Reason at Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

This video of reason editors interviewing people at the Stewart/Colbert rally this weekend in DC is very entertaining. It’s well worth watching all the way to the end — in fact the last few seconds are especially hilarious. I LOLed several times throughout.

While the two guys at the end are kind of hard to beat, I think the woman who criticizes people who compare other people to Nazis, only to concede it’s a pretty apt comparison in the case of George W. Bush comes in a close second. Let me know in the comments which parts made you laugh (or cry) the most.

Shelby Steele Identifies the Party of Bad Faith in America

I read Shelby Steele’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, and was astounded at Steele’s perceptiveness and courage in writing about President Obama’s identification with a certain kind of American: the kind who finds little but evil in his own nation, and virtue only in himself and his left-wing ethos.

Steele first devastates Obama’s policy making:

…His policymaking has been grandiose, thoughtless and bullying. His health-care bill was ambitious to the point of destructiveness and, finally, so chaotic that today no citizen knows where they stand in relation to it. His financial-reform bill seems little more than a short-sighted scapegoating of Wall Street. In foreign policy he has failed to articulate a role for America in the world. We don’t know why we do what we do in foreign affairs. George W. Bush at least made a valiant stab at an American rationale—democratization—but with Mr. Obama there is nothing.

He then describes the world view of those whose instinct is to blame their country, its citizens, and its distinctive institutions for all of the evil in the world:

Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ’60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the “imperialism” of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the ’60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America’s natural default position.

Yes.

So why am I astounded? I’m astounded because a respected public intellectual, an award winning author and journalist (and not “just a politician”), has identified a world view that is unique to the American left, and has in effect ascribed that world view to millions of Americans, along with their president and the current leaders of Congress. And we all know that those Americans find a home, almost to a man, in the modern Democratic party — the party currently headed by Barack Obama.

The Democratic party is the political home for Americans whose world view is based on bad faith in America. That’s what Shelby Steele is telling us. President Bush would have never said this — I’m not sure he was even capable of believing it. If candidate McCain had said it, he would have been savaged as a hater — as outside the mainstream. Let’s see what happens to Shelby Steele’s reputation in coming days and weeks.

Sit in the Back Republicans!

Anyone wondering whether the Obama people will have had enough of the “car in the ditch” analogy any time soon? Maybe Nancy Pelosi can pick up on it, and tell us we’ll need to buy the car so the American people can find out what’s in the trunk.

Honest question: can anyone remember, in eight long years, President George W. Bush demeaning the other party like President Obama has done regularly? Even once? All I can remember are things like his reaching across the aisle and working with people like Ted Kennedy. The current president may be the most partisan president of our lifetime.

James Donald’s Liberty File Collection

Quick post tonight to share a link to a very nice collection of webbed writings from the classical liberal and libertarian tradition collected, and sometimes written, by James A. Donald: http://www.jim.com

I don’t know James Donald, but I wish I did. He must be a long time denizen of the world wide web to be the owner of “jim.com”!

I found his essay on Natural Law and Natural Right to be fascinating reading. I think I first discovered this stuff 15 years or so ago. He spent a lot of time debating left wing anarchists over Spanish history, especially on what really happened in Catalonia. He also despises Chomsky, and has spent a lot of energy debunking Chomsky’s politics.

His demonstration that morality is objectively knowable was very influential in my thinking on these matters, and I still enjoy revisiting it from time to time.

Highly recommended.

Geithner Believes in Capitalism

Jokes Tunku Varadarajan…

Geithner must be a huge believer in capitalism, because he thinks it can withstand everything he’s throwing at it

Interesting piece, especially the embedded video of Niall Ferguson speaking at the Reboot America conference.

Defining Nuttiness

David D. Friedman has an essay (which I just now discovered, having been reintroduced to his blog) on what counts as “nutty.” Apparently this grew out of a series of previous posts about the putative “nuttiness” of Christine O’Donnell, Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware — who, in the absence of some deus ex machina, seems in any case destined to lose the race to an avowed Marxist and “pet” of Harry Reid named Coons.

Like everything DDF writes, every word is worth reading. But let’s cut to the chase:

So what does qualify one as a nut? I think the best answer I can come up with is holding beliefs that no reasonable person with your intellectual background could hold. In practice, since one rarely knows enough about some else’s background to apply that criterion, it comes down to observing how someone holds and defends his beliefs.

There are few minds I admire as much as I do DDF’s but I don’t think I agree with him here. Some of the commenters seem to have a position closer to what I hold.

What I think is meant by “nutty” is a single belief or set of beliefs that lies sufficiently outside the mainstream of the culture. Note that my definition of nuttery makes no mention of whether the beliefs have a basis in fact, or whether or not they are justified and true (as in knowledge). Nuttiness is an entirely social construct. And it is not a binary state, but one characterized by degree of divergence from the mainstream. It is completely contextual (time and place). Copernicus was a nut for believing that the planets moved around the sun. The Wright Brothers were nuts for believing man-made contraptions could fly. People who believe that AIDS was engineered by the CIA to wipe out the people of Africa are nuts. Libertarians are nuts, relative to the totality of modern Western civilization.

It’s an interesting question whether liberals and/or conservatives are nuts. Based on my definition, and looking at recent survey results, we might say that liberals are nuttier than conservatives, since around 40% of people describe themselves as conservative vs. around 20% as liberal. However, if we restrict our reference culture to the liberal salons of Manhattan, then it is conservatives who are nuts, whereas liberals are the people “who think and vote exactly like all the people I know.”

The really amusing or interesting nuts, though, are the 3-or-more-standard-deviation nuts. These are the people who really stand out from the crowd. People who think the “white race” was created by a Satanic scientist on the lost island of Patmos, for example. Or that returning to the gold standard would solve America’s economic problems. Or that wearing an energy bracelet can improve your balance.

Maybe you could provide some more amusing examples of the truly nutty in the comments section?

Citizens Against Government Waste and the Yellow Menace

At The Atlantic, James Fallows comments on the brilliance of the new Citizens Against Government Waste ad.

While I agree that this ad will resonate with the American people, the economics in it is really stupid.

This idea that if China “owns our debt” that we “work for them” or that they “own us” is severely mistaken. They have pretty pieces of paper (cash and T-bills) which have no value except that they can be exchanged some time in the future for goods and services produced by Americans, at prices we then set. That’s it. They’ve spent decades working their people like dogs to produce goods for us and get slips of paper in return. This has been a huge win for the American people. I hope China takes a long time to figure this out.

Over at The Belmont Club, a guy named Kaspar made the great point that you only buy the debt of someone who has a future. China buys our debt, we don’t buy theirs. They buy our debt because they think we have a future (again, for their sake, hopefully a future where we can produce real goods and services to sell them for their otherwise worthless fiat money and T-bills).

Their very real problem is that they aren’t going to be able to “keep ’em down on the farm” any longer now that Chinese peasants are used to improving their lives by moving to the cities to get jobs in industry. If they try to stop this, they may have a revolution on their hands. And that almost certainly means they’ll continue to export goods at amazing prices, to our benefit, for a very long time to come. And our idiot politicians are going to try to put an end to this, in part inspired by ads like this — I guess because they’d rather we were the ones working to export goods to the rest of the world in exchange for pieces of paper. Why would anyone in his right mind want to spoil this great thing we’ve got going on?

Juan Williams Hit the Jackpot

I’ve listened to Juan Williams’ reporting over the years on NPR, and have enjoyed his recent stint as a panelist on Brett Baier’s Special Report which I catch most weeknights. Like many others, I’ve come to appreciate the guy as an honest and reasonable liberal, with a real human quality. Come to think of it, I guess I can understand why he doesn’t fit in at NPR any more. What he was guilty of here was honesty: he admitted to a feeling that 99% of non-Muslim Americans would probably share (one poll I saw reported on Fox showed 88% of respondents agreeing with Williams – but that’s only those who were willing to admit it to the pollsters).

Anyway, he’s hit the jackpot now. I’m not sure he could have planned this any better. A $2 million-a-year contract with Fox News and (no doubt) a barrage of book deals from publishers seems like a very nice way to soothe the pain of his firing.

For many of the rest of us, we’ll also get to enjoy watching NPR and its posse of pipsqueaks be savaged by Bill O’Reilly, Fox News, and a number of other outfits on the political Right. Deservedly so. The Stalinist creature (Vivian Schiller) who appeared in a public interview to explain the firing, while simultaneously insinuating that Williams is either psycho or a publicity hound, is likely in for a long period of suffering or at the very least a lot of damage control. Ah, sweet, sweet Schadenfreude. (Would it be wrong of me to point out that in real life she doesn’t look like her airbrushed publicity photo?)

Ironically, I predict that, rather than making people more ashamed of their feelings of fear regarding Muslims on airplanes, this affair will make it more popular to admit the truth. Only the leftist totalitarians really enjoy political correctness – most Americans despise it, and sympathize with those who are forced to suffer at its hands.

In reading up on this issue, I also learned, for the first time, that Juan called Michelle Obama “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.” Ouch! Impolite, to be sure. But I can’t bring myself to hold it against him.

Good luck Juan.

On Banning Gay Marriage and Other Irrationalities

Why shouldn’t men be able to marry other men? Or women marry other women? Who is harmed? How can people be so bigoted? So close-minded? What do they have against gays? How does gay marriage do provable harm to heterosexual marriage? To children? To society? You can’t  demonstrate provable harm, so you have no reasonable basis on which to ban gay marriage.

These have been common rhetorical ricercare in the salons and blogs of the liberals and libertarians in recent years. They take a libertarian principle and carry it to its seemingly logical conclusion. The principle is that you have a right to liberty which can only be legitimately restricted (by the state, or otherwise) when it results in an infringement of my equal right to liberty. This is commonly stated more simply as “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” The conclusion is that, since gay marriages can have no such externalities (the economic term for when a freely swinging fist crashes into someone else’s nose, whether intentionally or not), there is no reason for the state to ban them, and no reason except fear or bigotry for the majority of Americans in most states to support such bans (as they evidently do, based on numerous polls over the past few years). In other words, the large majorities who wish to limit marriage to being between one man and one woman have nothing but irrational motivations for that preference.

I have at least one libertarian argument in favor of the proposition that marriage continue to be restricted to being between one man and one woman. But I have no intention of advancing one or more of those arguments in the current essay.

Instead I wish to examine the irrational world of “individual preference” and cultural norms. In order to make my thoughts clear to the reader, I first need to take a quick detour into economic “utility theory.”

People have something they pursue which economists refer to as “utility.” They like to increase their utility over time, or at least avoid any decrease in it. It’s not clear whether utility can be compared interpersonally because of its subjective nature. And it’s certainly not clear that a person’s utility function is anything like what we’d normally call “rational.” Some people like to sing praise to God on Sunday. Some people like to play soccer on the weekends. Some people like to climb mountains. Some people like to watch dog fights. Some people like to torture other human beings. Some people are happy to make lots and lots of money, and the more they make, they happier they get. Some people are happy if they make enough money for a decent living and have little desire to go beyond that.

People try to do what makes them happy (they try to maximize their utility), but since they live in a world where their actions provoke reactions, in both things and people, they must modify their actions to prevent a greater loss in utility via those reactions than that gained in the desired actions. For example, you may like to run dog fights, but your neighbors and fellow citizens may detest animal cruelty and punish you severely for doing so if you are caught. If the expected negative utility of that reaction (adjusted for the probability of being caught) exceeds in absolute terms the expected utility of achieving the desired end, rational people tend to avoid the desired action. They live in a constrained world where they are forced to accept less than that amount of happiness they could acquire in the absence of external impediments — some social and some simply physical.

But why, you may ask, should someone be offended by your wishing to stage dog fights? You may have a very well worked-out theory of property which states that any non-human entity can be property, to be disposed of as the owner sees fit. And you’ll find many to agree with you. Unfortunately for you, in 21st century America you’ll find many more people who will be offended by your actions. They’ll call for laws against dog fights, and may fine or imprison you if you persist in your behavior. They may oppose dog fights because they believe that such fights are cruel to animals, and that an animal’s right to live a life free of coerced pain trumps your right to use your property as you wish. An outside observer may see it differently, and conclude that their wish to avoid mental anguish at the suffering of animals trumps their willingness to let you use your property. I’m not sure the dog fight protesters have a coherent theory of rights, actually. I’m not sure I have a coherent theory of rights for that matter. But what I am fairly sure of is that they don’t wish to live in a society that allows cruelty to animals simply to afford pleasure to people they view as sadistic monsters. Their vision of a culture worth living in — a culture they themselves feel ownership in — does not include legal dog fighting. So they legislate bans on dog fighting.

I hope I’ve been able to establish an example wherein people have their (admittedly irrational and despicable) desires thwarted by a greater number of people acting in a democratic polity who wish to enforce their own cultural norms.

I’d now like to move on to another aspect of culture: sexual relations and their formalization in law and society.

Some men don’t ever want to be married. Some men have no greater desire than to marry one woman and settle down. Some men might like the idea of having a wife so much that they decide one is not enough and they’d like to practice polygyny.

Polygyny is illegal in the US by statute, as it is in most modern Western societies. From an economic perspective, this probably reflects the realization that polygyny would severely disadvantage most men (for every man who has four wives, there are three other men without wives). But the economic argument is considered and understood by few. Instead, monogamy is simply the accepted and enforced cultural norm. Norms like this evolved in the religious backgrounds and traditions of the people who created common law and the laws of these fifty states. People know what kind of culture they want. Strike that: it’s probably more accurate to say that they can tell you what kind of changes to their culture they don’t want, and won’t tolerate. And economic rationality often has little to do with it.

Regardless of the desire of a small minority to practice polygamy, the rest of us “like things the way they are, thank you very much.” We blithely pass and sustain laws that brutally repress those whose greatest desire in life is to marry multiple people. And most of us are perfectly happy to live with that.

A good friend of mine once described what he called the “Pat Buchanan position” in politics and culture: We like the culture to be a certain way. We may say that’s because it’s more beautiful, or satisfying, than some other cultural configuration. We like it the way it is. It’s ours. It’s evolved in an organic way over the centuries or millennia. It’s probably not perfect. But it’s worth preserving, maybe even worth dying for. I’d surmise that this in fact has been the position of 99.999999% of humans since civilization began, and probably even before. This Pat Buchanan model of culture and politics describes what amounts to an irrational bias. It explains things like patriotism and nationalism. It makes no appeal to economics.

Nor does modern economics or philosophy really present a challenge to this. We more and more accept that people are at their core irrational, in terms of what they pursue with their lives. Where rationality comes in is to provide a means to pursue those irrational goals. At least that’s my current view.

So, it’s quite simply the case that you can’t say whether someone is wrong or right, virtuous or villainous, in preferring a culture of monogamy to one of polygamy. They just do. In practice, then, they care about things that other people do, even if it doesn’t affect them directly, so long as it somehow affects the culture. And much as in the case of banning dog fights, they are more than happy to ban polygamy.

People like what marriage means in their culture, who’s allowed to participate in it, and under what conditions, and most have little enthusiasm about changing it.

Note that many, if not most, of these same cultural conservatives (which most people in history have been, overwhelmingly — for good or ill) would be in favor of the establishment of legal civil unions between same sex partners (or other people where warranted, such as two adult brothers uniting to care for a severely disabled younger orphaned sibling) so that common rights which married couples have can be shared by certain classes of unmarried people. They just don’t want what they think of as marriage to be redefined in the culture.

Where we’ve made great progress in the West is in finding ways for people to be relatively free even where they come up against cultural barriers. Compare the majority American attitude toward gays as reflected in their government and their laws and their entertainments to that in modern Iran. In America, we more often than not say that gays can create civil unions, and certainly do whatever they like in the privacy of their homes. In the theocracy of Iran, the government refuses to accept that gays exist (you may remember Ahmadinejad telling an audience at Columbia University that there are no gays in Iran).

“We” don’t like polygamy. “We” don’t like gay marriage. “We” don’t like public nudity. None of these three practices would mean the end of the human race if practiced widely. But they would change the prevailing culture in ways most people would prefer it not be changed. And this is because these are by their nature public things, rather than private things. This is the ingrained cultural conservatism we saw in the Hispanic and Black populations in California who voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8, even while voting in similarly overwhelming numbers for welfare state progressivism. Is this irrational? Yes. But so is all preference, including cultural preference.

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