Yesterday, I critiqued a video that used Pascal’s Wager to implore us to take drastic action in order to fight the threat of global warming.
It occurred to me that my critique might be a bit more forceful if I showed how trying to predict future outcomes using incorrect assumptions leads to unintended, bad consequences. There’s no better way to do this than to explore a few historical events and the way society reacted to them.
Here are a few examples I came up with:
-Nutrition advice in the 1960s
Each of these events can easily be put into the rubric of Pascal’s Wager using the incorrect assumptions used at the time.
In the late 1950s, heart disease was a major concern for health professionals and politicians alike. It was such a major concern, that Congress and various bureaucracies of the Federal Government insisted that drastic action must be taken soon to stave off a major disaster.
Let’s fit it into Pascal’s Wager:
Either saturated fat is a major contributor to heart disease and is responsible for killing thousands of people a year, or it’s not.
If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: The consequences will be dire. Tens of thousands could die in the coming decades.
Drastic action was taken and the Federal Government came up with nutritional guidelines outlined in the now infamous Food Pyramid. These weren’t just recommendations. School children have been indoctrinated with these guidelines for 40 years. Doctors and nutritionists have followed them religiously. Countless millions (if not billions) of dollars have flowed into programs to ensure these guidelines were followed.
It’s only been within the last ten years or so that we’ve discovered that not only are these guidelines are most likely wrong, they’re probably murderous. We are dealing with health epidemics which could not even begin to be be imagined 40 years ago. Cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, etc, have exploded all over the country.
Why? Because it turns out that the original assumptions were wrong. Saturated fats are far more beneficial and far less harmful than originally thought. Complex carbohydrates are just the opposite.
Eugenics was all the rage at the beginning of the 20th Century. Progressives were all a flutter about taking drastic action to ensure that not only the white race not be mixed with what they deemed “inferior stock,” but that other deficiencies be culled from the gene pool as well. It was feared that the white race would all but disappear from the face of the earth, or more likely, become so bogged down with genetic imperfections as to destroy it.
Either race mixing and undesirable genetics will destroy the white race, or it won’t.
If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race will be saved, and civilization will not be destroyed.
Drastic action was taken and Federal/State governments, as well as numerous private organizations funded by the leading Progressives of the day, put into motion a system of forced eugenics, forced sterilization, and immigration policies which still live with us today.
The torrid tale spans from Cold Harbor, to tiny Appalachian mountain towns. From the birth control movement to the front door of the White House. From local policy, all the way to Hitler’s gas chambers.
The War on Drugs:
The war on drugs goes back over a century, but for the purposes of this example, we’ll start in 1971 with President Nixon. At that time, drugs were considered to be a problem so monumental and pressing that drastic action was immediately needed.
Illegal drug use is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, or it isn’t.
If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization is saved.
Drastic action was taken. Billions of dollars have been poured into the War on Drugs over the past 40 years by Federal and State governments.
Well, the results are too legion to list out individually. Suffice it to say, it has proven to be one of the most colossal failures any modern government has ever been responsible for. In terms of money wasted, lives ruined, rights lost, and people murdered, the War on Drugs has brought this nation to its knees. I challenge anyone who says it’s hyperbole to speculate that short of complete decriminalization and dismantling of the system built up to keep the War on Drugs going, America will never recover from it.
This is my main concern about the video I critiqued yesterday. It’s not so much that the gentleman is attempting to fit and extremely complex problem based on uncertainty into an overly simplistic model. It’s that he’s starting with an unquestioned assumption which you are just supposed to accept, no questions asked.
Why is taxation, regulation, and government control the solution? I have no idea. He doesn’t bother to explain. It’s just an axiom that you’re supposed to accept.
Why will taxation, regulation, and government control work this time, when it has proved to be a disaster in the past? Again, I have no idea. Not only doesn’t he bother to explain, one gets the impression that he’s never even considered it. It goes beyond being axiomatic to being a religious belief. There’s nothing of any substance to his belief other than faith.
But, even with all the historical examples available to us (I’ve only touched on three), we are made to believe that this time, if drastic action is taken, it will avert disaster. And, what’s the worst that can happen if he’s wrong? According to him, the very worst that will happen is a global depression that “makes the depression of the 1930′s look like a cake walk.”
Except, that’s not the worst that could happen. Not even close.
Filed under: Uncategorized
I was sent this video this morning and asked to comment on it. It was described as, “One guy with a marker just made the global warming debate completely obsolete,” on upworthy.com.
The person making the argument starts out with this challenge: “Nobody I’ve shown this argument to has been able to poke a hole in it.”
Before we start, keep in mind that this video was made in 2007. I don’t know if this gentleman has changed his views on the matter or not, so I’m not going to assume either way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that he may not understand the economics behind what he is proposing. But, economics or no, there are some serious problems with his line of thinking.
To begin with, this is nothing more than an obfuscated attempt at Pascal’s Wager.
In 1669, Blaise Pascal invited humanity to consider the following:
Either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
The wager set in motion a new field of probability theory, which still exists today. At the time, it was considered a groundbreaking argument, made on wholly pragmatic grounds.
Now, I contend that when atheists call this wager a “fallacy,” they are over-reaching a bit. Given the strict definitions of the argument, Pascal is basically right. If there is a God, and you don’t believe in Him, you’re going to burn (working within the parameters of 17th Century Christian scholarship).
Pascal was working in a world where the boundaries are clearly delineated. Do X, and Y will happen. Don’t do X, and Z will happen.
The fallacy lies in in the “if God doesn’t exist,” statements. Who is Blaise Pascal to say that anyone’s life was lived well according to his definitions? How many wasted hours were spent worshiping a deity that didn’t exist? What could have been accomplished otherwise?
It’s the ultimate Broken Window Fallacy. All Blaise Pascal sees is a person who lived a life in alignment with his preferences, regardless if those preferences are based on truth or not. What he doesn’t see are the infinite possibilities lost. In short, Blaise Pascal lacks imagination. He dismisses the unseen.
Pascal also fails to understand that the person who doesn’t believe in a God that doesn’t exist still must deal with being a heretic in a world of believers. That could be very, very bad for you, indeed.
A more honest version of Pascal’s argument would look like this:
If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
Okay, enough with the background…you see where I’m going with this. Let’s spot the fallacies within the fallacy:
If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results are global depression and wasted money.
Unlike Pascal’s theoretical world, this world is much more uncertain. We’re not dealing with the clearly delineated choices between heaven and hell (infinite good vs. infinite bad). Instead, we’re dealing with speculation based on uncertainty.
How does this gentleman propose that we deal with speculation based on uncertainty? By taking significant, clearly defined action, of course. What action might that be? He let’s you know right at the 2:38 mark: Taxation, regulation, and government control.
Why is this the action that needs to be taken? No answer. It’s just an a priori axiom we are supposed to accept.
Why is it assumed that the action proposed will result in the conclusions proposed? No answer. It’s just something you’re supposed to know, for some reason.
In fact, the conclusions could be infinitely worse than what he proposes. It could result in mass starvation, continued abject poverty for the majority of the world, and outbreaks of war leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. The “what is the worst that can happen” conclusion could be every bit as bad as the worst that can happen if global warming is happening, and we don’t take action. Both are infinitely bad.
Now, what if the assumptions were switched?
If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action: UNKNOWN. (The unbeliever still has to live in a world full of believers, after all).
If global warming is happening, and we do take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad times infinity.**
If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, the results could be infinitely bad.
Why is the last conclusion unknown? Because, nobody is talking about the benefits global warming could have on the world. I mean that seriously. Allow yourself to think of the kinds of benefits a rise of a few degrees in temperature over the span of a hundred years would have.
And, that’s the crux of the whole problem. We are being asked to imagine a future world free of all possibilities except two, both infinitely bad.
We are crippling ourselves by thinking this way. We are ignoring infinite possibilities, the stunning complexity of randomness, the laws of economics, spontaneous order, marginal utility, and we are assuming that we know what the best solution is for all of humanity based on speculation and uncertainty squeezed into a wager that was made 350 years ago.
This isn’t an argument. This isn’t proof. This tiny little exercise did not “just make the global warming debate completely obsolete.” This is simply another attempt at justifying controlling the entire global economy by the enlightened because the benighted just won’t pray hard enough.
**Pay attention to this particular point. The person in the video readily admits that to take significant action in a world where global warming isn’t happening will cause harm. But, he understates his case by many factors. Not only will it cause harm, it is very likely that it will be catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us. A few minutes later, he invites us to assume that these actions will be beneficial if global warming is really happening, because…in his estimation, these actions will stop something which will cause catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
And, he’s not even considering that the drastic action he proposes may well have zero effect on global warming. Worse, he doesn’t consider that these drastic actions may make global warming worse, instead of solving it.
What happens when you apply a solution that may well have catastrophic consequences on a world where global warming is not happening to a world where global warming is happening? What happens if that “solution” has zero effect on global warming, or makes it worse, because it’s the very opposite of a solution?
The ultimate fallacy here is, the proposal this gentleman is urging us all to wager on has the possibility of being the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It’s infinite bad (2)^infinity.
Filed under: Environment
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This weekend, Justin Stoddard brought up Arthur Koestler’s views on faith, in the context of Mises on human action. The discussion at first struck me as tangential to the main thrust of the first chapter of Human Action, which we both read as part of an attempt at a tandem, co-ordinated reading. But considering that in that first chapter Mises tries to mark the differences between praxeology, the theory of action, and other domains of thought, such as psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., and that faith would normally be thought to reside somewhere in these other domains, perhaps it is not so tangential. Perhaps it is a good prefatory discussion.
Like Justin, the common maxim that warns us that you “cannot reason a person out of a position that person did not reason himself into” is obviously false. It may be that I did not “reason myself into” the religion of my family; it was “in the air,” a part of my heritage as much as the house I lived in the and the forest nearby: I did reason myself out of it, though.
Most people never accomplish any task of a similar nature. They fall into a religion, or an ideology, like they fall into love: the object of adoration was near at hand, and quite serviceable, and seemed willing to reciprocate and meet some basic needs of the psyche. Most people become liberals or conservatives in this way, and I’m sure some libertarians are born this way, too.
It was Justin, also, who brought up matters of belief as an element of reason, rationality. This is not the primary object of Mises’ interest, in Human Action. But, to clear the way for future commentary, I’ll consider, briefly, the doctrine of the minimum wage legislation, which Justin mentioned as if a stand-in for the many positions of libertarianism (a social philosophy Justin and I both hold to). And I’ll do this in frank autobiography.
When I was a teen, and extricating myself from the faith of my mother and my aunts, et aliae, I was also beginning the process of settling on a political ideology. I considered myself a liberal. I deemed my basic attitudes liberal, and on some important issues I favored liberty over regulation. But I had been taught in school and from the TV (and in part from my encyclopedia set) that concern for the poor had led to laws like those establishing a minimum wage, and I was basically accepting of the practice, and many others of our society and its government.
But I had the wit enough to see that minimum wage laws were comparable to laws about marriage and sex (say, the prohibition of prostitution) that I objected to. So I thought the only rational thing to do was consider the case against the minimum wage, as made by some economists and most libertarians.
That case involved scarcity, wealth production, supplies and demands, etcetera, and I became convinced that minimum wage laws didn’t have the univocally good results hoped for and trusted in — as, I could see, a matter of faith — by proponents of the dirigiste state. I knew some folks who, without blinking, supported minimum wage laws and legal prostitution, both, without blinking an eye. And yet it was obvious that laws against prostitution were of a similar nature to minimum wage laws. Both prohibited certain contracts at certain rates. Both had seemingly plausible arguments in their favor, but neither worked as their proponents thought.
The “faith” element, here, is the belief in the advisability of a program while refusing to believe in the negative effects of the program in question, or of judging the program on the general results, or with reference to those results. Some evidence must not be not considered.
And the world is a complicated enough place that one can easily shield one’s eyes from things one doesn’t want to see. There’s always something else to look at.
In the case of the political opponent of prostitution, it’s the inherent vileness of the activity as it is when the practice is illegal, and the pure morality of sexual activity confined to pure barter in bilateral monopoly. The negative effects of anti-prostitution laws are just a “cost of promoting the good.” Or, it is asserted, though without much careful thought, “the cost of ameliorating a great evil.”
Mutatis mutandis, it is just so with the opponents of low wage contracts. The suffering of the people who must endure low-paid work gets concentrated on, as does, even more so, the imagined alternative: higher wages — hooray! The idea that the actual alternative under minimum wage laws is that at least some segment of the low-skill labor force will suffer no employment? Blankout. Not addressed.
I noticed this at the time. I was the only liberal I knew who had looked squarely at the arguments made against minimum wage laws. And when I would relate these arguments back to fellow liberals, they dismissed them, not merely with lack of interest, but derision. These people who made them did not care about the poor!
And I have heard this reaction many times since.
My own take was that a person who wishes to help the poor, upon hearing that one’s chosen means to do the work would not work, instead of rejecting the news, would be concerned, and look into it. Why? Because of the ostensible aim, helping the poor. If one did not look closely at the challenge, then it was obvious that helping the poor was not the real aim. The real aim might be something more like “seeming to help the poor” or “appearing moral.”
And this is where my commonality with Mises becomes clear. He aims to provide reason to the processes of causation from human choice, to clear up the confusions, and to find the regularities in social causation. His science, that of a rather formal ends and means structure, he calls praxeology. It is the underlying principle to much of the work done by economists up to his time.
As Mises saw it, the main opponents of the development of such a science have been those whose approach to social life and public policy relied too heavily on faith and defensive inattention. And so Human Action, in the course of developing the principles of praxeology, also elaborates quite a few critiques of the dominant faiths of the age — many of which remain dominant after all the years since Mises first published his great book.
Praxeology does not itself require faith. It requires careful reasoning to figure out. One reasons one’s way into an understanding of economics.
But it is possible to sloppily approach a doctrine of laissez-faire, and proceed on faith. I know many libertarians who rely entirely on their bets about the world, and do little actual investigation into the reality of the underlying claims. That’s only natural. Human beings have limited time. Not everyone can be an economist, or philosopher.
But I don’t think we should equate those libertarians whose approach is almost entirely intuitive with those who have engaged in deep study. The libertarian faith and the libertarian wisdom have at least some differences. Much of it relies on what we bring to the issues. A deep prejudice for freedom is a great thing in a person, and it often leads to the full flower of a libertarian individual. But it’s not enough. Not if you really want to understand the world.
I am not sure that I’ve addressed what Justin was broaching. I’m pretty sure I have not in any way summarized the first chapter of Human Action.
But perhaps now we can proceed to a discussion of the book? We can return to the issue of faith — and, in general, of non-rational approaches to belief and action — as we proceed.
Filed under: Economic Theory, Philosophy
Sometime back in the beginning of September, several of us decided to form a somewhat losely affiliated book club in order to read and discuss Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. Though some of us have read all or part of it in the past, a chance to collaborate with like-minded people on a work of such importance could not be passed up. So, the date of October 1st was chosen to start our reading. I assure you, the government shutdown that also occurred that day was pure coincidence.
I’ve sped ahead of my co-readers somewhat, so to slow myself down, I’m also reading The God That Failed, which is a collection of essays by 20th Century writers about their disillusionment with Communism. As you might imagine, the subject matter of both books go well together.
I wrote the following on our Facebook wall:
This struck up an interesting back and forth between Brian McCall and myself:
Brian may be on to something here, but I’m not fully convinced. I often accuse liberal atheists of substituting their faith and belief in God with an equal faith and belief in government. I’m not the only one. So many people have recognized this phenomenon that the phrase “secular theist” has started trending. But, really, this is just a re-discovering of old attitudes. Old school atheists were very open about why theistic religion had to be sacrificed before secular religion could be implemented. The intellectuals of the day used this cynicism brilliantly. They simply shifted (sometimes with great violence) the Proletariat’s faith in God to a faith in the government.
The new atheists fail to see the connection at all. They scoff at the idea of God, but they become indignant when their faith in government is pointed out to them. Their faith is blind to them, even though they profess it daily.
I’ve often puzzled over why people are so blind to their faith in government. Why would one choose to believe that minimum wage laws not only work, but are actually beneficial? Why would one choose to believe that there can be such a thing as “free” health care?
Back to the original quote by Koestler:
It very well may be as Brian postulates. It may be that “faith” is an inherent instinct in all of us. Some of us are better at either tuning it out or repressing it.
I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. This faith we speak of is largely a social signaling system. It is acceptable to believe that minimum wage laws work and are beneficial because our peers believe it. It is acceptable to believe that going to the voting booth and pulling the lever actually does anything because our peers believe that it does.
That kind of faith seems incredibly rational to me.
Anyway, feel free to discuss.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Comments: 1 Comment
In an economic downturn, when massive business failures appear simultaneously, owners of the means of production need to find new uses for their discarded capital-intensive production processes, and investors need to find new forward-looking enterprises to place their funds, in hopes of some future return.
This is part of the recalculation necessary during the cluster of business errors called a depression.
The terminology I’m using is that of the Austrian school, of its capital theory as well as its theory of the business cycle.
And I’m applying it to this very blog.
Which has been comatose for some time.
I invite the former participants in The Lesson Applied to give Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, a careful reading. Or re-reading, as your case may be. Writers, contact me on Facebook and I’ll sign you up for Reading Matters, a Facebook group that will handle some of the technical matters of our co-ordinated reading. I propose to read this long treatise chapter by chapter, moving on when a consensus of active readers agree.
This blog will be location for our ruminations. That is, we will discuss the book and its ideas here.
Perhaps after we’ve read Human Action, the blog will revive back to its original purpose, of exploring the ramifications of policy upon market society, beyond stage one, as Thomas Sowell so neatly put it, in a Hazlittian spirit.
Always, lingering in our thoughts, will be Bastiat’s insight: where in Mises’ work does it fit?
Filed under: Economic Theory, Education, Philosophy
There are a number of important economic concepts illuminated by the excellent My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000″ (season 2, episode 15). I want to talk about them here, but warning, there are some pretty heavy spoilers within.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Recently, Krugman wrote that if you think the iPhone 5 will boost the econonmy, then you believe in the Broken Window theory. The Broken Window Theory, more accurately described as the Broken Window Fallacy, is the belief that destruction can boost the economy, as people, companies, and governments spend to replace them. Krugman is a big proponent of this plan, even going as far to argue that spending to prepare against a space alien threat would be good for the econonmy, even if it turned out to be false.
But I’ll focus here on Krugman’s iPhone argument. He writes:
If the iPhone 5 boosts the economy, and I believe it probably will, it’s because consumers feel it will create more value for them than the other uses they may have for their money. The “destruction” Krugman refers to people’s previous phones. But their other phones are not destroyed!
They could sell their old phone, give it to a family or friend, donate it to charity, or any number of other options. But they find purchasing a new phone to be worth it. If their previous phone was so truly bad that it doesn’t have other uses anymore and the best thing to do is throw it away, then by definition nothing of value has been lost, so even in this case there is no real destruction as meant by the Broken Window Fallacy, where the owner of property suffers an involuntarily loss.
But suppose there was an involuntary loss. Let’s say their old phone broke down and was out of warranty. In this case there certainly was destruction, and the person is buying the new phone to replace their old one. Maybe this is the case that Krugman means, although I would argue this is small minority of the iPhone 5 purchasers. But if these people wouldn’t have bought an iPhone 5 if their broken phone still worked, is that really a boost to the economy in the aggregate? Only if you look at what is seen (buying the iPhone 5 and creating employment in that industry). But we also need to look at what is unseen: Not buying the iPhone 5 would mean spending that money on something else, which creates employment in whatever industry the money would be spent on otherwise. So really when the person’s old phone breaks, the economy is down one phone, which makes it worse off, not better.
Krugman attacks the Broken Window fallacy, as he doesn’t believe it’s a fallacy at all. But the truth is that economic growth created by the iPhone 5 will be because it creates more value for consumers than it costs them to buy it, not because of any destruction that is happening. For a more thorough explanation of why the Broken Window Fallacy is a fallacy, I highly suggest watching this video:
Filed under: Economic Theory
Comments: 3 Comments
A question to you of a chicken and egg sort.
If you have a group of people in a flat empty world with nothing in their possession, how do you get them to have things? Would you:
A) Give everyone pieces of paper with faces on them, call it money, and tell them to wait for someone to devise a way to accumulate those pieces of paper for himself, and hope that the means he devises results in people getting stuff?
B) Or would you give them tools, machines, and other various means to produce things they want? Would you give the knowledge and the means to make the tools?
The answer here should be obvious. Yet, I am always astounded to hear people say that the way to generate economic growth is to stimulate demand, or speak as if the money itself has some kind of intrinsic value. Demand is an artifact; it is a consequence of production, not its progenitor.
It wasn’t the vast network of highways that induced Henry Ford to start building cars. It wasn’t the airport runway that induced the Wright Brothers to put wings on a lawnmower. And it isn’t the existence of currency that induces people to make things. We make things because we want things. Money is merely the means by which we coordinate and communicate our individual desires and interests to others. If no one else is making anything, currency doesn’t communicate anything.
A currency is not a measure of the total demand. It is a measure of overall production. The dollar is the inch on this yardstick. I explained it this way the other day: If you have a length of rope, and you wish it were longer, you don’t make a longer rope by making more notches in your yardstick, and call the new divisions “inches”. You still have the same length of rope, just smaller units of measure. Your inches are shorter, and it is a deception to say that just because now it takes more “inches” to measure the same length of rope, that you have a longer rope.
So consider this when someone claims that the economy isn’t growing because no one has money, or that companies are hording it all. Well, that makes just about as much sense as saying you have a shorter rope because you’ve erased some notches and now your “inches” are longer.
Of course, there is a general kind of demand that the production takes advantage of, but this is a generic phenomenon that doesn’t change or modulate in intensity. A demand for the needs and comforts of life are not specific, and are always present. But the means by which they are satisfied are specific and can take an infinite variety of forms.
So it is not merely enough that humans will always want and demand ways to conserve their energy and save labor. That is a given. Nor can that kind of demand be stimulated by giving out pieces of paper.
Nor will handing out pieces of paper get you from point A, that generic, formless and inchoate sort of demand to something as specific as an internal combustion engine — the internal combustion engine being only one way that general demand can be satisfied. To perhaps borrow from Keynes’ interpretation of Say’s Law, the production of internal combustion engines creates a demand for internal combustion engines.
Filed under: Economic Theory
Just as the Kony 2012 phenomenon swept through the Internet earlier this year, so now does the current Chick-fil-A kerfuffle.
Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Chick-fil-A specifically, but instead about some things I’ve learned and observed over the past few weeks as I followed (and often commented upon) the controversy.
The comments Dan Cathy made about same sex marriage didn’t greatly disturb me apart from the notion that they were completely wrong-headed and just blatantly silly. After all, the president of the United States pretty much expressed the exact same opinions up until recently when we learned that his views had “evolved.” One can be cynical about that, as he is up for re-election and the timing of that “evolution” was, how do I put it, convenient. But, one can also be charitable about it. We tend to admire a person who is willing to change their mind on an issue.
Still, the comments in and of themselves were enough to dissuade me from doing business there. Truth be told, this was not anything near a huge sacrifice for me as I’ve only been a patron there less than ten times in my entire life.
When it came out that Chick-fil-A had given millions of dollars to groups who actively advocate for and use the power of government as a means to deny basic individual rights, it brought up the level of ire I had towards the company. If Chick-fil-A were to go out of business tomorrow, that would be just fine with me.
But, things rapidly got out of hand, as the issue became more inflamed. A call for a general boycott turned into calls for government action against Chick-fil-A. Various mayors and city council members vowed that they would not allow any new franchises within their cities. State-funded universities began campaigns to ban the stores from their campuses.
I must give credit where credit is due, as many liberal minded people opposed these actions. But there were (and are) plenty of people who support these measures.
This, of course, set off a counter-protest where people flocked to Chick-fil-A to show their support. I like to think of myself as a rather incredulous person, so I’m not overly impressed with many of the claims that this was a counter-protest in support of “free speech.” I’m sure there were people involved for whom that was their primary motivation, in that they were protesting an obvious overreach and stated threats from clueless and bumbling government officials.
No, this was a counter-protest that wrapped itself in the moniker of “traditional family values,” which the people involved believed were under attack.
The obvious point that needs to be made here is, one is not very credible if they say they are protecting “free speech” with one breath while advocating against another basic human right.
Thus, during and after the counter-protest, those who opposed Chick-fil-A began to ratchet up the issue. I received two private messages from friends on Facebook informing me that they noticed that I had “liked” Chick-fil-A’s page. They were sure, they said, that this was done in the past, but they wanted to point it out to me so I could correct that error.
Now things were getting downright creepy. It was then that several things occurred to me.
I witnessed very few people (on either side) being intellectually consistent about this issue. I decided to test this theory out by asking (on various threads and in person) this question, as can be seen in this blog post:
Only one person said yes to that question, and he made that decision long ago. The responses ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing, here):
It seems to me that these are very unsatisfying answers. My reply to these assertions would be:
Those are specific examples. The overall gist of the counter-arguments was that Romney will do all those things but also fight against same sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation.
The counterpoint here is obvious.
The price that some people are willing to pay for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation is assassination, torture, deportation, murder, and misery elsewhere.
I rephrased the question:
I’ve received no answer to that question.
The inherent contradiction between the answers to those two question (though they are the same in every way, except for the people affected by the policies) is this.
People delude themselves in thinking that the first choice is at best virtuous, and at worst necessary, and recognize that the second choice is murderous.
But, in fact, both choices are murderous.
The last question I ask is, what’s the threshold? What act would the president have to do that would be so vile, so evil that you would not only withdraw your support for him, but actively oppose him?
If targeted, secret assassinations of American citizens by way of secret committee and operating a secret prison where people are tortured without due process on an island where no average American can ever visit isn’t enough for you to oppose him, where are you willing to draw the line?
I’m not overly optimistic about the answers I would receive to that question for this reason: Groupthink, identity politics, and the idea of “collective rights” makes us do incredibly stupid and evil things.
There are many people still alive who not only actively apologize for, but support the tens of millions of deaths that occurred under the Stalin and Mao dictatorships. There are many more who still claim that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was “the right thing to do.”
Today, there are people who explicitly support assassinations, murder, and torture for ideological reasons. There are also many who implicitly support it because of their ideology.
Meaning, the concept of gay rights or women’s’ rights or class rights are more important to them than individual rights, namely the right not to be murdered or tortured. They are choosing the group they identify with over the individual. So long as the president perceived as working for these group rights, individuals elsewhere pay the price.
They are just as bad as the people counter-protesting in the name of “free speech” while advocating for the rights of Christian values. As long as Christian values are being upheld, the individual does not matter.
Groupthink clouds judgement. Mob mentality destroys it. The group infused with overwrought emotion and righteous indignation discourages dissent or reason.
I’ve known people in my life who have said bigoted things. Some of those people I love dearly. I know, to the deepest depths of my soul, that most of them are not bad, bigoted people. They have expressed mistaken views, which can change. If I didn’t believe that, I would not associate with them.
If I am intellectually honest, I must admit that others have the same qualities.
Acknowledging these simple things decouples you from what the group thinks and forces you to relate to individuals qua individuals. When you’re facing an individual rather than ideological groupthink, it tends to tamp down the anger a bit.
Which brings me to my conclusion.
The concept of rights based on identity politics is a ridiculous notion. I don’t believe in gay rights or women’s rights, or rights for the poor, rights for the rich, for the handicapped, men’s rights, transgender rights, American rights, terrorist’s rights, or for any other group rights.
There are only individual rights.
I fight for same-sex marriage not because I have many friends who are gay and have a personal stake in the matter. I fight for same-sex marriage because it’s a fundamental right, left up to only the individuals involved. I fight for the free movement of people across borders not because I identify as an immigrant, but because it is a fundamental individual right to go where you please, so long as you’re not hurting anyone. I fight for the rights of children not being murdered in Afghanistan, not because it gives me an ideological advantage over someone else, but because it is a fundamental human right not to be murdered from the sky.
I cannot and will not make a choice between them. I’m not willing to shrug my shoulders at one issue to gain an ideological victory on another issue.
People tend to get very indignant when I tell them I do not vote in national elections. Whatever reason I give them, it only makes them more angry. I’ve been told that I’m apathetic (clearly not true), that I have no right to complain (ironically ironic), that I am contributing nothing (obviously false) or that I should be ashamed (I’m not).
Countering these points almost always leads to more conflict.
That’s understandable. When it comes down to it, it’s a religious debate, and people tend to get very uncomfortable and defensive when their beliefs are challenged.
But the real reason I don’t vote is simple. I’m an individual. I try to face the world on those terms. I try to identify with everyone (regardless of gender, race, or country of origin) on those terms.
Voting is a mob action. Voting makes people view the world through a collective lens. It’s always an issue of “us” against “them.” When it’s “us” against “them,” the end result is always someone else suffering so you can get what you want.
Nobody should suffer because of my preferences. Nobody need die for abortion rights or the right to get married to whomever you please.
That’s why I am completely disengaged from the political process.
I don’t ever want to be put in the position where I hold the restaurant I eat at to a higher moral standard than the president I vote for.
Filed under: Culture, Foreign Policy, Public Choice
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According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans believe in creationism over evolution. That is, they believe that the earth was formed roughly 10,000 years ago and was first inhabited by Adam and Eve. Another 32% of Americans believe that evolution was/is theistically guided; meaning that life took millions of years to evolve, but God guided the process. This fits in line with the intelligent design argument.
These numbers are often referred to with great shock and concern from the scientific community. Many on the left of the political spectrum are also very anxious about the implications. Evolution, after all, is a scientific fact. It’s been proven to a degree of certainty which leaves no serious scientist in doubt. We know via empirical evidence that the earth is billions of years old. We have a rough, but fairly good, understanding of how life was created. We understand the evolutionary process. Nearly every field of science confirms at some level that evolution is a hard fact.
When people get together and insist that creationism or intelligent design be given time in the classroom, there is always a loud and ferocious cry of protest. In recent history, nearly every single proposal to do so has been soundly defeated. Intelligent design took such a beating in the first decade of this century that it’s not seriously considered by much of anyone, anymore. Creationists have taken their education outreach to the confines of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Atheists, in particular, make a much concerted effort to pile onto creationists. They are derided, made fun of, insulted, mocked, slandered, and generally reviled at conferences, in various fora, etc. One need only make a brief visit to any serious atheist or left-leaning website to see what I’m talking about.
Now, it may be that creationists often overreach and deserve some of the criticism. There is, after all, the pretty well defined Exclusionary Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of what people believe or don’t believe, people generally don’t want other people to push their beliefs on them or their children.
Being a creationist may also signal other intentions to people. You may be against stem cell research, or gay marriage, for example. People make assumptions. Some assumptions are right, and some are wrong. It all just depends.
Regardless, those who don’t believe, or don’t believe as strongly seem to view those who do as extremely irrational, if not just plain stupid. I suspect there is more than just a bit of class warfare going on, here, but the basic point remains. For the most part, nonbelievers loathe the irrationality of those who do believe.
I think atheists and those on the left often overstate their case for alarm on the issue. There is good evidence to suggest that even though 46% of people say they are creationists, a good portion of them don’t actually believe it. Here’s where it gets tricky. They may believe they believe it, but their actions often belie those beliefs. Many creationists are taking a literal interpretation of the Bible, after all, but clearly nobody actually literally follows the tenets of the Bible. You don’t see people taking and killing slaves, or murdering their children, or adhering to the abstinence of shellfish or woven cloth because the Bible dictates it.
If people actually literally believed in the tenets of the Bible or the Koran, then there would be an incredible amount of bloodshed, violence, and anguish in this world. Also, there would never be any such thing as “interfaith” dialogues. If your way is the only way to heaven, what’s the point in understanding other beliefs?
People like Sam Harris are extremely alarmed that the former head of the Genome Mapping Project and current head of the NIH is a person who has a “close personal relationship” with God. It seems to me, however, that Francis Collins is a brilliant doctor and scientist regardless of his personal religious beliefs. In other words, his belief in God has nothing to do with how he conducts his job, regardless of what Sam Harris thinks.
I perceive religion in America as something that’s been tamed. As Bryan Caplan says in The Myth of the Rational Voter:
There’s more to that quote, which I’ll reveal in a bit.
There was a time when I would have seen these poll results as extremely troubling, but not really anymore, given the reasons I’ve explained above. The problem isn’t usually with religion, but in how government sometimes favors religion over the individual.
Here are the results of another recent poll taken in New York State. Regardless of political allegiances, nearly 70% of voters from every region polled favored raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour. Certainly more Democrats than Republicans agreed with the proposal, but even 58% of Republicans were in favor.
Just as with creationism (as pointed out above), the case against minimum wage laws has been definitively made. They don’t work. It has been empirically proven that minimum wage laws increases both unemployment and poverty. They adversely affect African Americans and teenagers the most. They quite literally shut people out of the workplace.
It can be argued that creationism is wrong and irrational, but in today’s modern society, you’d have a harder time proving that it was overly harmful. Contrast that with minimum wage laws, which are clearly very harmful.
My question is, why does one belief get so roundly derided by the public at large (even when the majority of the public believes in God), when the other belief gets pretty much a free pass?
In fact, it’s more than a free pass. People who believe in minimum wage laws are afforded an elevated social status. Don’t believe me? Go to work tomorrow and say the following: “Minimum wage laws hurt the poor, cause more poverty, and create unemployment.” What do you think the reaction will be? You’d be perfectly correct in saying it. Facts would be on your side. You could cite countless empirical studies and refer to most any economist (left or right) on the subject, and they would back you up.
Creationism is banned from the classroom, but incredibly harmful economic beliefs aren’t. Why?
I suspect it’s a bit of psychological projection. Voters may think they are being rational about a subject, but they most likely aren’t. As the rest of Bryan Caplan’s quote goes:
And if voters think that minimum wage laws are good idea, then minimum wage laws will be implemented, regardless of whether they actually work.
This is because voters have no incentive to be self interested in the voting booth. Votes are free, and a person’s chance of swaying an election one way or the other may be anywhere from one in millions to astronomical. This means that a person can vote socially and enjoy the social benefit of doing so.
If voters were really as self-interested as everyone insists, they would be spending much more time determining the truth of the matters they are voting on. For example, if a single vote cost a person $10,000 and only affected him and his loved ones, he’d probably get it right. Since votes are free, effect everyone equally, and have little to no chance of making a difference, you are free to skip self interest and vote socially instead. Minimum wage is popular, so that’s the way you go. Being against gay marriage is popular, so that’s the way you go.
As with creationism, it’s my opinion that even though people say they are enthusiastically in favor of minimum wage laws, they don’t actually believe what they say they believe. If minimum wage laws really did help the poor, helped alleviate poverty, and were inclusive for all minorities, they would be advocating for even higher wages. Why not more than $100 per hour?
Currently, we have very smart people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson advocating for income redistribution, the idea that robotics will eventually cause mass unemployment and poverty, a call for mass “investment” into NASA, and governmental health care reform.
These ideas go from pretty silly to economically horrible. Sam Harris shows little understanding or depth in his arguments. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes horrible errors in logic, and Richard Dawkins just gives us feel-good rhetoric without understanding the economic ramifications of what he’s espousing.
Compared to these ideas, creationism is the very least of my worries.
Filed under: Culture, Public Choice
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