Thursday, December 30, 2004

Libertarian Critique

The most pointed critique of social security and liberalism in general is the libertarian critique. The problem with libertarians, for a liberal, is that we have too much in common. We both believe in individual rights, tolerance of individual differences, and dislike government prescription of religion. The basic difference, it seems to me, is the different answers we give to Abel's famous question: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

That's not really my basic bitch against the libertarians though. My real complaint is the same as my complaint against most religion - its premise is a fraud. For those who can't stand to wait for the punchline, I believe that trying to implement libertarian principles leads to tyranny or social disintegration. Demonstrating that takes some historical (and pre-historical) context.

For all but the last 15,000 or so of the 100,000 years the human species has existed, all humans lived in a sort of libertarian paradise - no government, no organized religion, and few social constraints on behavior. A few lived that way until very recently. In many places people were able to achieve a kind of equilibrium with their environment, with population naturally controlled through homicide, infanticide, and starvation.

Clearly, humans are well adapted to that kind of life, so its no wonder libertarians would like to recapture that. The catch - there's always a catch - is that they don't want to give up the comforts of civilization.

Hobbes and Jefferson had somewhat different ideas about the proper role of government in civilization, but I think we now have some historical perspective on actual as opposed to theoretical development, so that will be my approach. The serpent in the above described libertarian paradise appeared in the form of horticulture and the settled life it required. Hunter gatherers have no property but that which they can carry with them, so their wives and daughters are almost the only things they have worth stealing. Farmers have property - stored food, dwellings, and tools too big to lug around much. They also develop population densities large enough to become a menace to their hunter gatherer neighbors and each other. Thus, the necessity for organized defence.

It's doubtless natural to be willing to fight in defense of one family and property, but it's decidely unatural to lay one's life on the line for the neighbors. Consequently, tribal and larger societies develop an array of strategies to compel service in the common defense, including elaborate patriotic social structures, organized religion, professional armies, and, or course, the naked threat of violence against non-participants. Military organizations inevitably partially enslave their members.

I'm pretty sure libertarians oppose slavery in principle, but how can you have armies without it. The only good defence anyone has found so far is the republican form of government. Unfortunately, as the history of Greece, Rome, Florence and many others shows, the Republic is fragile. There are a number of diseases that afflict the Republic, as Adams and others among the founding fathers noted. One of the most pernicious is the concentration of wealth and power in a few dynastic families. Libertarians, at least our current Rand influenced version, seem unwilling to address this problem. Several times our ancestors found it necessary to attack this problem, by eliminating primogeniture, instituting the income tax, and inheritance and gift taxes.

As long as libertarians refuse to embrace this necessity, they are the enemies of freedom, and need to be treated as such.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bush Leadership

Warren Christopher in the NYT tommorow has an Op-Ed call for Bush to lead on Middle East Peace. Various others want him to show some US leadership on aid to the tsunami victims.

Slow learners. When will they figure out the difference between a leader and a hood ornament?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

George Will's Hot Air

George Will's latest Washinton Post Column is a profound scientific argument against global warming. Science having failed, he finds confirmation of his theory in Science Fiction, to wit, in Michael Crichton's State of Fear. Crichton is a pretty good SF writer, and he knows more science than most, but his work is fiction. Never mind, he does include some tables and stuff, and really does seem to disbelieve in the reality, or at any rate the threat, of global warming. I have no idea whether that is a deeply held philosophical position, or just an author's recognition that he can't make global warming as sexy a threat as cloned dinosaurs. In any case, to take his argument seriously is absurd.

Come to think of it though, political theater of the absurd is George Will's specialty. That and lame meditations on baseball.

The Face of Stupidity

Tom Friedman has a typically stupid column in today's NYT arguing for the purity of evil embodied in some gunmen murdering two election workers in Bagdad. As usual, TF is blinded by his predjudice and complicity in the Iraq disaster. His point seems to be that the Iraqis committing this crime know they are fighting against their countrymen's freedom and interest.

No Tom, this does not compute. Suicide bombers and murderers of election workers are almost certainly both convinced that they are fighting to free their country (or city or tribe) from a foreign oppressor by killing those oppressors and their collaborators.

Friedman is smart enough to figure this out, but he doesn't, and won't because he played such a big role in drumming up this disaster. Very few Iraqis believe that the US has their interests at heart. Those who do have plenty of cause to doubt the competence of the US to accomplish any good on Iraqs behalf.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Dear Congressman

Dear Congressman,

The President has presented hints but no details of a plan to eliminate Social Security as we know it. He speaks often of a Social Security "crisis" even though the most autoritative studies show that the system is fully funded for at least the next forty years. I am very interested in your opinion on this matter, since it will no doubt be crucial to determining whether I can ever again support your candidacy for office.

As you know those currently in the workforce, like my wife and I, have for twenty years been overpaying social security taxes, building up the so-called social security trust fund to its present three trillion dollars or so. As you also know, your colleagues and you and a succession of Presidents have profligately spent that money on a variety of enterprises. One of my purposes in writing to you is to let you know that any attempt to disavow that debt will be correctly characterized as theft.

Perhaps you could explain to me why it is more urgent to work on changing social security, a program which has worked well for 70 years and shows every sign of being fiscally healthy for another forty, than to fix the budget deficit, which, if continued, promises to inflict a 30-40% hit on our GDP in the next ten years (according to a current article in The Economist.

I know you have served your country well and bravely in our military in the past. I ask that you continue the same valor in your current even more critical position.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Five Books Every Educated Person Must Have Read

This is one of those lame pretexts that magazines often use to foist some utter drivel on the gullible. They usually assemble a panel of pompous asses to select their candidates, predictably producing a product of the same value as the innumerable episodes of "The Twenty Hottest Teenage Hollywood Bimbos," or "The Ten Most Extreme Preying Mantisses" that populate the slums of cable television.

Maybe you are starting to suspect that I doubt the premise. It seems kind of unlikely to me that anybody could become educated by reading 5, 20, or even a hundred books. On the other hand, Ramamujan is said to have educated himself mathematically with just one book!

In any case, here are "Five Books I Really Like"

The Language Instinct by Steve Pinker. The first, and in my opinion the best, of his evolutionary psychology flavored books. Very clever, very funny, and really explains what's what in language. I particularly enjoyed his takedown of Bill Safire and even more egregious self-appointed language experts.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. A really wonderful book that really explains how civilization developed as it did, and particularly how the Western Europeans wound up running the world. His answer, which can be briefly summarized as "Geography is Destiny," is brilliantly argued and highly illuminating. It changed my understanding of most aspects of civilization. Among the most interesting conclusions are those concerning the role animal domestication has played in our epidemic diseases, and the paucity of domesticable plant and animal species and their historical consequences.

Tuxedo Park by Jennet Conant. All about the Wall Street tycoon who became one of the last great scientific amateurs, and the lab he created in the eponymous village of the ultra rich. Alfred Lee Loomis made a lot of money but also became a versatile scientist and scientific sponsor, and his lab played a role in the development of radar and the bomb - the two great techno weapons of World War II.

Perfectly Legal by David Cay Johnston. The subtitle tells it - The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich - and Cheat everybody else. Most of the right wing commentators populating news television are creatures of the real vast right wing conspiracy - a huge network of foundations, magazines and political action groups, funded by a few billionaires whose goal is to reduce their taxes to zero. They have been amazingly successful, producing one of the most dramatic redistributions of wealth in history. Johnston tells how it was done and what.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. A sword and sorcery version of the War of the Roses, Book 1. Not likely to get you on anybodies best educated list, but a fun read.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Barren Landscape

Some masochistic impulse sent me over to Lubos Motl's blog where I started reading about the String Theory Landscape. This sent me to ArXiv and Susskind:

hep-th/0405189

Talk about depressing.

I'm thinking about a T-shirt: "I invested ten years of my 180 IQ and all I got was this stupid String Theory Rulz, LQG Drulz T-shirt."