Saturday, July 31, 2010

Libertarians Eat Babies, And Other Myths

I generally like Progressives on the grounds that they've more respect for the truth than the other guys. But as a group they seem have the persistent, unfounded belief that libertarians are the spawn of the devil. Maybe I need to take up a new calling, become an evangelist of sorts, and try to convince these otherwise decent folks that there's merit to certain libertarian propositions.

Like limiting the power of the government, for instance. As far as civil liberties go there's no functional difference between this administration and the last. Republicans violated civil liberties when they were in power and now Democrats are doing the same, which suggests to me that such abuses are not a function of party affiliation. Rather, recent history seems to bear out the observation that power corrupts regardless of whose hands its in. If we can't trust those who hold the reigns of power not to abuse it then the rational response is to limit the amount of power they have in the first place.

Or how about stronger property rights... progressives seem to think that "property rights" are some sort of stalking horse for the further enrichment of the wealthy. Balderdash... the wealthy, by virtue of their wealth, have direct access to the levers of power; they don't really have to worry about having their property expropriated. The people who get fucked by a lack of property rights are the disempowered, the disenfranchised, the marginalized... all the classes of people whom progressives want to help. Neither Susette Kelo nor Linda Dorman are banksters; they, and individuals like them, are most at risk of having their money and/or property unjustly seized by the government.

And, finally: there is no libertarian church and Rand Paul is not its libertarian messiah. He speaks for himself; he doesn't speak for me.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Law As Ritual Magic

I read things like this and wonder whether there's some segment of society that views "the law" as something akin to a religious/magic practice. This fascination with the admiralty flag, for example, only makes sense if you view the flag as some sort of a ritual prop. If you've got the wrong flag then, obviously, the magic ain't going to work.

It'd be one thing if this were confined to the "OMG CAPITAL LETTERS enslave us to the banksters!!!!" crowd, but I've seen this from people who should know better. My wife recently had to transact some business with the State of Alaska; one of the documents she had to provide was a "certified true copy" of her birth certificate. So she went to our local notary, who looked up the appropriate endorsement in eir notary book and certified the copy accordingly.

Not good enough; the State of Alaska wasn't happy. It seems like people must screw up the endorsement all the time because they sent back the birth certificate, attached to which was a strip of paper stating the following:

Seems like the actual wording of this particular endorsement varies somewhat from state to state; you'd think that Alaska wouldn't be so persnickety. Perhaps this can be chalked up to bureaucratic pedantry, but the conception of the law as ritual magic represents a plausible, alternative explanation. The second paragraph sure sounds a awful lot like ritual instructions1.

1 Funny enough the first thing that sprang to my mind was Aleister Crowley's frog crucifiction.

Punchline Of The Day

Stewart Baker, commenting on the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series:

For purposes of both coverage and advertising, then, the series may be an Washington Post exercise in market segmentation. Which would make this series the journalistic equivalent of a dog marking its territory.

Of course, that’s not especially pleasant for the companies and agencies in the database, since they’re playing the role of hydrant. With one difference: ordinarily a dog doesn’t expect the hydrant to buy him more water.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance, Democracy, And Informed Consent

Quoth Ed in response to Joe Keohane's piece in the Boston Globe about Brendan Nyhan's recently published study on the persistence of political misperceptions:

All of this is true, of course. But what is the alternative? If cognitive dissonance theory undermines the validity of democracy as a means of governance, surely it undermines the alternatives as well. A dictator is probably even more likely to suffer from this problem -- his ego alone would not allow an admission of being wrong -- than the average voter.

The human brain is all we have to work with, I'm afraid. Its weaknesses and disturbing tendencies certainly do undermine our ability to rule ourselves in a coherent and rational manner, but even more do they undermine our claim to rule others.

Ed's correct to some degree, but two thoughts come to mind in response. First, the persistent findings of voter irrationality do more violence to representative democracy than to some other forms of government. Democratic governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed as granted through the act of voting; an unstated corollary is that, ideally at least, voting should be a rational activity. On the other hand tyranny, to take Ed's example, makes no claims to rationality or informed consent; the tyrant generally establishes power purely through force or threat thereof. As far as theoretical grounding goes tyranny actually comes out ahead since it doesn't assume that voters are rational.

The other thought is that, in practice, irrationality doesn't make that big a difference. Voters in the US are generally called upon to pick the Republican or the Democrat, either one of which will generally support some policies that are sound and some policies which are unsound. Rational evaluation of candidates is of limited value when there are only ever two parties to choose from. This suggests to me that, if we recognize that voters are ignorant, we should seek to design our electoral system in such a fashion as to minimize the impact of that irrationality.

One tack we could take is to try to reduce the sources of misinformation which cause people to take up irrational positions in the first place. What motivates oh... say... Glenn Beck to just make up shit left and right? And what causes people to trust Glenn Beck in the first place even after it's amply demonstrated that he's wrong more often than he's right? I don't have much in the way of answers to either of those questions, but my gut tells me that demonization of the kind in which Glenn Beck engages is most effective in a polarized environment. Polarization, in turn, stems in large part from there being only two practical choices at any given time.

An alternate tack is to isolate the voter from needing to have informed opinions on specific issues. Economists can't agree amongst themselves as to whether we should trim the budget or engage in deficit spending, so it seems foolish to build a system that expect voters to evaluate the issue. They're much more qualified to express support for the broad principles that turn up in party platforms and such.

In either case it would be beneficial to move away from the personality-centered, two party system that we currently have to a party-centered system with proportional representation. This would allow more diversity of opinion, (hopefully) reducing polarization and the crazy that comes with it. At the same time, by focusing on parties rather that individuals, it allows voters to think more about principles rather than any one person's specific promises or policies.

On a more cynical note, however, all of the above discussion assumes that its possible to rationally evaluate candidates (or parties) in the first place. But when the "good guys" renege on campaign promises and are basically indistinguishable from the "bad guys" its questionable whether democracy is meaningful at all anymore. Sure, we can throw the bums out in four years, but it seems like our only choice is to replace them with another set of bums who will make a lot of promises which come to naught.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Why I Don't Root For Either Team Anymore

You know, I generally like the crowd that hangs out at Daily Kos. Though I may frequently disagree with them they at least strike me as honest people who are interested in doing good and not just bending the political process over the back of a Buick.

And then I see shit like this:

Putting aside the merits of such subsidy programs (much of that money goes to massive agribusiness conglomerates), fact is that it's a political loser in this heavily agricultural state. Conway can certainly use every advantage he can get.

Fuck you and your realpolitik Markos... you're part of the problem. Here's a novel concept: two candidates from different sides of the aisle could agree that farm subsidies are a bad idea. My god! Genuine bi-fucking-partisanship right there! Instead you want Conway to keep his mouth shut for partisan advantage. How is that any different from the goddamn obstructionist ass-clowns in the Senate who are too afraid of upsetting their base to actually vote for anything useful?

To Cite Is To Endorse, or, Rhetoric As A Bludgeoning Device

Ed over at Dispatches has a good take on people bitching and moaning about Kagan citing a socialist in her undergrad thesis. As he puts it:

[Q]uoting a socialist scholar in a paper about the history of socialism does not make one a socialist.

That's so self-evident to me that it's damn near axiomatic; presumably Ed has a similar take. No rational person could believe otherwise, so Pam is clearly arguing in bad faith, right?

Well... maybe not. As I was reading his post the thought occurred to me that maybe Ed's observation isn't self-evident to Pam and her ilk. We (meaning Ed, myself, and likeminded individuals) understand that a thesis is an exercise in inquiry that requires casting a wide net. All manner of facts and opinions may be relevant to the question at hand; the sources thereof are evaluated on the basis of veracity, not ideology. Thus, in this case, Kagan may cite a pro-Nazi socialist because he has something relevant to say and not, as Pam would have it, because she's a secret Nazi sympathizer.

Now let's posit an alternate model where the thesis is not so much an inquiry as a vehicle for the exposition of a pre-determined conclusion1. If you're trying to make a particular point you're going to bolster your case solely by reference to ideological allies; there's no cause to give voice to the loyal opposition, much less anyone with strongly dissenting views. It follows logically from there that a citation is equivalent to an endorsement; why mention someone unless you agree with them?

Is this what's actually happening in practice? Consider, for example, Glenn Beck's Common Sense. The book contains no direct citations, IIRC, and the list of additional readings is exceedingly narrow; Beck shows no interest in exploring views which don't directly coincide with his own. I don't feel like I'm going out on a limb to say that the Kagan's thesis and Beck's book are intended for distinctly different purposes.

Ultimately this is a roundabout way of explaining Pam's reaction2: there's some non-trivial slice of the blogosphere/punditocracy/whatever, represented by people like Geller and Beck, for whom the practice of citation means something different than it does to academics like Kagan. I don't believe their interpretation is at all reasonable, but then again with that crew it's hard to tell how much they believe what they're saying and how much is just pretext.

1 Hardly an original observation, I know, but certainly relevant here.
2 Assuming, of course, that she's not just feigning outrage to score points. Unfortunately that's a fundamentally un-testable proposition.
Blog Information Profile for gg00