More Grammatical Anarchy

I noted in the previous post that Mark Liberman of Language Log is a grammatical anarchist. Perhaps grammatical anarchism is a condition of blogging at Language Log. Arnold Zwicky of that blog corrects a writer who refers to the subjunctive mood as the “subjective tense.” So far, so good. But Zwicky then goes on to excuse those who insist on using

the ordinary past rather than a special counterfactual form (often called “the subjunctive” or “the past subjunctive”) for expressing conditions contrary to fact….

…There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the special counterfactual form — I do so myself — but there’s also nothing wrong with using the ordinary past to express counterfactuality. It’s a matter of style and personal choice, and no matter which form you use, people will understand what you are trying to say.

But somehow preserving the last vestige of a special counterfactual form has become a crusade for some people. There are surely better causes.

There may be “better causes,” but Zwicky’s ceding of grammatical ground to “personal choice” leads me to doubt that he will fight for those causes.

Missing the Point

Mark Liberman of Language Log has devoted at least three posts to James J. Kilpatrick’s supposed linguistic socialism. Kilpatrick stands accused (gasp!) of trying to propound rules of English grammar. Given that Kilpatrick can’t enforce such rules, except in the case of his own writing, it seems to me that Liberman is overreacting to Kilpatrick’s dicta.

I am not surprised by Liberman’s reaction to Kilpatrick, given that Liberman seems to be a defender of grammatical anarchy. Liberman tries to justify his anarchistic approach to grammar by quoting from Friedrich Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order; for example:

Man … is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

All of which is true, but misinterpreted by Liberman.

First, given that Kilpatrick cannot dictate the rules of grammar, he is a mere participant in the “process of selection” which shapes those rules. In a world that valued effective communication, Kilpatrick’s views would be given more weight than those of, say, a twenty-something who injects “like, you know,” into every sentence. But whether or not Kilpatrick’s views are given more weight isn’t up to Kilpatrick. However much Kilpatrick might like to be a linguistic authoritarian, he is not one.

Second, Hayek’s observation has nothing to do with anarchy, although Liberman wants to read into the passage an endorsement of anarchy. Hayek’s real point is that rules which survive, or survive with incremental modifications, do so because they are more efficient (i.e., more effective, given a resource constraint) than rules that fall by the wayside.

Kilpatrick, and other “strict constructionists” like him, can’t dictate the course of the English language, but they can strive to make it more efficient. Certainly the thought that they give to making English a more efficient language (or forestalling its devolution toward utter inefficiency) should be praised, not scorned.

Language games can be fun, but language is much more than a game, contra Liberman’s approach to it. Language is for communicating ideas — the more efficiently, the better. But, in the three posts linked here, Liberman (strangely) has nothing to say about the efficiency of language. He seems more concerned about James J. Kilpatrick’s “linguistic socialism” than about the ability of writers and speakers to deploy a version of English that communicates ideas clearly.

Well, at least Liberman recognizes socialism as a form of authoritarianism.

Morality and Consequentialism

The text for this post comes from Freespace:

…Many [libertarians] are purely consequentialists—that is, they believe that morality simply cannot be the subject of disciplined inquiry, and that all that a libertarian can talk about is practical reasoning. In other words, they can’t argue that liberty is morally right; they can only argue about how as a practical matter free social and economic networks are organized. I have argued that if consistently followed, this practice will lead them to default on the responsibility of moral judgment, and ultimately they [will] fall into … cultural relativism….

I have argued in many posts that libertarianism properly understood must be based on an objective, universal morality….

The aim of this disciplined (albeit brief) inquiry is to show that “objective, universal morality” is a philosophical delusion. It follows that libertarianism must justified by its consequences.

First, Some Words about Philosophical Moral Absolutism and Religion

I cannot resist observing that philosophical moral absolutism seems to be a religion-substitute for libertarian moral absolutists, who tend to be atheists (e.g., the authors of Freespace, A Stitch in Haste, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and various of the bloggers at The Panda’s Thumb).

Libertarian moral absolutists, especially so-called libertarians of the Left, exude a “more moral than thou” attitude. I take it as a way of saying “Look at me, I’m an atheist but I’m a moral person, my religion-bashing notwithstanding.” As I say here,

[i]t is disheartening … when libertarians join the anti-religio[n] chorus. They know not what they do when they join the Left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail….

[A]s time passes the moral lessons … older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the [anti-libertarian] Left in attacking the Judeo-Christian tradition, libertarians ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake.

See also this post and the links therein.

Philosophical Moral Absolutism as a Logical Fallacy

Returning to the matter of philosophical moral absolutism, let us consider murder: the taking of a human life, absent the motive of self-defense (be it individual or communal). According to proponents of natural rights based on self-ownership (i.e, philosophical moral absolutists), murder is wrong because it is a denial of the natural right to life (the ownership of one’s own life). (As I discuss below, it is an inconvenient fact that not all libertarian absolutists agree about the specific implications of their absolutism.)

But the argument from natural rights is both circular and consequential. It is circular in that it seeks to prove that murder is wrong by citing the unprovable axiom that humans possess natural (innate) rights, from which (the absolutist argues) the wrongness of murder flows. The argument is consequential (albeit circular) because the wrongness of murder is characterized in terms of its consequence: the denial of a natural right.

In fact, philosophical moral absolutists are hard-pressed to avoid invoking consequences. The author of Freespace, for example, says that

the framers were right to believe that government is limited by our natural rights, and that our natural rights protect our right to act so long as we harm no other person. This last observation was hardly new or unique to Mill; it is in Locke’s Second Treatise, for instance….

Putting it negatively (“our natural rights protect our right to act so long as we harm no other person”) is just another way of saying that natural rights do not include the right to harm another person. The writer would be quick to add, of course, “except in self-defense or in the course of preventing harm to a third party.”

And, for another example, we have the author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars asserting that

[u]nder libertarian standards, each individual is free to live their [sic] life as they [sic] see fit as long as they [sic] do not impose harm on another person against their [sic] will.

“Harm” is to “consequence” as apple is to fruit. That is, “harm” just a more specific (though still vague) term for an act’s effect on another person or persons. Philosophical moral absolutists, having conceded that libertarianism rests on the harm principle (whether Mill’s or Locke’s) have conceded that it rests on the consequences of acts.

It is impossible to label a specific act as an immoral one merely by stating that it is a violation of natural rights. Instead, the libertarian absolutist is forced to confront the consequences (actual or potential) of the act (event if he does so inwardly).

In sum, a libertarian absolutist’s invocation of natural rights is a ritual: an intellectual genuflection, if you will.

The Indeterminacy of Philosophical Moral Absolutism

It is telling that libertarian absolutists cannot always agree that an axiomatic principle translates into a unique set of moral judgments about particular acts. For example, some absolutists not only claim that there are natural rights, but that those rights lead to the certain moral prescriptions; for example: preemptive war is wrong; abortion is a justifiable act of self-ownership; and income redistribution is just in that it “actualizes” the otherwise theoretical liberty of its beneficiaries. (These are just examples; not all absolutists claim the same three things.)

The problem, for absolutists, is that a given axiomatic principle can be interpreted to justify almost any act, depending on the judgment of the individual who espouses that act. I could, for example, assert that I believe in self-ownership or natural rights and thence argue to the following conclusions: preemptive war is just when it averts an attack on innocent civilians; abortion is an unconscionable act, legally distinguished from murder only by the instant between gestation and birth; income redistribution harms its intended beneficiaries by making them dependent on it and by penalizing growth-inducing activities, such as invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, and capital investment.

My assertions would be no less valid than those of any absolutist, and might (as a set) even coincide with the assertions of some absolutists. How would those concurring absolutists know that I am not of their ilk, except by my own admission? They wouldn’t.

Q.E.D.: Philosophical moral absolutism is indeterminate.

Philosophical Moral Absolutism as a Semantic Illusion

The consequential aspect of morality tends to be overlooked because words for heinous acts (murder, rape, etc.) merely imply the consequences of the acts to which they refer (consequences such as involuntary death, involuntary sexual intimacy, etc.). It is that semantic subtlety which allows philosophical moral absolutists (usually deontolgists and Objectivists) to believe — mistakenly — that they are morally superior to consequentialists because they (the absolutists) have an a priori method for deducing morality.

In denouncing certain acts, philosophical absolutists are in fact denouncing the consequences of those acts, as I have discussed. Absolutists delude themselves by proclaiming that such denunciations really flow from an axiomatic principle, such as natural rights.

The Psychological and Sociological Sources of Moral Judgments

Concepts such as self-ownership and natural rights are, at best, after-the-fact justifications of one’s moral judgments about particular acts. Less charitably, they are shibboleths spouted by sophomoric pretenders to philosophical profundity.

Jim Manzi of The Corner puts it this way:

Any … moral argument, however, will ultimately rest on a set of beliefs that could be characterized as being “coughed up by an unconscious emotion”. We might call these, in a less loaded term, moral axioms. You don’t get a free pass out of this game [as a libertarian absolutist] by just saying you favor any non-coercive behavior, because either the restriction on coercion must itself be a moral axiom, or it must, in turn, rest upon some other more fundamental moral axioms.

The funny thing about axioms is that if they are so basic that pretty much everybody agrees with them, then reasoning from them to conclusions about specific policies will often lead different people to very different conclusions. If, on the other hand, they are highly developed, then lots of people won’t agree that they are axioms.

So, in the end, we are left with judgments about acts whose consequences repulse us, not free-floating universals that exist apart from human nature. Those judgments often are instinctive, and also are “built into” evolved social norms, which reflect accrued knowledge of the consequences of various acts. Thus:

We (most of us) flinch from doing things to others that we would not want done to ourselves. Is that because of inbred (“hard wired”) empathy? Or are we conditioned by social custom? Or is the answer “both”?

If inbred empathy is the only explanation for self-control with regard to other persons, why is it that our restraint so often fails us in interactions with others are fleeting and/or distant? (Think of aggressive driving and rude e-mails, for just two examples of unempathic behavior.) Empathy, to the extent that it is a real and restraining influence, seems most to work best (but not perfectly) in face-to-face encounters, especially where the persons involved have more than a fleeting relationship.

If behavior is (also) influenced by social custom, why does social custom favor restraint? Here is where consequentialism enters the picture.

We are taught (or we learn) about the possibility of retaliation by a victim of our behavior (or by someone acting on behalf of a victim). In certain instances, there is the possibility of state action on behalf of the victim: a fine, time in jail, etc. So we are taught (or we learn) to restrain ourselves (to some extent) in order to avoid punishments that flow directly and (more or less) predictably from our unrestrained actions.

More deeply, there is the idea that “what goes around comes around.” In other words, bad behavior can beget bad behavior, whereas good behavior can beget good behavior. (“Well, if so-and-so can get away with X, so can I.” “So-and-so is rewarded for good behavior; it will pay me to be good, also.” “If so-and-so is nice to me, I’ll be nice to him so that he’ll continue to be nice to me.”)

Why do we care that “what goes around comes around”? First, we humans are imitative social animals; what others do — for good or ill — cues our own behavior. Second, there is an “instinctive” (taught/learned) aversion to “fouling one’s own nest.”

Unfortunately, our aversion to nest-fouling weakens as our interactions with others become more fleeting and distant — as they have done since the onset of industrialization, urbanization, and mass communication. Bad behavior then becomes easier because its consequences are less obvious or certain; it becomes a model for imitation and, perhaps, even a norm. Good behavior then flows from the fear of being retaliated against, not from socialized norms, or even from fear of state action. Aggression — among the naturally aggressive — becomes more usual.

Social Norms (Including Those Inculcated by Religion) Are All That We Have

The Millian concept of harm, so blithely invoked by philosophical moral absolutists (among others), is a chimera. Harm, as an act of one person against another, cannot be defined by individuals; it can be defined only by social agreement.

The philosophical moral absolutist would like to find something “better than” social norms. Thus the accusation that one defends murder, rape, slavery, etc., if one rejects philosophical moral absolutism. It is as if morality cannot be grounded in human nature. But it can be, and it is.

Murder and other anti-social acts arise from human nature. Murder and other anti-social acts are condemned almost universally because of human nature. It is human nature that makes such acts easier to commit when social relations become less personal and more anonymous.

To the extent that human actions are influenced positively by religious precepts (and they are, on the whole), the general goodness of human beings testifies to the mostly benign influence of religion on human behavior.


In sum, consequentialist libertarianism is not a kind of moral relativism. Rather, it is based on realism about (a) the non-existence of philosophical moral absolutes and (b) human nature. It accepts the morality that has arisen from human experience (as influenced by religion), while rejecting absolutists’ Platonic mysticism. Consequentialism is therefore the only possible form of libertarianism, in the real world:

The virtue of [consequentialist] libertarianism … is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences [e.g., here and here]. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don’t wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites.

That is,

predators … would take liberty from others, either directly (e.g., through murder…) or through the coercive power of the state (e.g., through smoking bans and licensing laws)…. [P]arasites … seek to advance their self-interest through the coercive power of the state rather than through their own efforts (e.g., through corporate welfare and regulatory protection).

Liberty, in the real world, is freedom (however elusive and episodic it may be) from predators and parasites. That freedom is to be found not through the invocation of philosophical moral absolutes (or anarchy), but through politics, policing, and war — as befits the circumstances.

Related posts:
The Origin and Essence of Rights” (01 Jan 2005)
A Non-Paradox for Libertarians” (15 Aug 2005)
The Paradox of Libertarianism” (05 Jan 2006)
Liberty as a Social Compact” (28 Feb 2006)
This Is Objectivism?” (01 Mar 2006)
Social Norms and Liberty” (02 Mar 2006)
A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact” (06 Mar 2006)
Finding Liberty” (25 Mar 2006)
The Source of Rights” (06 Sep 2006)
The Fear of Consequentialism” (26 Nov 2007)
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State” (09 Oct 2007)
Religion and the Inculcation of Morality” (12 Nov 2007)
‘Family Values,’ Liberty, and the State” (07 Dec 2007)
On Prejudice” (28 Feb 2008)
In Search of Consistency” (12 Mar 2008)
Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality” (14 Mar 2008)

Related reading:
What’s Right vs. What Works” (an undated colloquy on objective morality vs. consequentialism, with Charles Murray, David Friedman, David Boaz, and R.W. Bradford)
Religion, Government, and Civil Society,” by Arnold Kling (21 Feb 2007)
Is Atheism Only a Bundle of Sentiments?” by Mike Adams (24 Mar 2007)

The Wright Effect

UPDATED 03/27/08

Scott Rasmussen’s tracking poll was the best of the bunch in 2004. Given Rasmussen’s credibility, I turn to his polls about general-election matchups for an accurate view of what the Rev. Wright hath wrought, with respect to Barack Obama’s presidential prospects. Obama’s chance of winning the Democrat nomination hasn’t fallen much (which says a lot about Democrats), but he has fallen behind Hillary Clinton as a prospective opponent of John McCain.

  • As recently as February 20-21, Obama led McCain by4 percentage points (46-42).
  • At that time, McCain led Clinton by 4 percentage points (47-43).
  • McCain now leads Obama by 10 percentage points (51-41), and Clinton by 7 10 percentage points (50-43) (51-41).

In other words, Clinton has (prospectively) become the tougher opponent for McCain, but mainly because of Obama’s slippage. McCain has gained significant ground against both Democrats. — adding 6 points to his lead over Clinton and notching a positive 14-point swing in his matchup with Obama. It isn’t due to MCain’s words or deeds, but to the Rev. Wright, Obama’s defense of black racism, and the Clinton-Obama mud-fest. (Cackle! Cackle!)

Panhandling as Speech?

That’s right, panhandling is a form of speech, according to a Travis County, Texas, judge:

A city [of Austin] ordinance designed to keep people from begging for money or jobs on the side of some Austin roads has been declared unconstitutional for the second time in less than three years.

In an opinion that criticizes the ordinance as overly broad and questions the city’s argument that it is necessary to ensure traffic safety, Travis County Court-at-Law Judge J. David Phillips upheld a 2005 Municipal Court decision that overturned the city’s sidewalk solicitation rules.

“This ordinance reaches conduct that has little or nothing to do with traffic safety and very much to do with constitutionally protected speech,” Phillips said in an opinion issued Thursday.

Travis County, of course, is dominated by Austin. It is, in other words, a Blue enclave in a Red State.

I would bet that Judge Phillips, as a defender of panhandlers’ “free speech” right to distract drivers (and worse), also subscribes to the Orwellian idea that freedom of speech is served by the McCain-Feingold Act.

That’s the way it is in the People’s Republic of Austin.

You might wonder why the true-Blue denizens of Austin are so “heartless” as to restrict panhandling (via their Leftist city council). It’s a white-liberal-yuppie kind of thing. (And Austin is chockablock with white-liberal-yuppie persons.) One “feels for” the homeless, etc., but one don’t want them to get too close to one’s shiny $60k SUV.

Texas Wins, the Constitution Stands

Jonathan Adler, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, summarizes the win by Texas:

The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Medellin v. Texas today. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which held that neither a judgment of the International court of Justice nor the President’s executive order directing state courts to follow the ICJ’s judgment constituted federal law that pre-empts a state’s pre-existing bar on the litigation of subsequent habeas petitions….

This appears to be quite a significant win for Texas (and states) that wil lhave significant ramifications for both separation of powers and the application of international law in U.S. courts.

(See also these three posts at Bench Memos.)

Among other things, the Court’s holding in Medellin supports what I have written (in the context of war): “a treaty … may neither violate nor change the meaning of the Constitution.” Therefore, no treaty — and no presidential act (purportedly) pursuant to a treaty — may trump the Constitution or a constitutional law, either State or federal.

Bootleggers, Baptists, and Satellite Radio

The good news: Justice Dept. approves XM-Sirius merger

…despite opposition from consumer groups and an intense lobbying campaign by the land-based radio industry.

What does this news have to do with “Bootleggers and Baptists”?

  • “Bootleggers” are market incumbents (in this case, the land-based radio industry), who benefit from the suppression of competition (as bootleggers did during Prohibition).
  • “Baptists” are self-appointed guardians of our health and well-being (the sum of all our risk-averse fears, you might say). In this case, the Baptists are “consumer groups” (meaning anti-business alliances), which reflexively oppose mergers.

(For more, see Bruce Yandle’s “Bootleggers and Baptists in Retrospect.”)

As a Sirius subscriber, I am glad of the Justice Department’s decision — given that DoJ had to be involved, in the first place. Why? Because (a) Sirius is now more likely to survive , and (b) it will offer (via its merger with XM) more programs.

Related posts:
More Commandments of Economics” (#19) (06 Dec 2005)
Monopoly and the General Welfare” (25 Feb 2006)

Election 2008: Eighth Forecast

My ninth forecast (04/30/08) is here.

The Presidency – Method 1

Intrade posts State-by-State odds odds on the outcome of the presidential election in November. I assign all of a State’s electoral votes to the party whose nominee that is expected to win that State. Where the odds are 50-50, I split the State’s electoral votes between the two parties.

As of today, the odds point to this result:

Democrat — 298 electoral votes (EVs)

Republican — 240 EVs

The Presidency – Method 2

I have devised a “secret formula” for estimating the share of electoral votes cast for the winner of the presidential election. (The formula’s historical accuracy is described in my second forecast.) The formula currently yields these estimates of the outcome of this year’s presidential election:

Democrat — 261 to 307 EVs

Republican — 231 to 277 EVs

The GOP fares less well by method 2 than it did in my seventh forecast. But methods 1 and 2 have re-converged, which gives me more confidence in the estimates yielded by both.

U.S. Senate

Democrats will net three Senate seats: picking up one each in Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Virginia; losing one in Louisiana. The balance in the Senate will change from 51 Democrats (including Lieberman and Sanders, both nominally independent) and 49 Republicans to 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans. The prospect of a GOP win in Louisiana is new since my seventh forecast.

Stuff White (Liberal Yuppie) People Like

Here. Funny, if self-administered in small doses.

Of course, I may be the last person to have found it. But, unlike white-liberal-yuppie persons, being au courant isn’t “where I’m at” (to use an expression that’s probably no longer au courant).

P.S. Suggested additions to the list:

  • Foreign films (Especially if incomprehensible and/or about angst, suffering, etc.)
  • Dressing casually (Especially at fine restaurants. It’s a fetish — like wearing shorts regardless of the temperature.)
  • Public schools (For other people’s children.)
  • Public universities (Très gauche, even if you attended one.)
  • Cheese (As in, “I found this wonderful little cheese store.”)
  • Handymen (As in, “I found this wonderful little handyman.” Who’s probably not white. But “little” isn’t racist, is it?)
  • Charity auctions (For buying ugly stuff and feeling good about it.)
  • Celebrities (Okay, if they’re adopting half of China. But Angelina Jolie’s counsel to “stay the course” in Iraq makes one wonder.)
  • Europe (Such a civilized place — if you overlook economic stagnation, unemployment, rioting Muslims, and the tendency to turn to the U.S. when in danger.)
  • Britain (Ditto, with smashing accents.)
  • Social Security (Good for “little” people.)
  • Medicare (Ditto, but avoid doctors who accept Medicare patients.)
  • Drug companies (Hate ’em. Where are my tranqs, anyway?)
  • Brand-name products of a superior kind (Très important, as long as they signify good taste — in an understated way, of course, and not in a way which suggests that one is uncaring about the “little” people who made them.)
  • Urban compression (The opposite of “urban sprawl.” Also known as cities: dirty, smelly, crowded, crime-ridden, architecturally chaotic places that, for some reason, “deserve to be saved.” But why, and at whose expense?)

More to come, p’haps.

Divorce and Crime notesThe Impact of Unilateral Divorce on Crime,” by Julio Cáceres-Delpiano and Eugenio P. Giolito (March 2008)

In this paper, we evaluate the impact of unilateral divorce on crime. First, using crime rates from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report program for the period 1965-1998 and differences in the timing in the introduction of the reform, we find that unilateral divorce has a positive impact on violent crime rates, with an 8% to 12% average increase for the period under consideration. Second, arrest data not only confirms the findings of a positive impact on violent crime but also shows that this impact is concentrated among those age groups (15 to 24) that are more likely to engage in these type of offenses. Specifically, for the age group 15-19, we observe an average impact over the period under analysis of 40% and 36% for murder and aggravated assault arrest rates, respectively. Disaggregating total arrest rates by race, we find that the effects are driven by the Black sub-sample. Third, using the age at the time of the divorce law reform as a second source of variation to analyze age-specific arrest rates we confirm the positive impact on the different types of violent crime as well as a positive impact for property crime rates, controlling for all confounding factors that may operate at the state-year, state age or age-year level. The results for murder arrests and for homicide rates (Supplemental Homicide Report) for the 15-24 age groups are robust with respect to specifications and specifically those that include year-state and year-age dummies. The magnitude goes from 15% to 40% depending on the specification and the age at the time of the reform.

Which surprises me not at all. In “Equal Time: The Sequel” (05 Nov 2005), I say:

The state began many years ago to encourage [single parenthood] by enabling [men and women] to break their [marriage] contracts at will instead of trying to work out their differences. (The lesson: When the state sends signals about private arrangements, private arrangements tend to align themselves with the signals being sent by the state.)

And innocent bystanders reap what the state sows.

Other related posts:
I Missed This One” (21 Aug 2004)
A Century of Progress?” (30 Jan 2005)
The Marriage Contract” (16 Feb 2005)
Feminist Balderdash” (19 Feb 2005)
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values” (06 Apr 2005)
Consider the Children” (07 Oct 2005)
Same-Sex Marriage” (20 Oct 2005)
Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage” (30 Oct 2005)
Marriage and Children” (05 Nov 2005)
Social Norms and Liberty” (02 Mar 2006)
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty” (04 Jun 2006)
‘Family Values,’ Liberty, and the State” (07 Dec 2007)

A Message for "Green" Auto Buyers

From this paper:

[T]he Honda Accord Hybrid has an Energy Cost per Mile of $3.29 while the conventional Honda Accord is $2.18. Put simply, over the “Dust to Dust” lifetime of the Accord Hybrid, it will require about 50 percent more energy than the non-hybrid version.

One of the reasons hybrids cost more than non-hybrids is the manufacture, replacement and disposal of such items as batteries, electric motors (in addition to the conventional engine), lighter weight materials and complexity of the power package. And while many consumers and environmentalists have targeted sport utility vehicles because of their lower fuel economy and/or perceived inefficiency as a means of transportation, the energy cost per mile shows at least some of that disdain is misplaced.

For example, while the industry average of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2005 was $2.28 cents per mile, the Hummer H3 (among most SUVs) was only $1.949 cents per mile. That figure is also lower than all currently offered hybrids and Honda Civic at $2.42 per mile.

“If a consumer is concerned about fuel economy because of family budgets or depleting oil supplies, it is perfectly logical to consider buying high-fuel-economy vehicles…. But if the concern is the broader issues such as environmental impact of energy usage, some high-mileage vehicles actually cost … more than conventional or even larger models over their lifetime.

“…Basing purchase decisions solely on fuel economy or vehicle size does not get to the heart of the energy usage issue.”


More generally, as I say here:

All costs matter; one cannot make good economic decisions by focusing on one type of cost, such as the cost of energy.

How Do You Say "Shut Up and Sing" in Economist-ese?

Here’s how:

Overall, the results presented in this paper suggest several important facts. First, the findings suggest that there is an explicit and quantifiable cost to public debate during wartime in the form of increased attacks. Based on these results, it appears that Iraqi insurgent groups believe that when the U.S. political landscape is more uncertain, initiating a higher level of attacks increases the likelihood that the U.S. will reduce the scope of its engagement in the conflict. However, the magnitude of the response by Iraqi insurgent groups is relatively small. To the extent that U.S. political speech does affect insurgent incentives, it changes things only by about 10-20 percent….

[R]egardless of whether the observed effect represents an overall increase or intertemporal substitution, the evidence in this study indicates that insurgent groups are strategic actors that respond to the incentives created by the policies and actions of the counterinsurgentforce, rather than groups driven by purely ideological concerns with little sensitivity to costs. There appears to be a systematic response of Iraqi insurgent groups to information about the U.S. willingness to remain in Iraq and/or public support for the war.

(NBER Working Paper No. 13839, “Is There an Emboldenment Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq,” by Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten. The quotations are from pp. 24-25 of the version available at Iyengar’s site.)

The “however” in the first quotation is gratuitous; it takes only “relatively small” increases in “insurgent” attacks to goad defeatists into spewing yet more defeatism. The point — underscored in the second quotation — is that the “insurgents” not only are trying to influence U.S. policy but also are influenced by their perception of our willingness to stay the course.

Radical Chic Redux

Barack Obama’s white Leftist defenders are reprising an old form of racial condescension. Tom Wolfe called it “radical chic.” Wolfe coined the term in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers to

describe[] an intriguing phenomenon of the late Sixties: the courting of romantic radicals—Black Panthers, striking grapeworkers, Young Lords—by New York’s socially elite.

Socially elite Leftists, that is.

Here’s an excerpt (of an excerpt) of Wolfe’s book:

…There seem to be a thousand stars above and a thousand stars below, a room full of stars a penthouse duplex full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars, with marvelous people drifting through the heavens, Jason Robards, John and D. D. Ryan, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson, Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland, Richard Avedon, Milton and Amy Greene, Lukas Foss, Jennie Tourel, Samuel Barber, Jerome Robbins, Steve Sondheim, Adolph and Phyllis Green, Betty Comden, and the Patrick O’Neals . . .

. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just forty-one hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 10th Street or some such unbelievable place and taken to jail on a most un-usual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone….

The thrill of seeing Obama consort knowingly with anti-Americans (his wife, his pastor) must transport his fans on the Left into a Bernsteinian swoon of ecstasy.

What Happened to Personal Responsibilty?

A purportedly conservative site has published an article that includes a definition of conservatism. One of the author’s tenets of conservatism refers to “the market’s corrosive impact on humane values.”

Isn’t personal responsibility a conservative value (as well as a libertarian one)? Markets don’t corrode values; people corrode values, namely, their own and their children’s. If you don’t like what the market has to offer, reject it; do without, if necessary. No one forces you to own a TV or to watch everything shown on TV; no one forces you to attend movies that are full of sex, violence, and profanity (movies are still made that lack those elements); etc.

That “the market” caters to vulgarity and obscenity isn’t the fault of “the market.” It is, rather, a reflection of the general decline of moral and values. Most conservatives would agree (I daresay) with the proposition that moral values were stronger in the late 1800s than they are today. Yet, the late 1800s saw rapid economic growth because markets were then much freer than they are today.

If you want to blame any outside force for the decline of moral values, blame the intrusive state (more accurately, those of us who empower it and operate its machinery). The state has done much to undermine social norms and thus liberty.

P.S. Another example of “blame the market” appears in a piece by Jennifer Graham, at First Things. Reviewing Neil Gilbert’s A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life, Graham writes:

Cultural norms are fluid and malleable, but in a capitalist society they tend to flow away from traditional family life and toward the accumulation of ever more stuff. “The triumph of materialism in modern times feeds the market and leaves childrearing and family life undernourished,” Gilbert writes. “The capitalist ethos underrates the economic value and social utility of domestic labor in family life, particularly during the early years of childhood.”

Note the reification of “cultural norms” and “materialism,” as forces until themselves, divorced from human will. Similarly, it is not the “capitalist ethos” that “underrates the economic value and social utility of domestic labor in family life.” The “underrating, rather, reflects the free (if unwise) choice of individuals.

Obama vs. the Second Amendment

Barack Obama’s speech about racism in America vied for blogospheric attention with today’s oral argument in District of Columbia v. Heller (the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Second Amendment case since 1939).

Here are some key passages from Obama’s speech:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper….

This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

It’s the politics of victimhood. It’s the politics of socialism. It’s the politics of class warfare. It’s the politics of economic ignorance. Not a word about cultural influences or dependency on the state. Not a word about the growth of real income at all levels (not just at the top). Not a word about upward economic mobility, which is the norm in America. Not a word about the fact that economic progress depends upon that “dirty” profit motive.

Obama’s speech may be “eloquent,” in some sense. But it fully reveals him for the dangerous demagogue that he is: a latter-day FDR.

As for the Second Amendment, I predict a 5-4 decision in D.C. v. Heller that upholds an individual right to own a handgun for the purpose of self-defense, subject to “reasonable” regulation in the interest of safety. Some of the dissenters will maintain, illogically, that handguns should be prohibited in jurisdictions with high rates of crime (e.g., D.C.). As if criminals honor bans on handgun ownership. And so it goes, in the upside-down world of liberalism.

Perspective on the Stock Market

Yes, we are in a bear market, as I foresaw here and confirmed here. But before you jump out a window, put the current state of the market in perspective:

Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index
(as of 12:36 p.m. ET today)


Even with today’s significant drop (thus far), the market is relatively high by historical standards. The “bear” of 2000-2003 was far deeper than the current decline. Don’t panic.

9/11 Plotters and the Death Penalty

Should the U.S. execute the 9/11 plotters being held at Guantanomo? AG Mukasey says “no,” and Stephen Bainbridge circles the issue several times before agreeing with the AG:

Let KSM and his pals sit in Guantanamo for the rest of their lives, contemplating their sins.

Doug Mataconis seems to agree with Prof. Bainbridge:

The visceral reaction is to say that these men should die a slow, painful death. But I’ve got to wonder what that’s going to accomplish at this point.

I stand by what I said three years ago:

Justice serves civilization and social solidarity…. [I]t meets the deep, common need for catharsis through vengeance, while protecting the innocent (and all of us) by replacing mob rule with due process of law.

Justice — to serve its purposes — must be swift, sure, and hard. That is, it must work and be seen to work, by the just and unjust alike.

“Swift” and “sure” seldom apply to the death penalty anymore, but “hard” certainly does. The need for social catharsis through judicial vengeance was never greater than in the case of 9/11. Fry ’em.


I adhere to one “ism”: minarchism or, more specifically, Burkean conservativism-cum-Hayekian libertarianism.

I reject many “isms”; for example:

  • Pseudo-conservatism, in its various forms; e.g., European anti-capitalism, country-club/redneck yahooism (of all colors), and biggovernment/national-greatness corporatism

Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality

From Ayn Rand’s pen to your brain, this is Objectivism. Rand’s dicta (in italics) are followed by my commentary.

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

It is true, and tautologous, to say that reality exists; that is, the real has “verifiable existence.” But there are many conceptions of reality, some of them based on identical observations of the physical world. (Read about physical cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example.) There may be an objective reality, but it is trivial to say so. The reality that we perceive depends on (a) the limitations of our perception (e.g., the degree to which telescopes have been improved), and (b) the prejudices that we bring to what we are able to perceive. (Yes, everyone has prejudices.) And it will be thus, always, no matter how many facts we are able to ascertain; the universe is a bottomless mystery.

In my experience, Objectivists flaunt their dedication to reality in order to assert their prejudices (e.g., “natural rights” exist) as if they were facts. The concept of “natural rights” is an abstraction, not a concrete, verifiable reality. Abstractions are “real” only in a world of Platonic ideals. And, then, they are “real” only to those who posit them. Objectivism is therefore akin to Platonism (Platonic mysticism), in which ideas exist independently of matter; that is, they simply “are.”

It would be fair to say that Objectivism is a kind of unreality.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else (see above).

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule,” “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice (see Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas).

3. Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

This dictum is an attack on the straw-man concept of altruism, which has no basis in reality, as I explain here and here. All of us are individualists, at bottom, in that we seek our own happiness. It just happens that some of us correlate our happiness with the happiness of (selected) others. Dictum 3 is both a tautology and a (lame) justification for behavior that violates social norms. Objectivists (like anarcho-capitalists) seem unable to understand that the liberty which enables them to spout their nonsense is owed, in great measure, to the existence of social norms, and that those norms arise (in large part) from observance of the “Golden Rule.”

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Here, Rand shifts gears from preaching the bed-rock prejudices and tautologies of Objectivism (dicta 1, 2, and 3) to the “ought” of Objectivism. It is hard to distinguish dictum 4 from the tenets of libertarianism, which makes me wonder why some Objectivists scorn libertarianism (e.g., go here and scroll down). It is not as if Objectivism is reality-based, as opposed to libertarianism. In fact, consequentialist libertarianism (anathema to anarchists and Objectivists, alike) has the advantage when it comes to defending laissez-faire capitalism. The facts of history and economics are on the side of laissez-faire capitalism because it yields better results than statism (see this, this, and this, for example).

I will not bother, here, to dismantle the jejune rejection of preemptive self-defense: the so-called non-aggression principle, which I have addressed in this post (and in several of the links therein). Nor is the notion of complete separation of state and church worth more than a link this post (and the links therein) and this one.

In sum, Objectivism reminds me very much of a late-night, dorm-room bull session: equal parts of inconsequential posturing and uninformed “philosophizing.” Sophomoric, in a word.

Related post: “This Is Objectivism?” (01 Mar 2006)