Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Have a Right to My Opinion

I confess I rather like this, from an interview with Theodore Dalrymple:

BC: Hasn't the line between "having a right to an opinion" and "having a valid opinion" become completely blurred in recent years?

Theodore Dalrymple: Many young people now end a discussion with the supposedly definitive and unanswerable statement that such is their opinion, and their opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. The fact is that our opinion on an infinitely large number of questions is not worth having, because everyone is infinitely ignorant. My opinion of the parasitic diseases of polar bears is not worth having for the simple reason that I know nothing about them, though I have a right to an opinion in the sense that I should not receive a knock on the door from the secret police if I express such a worthless opinion.

The right to an opinion is often confused (no doubt for reasons of misplaced democratic sentiment) for the validity of an opinion, just as the validity of an argument is often mistaken for the truth of a conclusion.

Every exam question I have ever given has been of the essay variety. (I will have to change that this quarter, in order to administer standardized questions for assessment purposes in my basic economics principles class.) A common objection that I see on student evaluations to my style of teaching is that “he only wants you to agree with him,” “my opinions were punished because they were different,” etc. Students who draw this conclusion are doing so on the basis (presumably unbeknownst to them) of a very limited information set. They know only two things – that they got a poor score, and that their opinion was different from mine.

A critical piece of information that they do not have is how I graded every other student’s answer. They don’t know whether other students also expressed a contrary view, but supported it soundly with logic and evidence. They don’t know whether, if other students did these things, they got good scores, or bad ones just because they were contrary views. It turns out, I hope, that students who are able to support a different opinion are not penalized because of the difference part. Indeed, the word "opinion" is probably misplaced here, because we are not talking about matters of taste, as for example an opinion about whether Thai food is good, or a certain actor is good at his craft. Theses are matters of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. We are instead talking of arguments, which require some support in reasoning and evidence.

Ultimately it is the assumption that any argument must be as good as any other just because a sovereign individual holds it that Mr. Dalrymple is objecting to. And of course I agree.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Hippocratic Oath?

A lot of British doctors apparently think that treating the old and the sick is no way to run a health-care system:

Doctors are calling for NHS treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives.

Smokers, heavy drinkers, the obese and the elderly should be barred from receiving some operations, according to doctors, with most saying the health service cannot afford to provide free care to everyone.

To repeat: there is no health care system in this universe that gives everyone all the health care they “need.” There is only scarcity, and different criteria for coping with it.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Transnational Fascism

About a year and a half ago I gave some thought to transnationalism, the linking together of people across national lines, often to work against the shortsighted desires of national governments over such issues as human rights, the environment, etc.

I have given the issue some more thought in the wake of the publication of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. The title has provoked widespread derision. I have yet to read it (so many books, so little time), but I think I have heard him defend it enough to raise the red flag (as it were) about a possibility he had perhaps not considered – transnational fascism.

First, what is “fascism,” beyond being one of the most loaded words in political debate? He defines it as “a religion of the state.” I might define it more precisely as the subordination of the individual to the state, so that collectively we may achieve some higher purpose. Almost always that purpose involves moving beyond the hated commercial, bourgeois society. Historically, it has meant pursuing some national (often martial) virtues, and that is how the word is thought of today, as a synonym for “aggressive nationalism.”

But if fascism is in fact the use of the state, perhaps behind a charismatic leader, to move society beyond individual selfishness toward paradise in this world rather than the next, then not only Hitler and Stalin but Lenin, Stalin and even American politicians such as Wilson or FDR or JFK or LBJ can be so described.

Of course, there is fascism, and then there is fascism. I find the book’s use of the world ultimately unacceptable, because history has given the word fascism its meaning and its meaning involves not just national glorification but aggressive militarism (which of course would make Wilson eligible, but perhaps not others in the above list). “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is simply not, according to how the public actually interprets the word, “fascist.”

Still, tracing the idea's historical origins is useful, because it allows us to focus on this question of suppressing the individual and his dreams to some political leader’s notion of a higher collective purpose. And that kindler, gentler protozoan pre-fascism is likely to emerge not at the national but the transnational level. This at first seems counterintuitive because fascism glorifies the nation-state above all, but that is according to the traditional definition. If we take for the moment (and ultimately I don’t, because here we have to be linguistic descriptivists and take the word as we find it) Mr. Goldberg’s more relaxed definition, fascism doesn’t require flashy military rallies and marches behind eerie artificial symbols in which pictures crowd out thinking, such as the swastika or hammer and sickle. It only requires a transcendent higher purpose that absent collective action is eroded by individual selfishness.

And that is what transnationalism is these days. To take one example, major controls on human freedom to fight global warming are couched not just as morally acceptable but imperative, as tools to fight selfish individualistic excess whose enabling requires a common human response in the name of ethical progress, national and individual self-determination be damned. We are probably not far from the point at which global bureaucratic structures are proposed to limit human behavior. Much of this transnationalization of Golberg-style fascism probably arises from the fact that many of its most important advocates do not believe in the value of their own societies, and actually want them weakened by transnational governance. The best response to this rising threat will require emphasizing the lack of accountability of international organizations run by unaccountable elites, a strategy that has had some payoff in the anger over the EU’s growth, and which always appeals to Americans.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Progress and its Absence

Plus ça change...


On January 8, 1697, at some time between two and four in the afternoon, an eighteen-year-old student named Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh. Aikenhead had been found guilty of a serious charge: the previous year he had several times told other young men that the doctrines of Christian theology were “a rapsodie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense.” Aikenhead’s friends, testifying against him, told the court that he had spoken of “the Imposter Christ” and had rejected the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Redemption. Aikenhead recanted all these sentiments—he said he had fallen under the spell of atheistical tracts—but no one defended him, and the jury voted for death.


An Afghan journalist has been sentenced to death by a provincial court for distributing "blasphemous" material.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, was arrested in 2007 after downloading material from the internet relating to the role of women in Islamic societies.

A primary court in Balkh province said that Kambakhsh had confessed to blasphemy and had to be punished.

The court also threatened to arrest any reporters who protested against Kambakhsh's sentence.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

That 70s Show

Is macroeconomics up to the job? This subdiscipline is one of the least helpful in the entire field, even as it is one of the most mathematically rigorous. The newspapers are full of accounts of the inability of looser monetary policy by the Federal Reserve to this point to keep the U.S. economy unraveling from the housing mess. Its attempts are vivid in the chart below, showing the monetary aggregate known as MZM, defined as “M2 less small-denomination time deposits plus institutional money funds.”

Since early 2006 monetary policy has been unusually aggressive, at a rate only duplicated in 2001 (marked by the asterisk of 9/11) and, very briefly, 1983. So far, financial firms continue to announce bigger losses and economic growth continues to slow. The models in widest use predict otherwise, and Chairman Bernanke, a first-rate macroeconomist at Princeton, knows everything the profession has to say about monetary policy.

We have seen this movie before. In the 1970s central banks worldwide attempted to fight major economic shocks involving the restriction of oil supply with monetary loosening. What they got for their trouble was stagflation – a combination of rapidly rising prices and weak or negative economic growth that had to be finally fought with a dramatic monetary tightening, and a severe recession, in the early 1980s.

The lesson many of us drew then, and from 1929, was that real shocks have to be allowed to have real consequences. The decision by OPEC countries to capitalize on their control of oil contracts (which they cannot do anymore because of changes in the way oil is bought and sold) pushed a significant increase in an important productive factor through the economy, and the Fed responded the way the textbooks told it to, causing inflation that was wrongly attributed to the rise in price of a single (though important) resource, which in isolation shouldn’t cause comprehensive price increases. The oil shock changed production possibilities for a huge variety of countries, and the way to accommodate it was to accept that the adjustment to these altered possibilities – letting companies discover new ways to produce their goods and services with less oil, and encouraging other companies to go out and find more oil – would be painful rather than try to accommodate it through encouraging more lending.

That is where we are now too. The popping of the housing bubble, like the oil price shock, is a real but far from catastrophic event (one that, as an aside, made housing available to people who would otherwise be unable to own). The idea that encouraging lending in order to cancel out the accumulated mistakes from the invention of new mortgage instruments (which are unavoidable with any innovation and offset by gains to consumers) cures what ails the economy seems misplaced. By hiding the consequences of accumulating errors, we are asking for trouble. A real binge requires that we endure the real hangover.


Monday, January 21, 2008

King's Nation

Today is a day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., a man martyred in the cause of justice. We quite properly set time aside to think about and honor his legacy; it is one of a set of perhaps uniquely American holidays, including Labor Day and Independence Day, with a contemplative side to them – holidays that demand we think about the nature of our country.

While he never for a moment contemplated abandoning his fundamental belief in nonviolence, King certainly drifted more toward the angry currents in American life after his speech at the March on Washington. He vowed to tackle fundamental issues of poverty in American society, which he saw as signs of chronic, institutionalized American injustice. I thus do not know whether, had he lived, he would’ve been willing to acknowledge that in every way worth winning, he has won. Despite the extent to which politicians use this day to invoke some imaginary dammed-up pool of critical unfinished business, the nation we have is the nation he wanted in 1963. The “symphony of brotherhood” that he invoked as a mere dream on the Mall in fact exists, in every meaningful sense. Even as American policies are often despised, America itself is now a beacon unto the individuals of the world who wish to be masters of their own lives, drawing immigrants of all complexions, tongues and faiths from all over the planet to be stirred into the peculiar America stew.

Every day Americans from every tribe get up and go to work together in harmony; they date; they marry; they politick; they live together as peacefully as can realistically be imagined. From India, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, China, Brazil and Honduras they come, to a land that grants them the basic dignity of judging them as individuals. It is a phenomenal miracle, all the more noteworthy because few ever think to notice it. A year or so ago I was having a conversation with colleagues, which turned to the usual litany of grievances about our domestic injustices – the unfair treatment of this group or that, requiring some major government step to remedy it. I noted that most countries with America’s tribal diversity would be in flames (as many in fact are), and that perhaps we ought to spare a moment to ponder why we aren’t, instead of devoting all our time in disproportionately angry rage at the perceived blemishes that remain.

King’s victory has been absolute. We live in a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Had he lived, he might have reconciled himself to the notion of justice most fundamental, the justice in allowing us to make our way through society as individuals with strengths and weaknesses rather than as a member of a group predetermined to be oppressor or oppressed. In any event, his fellow Americans forty years after his murder find themselves, whether they know it or not, reaping the fruits of his vision.

There is to be sure some unfinished business – the black and Hispanic communities in particular are disproportionately poor, for example (although “poor” in 2008 is, thanks to economic growth rather than government programs, a much different thing than it was in 1963). But that disadvantage is selective – most blacks and Hispanics are not poor in any event, and blacks from the Caribbean and Africa do as well as other immigrant groups. This suggests that what remains is more about unwise choices by individuals (of all sorts) than unjust barriers to groups.

There is also the legacy of the civil-rights industry. Its primary victories having been won in 1965 with the ending of state-mandated segregation and the enforcement of equal access to the vote, the industry has had to find some reason to justify its continued existence. And so it concerns itself not with the real horrors of lynching, exclusion from the franchise, etc., but with such ephemera as racial profiling by state troopers and moronic remarks by people like Don Imus. That these are the things it can afford to concern itself with is itself a sign of how complete the triumph of King’s dream has been.

The industry’s most problematic legacy is the affirmative-action machine, but on this day Roger Clegg writes that even this guilt-driven beast may be mortally wounded, with the anticipated triumph of anti-affirmative action referenda in several states this year. America, he argues, is a nation that believes in equal rights for all and special privileges for none. No other nation in my experience has launched an affirmative-action effort and then repealed it, and many countries (Sri Lanka, Malaysia and India, for example) have been driven to ever-greater rancor by arguments over its spoils. If we can end it it will suggest that in America, despite the best energies of our self-interested multicultural and tribal lobbies, the dream’s triumph is total and permanent.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Rules of the Road

I often tell my students about the town of Christianfeld, Denmark. They have done a remarkable thing to improve traffic safety, namely repealing most of the traffic rules. There was a report this morning on NPR noting that another town, Bohmte in Germany, has tried the same thing with great success. In both cases, accidents have fallen markedly, contrary to expectations:

It seems counterintuitive to give drivers less information, by taking away street signs, stop lights and lane markings, to make them drive more safely. It's supposed to help reclaim the streets for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocates of this traffic-management philosophy, called Shared Space, say it works. Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a leading Shared Space advocate based in Bristol, England.
"If you're faced with a traffic signal, you don't have to think anymore. Whether you go depends on whether the light is red or green," he says. "In the absence of such things, we're perfectly capable of reading and understanding the situation so that if grandma's in the road ahead of you, you don't run her over."

He compares the Shared Space concept to an ice skating rink. It might look chaotic, but people usually navigate the shared area pretty well. In a traffic context, it means cars, bicyclists and pedestrians are in much closer proximity than they usually are.

I am an economist by training, not a traffic engineer. And yet one of the most important things economists investigate, whether they know it or not (and when they don’t know it it is a tragedy), is how to achieve social cooperation when our interests differ. And these little traffic experiments are striking examples of the difference between order imposed by rules and the spontaneous order achieved through reliance on self-interest.

While the auto itself is a remarkable instrument for human freedom (think of the phrase “the open road,” which is more pregnant with meaning than might be first thought), the way road traffic is governed is arguably not. The road system is governed by rules, and by zero-sum disputes over who is entitled to what. Cars are limited to here, bikers belong over there, and pedestrians are of course expected to stay on the sidewalk. This is a recipe for conflict over entitlements granted by the state. Bikers think there should be more bike lanes and cars should recognize their “right to the road,” car owners think bikers need to be responsible and obey the unwritten codes, and pedestrians think both of the other parties go heedlessly and recklessly fast. Everyone is concerned about maximizing their share of a fixed amount of space, and everyone thinks of themselves as part of a group of fellow travelers of a particular kind, at war with all the other groups for space. And so they try to craft rules to maximize their own room to maneuver and to limit everyone else’s.

In these rule-free experiments, people realize that everyone else has the same individual freedom they do. They impute the same rationality to others that they assume they possess themselves – everyone wants to get where they’re going as fast as possible, but no one wants to die trying. Lo and behold, through pursuit of private interests the public interest is served, as accident rates fall.

I am no believer in central planning, and I certainly wouldn’t want to mandate this rule-free approach in jurisdictions of widely varying sizes and tradeoffs, but there is a lesson in this just the same – not just for traffic, but for society itself. There is nothing about the clash of interests and the need to make best use of a scarce resource that does not also apply to health care, the labor market, or most areas where the state treads so heavily these days.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Giving Offense, Inc.

The Belmont Club has a post entitled “The Cartoonist’s Plot." It describes the harassment of a Canadian magazine publisher for printing the execrable cartoons of Muhammad that were first published in Denmark, to worldwide notoriety. Bad as they are, they are not as bad as the destruction of freedom of speech, and that is why Ezra Levant, the publisher of the now-defunct Western Standard, is defending himself so vigorously. He has been summoned to testify before the Human Rights Commission of Alberta, a summons he is legally obligated to obey. It has the power to force him to publicly apologize for speech it judges shameful. See his wonderful performance, which he insisted on recording, in several video excerpts here. Mark Steyn has also run afoul of an HRC because Maclean’s printed an excerpt from his book. (He has an ongoing commentary on his battle with his hopelessly overmatched persecutors here.)

Wretchard sees a lowest-common-denominator problem – if people are reluctant to print things because they might violate the rules of the Canadian HRC (or because they might generate libel suits in plaintiff-friendly Britain), the speech doesn’t get published anywhere:

Mark Steyn and his publisher are reading the HRC the riot act. It's a courageous act because they are subject to the laws of Canada. And it's important that they win because, as Mark Steyn explains, US publishers are going to think twice about backing any book, printing any article, producing any show that can't be sold in Canada. Canada may not be a very large market in absolute terms, but few businessmen are going to produce a product which has no chance of being sold in Canada.

A loss in this "tacky little country" will be the first step towards the reduction of freedom everywhere in the North America and in Australia. We are fortunate to have stand-up guys fighting the HRC not just for Canadians but for all of us.”

It occurs to me that there is a useful money-making opportunity here, a publisher that specializes in censorship-bait, the firm any creator could turn to when conventional publishers show him the back of their hands. It would be subject to certain constraints – it could probably only sell in the U.S., where legal (if not necessarily cultural) protection of free speech is still robust. It would require a stable of lawyers who are experts in defamation law and the nascent law of taking offense, although proficiency at that would come precisely from specialization. And to be intellectually honest it would have to decide to offend everyone. But it seems to me that many money-making opportunities are being left on the table for fear of the consequences in jurisdictions jittery about robust debate because of libel tourism and hypersensitivity to offense. (Here is an appalling example of socially valuable speech lost.) If I had the money I’d do it myself.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Should He Be Allowed to Run?

Oscar Pistorius wants to run in the Olympics, but even if he proves fast enough, the IAAF won’t let him:

Paralympic 400m star Oscar Pistorius has failed in his bid to compete at this year's Olympic Games in Beijing.

The IAAF, athletics' governing body, ruled his prosthetic limbs give him an advantage over able-bodied opponents and contravene rules on technical aids.

A scientific study revealed that Pistorius, nicknamed "Blade Runner", used 25% less energy than able-bodied runners to run at the same speed.

Mr. Pistorious has been an amputee since infancy, and has been a dominant runner in Paralympic competitions for disabled runners at 400 meters. But the wrong way to react to this story is to treat the IAAF, track’s governing body, as engaging in “discrimination,” or to suppose that Mr. Pistorius, for all his compelling and remarkable achievements, has any kind of “right” to run in the Games.

The modern Games are ultimately valuable, the silly post-nationalist dreams of their founders and the fanatic nationalism of some national Olympic committees notwithstanding, because of what they do for fans. What do fans want? I think a useful model is to suppose that they want to know who the world’s best athletes in various events are, and the Games and/or world championships settle that question. What does “best” mean? Primarily who is the best-endowed by genetics, and who can best enhance this endowment with difficult work – training, discipline and the like.

When we watch the 400m event, we want to know who the fastest runner in the world is. We do not want him mechanically enhanced in any way. It is not uninteresting or even without some inspirational value to test whether Mr. Pistorius could run as fast as the world’s fastest non-disabled runners (apparently at the moment he is not quite there yet), but that is a separate competition. His entry would be more in the manner of a tennis player who wins competitions despite inferior talent and/or training, strictly through the use of a new, ultra-powerful racket. It is no objection to say that Mr. Pistorious surely trains hard, even harder perhaps than a non-disabled athlete, because of his handicaps. Undoubtedly he does train extremely hard, but his mechanical assistance simply gives him an unknowable advantage over the other runners, and thus his inclusion in the contest makes the race itself less compelling.

Thinking about athletic contests this way gives some insight as to why some ways to enhance performance – rigorous diet and training – are allowed by sports governing bodies, and some – such technological aids as ultra-powerful golf clubs or tennis rackets, or performance-enhancing drugs – are not. The former are admired by fans, who want to evaluate discipline in conjunction with natural gifts. We admire the supremely talented athlete, as well as the one who makes it to the highest levels without as much in the way of talent but with much more in the way of hard work. The latter category of aids provides no signal of discipline, and allows someone of lesser talent to improve his ranking without resort to sacrifice, other things equal. It is simply not as appealing to watch a sporting contest when one cannot tell whether the winner was the winner because of some competition of talent and discipline, or because of some assistance he got that does not reflect these things. Thus it ever was (no sooner did commercial athletic contests, especially swimming, begin in the late 1800s than people began to cheat with medicines, and efforts to detect this cheating quickly followed), and thus it ever shall be.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

John Galt Meets Reddy Kilowatt

The American Thinker recounts a proposal to allow the state to control whether you freeze or bake:

What should be controversial in the proposed revisions to Title 24 is the requirement for what is called a "programmable communicating thermostat" or PCT. Every new home and every change to existing homes' central heating and air conditioning systems will required to be fitted with a PCT beginning next year following the issuance of the revision. Each PCT will be fitted with a "non-removable " FM receiver that will allow the power authorities to increase your air conditioning temperature setpoint or decrease your heater temperature setpoint to any value they chose. During "price events" those changes are limited to +/- four degrees F and you would be able to manually override the changes. During "emergency events" the new setpoints can be whatever the power authority desires and you would not be able to alter them.

In other words, the temperature of your home will no longer be yours to control. Your desires and needs can and will be overridden by the state of California through its public and private utility organizations. All this is for the common good, of course.

Electricity generation in California is plagued by bad incentives. During the notorious power crisis a few years back, it turned out that while electricity costs to utilities that needed to buy it from elsewhere because of high demand could become very expensive, passing those costs on to users through higher prices (perhaps even allowing prices to vary by the minute) was not, due to extensive consumer-price regulation. This is a recipe for a problem, and California has one. The proper solution is to make users of electricity pay more of the consequences of their choices for others through the price system. The proposed solution, unsurprisingly, is to curse the fact that people respond to incentives and to react by increasing the extent to which the state controls people’s lives. I mean, really – the government can, merely by declaring an “emergency,” control the temperature in your home?

I suspect that for now this proposal will go nowhere – there is still sufficient common sense dispersed among the people of California for that. But that authorities now feel comfortable proposing such a thing suggests to me that some sort of unsettling bridge has now been crossed in the Golden State.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Live by Bean-Counting, Die by Bean-Counting

Gloria Steinem, who was a significant public figure in the middle portion of the last century, is not happy that Hillary Clinton’s assumed entitlement to the presidency may come to grief at the hands of a “black” male:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

Ms Steinem, like all those who expect us to vote for a female candidate because she is female, is reaping what she has sown. She argues that it is not right to compare the sufferings of blacks and women before going on to do just that, and then indicates that in fact women suffer more from prejudice. (As proof, she cites the low representation of women in US legislatures compared to Europe. This is true, but European countries lag well behind the US in the extent to which women rise in the management ranks in private business. But never mind; it is only the right to rule over others that counts, not the right to chart your own destiny.)

The whole elect-me-because-I’m-X movement is based on degrees of oppression at the hands of the ruling class, usually taken to mean white males, which generates an entitlement for the aggrieved groups. Once you accept the legitimacy of this approach to democracy, comparisons of who suffered more are inevitable. (To his credit, Sen. Obama has tried to craft a leftist post-tribal politics for which Americans, unbeknownst to the multiculturalists, are more than ready. Perhaps this explains his popularity.)

If Sen. Clinton loses the nomination to Sen. Obama, I will take a perhaps unseemly pleasure in watching the bean-counting advocates of one genetic pressure group seeing their standard-bearer lose not to a white male, but to a perceived member of another genetic pressure group. (I say “perceived” because Sen. Obama, like many Americans, has mixed “racial” heritage.)

Is such schadenfreude wrong?


Monday, January 07, 2008

Multiculuralism and Cultural Segregation

Philip Johnston has an opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. It concerns the reaction to an earlier piece by Michael Nazir-Ali, a British Anglican bishop of Pakistani descent, who warned that extreme Islam in the UK was turning into forced segregation for more and more Muslims, and in particular generating “no-go” areas for non-Muslims.

Whether that is true I cannot say, and even if so it would be far from unusual; there are many urban neighborhoods in the US where, especially after dark, an outsider of the wrong hue is well-advised not to find himself. But I am struck by the title of Mr. Johnston’s article – “Multiculturalism Is Breeding Intolerance.” Here are the key paragraphs:

In truth, the bishop has simply articulated what many in the Government and in the race relations world have already come to realise (and which most of the rest of us understood years ago), and that is the baleful consequences of three decades of multiculturalism. Last year, even the Commission for Racial Equality, once a cheerleader for the concept, recanted with a report that depicted Britain as an unequal and segregated nation in danger of breaking up.

Like Bishop Nazir-Ali, it feared that extremism was being fostered by the retreat of different groups behind their ethnic walls. For many years, those who wanted Britain to be recognised as a multicultural society which needed to revise, or even jettison, five centuries of Protestant hegemony held centre stage. Anyone who questioned it had their reputations trashed. The multiculturalists even coined an insult - Islamophobia - to try to close down the debate. Some of them yesterday accused the bishop of "scaremongering".

But while multiculturalism began as a facet of Britain's characteristic toleration of other people's ways, religions, cuisines, languages and dress, it metamorphosed into a political creed that held that ethnic minority groups should be allowed to do what they like. It became a guiding principle of governance. When he became prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair urged the nation to embrace multiculturalism. Almost 10 years later, as he prepared to leave Downing Street, he was making speeches informing immigrants they had "a duty" to integrate with the mainstream of society. "Conform to it; or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed," he said.

We have to tread carefully here; the word “multiculturalism” is a slippery one. I take it to mean the official acknowledgment of differences among groups, and the belief that those differences should be tolerated, enjoyed, and even reinforced through government policy. It is an ideology that is more advanced in Europe than the US, where the assimilationist ideology, while battered, is still afloat.

We should not be surprised that policies that subsidize separation, e.g. through separate themed schools for each group or government accommodation of each group’s distinctive cultural need, in fact generate more separation. And I think that multiculturalism has another subtly insidious fault – its discouragement of cultural mixing and the breaking down of barriers that result. It is true that humans tend to cleave into groups, but it is equally true that, especially among the young, they seek to taste forbidden fruit by breaking through these group boundaries. They intermarry, they fuse music and food, they adopt the styles of other groups in ways that seem threatening to their elders. Young black and white youth speak each other’s slang, and transgress by listening to one another’s music. Reform Jews manage to accommodate Judaism to modernity, as do Mormons who, forced by their desire to be part of America, abandon polygamy and harsh racial doctrines. This is cultural exchange and evolution in a truly free society.

But it is not so when traditions and distinctiveness are actively encouraged. Multiculturalism works against this healthy pattern, by insisting that each group is a distinct cell, in need of having its boundaries reinforced. (See my essay “Who Hates Globalization?" for an exploration of how the desire by some to maintain this separation generates opposition to global contact of all kinds.) The Muslim or Mormon or black or white father (or mother) who is upset about the way his children are abandoning the tradition for the broader society’s profanely diverse stew has support in a society where “multiculturalism” is explicitly encouraged that he does not have in a society that welcomes all but reinforces the segregation of none.

By making the group the unit of analysis, and assuming uncritically that group norms are constant and cannot benefit from exposure to the norms of different groups, multiculturalism promotes continued self-segregation, and the punishment by members of some groups – from shunning all the way to honor killing – of those who wish to escape their own group’s norms. By preventing, say, members of group X from socializing with members of group Y and learning how Y has reconciled their traditions with the needs of a modern, diverse society, X is relegated to a cultural ghetto, which means that X continues to stay apart from Y and everyone else, and its anger over perceived slights (especially those involving perceived unequal treatment by the state) continues to fester. The peoples of consciously “multicultural” societies should not be surprised at what fruit these seeds have generated.


Another Drug-Company Outrage

To a great extent presidential debates are dog-and-pony shows, full of canned, well-rehearsed lines. But sometimes you watch them, for example the Saturday ABC GOP and Democratic debates in New Hampshire, and you learn some things. I learned, for example, that Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are absolutely miserable debaters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; the British seem to value witty repartee in their politicians, but it’s not obvious to me that it makes for a good president.

I also learned that all the Democratic candidates have adopted this peculiar tic of referring to the country just west of India as POK-iss-tawn, rather than the way Americans have traditionally pronounced it, PACK-iss-tan. It is true that the former is how Pakistanis themselves say it, but English people pronounce “Manchester” differently than we do, and there is no rush to alter how we say that. This is of course silly political correctness, a phenomenon I have written about before in exactly this context.

Finally, I learned something substantial amidst all the one-liners and sound bites – a real moment of spontaneity that told me something about two of the candidates. It was between Gov. Romney and Sen. McCain:

MCCAIN: It's because of the power of the pharmaceutical companies. We should have pharmaceutical companies competing to take care of our Medicare and Medicaid patients.

ROMNEY: OK, don't leave me. Don't send the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys.

MCCAIN: Well, they are.

ROMNEY: No, actually they're trying to create products to make us well and make us better, and they're doing the work of the free market.

And are there excesses? I'm sure there are, and we should go after excesses. But they're an important industry to this country.

This is a purely instinctive response, in which two candidates were forced off-message by the flow of the debate. And it was quite revealing. To Gov. Romney, drug companies are fundamentally out there to create value for consumers; they make medicines that improve people’s lives. To Sen. McCain, they are fundamentally chiselers, operating at the forbearance of the almighty state, and in business mostly to rip the government off. (My book critically investigates, in Chapter 5, this whole notion of “corporate power.”) My admiration for Gov. Romney, and contempt for Sen. McCain, rose markedly at this moment.

Meanwhile, out in the positive-sum world of the market and away from the zero-sum, conflict-ridden world of politics, here is what an actual drug company is doing, according to the BBC:

A single jab that could give lifelong protection against all types of flu has produced promising results in human trials.

The vaccine, made by Acambis, should protect against all strains of influenza A - the cause of pandemics.

Currently, winter flu jabs have to be regularly redesigned because the flu virus keeps changing.

The new vaccine would overcome this and could be stockpiled in advance of a bird flu outbreak, say experts.

Each year winter flu kills around 4,000 people in the UK.

Globally, between 500,000 and one million people die each year from influenza.

But a pandemic of the human form of bird flu, which experts believe is inevitable, could kill as many as 50m people worldwide.

The usual disclaimers about a long distance between initial human trials and actual widespread use apply; influenza is still a deadly threat, and has not been turned into polio yet. Like every pressure group, drug companies attempt to manipulate power to their own ends (by prohibiting Americans from exposing the free-riding of the Canadian health system by being allowed to buy drug cheaper there, for example). But while people like John McCain are obsessed about corporate “power,” people who work in actual corporations are, as usual, trying to solve real problems.


Friday, January 04, 2008

The Corruption of Science

Gilbert Omenn is a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. And according to Breitbart, he is really worried that Mike Huckabee might be president:

"The logic that convinces us that evolution is a fact is the same logic we use to say smoking is hazardous to your health or we have serious energy policy issues because of global warming…I would worry that a president who didn't believe in the evolution arguments wouldn't believe in those other arguments either. This is a way of leading our country to ruin…If our country starts to behave irrationally whereas all the other countries coming up and chasing us (to take over as the world leaders in science and technology) behaving rationally, we are doomed."

My goodness – we are doomed if a guy who doesn’t believe in purely materialistic Darwinism is elected president? The good professor seems unaware that the President of the United States, subject to checks and balances, a presumed veto-proof minority (if not much more) in Congress that doesn’t wish to see creationism in the schools, and the small federal role in education policy, would be able to do next to nothing about whether creationism is taught in which schools.

As a professor at one of America’s better universities, Prof. Omenn is presumably very good in his field. Perhaps he should stick to it, because he knows nothing about politics, about public policy and its tradeoffs, etc. It seems almost too easy to note that we had a healthier (in the political sense) republic when smoking rates were much higher, when climate-change hysteria was not the order of the day, etc. An intelligent person concerned about climate change beyond what the natural sciences have to say about it might ask a few questions, such as:

(1) How many years of life have been saved because cheap fossil-fuel transportation has increased access to medical care – the patients who can fly to elite hospitals, the patients who can be transported rapidly by ambulance to the local ones?

(2) What is the total effect of restraints by humans on human-induced climate change likely to be? What “solutions” are politicians likely to give us, and what human freedoms and advances in living conditions will we then be forced to give up?

But if he is like most politically engaged iscientists, Prof. Omenn has no time for such Hobbesian complexities. Like most such scientists, he has all the answers, the fragile traditions of American self-governance be damned. Whatever we do to the climate, or whatever the extent of creationism in the schools ends up being (almost certainly modest, as the recent ousting of pro-creationist school officials in Kansas demonstrates), the republic and the citizens in it will continue to get along, managing and coping and handling whatever problems arise.

Natural scientists are among the most admired Americans, often for good reason. But increasingly they are joining their fellow intellectuals in the social sciences and the humanities in the fatal embrace of political power – their belief that the future of the country, even civilization itself depends on paying attention only to that which concerns them, obeying them without question, and not giving any critical thought to the consequences. They, or at least the ones who like to see their names in the paper, seem to be increasingly of the view that they know things we don't, not about their fields of expertise but about what to do about that knowledge. Our scientific establishment is very robust, and we are much the better for it. But their unique expertise ends at the laboratory’s edge.

In Defense of Iowa

The caucuses are in the books, and before they fade away into irrelevancy’s vast archive (Mike Huckabee is never going to be president), it is worth answering a few criticisms of the caucus process.

The most important criticism is that they are “undemocratic.” Ted Strickland, governor of Ohio, so characterized them (“hugely undemocratic,” lest there be any confusion) right before his candidate, Sen. Clinton, went down to defeat. But the caucuses are not a national election; they are the method the two major parties in Iowa use to choose their delegates to the national conventions, and can be run on any principles, democratic or not, that party officials favor. (The two caucuses actually differ in some ways.)

The idea that every element in modern politics boils down to “democracy” is a gradual evolution (metastasis?) in our body politic. The Constitution was constructed primarily with the partially cross purposes of creating a government that functions better than that of the Articles of Confederation, but which would not grow to strangle, as so many had before it, the people’s liberty. The democratic franchise (extended only to the US House, and with states determining eligibility to vote) was only a part of this package – a minor part, I would argue, next to checks and balances, separation of powers, and federalism. The modern obsession with turning everything in the sphere of government into majority rule is nothing short of a breakdown of the Constitutional bargain, and democracy has no particular place in how parties in one state go about determining their preferences for presidential nominees.

Second, allegedly, the caucuses favor only the most motivated. It is easy to mock the way their arcane rules, and their implicit requirement that someone have several hours of free time to squander on a cold night, mean that only political junkies show up. (See Gail Collins doing this very badly here). But I think it is the sort of people who need artificial inducements to vote, by leaving registration forms in motor vehicle bureaus and public-assistance offices, or through propaganda on behalf of rent seeking-cum-“civic engagement”, who are least qualified to determine our leaders. Frankly, if you didn’t give a rat’s patoot about who the president is going to be until someone hectored you into doing so, you ought to stick to the life you do care about. The more interested you are in the republic’s destiny, the more valuable your participation is. In that sense, the difficulty and deliberative nature of the caucuses is a blessing, not a curse.

It could be argued that the caucuses promote special-interest pleading because their low participation rates make them easy to manipulate by people seeking special favors, but I suspect the opposite is true. The problem with larger political populations in a lobbying environment is that while special-interest benefits may still be concentrated among the few, costs (via taxes or small but widespread increases on consumer-product prices) are spread out among many. Beneficiaries, with large per capita benefits, will have an incentive to lobby the government, while those who pay the freight pay it in very small amounts per capita, and so don’t find it worth their time and other resources to counter-lobby. But in a caucus/primary comparison, the mechanics are different. In a smaller caucus environment, those who oppose such rent-seeking not just because they pay higher prices or taxes but on general principles will still show up, effectively counterbalancing the chiselers. Caucuses benefit extremists, but they benefit all extremists, including limited-government extremists. Primaries, in contrast, hand out decision-making power to all, to those who care and those who don’t in equal measure. In Iowa, that environment on the right favors social rather than fiscal conservatives, but that is a problem of Iowa (with many social conservatives and few advocates of limited government) going first and not of the caucus structure in general.

Finally, the diversity complaint. Iowa is one of the whitest states in the union (as is New Hampshire), and its failure to match up, genotype-wise, with the nation at large is said to be one of its most grievous flaws. In that this argument only considers one type of diversity (racial/ethnic) to be of importance, and that it reduces the act of individual political participation to mindless group dynamics, I think it unworthy of much consideration.