolute injunction (e.g., this one) usually start from the premise that it is wrong to take human life. But I wonder how many of them would persist in that premise were they in a life-or-death struggle with an armed intruder. Would success in such a struggle mean that a proponent of the “life is precious” view had somehow “sunk” to the intruder’s level of moral depravity? Let us see.

4. “We” must not sink to the level of those “we” would torture. Even the most obdurate opponents of torture (excepting rigid pacifists) would agree that self-defense is a fundamental right. To oppose torture is, therefore, to oppose self-defense. Self-defense is not a matter of “sinking” to the level of those who would kill us; it is a matter of acting rightly against predators. Did we “sink” to the level of Japan and Germany when we warred against them? We did not; to the contrary, we rose to the occasion of defending humanity against brutality. Thus it is (or can be) with torture, in the right circumstances.

5. There is a slippery slope from torturing enemies to torturing Americans. This may be the most telling objection to torture. But, like the other objections, it fails to entertain the alternative: harm to Americans and their interests. It is the prevention of harm, after all, which justifies government. The question of “harm to whom?” was confronted in the creation of American armed forces and police forces. Both can be used (and in the case of police forces, sometimes are used) against innocent Americans. But Americans, by and large, are willing (often eager) for the protections afforded by organized defenses against foreign and domestic predators. It has long been understood that the defenders must be controlled to ensure that they they do run amok, but it also has long been understood that the risk of their running amok is worth the payoff, namely, protection from predators. The point is that adequate control of the timing and methods of torture can ensure against a slide down the slippery slope.

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Related reading:

An example of the payoff: “Cracking KSM” (here and here, too)

The “torture memos” and why they shouldn’t have been released

The politicization of the “torture issue” (AG Holder cannot conduct an investigation on his own authority, despite disingenous claims to the contrary)

The always insightful Megan McArdle: here, here, and here

The brilliantly incisive Thomas Sowell: here and here

Other commentary: here, here, here, here, here, and here

My earlier (and unchanged) views: here, here, here, here, and here

Negative Rights

I have written elsewhere that negative rights are those which

do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

[Negative] rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of [negative] rights.

I would add that the right to work for a wage means the right to seek employment and to accept employment on agreed terms. The right to work for a wage does not imply a right to employment, which is the aim of “affirmative action.” In fact, “affirmative action” denies the right to work for a wage because it victimizes the better-qualified in favor of the less-qualified and unqualified. By the same token, “affirmative action” violates property ownership because it dictates how business owners must conduct their businesses and robs them of earnings. Other kinds of government action also deny the right to work for a wage; for example

  • government favoritism toward labor unions, which usurps the contractual freedom of individual workers and businesses

Going further, here is a list of negative rights offered by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. (“Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 3)

Barnett’s list overlaps with and complements mine. Combining the lists, I obtain the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.