Month: January 2005

The Hockey Stick Is Broken

I wrote twice in October about the impending demise of the hockey-stick model of global warming. The hockey-stick model purports to show that temperatures on Earth have risen sharply in the past century, ostensibly because of human activity. That model is, of course, a favorite of Luddite leftists, many of whom are bandwagon scientists who give blind allegiance to the model.

The article that promises to drive a stake into the heart of the hockey-stick model is about to be published. The bottom line can be seen in this graph (available here):

“MBH98” (the light line) is the infamous hockey-stick depiction of Earth’s temperature trend. “Recalculated” (the dark line) is the correct depiction.

As I have written before — here, here, and here, for instance — there’s evidence that global warming has little to do with human activity and a lot to do with extraterrestrial events.

(Thanks to FuturePundit for the tip.)

Fire or Ice?

From an article at Prospect by Michio Kaku:

The universe is out of control, in a runaway acceleration. Eventually all intelligent life will face the final doom—the big freeze. An advanced civilisation must embark on the ultimate journey: fleeing to a parallel universe….

But since the big freeze is probably billions to trillions of years away, there is time for [an advanced] civilisation to plot the only strategy consistent with the laws of physics: leaving this universe. To do this, an advanced civilisation will first have to discover the laws of quantum gravity, which may or may not turn out to be string theory. These laws will be crucial in calculating several unknown factors, such as the stability of wormholes connecting us to a parallel universe, and how we will know what these parallel worlds will look like. Before leaping into the unknown, we have to know what is on the other side. But how do we make the leap? Here are some of the ways.

Find a naturally occurring wormhole….

Send a probe through a black hole….

Create negative energy….

Create a baby universe ….

Build a laser implosion machine….

Send a nanobot to recreate civilisation
If the wormholes created in the previous steps are too small, too unstable, or the radiation effects too intense, then perhaps we could send only atom-sized particles through a wormhole. In this case, this civilisation may embark upon the ultimate solution: passing an atomic-sized “seed” through the wormhole capable of regenerating the civilisation on the other side. This process is commonly found in nature. The seed of an oak tree, for example, is compact, rugged and designed to survive a long journey and live off the land. It also contains all the genetic information needed to regenerate the tree.

An advanced civilisation might want to send enough information through the wormhole to create a “nanobot,” a self-replicating atomic-sized machine, built with nanotechnology. It would be able to travel at near the speed of light because it would be only the size of a molecule. It would land on a barren moon, and then use the raw materials to create a chemical factory which could create millions of copies of itself. A horde of these robots would then travel to other moons in other solar systems and create new chemical factories. This whole process would be repeated over and over again, making millions upon millions of copies of the original robot. Starting from a single robot, there will be a sphere of trillions of such robot probes expanding at near the speed of light, colonising the entire galaxy….

Next, these robot probes would create huge biotechnology laboratories. The DNA sequences of the probes’ creators would have been carefully recorded, and the robots would have been designed to inject this information into incubators, which would then clone the entire species. An advanced civilisation may also code the personalities and memories of its inhabitants and inject this into the clones, enabling the entire race to be reincarnated.

Although seemingly fantastic, this scenario is consistent with the known laws of physics and biology, and is within the capabilities of a Type III civilisation. There is nothing in the rules of science to prevent the regeneration of an advanced civilisation from the molecular level. For a dying civilisation trapped in a freezing universe, this may be the last hope.

But why would we want to recreate civilization if it wouldn’t include “us”? Why not use all that technological know-how to build a humongous space heater to fend off the impending chill? (Space heater…get it?)

There’s only one proper way to end this post:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost

A Century of Progress?

Many, many horrific things happened in the twentieth century, but — despite it all — America made tremendous economic progress. Consider real GDP per capita, which (in year 2000 dollars) was about $4,300 in 1900 and $34,900 in 2000. That increase represents an annualized rate of growth of 2.1 percent.

Before we throw a party to celebrate that great accomplishment, let’s look behind the numbers.

Monetary measures of GDP exclude a lot of things that might be captured in the term “quality of life”; for example:

[F]ailing to account for the output produced within households may lead to misleading comparisons of economy-wide production, as conventionally measured. The female labor force participation rate in the United States has grown enormously since the early part of the 20th century. To the extent that the entry of women into paid employment has reduced the effort women devote to household production, the long-term trend in output, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), may exaggerate the true growth in national output. [Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), Designing Nonmarket Accounts for the United States: Interim Report (2003), p. 9 in HTML version]

The “effort that women devote to household production” involves a lot more than shopping, cooking, cleaning, and all of the other activities usually associated with the term “housewife.” Not the least among those activities is the raising of children. Child-rearing (a quaint but still meaningful phrase) includes more than feeding, bathing, and toilet training. Parents — and especially mothers — impart lessons about civility — lessons that are neglected when children are left on their own to disport with friends, watch TV, and imbibe the nihilistic lyrics that pervade popular music.

Yet, the apparently robust growth of real GDP per capita between owes much to the huge increase in the proportion of women seeking work outside the home. The labor-force participation rate for women of “working age” (14 and older in 1900, 16 and older in 2000) grew from 19 percent in 1900 to 60 percent in 2000, while the rate for men dropped only slightly, from 80 percent to 75 percent. Who knows how much damage society has suffered — and will yet suffer — because of the exodus into the workforce of women with children at home? These figures suggest the extent of that exodus in the latter half of the twentieth century:

Because estimates of GDP don’t capture the value of child-rearing and other aspects of “household production” by stay-at-home mothers, the best way to put 1900 and 2000 on the same footing is to estimate GDP for 2000 at the labor-force participation rates of 1900. The picture then looks quite different: real GDP per capita of $4,300 in 1900, real GDP per capita of $25,300 in 2000 (a reduction of 28 percent), and an annualized growth rate of 1.8 percent, rather than 2.1 percent.

The adjusted rate of growth in GDP per capita still overstates the expansion of prosperity in the twentieth century because it includes government spending, which is demonstrably counterproductive. A further adjustment for the cost of government — which grew at an annualized rate of 7.5 during the century (excluding social transfer payments) — yields these estimates: real GDP per capita of $3,900 in 1900, real GDP per capita of $19,800 in 2000, and an annualized growth rate of 1.6 percent. (In Part V of “Practical Libertarianism for Americans,” I will estimate how much greater growth we would have enjoyed in the absence of government intervention.)

The twentieth century was a time of great material progress. And we know that there would have been significantly greater progress had the hand of government not been laid so heavily on the economy. But what we don’t know is the immeasurable price we have paid — and will pay — for the exodus of mothers from the home. We can only name that price: greater incivility, mistrust, fear, property loss, injury, and death.

Most “liberal” programs have unintended negative consequences. The “liberal” effort to encourage mothers to work outside the home has vastly negative consequences. Unintended? Perhaps. But I doubt that many “liberals” would change their agenda, even if they were confronted with the consequences.

The Limits of Self-Defense

Although I am an advocate of preemptive warfare (see here, for example), I am firmly opposed to the notion of preemptive criminalization, as in the movie Minority Report. What I didn’t know is that preemptive criminalization (like involuntary euthanasia) has already arrived in Europe, according to Stephen Sedley, writing in the London Review of Books:

What is the rationale of objection to a comprehensive national DNA database?….

There remains the concern about possible abuse, that the police might in future use the data not merely for detection but for personality profiling – especially since one of the purposes already sanctioned by law is crime prevention. I think this concern is real. A number of states – and there are indications that England and Wales may join them – have begun to allow the indefinite detention of sexual offenders on the basis of predicted behaviour.

Frightening, especially because it might be picked up as a “liberal” cause in the United States.

Atheism, Religion, and Science, Revised

A reader’s comments — in two thoughtful e-mails — have led me to revise “Atheism, Religion, and Science.” The revisions may not wholly satisfy the reader, but I am very grateful to him for his comments, which led me to make my arguments clearer and more complete.

The Politician: The Pathological Pursuit of Power

Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power is creating a bit of a stir. And no wonder, given its premise (from the jacket):

Bakan contends that the corporation is created by law to function much like a psychopathic personality whose destructive behavior, if left unchecked, leads to scandal and ruin.

In the most revolutionary assessment of the corporation as a legal and economic institution since Peter Drucker’s early works, Bakan backs his premise with the following claims:

The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its own economic self-interest, regardless of the harmful consequences it might cause to others — a concept endorsed by no less a luminary than the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

The corporation’s unbridled self-interest victimizes individuals, society, and, when it goes awry, even shareholders and can cause corporations to self-destruct, as recent Wall Street scandals reveal.

While corporate social responsibility in some instances does much good, it is often merely a token gesture, serving to mask the corporation’s true character.

Governments have abdicated much of their control over the corporation, despite its flawed character, by freeing it from legal constraints through deregulation and by granting it ever greater authority over society through privatization.

Despite the structural failings found in the corporation, Bakan believes change is possible and outlines a far-reaching program of concrete, pragmatic, and realistic reforms through legal regulation and democratic control.

Bakan would be on the right track if, instead, he were to make these claims:

The politician’s license — granted by the “living” Constitution — is to pursue relentlessly and without exception his power to control our peaceful pursuit of happiness, regardless of the harmful consequences it might cause — a concept endorsed by no less than three dozen Congresses, a dozen presidents, and dozens of Supreme Court justices.

The politician’s unbridled self-interest victimizes individuals, society, and, when it goes awry, even the purported beneficiaries of his insatiable thirst for control.

While the acts of government in some instances are necessary to the security of life, liberty, and property, most politicians — especially those of the left — do not even pretend that the scope of government power should be restricted to those necessary functions.

Elected officials and judges, sworn to uphold the Constitution, have violated their oaths of office innumerable times, by freeing government from its constitutional constraints and by granting it almost dictatorial authority over society through legislation, regulation, and adjudication.

(Thanks to Verity at Southern Appeal for the tip.)

The Pointy-Haired Boss

Today’s Dilbert reminds me of a former boss, who insisted — without qualfication — that change is good.

What’s truly eerie is that the same former boss also scored 10 out of 10 on my test of (poor) management skills:

Are you a CEO or senior manager in a corporate bureaucracy? Want to know how you stack up against your peers? Select your personal management traits from the following list, then tally your score and check it against the scale at the end of the list.

1. Flaunt the privileges of rank: Spend on frills and perks even as you’re down-sizing.

2. Flout the rules you expect others to obey.

3. Put off hard decisions as long as possible so that rumors can grow wildly on the grapevine.

4. Pepper your staff with meaningless projects and pointless questions — hire consultants to give you the “straight scoop.”

5. Hire outsiders for senior management positions and create make-work jobs for your cronies.

6. Keep your door open to whiners and let them second-guess your managers’ decisions.

7. Promise vision but deliver pap.

8. Talk teamwork but don’t let anyone in on your game plan — keep ’em all guessing.

9. Talk empowerment but micro-manage.

10. Keep your board in the dark, except when you turn on the rosy spotlights.

Score of 0: You lie to yourself all the time; see a psychiatrist.

Score of 1-3: You sleep a lot during the day; see a physician.

Score of 4-6: You’re a normal boss, which isn’t necessarily good news.

Score of 7-9: You could give Donald Trump a run for his money.

Score of 10: So you’re the model for Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss!

Beware of Irrational Atheism

Thanks to Chris Lehmann, writing at reasononline in “The tedium of dogmatic atheism,” I learned of Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The publisher’s blurb for The End of Faith says this:

This important and timely book delivers a startling analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today’s world. Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify harmful behavior and sometimes heinous crimes. He asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer tolerate views that pit one true god against another. Most controversially, he argues that we cannot afford moderate lip service to religion—an accommodation that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to invoke that need in taking a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world.

And so, we are to substitute secular humanism for religion. (Or else?) In order to defend liberty we must deprive you of it — if you are religious, that is. A reading of Lehmann’s review reveals the underlying flaw of Harris’s hysterical anti-religionism. It seems that Harris, wittingly or stupidly, has adopted the following syllogism:

1. Heinous acts are committed.

2. Some of those heinous acts are committed in the name of religion.

3. Therefore, all religion is evil.

Why not this, instead?

1. Heinous acts are committed.

2. Some of those heinous acts are committed in the name of irreligious philosophies (e.g., Nazism, fascism, and communism).

3. Therefore, all irreligious philosophies are evil. (That includes secular humanism.)

Harris, on the evidence of Lehmann’s review, strikes me as a knuckle-dragging, atheist ignoramus. And he has plenty of company at sites like The Panda’s Thumb. There’s Matt Young, for instance. Young is an atheist whose revealed attitude of superiority to religionists had already caught my attention. Now he’s back, with more “profound” thoughts about religion (mentioned here and posted here). Young quotes an earlier essay of his, in which he wrote this:

The philosopher Antony Flew, now an emeritus professor at Reading University, recounts a parable about two people who chance upon a clearing in the forest. Both flowers and weeds grow in the clearing. One of the people, the Believer, says that some gardener must be tending the plot, whereas the Skeptic disagrees. They set up camp and watch, but no gardener appears. The Believer suggests that the gardener is invisible, so they patrol with bloodhounds, then set up an electric fence, but there is still no evidence of a gardener.

The Believer insists, however, that there must be a gardener, even if that gardener is invisible, silent, odorless, and impervious to electric shocks. The Skeptic asks how that differs from an imaginary gardener or no gardener at all. Flew uses his parable as a jumping-off point to discuss whether religion is falsifiable. Specifically, referring to the problems of evil and suffering, he asks what would have to happen to falsify a belief in God or in God’s love. Flew’s question is rhetorical; he clearly implies that nothing will falsify a firm religious belief. An Oxford philosopher, Basil Mitchell, agrees or, more accurately, admits that nothing can count decisively against the belief of the true believer; by definition, the believer is committed to a belief in God and is not a detached observer. That is, to Mitchell, the concept of falsifiability is not appropriately applied to a religious belief, whereas, to Flew, religion’s lack of falsifiability evidently counts against it.

Mitchell is right, because Flew’s parable is incomplete. Flew fails to suggest the possibility that the instruments being used to detect the invisible gardener are inadequate (or irrelevant) to the task.

Young continues:

Another Oxford philosopher, R. M. Hare, responded to Flew with a parable of his own: A lunatic (Hare’s word) believes that the dons want to kill him. A friend believes otherwise and tries to convince the lunatic by introducing him to the dons and showing him that they are friendly, gentle people and mean him no harm. The lunatic responds that the dons are duplicitous and are really plotting against him, all the while pretending to be friendly.

Hare calls the lunatic’s belief a blik. This is a term that Hare has coined to describe a belief that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Hare notes that the friend also has a blik: The friend’s blik is that the dons are not planning to kill the lunatic. Hare considers this belief a blik just as much as the lunatic’s belief is a blik. That is, the friend does not have no blik at all, but rather has the blik that the dons are harmless. Precisely like the lunatic, the friend cannot prove his blik, because the lunatic can always find an ad hoc hypothesis to refute the friend’s arguments.

Hare’s article was influential, but it seems to me that it contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. First, the issue is not whether a sane person can convince a lunatic that the lunatic’s blik is wrong; he cannot. The issue is, rather, what arguments could both the friend and the lunatic use to convince a detached observer which one is right. In this case, it is clear that the detached observer would rule in favor of the friend, not the lunatic, because the friend would present more-convincing evidence.

And just what is that more-convincing evidence? Is it that the “are friendly, gentle people and mean…no harm”? How is that any more convincing than the lunatic’s assertion that “the dons are duplicitous and are really plotting against him, all the while pretending to be friendly.” A truly detached observer, given no more information, would necessarily adopt the agnostic position that the lunatic’s blik is indeed a blik: a belief that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Young seems incapable of logic when he discusses religion, even by inference.

But Young plunges on:

Later in the debate, Hare notes his own blik that the steering column of his car will not fail when he goes for a drive. This blik gives him confidence, without which he might be paralyzed into inaction. Hare’s confidence might be based on a blik, but I have no such blik. Whenever I drive my car, I am perfectly aware that the steering column might fail. I am equally aware, however, that the vast majority of steering columns do not fail during normal use, so I drive my car in the uncertain knowledge that the steering column will probably not fail. This belief is not a blik; it is a statistical statement based on evidence, which I see all around me, that other cars have sound steering columns. Not all firmly held beliefs are bliks.

Hare’s position is that a religious belief need not be defended because it is a blik and can neither be proved nor disproved. Hare himself, however, distinguishes between bliks that are right and bliks that are wrong. Indeed, he seems to intend his lunatic to be analogous to the religious believer who supports his belief with ad hoc hypotheses. The issue, then, is not whether people have bliks but rather whether their bliks are right or wrong. How do we decide whether bliks are right or wrong? We look for evidence. Far from refuting Flew’s argument, Hare has strengthened it.

Young is right to criticize Hare for giving a bad example of a blik, in the case of the steering column. But Young then resorts to a false syllogism, which goes like this:

1. Humans have many firmly held beliefs.

2. Some firmly held beliefs are not bliks.

3. Therefore, there are no bliks; every assertion can be verified or falsified.

Here’s the correct syllogism:

1. Humans have many firmly held beliefs.

2. Some firmly held beliefs are not bliks.

3. Therefore, some firmly held beliefs may be bliks; not every assertion can be verified or falsified.

In sum, Young persists in his (unreasonable) belief that religious belief* is falsifiable. He fails to see the incompleteness of Flew’s parable about the gardener; he posits a (falsely) detached observer in the case of the lunatic; and he adopts a false syllogism about unfalsifiable beliefs.

Atheism is, at bottom, simply a dogmatic position. It is a form of religion, in which the believer hews to the unfalsifiable belief that there is no God.

In case you’re wondering, I take the only scientifically valid position on the question whether there is a God: agnosticism. See here and here.

__________

* Oddly, Young seems to be a practicing Jew who is also an atheist.

Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy

First comes Michael Bérubé, a professional academic who is evidently bereft of experience in the real world. His qualifications for writing about affirmative action? He teaches undergraduate courses in American and African-American literature, and graduate courses in literature and cultural studies. He is also co-director of the Disability Studies Program, housed in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.

Writing from the ivory tower for the like-minded readers of The Nation (“And Justice for All“), Bérubé waxes enthusiastic about the benefits of affirmative action, which — to his mind — “is a matter of distributive justice.” Bérubé, in other words, subscribes to “the doctrine that a decision is just or right if all parties receive what they need or deserve.” Who should decide what we need or deserve? Why, unqualified academics like Bérubé, of course. Fie on economic freedom! Fie on academic excellence! If Bérubé and his ilk think that a certain class of people deserve special treatment, regardless of their qualifications as workers or students, far be it from the mere consumers of the goods and services of those present and future workers to object. Let consumers eat inferior cake.

Bérubé opines that “advocates of affirmative action have three arguments at their disposal.” One of those arguments is that

diversity in the classroom or the workplace is not only a positive good in itself but conducive to greater social goods (a more capable global workforce and a more cosmopolitan environment in which people engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs).

Perhaps Bérubé knows the meaning of “capable global workforce.” If he does, he might have shared it with his readers. As for a workplace that offers a “cosmopolitan environment” and engagement “with others of different backgrounds and beliefs” I say: where’s the beef? As a consumer, I want value for my money. What in the hell does diversity — as defined by Bérubé — have to do with delivering value? Perhaps that’s one reason U.S. jobs are outsourced. (I have nothing against that, but it shouldn’t happen because of inefficiency brought about by affirmative action.) Those who seek a cosmopolitan environment and engagement with others of different backgrounds and beliefs can have all of it they want — on their own time — just by hanging out in the right (or wrong) places.

Alhough Bérubé seems blind to the economic cost of affirmative action, he is willing to admit that the practice has some shortcomings:

Affirmative action in college admissions has been problematic, sometimes rewarding well-to-do immigrants over poor African-American applicants–except that all the other alternatives, like offering admission to the top 10 or 20 percent of high school graduates in a state, seem to be even worse, admitting badly underprepared kids from the top tiers of impoverished urban and rural schools while keeping out talented students who don’t make their school’s talented tenth. In the workplace, affirmative action has been checkered by fraud and confounded by the indeterminacy of racial identities–and yet it’s so popular as to constitute business as usual for American big business, as evidenced by the sixty-eight Fortune 500 corporations, twenty-nine former high-ranking military leaders and twenty-eight broadcast media companies and organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs in the recent Supreme Court cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

Stop right there, professor. Affirmative action is “popular” because it’s the law and it’s also a politically correct position that boards of directors, senior corporate managers, and government officials, and military leaders can take at no obvious cost to themselves. Further, those so-called leaders are sheltered from the adverse consequences of affirmative action on the profitability and effectiveness of their institutions by imperfect competition in the private sector and bureaucratic imperatives in the government sector.

As I wrote in “Race, Intelligence, and Affirmative Action,” here’s how affirmative action really operates in the workplace:

If a black person seems to have something like the minimum qualifications for a job, and if the black person’s work record and interviews aren’t off-putting, the black person is likely to be hired or promoted ahead of equally or better-qualified whites. Why?

  • Pressure from government affirmative-action offices, which focus on percentages of minorities hired and promoted, not on the qualifications of applicants for hiring and promotion.
  • The ability of those affirmative-action offices to put government agencies and private employers through the pain and expense of extensive audits, backed by the threat of adverse reports to higher ups (in the case of government agencies) and fines and the loss of contracts (in the case of private employers).
  • The ever-present threat of complaints to the EEOC (or its local counterpart) by rejected minority candidates for hiring and promotion. Those complaints can then be followed by costly litigation, settlements, and court judgments.
  • Boards of directors and senior managers who (a) fear the adverse publicity that can accompany employment-related litigation and (b) push for special treatment of minorities because they think it’s “the right thing to do.”
  • Managers down the line learn to go along and practice just enough reverse discrimination to keep affirmative-action offices and upper management happy.

As if in answer to Bérubé’s reflexive defense of affirmative action, now comes Richard Sander, another academic, but one who actually looks at the numbers. Sander, a professor of law at UCLA who has published “A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools,” is without a doubt a liberal of the modern persuasion and a proponent of diversity. He is nevertheless critical of affirmative action as it is practiced at law schools. Here’s the gist of his analysis, as reported at FindLaw:

The Heavy Weight Placed on Race in Admissions in Virtually All Schools – the Cascade Effect
Professor Sander lays the foundation for his critique by describing the kind of race-based affirmative action that law schools use today. Under the Bakke and Grutter Supreme Court precedents, public (as well as private) law schools are prohibited from making use of quotas, two-track admissions schemes, or fixed points added to the numerical indices of minorities….

Professor Sander argues that, in fact, the Michigan law school program, despite its seeming flexibility and inscrutability, employs race in just as ambitious (critics would say aggressive) a way as did the Michigan undergraduate plan [which the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Gratz]….

Moreover, and more important, Sander argues, the way race is used at the Michigan law school is the same way race is used in many if not most law school affirmative action programs. Indeed, Sander says that he has “been unable to find a single law school in the United States whose admissions operate the way Justice O’Connor describes in Grutter” – that is, where race is used as a flexible plus factor that does not effectively dominate over all other diversity criteria. The system of aggressive racial preferences is not, Sander says, confined to the “elite” law schools. Rather, “it is a characteristic of legal education as a whole.”

According to Sander, law school affirmative action across law schools is characterized by a “cascade” effect. As the elite schools “snap up” the blacks who otherwise would have been admitted to and have attended the next tier of schools, that next tier of schools snaps up the blacks who would have otherwise attended the tier below. And so forth.

The Mismatch Effect

This systematic cascade phenomenon is important, because when race is being used so weightily in schools all the way down the ladder, the result is that the African Americans who are admitted to each school under an affirmative action program are significantly less numerically qualified than are their white competitor students at that school, who were admitted outside the affirmative action plan. Sander calls this phenomenon the “mismatch” effect – black beneficiaries of affirmative action are “mismatched” at schools whose non-affirmative action students possess better credentials and skills.

Because of the pronounced mismatch effect that extends down the law school hierarchy, blacks tend to suffer poor grades in law school. According to the data Sanders adduces, the median black law student’s GPA at the end of the first year of law school places him at the 7th or 8th percentile of his class. Put another way, more than 50% of black law students are in the bottom one-tenth of their law school class (in terms of grades) at the end of the first year.

The Long-Term Costs of the Mismatch Effect – Bar Passage and Job Placement

This poor academic performance in law school, in turn, creates two distinct costs for African Americans. First, Sanders argues, the poor grades lead to a very poor bar passage rate. As he points out, “only 45% of black law students in the 1991 cohort completed law school and passed the bar on their first attempt.” That number is far worse than the comparable number for whites.

Sanders goes on to argue that many of these blacks with poor grades would have had better grades – and have ended up with a higher chance of passing the bar – if they had been at law schools more commensurate with their academic skills. Sander’s data suggests to him that black students at any law school who have the same law school grades as white students at that school pass the bar in the same percentages. In other words, blacks with good law school grades don’t fail the bar any more than whites with the same grades.

The problem, Sanders suggests, is that law schools have “mismatched” blacks in schools where they are unlikely to get good grades. By placing black students in environments where their grades will be higher – less competitive law schools — the system could improve their overall bar pass rate….

From all this, Sander argues that if race-based law school affirmative action were eliminated or reduced, the black bar passage rate would actually go up. According to his calculations, in the absence of preferential admissions, this rate would rise to 74% from the 45% he observed….

If affirmative action were eliminated, most black law students wouldn’t be ousted from law school entirely – they would simply attend law schools that “match” their numerical credentials more tightly. In other words, elimination of affirmative action would simply eliminate the mismatch effect – blacks would simply be attending less competitive and less prestigious schools than they are currently attending. And of those blacks who would be displaced from the bottom of the legal academic system altogether (i.e., those who need affirmative action simply to get into the least competitive schools), many of them today do not end up passing the bar and entering the legal profession in any event….

Sander says that blacks at better schools, but with poor grades, get worse jobs than they would if they were at lesser schools and had better grades. In other words, Sander argues, at all but the most elite schools, grades matter more than the school from which one graduates for black law job applicants. The upside of attending a better school is more than outweighed – in terms of employment options – by the downside of getting weak grades at that school, compared to the better grades that could have been obtained at a less competitive school….

So whether one focuses on passing the bar, or getting a good job, Sander says, there is a case that race-based affirmative action hurts, rather than helps, black law students.

Sander’s article has drawn howls of outrage from politically correct academicians, not to mention a long critique, to which Sander has responded at length. But Sander’s fact-based argument make eminent sense, not only for the effects of reverse discrimination at law schools but also for the effects of reverse discrimination generally, in the academy and in the workplace.

As is often the case, a government policy meant to help a particular group of people actually harms that group of people — and many others, as well. The effects of affirmative action illustrate the truth of the adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Instead of forcing universities and employers to accept and hire unqualifed blacks, it would be better — for everyone — simply to give education vouchers to blacks. Such a program would eliminate the costly effects of affirmative action, make blacks more productive, and lift them economically.

Favorite Posts: Affirmative Action and Race

Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy

First comes Michael Bérubé, a professional academic who is evidently bereft of experience in the real world. His qualifications for writing about affirmative action? He teaches undergraduate courses in American and African-American literature, and graduate courses in literature and cultural studies. He is also co-director of the Disability Studies Program, housed in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.

Writing from the ivory tower for the like-minded readers of The Nation (“And Justice for All“), Bérubé waxes enthusiastic about the benefits of affirmative action, which — to his mind — “is a matter of distributive justice.” Bérubé, in other words, subscribes to “the doctrine that a decision is just or right if all parties receive what they need or deserve.” Who should decide what we need or deserve? Why, unqualified academics like Bérubé, of course. Fie on economic freedom! Fie on academic excellence! If Bérubé and his ilk think that a certain class of people deserve special treatment, regardless of their qualifications as workers or students, far be it from the mere consumers of the goods and services of those present and future workers to object. Let consumers eat inferior cake….

Click here to read the full post.

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Part III

III. THE ORIGIN AND ESSENCE OF RIGHTS

This is a brief excerpt of Part III of a nine-part work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

This is where I where I enter a debate that splits libertarianism into two camps: fundamentalists and consequentialists. Fundamentalists (or “natural right”) libertarians say that humans inherently possess the right of liberty. Consequentialists say that humans ought to enjoy liberty because, through liberty, humans are happier and more prosperous than they would be in its absence. In spite of this rather fundamental split, all libertarians agree that it is better to live in liberty than not….

I would like to be able to say, with fundamentalist libertarians, that liberty is an innate human right — and the only innate right. But that would be nothing more than an assertion, however cleverly I might clothe it in the language of philosophy.

I would like to be able to say that liberty is a paramount human instinct, honed through eons of human existence and experience. But we are surrounded by too much evidence to the contrary, both in recorded and natural history. The social and intellectual evolution of humankind has led us to a mixed bag of rights, acquired politically through cooperation and conflict resolution, often predating the creation of governments and the empowerment of states. The notion that we ought to enjoy the negative right of liberty is there among our instincts, of course, but it is at war with the positive right of privilege — the notion that we are “owed something” beyond what we earn (through voluntary exchange) for the use of our land, labor, or capital. Liberty is also at war with our instincts for control, aggression, and instant gratification.

I do not mean that the social and intellectual evolution of humankind is right — merely that it is what it is. Libertarians must accept this and learn to work with the grain of humanity, rather than against it. There is no profit in simply asserting the inherent wrongness of laws and government actions that undermine liberty. Nor is there much profit in arguing the unconstitutionality of illiberal laws and government actions; it is obvious that appeals to the Constitution will be of little avail unless and until we have a Supreme Court that abides wholeheartedly by the Constitution.

There can be much profit in demonstrating, logically and factually, how illiberal laws and government actions make people worse off — often the same people who are supposed to benefit from those laws — and in offering superior alternatives. In other words, consequentialist libertarianism can make real gains for liberty by appealing successfully to self-interest. But self-interest must be seduced by reason (Part IV) and bribed by the promise of greater rewards (Part V).

Click here for the full text of Part III.

Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable

The parable:

Imagine that 100 randomly selected humans are locked in a large room without food or water. During a panicky struggle to break down the door, 50 of the humans are trampled to death. The other 50 humans then agree to cooperate in an effort to escape. Because that cooperative effort doesn’t quickly succeed, however, it breaks down in acrimony; cliques develop and fights break out. Before long, there are only a few dozen humans left, and they have split into three camps.

One camp (the scientists) believes that it can find a way to escape the room, given adequate observation and analysis. The second camp (the stoics) believes that there’s no way out and prepares for death by calmly meditating. The third camp (the pragmatists) is agnostic about escape, but isn’t ready to die, so its members begin to kill and eat the stoics.

As they are being killed by the pragmatists, the stoics console themselves by saying that death is inevitable.

What happens next? After eating the stoics, do the pragmatists turn on the scientists and eat them as well? Or do the pragmatists keep (some of) the scientists alive, in case the scientists can find a way out of the room?

If the pragmatists eat all the scientists, the pragmatists will then begin to eat each other. The last pragmatist to die (of starvation) will say that he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

If the pragmatists spare the scientists (or some of them), and the scientists don’t find a way out of the room, the pragmatists will begin to finish off the scientists, then each other. The last pragmatist to die (of starvation) will say that he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. The last scientist to die of cannibalism will say that death was only one possible outcome — an outcome that seems inevitable only in retrospect.

If the pragmatists spare the scientists (or some of them), and the scientists find a way out of the room, the pragmatists will claim that their decision not to kill all the scientists made escape possible. The surviving scientists will say that escape was only one possible outcome — an outcome that seems inevitable only in retrospect.

And the surviving scientists will say this about the stoics: If they had survived they would have claimed that survival was inevitable.

Happiness requires a judicious blend of stoicism, action, and reason:

  • Stoicism makes it possible to accept that over which we have no control. But unblinking stoicism can lead to premature acceptance of a bad outcome.
  • Action is essential to progress, but it must be harnessed to reason. Action for action’s sake is indulgence.
  • Reason is essential to progress, but it must be harnessed to action. Pure reason wields no more power than pure stoicism.

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Addendum to Part II

This is a brief excerpt of the addendum to Part II of a nine-part work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .



NOTES ON THE STATE OF LIBERTY IN AMERICAN LAW

As noted in Part II, I am using “liberty” to encompass the full spectrum of liberty rights, which the Founders captured in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This fragmentary addendum is a provocative gloss on that evocative phrase….

The great forest of American law — which imperfectly sheltered life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness until the 1930s — has since been laid waste in the pursuit of various Devils, among them: self-defense (at home and abroad), personal responsibility (the main antidote of poverty, illiteracy, and crime), lower-class vices (smoking), (white) racism, (male) sexism, “offensive” (non-leftish) speech, “excessive” political spending and speech (especially by non-incumbents), all forms of pollution (except those necessary to finance a yuppie’s lifestyle and to propel his SUV), and life’s uncertainties in general. Now we are in the open, practically defenseless against the biggest Devil of all — the state — which dictates how much of life, liberty, and happiness we may enjoy….

Click here for the full text of the addendum to Part II.

The Outlook for Election 2008

The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 produced the narrowest electoral-vote victories since the dawn of party realignment in 1948, when the South began to desert Democrat candidates. Those narrow outcomes reflect the narrow “Red vs. Blue” divide in presidential politics. But there are significant gradations of Redness and Blueness among the States. And therein lies hope for Democrats and opportunity for Republicans.

I’ve categorized the States as follows:

  • “Locked” — States that Bush won (or lost) by 20 or more percentage points. There are 85 “locked” electoral votes (EVs) for Red and 50 for Blue.
  • “Firm” — States that Bush won (or lost) by more than 10 and less than 20 percentage points. There are 157 “locked” and “firm” EVs for Red and 168 for Blue.
  • “Leaning” — States that Bush won (or lost) by more than 5 but less than 10 percentage points. There are 222 “locked,” “firm,” and “leaning” EVs for Red and 183 for Blue.
  • “Swing” — States that Bush won (or lost) both times by less than 5 percentage points (excluding the “tossup” States, discussed at next bullet). The swing States that went for Bush both times control 52 EVs. The swing States that went against Bush both times control 65 EVs.
  • “Tossup” — The three States that switched sides between 2000 and 2004, which among them control only 16 EVs. The two States that went for Bush in 2004 (Iowa and New Mexico) control 12 EVs.

States that went for Bush in both elections control a total of 274 EVs. States that went against Bush in both elections control a total of 248 EVs.

The next presidential election could be decided in the swing and tossup States, which split almost evenly in 2004, giving 64 EVs to Bush and 69 to Kerry. Election 2008 would go to the Democrat candidate if he or she could pick up 18 EVs in the swing-tossup States, everything else being the same. The three tossup States (Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire) plus a small Red swing State (e.g., Nevada) would do the trick.

But the leaning States aren’t out of play in a close election. And, there, Democrats have far more to gain than Republicans, with 65 Red EVs up for grabs, as against only 15 Blue EVs.

Barring exceptionally good or bad news for the country between now and November 2008, the outcome in the tossup, swing, and leaning States probably would hinge on the candidates’ personalities and such bread-and-butter issues as the trend in unemployment and the perceived success or failure of Bush’s economic reforms. And so, the election of 2008 could well come to down the personalities.

Hint to Democrats: Go with Barack Obama (not Hillary).

Hint to Republicans: Counter with ? (not Newt).

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Part II

II. TERMINOLOGY

This is a brief excerpt of Part II of a nine-part work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

Introduction

American law — that is, the Constitution of the United States, the constitutions of the 50 States, statutory law, and case law — effectively recognizes two fundamental types of right: liberty and its opposite, which I will call privilege. Liberty and privilege are implemented through procedural rights (e.g., a qualified right to vote, a qualified right to Social Security benefits). There is much confusion about “freedom” — which sometimes means “liberty” and often means more than that — so, I prefer “freedom of action.” The concatenation of rights and “freedoms” in America has evolved through the influence of politics on government, under the aegis of the state.

In this part of “Practical Libertarianism for Americans” I explain what I mean by the italicized words and phrases of the preceding paragraph.

Click here for the full text of Part II.

The Limits of Science

Hooray for science! Without it our lives would be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in another connection. Much as I prefer science to non-science, I know that mankind does not live by science alone. We also live by such extra-scientific phenomena as emotion and faith. (Even scientists have faith, though it may not always lie in a religious direction.)

I am an avid reader of novels and watcher of movies (forms of entertainment that appeal to emotion). The fruits of science enable the production and distribution of novels and movies, but the people, places, and events depicted therein are (or can be) wholly fictitious. Others — who may or may not read novels or watch movies — find solace, guidance, and (in their view) salvation in religious faith: a belief in God and adherence to the precepts of a religion that is based on the existence of God.

In sum, science neither provides nor explains everything of value to humans.

Consider these three categories of knowledge (which long pre-date their use by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld): known knowns, know unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Here’s how that trichotomy might be applied to a specific aspect of scientific knowledge, namely, Earth’s rotation about the Sun:

1. Known knowns — Earth rotates about the Sun, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

2. Known unknowns — Earth, Sun, and the space between them comprise myriad quantum phenomena (e.g., matter and its interactions of matter in, on, and above the Earth and Sun; the transmission of light from Sun to Earth). We don’t know whether and how quantum phenomena influence Earth’s rotation about the Sun; that is, whether Einsteinian gravity is a partial explanation of a more complete theory of gravity that has been dubbed quantum gravity.

3. Unknown unknowns — Other things might influence Earth’s rotation about the Sun, but we don’t know what those other things are, if there are any.

For the sake of argument, suppose that scientists were as certain about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang as they are about the fact of Earth’s rotation about the Sun. Then, I would write:

1. Known knowns — The universe was created in the Big Bang, and the universe — in the large — has since been “unfolding” in accordance with Einsteinian relativity.

2. Known unknowns — The Big Bang can be thought of as a meta-quantum event, but we don’t know if that event was a manifestation of quantum gravity. (Nor do we know how quantum gravity might be implicated in the subsequent unfolding of the universe.)

3. Unknown unknowns — Other things might have caused the Big Bang, but we don’t know if there were such things or what those other things were — or are.

Thus — to a scientist qua scientist — God and Creation are unknown unknowns because, as unfalsifiable hypotheses, they lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Any scientist who pronounces, one way or the other, on the existence of God and the reality of Creation has — for the moment, at least — ceased to be scientist.

Atheism, Religion, and Science

REVISED, 01/04/05 – 7:08 A.M.

REVISED AGAIN, 01/25/05 – 6:00 P.M.



Do atheists suppose that they are somehow more “scientific” than Theists or Deists? I began to wonder about that after reading a post by Matt Young at The Panda’s Thumb about philosopher Anthony Flew’s “conversion” to Deism. Young is the author of No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, about which the publisher says,

Rejecting belief without evidence, a scientist searches the scientific, theological, and philosophical literature for a sign from God — and finds him to be an allegory.

It seems that Young is a scientist and an atheist. Which leads me back to Anthony Flew’s “conversion” to Deism, which is noteworthy because, according to Richard Carrier (“Anthony Flew Considers God…Sort Of” at The Secular Web),

…Flew is one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century, even making the shortlist of “Contemporary Atheists” at About.com. So if he has changed his mind to any degree, whatever you may think of his reasons, the event itself is certainly newsworthy….

Carrier goes on to say this:

The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn’t really decided what to believe. He affirms that he is not a Christian — he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind (he stands by everything he argued in his 2001 book Merely Mortal: Can You Survive Your Own Death?). But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal “prime mover.” It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure….

In an update, Carrier adds that he asked Flew

what he would mean if he ever asserted that “probably God exists,” to which [Flew] responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):

I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense … I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.

Rather, he would only have in mind “the non-interfering God of the people called Deists — such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.” Indeed, he remains adamant that “theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience….” *

Thus, in spite of his “conversion” to Deism, Flew takes up what seems to be a standard line of atheism: A belief in God or Creation is unscientific because a belief in God or Creation is an unfalsifiable hypothesis; that is, one can simply assert that there is a God and that there was a Creation, without fear of contradiction by physical evidence.

That leads me to ask whether atheism is any more scientific than a belief in God or a Creation.

Consider these statements:

A. I believe that there is a God; that is, an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe, and who remains involved in the events of the universe, including the lives of humans. (Theism)

B. I believe that there is some kind of force or intelligence created the universe, but that force or intelligence has since had no involvement in the universe. (Deism)

C. I believe that there is no God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B. (Strong atheism)

D.1. I choose not to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak atheism)

D.2. I choose to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak theism or deism)

E. I take no position on the existence of a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B because His or its existence can never be proved or disproved. (Agnosticism)

If A and B cannot be disproved (falsified) by empirical evidence — as atheists insist — then C cannot be proved empirically, because the disproof of A or B would imply the proof of C. Similarly, if C were a falsifiable hypothesis, then the disproof of C would imply the proof of A or B (depending on the exact form of the disproof).

Both versions of D acknowledge the unfalsifiability of A, B, and C. But both versions of D then take a leap of faith, as it were, to reject or embrace the idea of a God. That is, each draws a conclusion that cannot be supported empirically. The statements of disbelief and belief in D.1 and D.2, respectively, are therefore on the same empirical footing as A, B, and C.

The scientific virtue of statement E (agnosticism) is that it does not pretend to assert a truth, as do A, B, and C. Nor does it make a leap of faith, as do both versions of D. Statement E addresses the issue of falsifiability head on and comes to a scientifically valid conclusion. Therefore, agnosticism is the only scientifically honest position to hold in opposition to a belief in God or a Creation.

Atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. As noted scientist and anti-religionist Richard Dawkins puts it:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all “design” anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. [Emphasis added.]

As I say in another post:

Thus — to a scientist qua scientist — God and Creation are unknown unknowns because, as unfalsifiable hypotheses, they lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Any scientist who pronounces, one way or the other, on the existence of God and the reality of Creation has — for the moment, at least — ceased to be scientist.

__________

* Carrier’s account is consistent with Flew’s statements in “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew,” Philosophia Christi, Winter 2005, in press, but available here.

Going Too Far with the First Amendment

Michael C. Dorf writes at FindLaw.com about “Why It’s Unconstitutional to Teach ‘Intelligent Design’ in the Public Schools, as an Alternative to Evolution.” Dorf — siding with the ACLU — argues that the Dover, Pennsylvania, School Board has violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause “by mandating that students in public school biology classes be taught the theory of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to evolution.”

The Establishment Clause says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” That provision, with many other parts of the Bill of Rights, became binding on the States by “incorporation” under this provision of the Fourteenth Amendment:

…No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So far, so good. But Dorf then goes on to argue the the courts should test the School Board’s mandate by asking

whether intelligent design is, in fact, a scientific theory at all. It should do so, not because of any general obligation on the part of schools to teach science correctly, but simply because if intelligent design is not science, then the inference is almost inescapable that the state is impermissibly acting for the purpose of fostering a religious viewpoint.

Think of the fine mess we’d be in if the courts were to rule against the teaching of intelligent design not because it amounts to an establishment of religion but because it’s unscientific. That would open the door to all sorts of judicial mischief. The precedent could — and would — be pulled out of context and used in limitless ways to justify government interference in matters where government has no right to interfere.

It’s bad enough that government is in the business of funding science — though I can accept such funding where it actually aids our defense effort. But, aside from that, government has no business deciding for the rest of us what’s scientific or unscientific. When it gets into that business, you had better be ready for a rerun of the genetic policies of the Third Reich.

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Outline

I am posting this very long essay in parts (listed below). This is a work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

I. Introduction

II. Terminology

Addendum to Part II: Notes on the State of Liberty in American Law

III. The Origin and Essence of Rights

IV. Liberty and Its Prerequisites

Addendum to Part IV: More Hayek

V. The Economic Consequences of Liberty

Addendum to Part V: The Destruction of Income and Wealth by the State

VI. The Broken Promise of Liberty

VII. Redeeming the Promise of Liberty

VIII. Practical Libertarianism — A Summary

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Part I

This is a work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

I. INTRODUCTION

This essay is an explanation and examination of libertarianism by a libertarian who comes to his “faith” from experience, rather than from the precincts of philosophy or law. Die-hard libertarians will find nothing new here but my particular interpretation of libertarianism. I am writing for neophyte libertarians and curious non-libertarians who seek a practical guide to the origins, principles, and policy implications of libertarianism.

My focus is on American libertarianism because the Constitution of the United States of America holds the promise of liberty. Building on that promise, Americans can strive to perfect liberty in the United States. But the rest of the world isn’t bound by our Constitution, and it is foolish to think that the rest of the world prizes America’s liberty. America’s stance toward the rest of the world should, therefore, be aimed first at preserving the lives and liberty of Americans. We should next strive to promote America’s prosperity through free trade — to the extent that trade doesn’t weaken our defenses. Finally, we should intervene diplomatically and militarily in the affairs of other nations to the extent that such intervention is necessary to preserve the lives, liberty, and prosperity of Americans. And we must be prepared to intervene until that glorious day when the whole world (or any part of it that may threaten us) is bound in — and acts according to — a constitution of liberty. America’s sovereignty and strength is the shield of America’s liberty, imperfect as it may be. The terms of intervention are debatable, the need for it is not.

What is libertarianism, and why should you embrace it? Here is a formal definition of libertarianism, which has disappeared from Wikipedia but survives (for now) at wordIQ.com:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of “rights”. For libertarians, there are no “positive rights” (such as to food, shelter, or health care), only “negative rights” (such as to not be assaulted, abused or robbed). Libertarians further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect these rights….

Here’s my rendition:

If you are doing no harm to anyone, no one should harm you physically, coerce you, defraud or deceive you, steal from you, or tell you how to live your life. “No one” includes government, except to the extent that government is empowered — by the people — to defend life, liberty, and property through the circumscribed use of police, courts, and armed forces.

Those principles are consistent with the concept of self-ownership: No one can “own” you; therefore, as a matter of principle, you can “own” no one else. You may vest limited power in government to defend your life, liberty, and property — and to tax you just enough to defray the cost of that defense.

Whether or not you subscribe to the abstraction of self-ownership — a concept that I will address later — there are practical reasons to favor libertarianism. Think of yourself as a business. You know that you are good at producing certain things — as a family member, friend, co-worker, employee, or employer — and you know how to go about producing it. What you don’t know, you can learn through education, experience, and the voluntary counsel of family, friends, co-workers, and employers. But you are unique — no one holds the key to what you should produce, how you should produce it, and what you should do with the love, friendship, goodwill, and money you receive from others in return for producing it. If you are left to your own devices — and as long as you don’t harm, coerce, or steal — you will make the best decisions about how to run the “business” of getting on with your life. When everyone is similarly empowered, a not-so-miraculous thing happens: As each person gets on with his or her own “business” of life, each person tends to make choices that others find congenial. As you reward others with what you produce for them, they reward you. If they reward you insufficiently, you can give your “business” to those who will reward you more handsomely.

If all of that seems too subtle, consider this, from Wikipedia:

Some libertarians do not attempt to justify their beliefs in any external sense; they support libertarianism because they desire the maximum degree of liberty possible within their own lives, and see libertarianism as the most effective political philosophy towards this end.

But remember that your liberty is only as secure as the liberty of your neighbors. If you use the law to advance your interests at your neighbors’ expense, your neighbors can do the same thing to you.

I hope that this brief introduction to libertarianism entices you to read the rest of this essay, where I have more to say about the origins, principles, and practical implications of libertarian principles for Americans. (I will have little to say about the many internecine controversies of libertarianism. For a taste of those controversies go here and here, for example, and follow the links.)

As you read what follows, please keep these points in mind:

  • Equality before the law is a noble ideal, as long as the law serves everyone’s liberty.
  • Liberty is indivisible; to restrict economic liberty is to restrict social and political liberty.
  • Prosperity is a concomitant of liberty, not its enemy.
  • Prosperity isn’t a zero-sum game. Absent corporate welfare and protective regulation (both of which are anti-libertarian), the wealthy get that way not by robbing others but by providing jobs, products, and services for them.
  • Liberty comes from the people — or the liberty-minded among them — not from the state. Yet, the state — properly governed by the people’s representatives — can serve as a bulwark of liberty.
  • The American state’s first and foremost obligation is to protect the lives and liberty of American citizens; the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

Finally, there are many paths to libertarianism, as I’ll discuss. But there are libertarian purists who put great stock in following the “right” path. I’m not of that ilk. What matters, in the end, is whether you believe that life would be better with a much smaller, far less intrusive, and far less costly government — one that’s focused on defending your liberty — and whether you act accordingly.