Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drug policy

Drug prohibition has costs and benefits, and it raises questions of morality, causality, and alternative or complementary policies.


Drug warriors intend the drug war to reduce drug abuse and addiction by raising the effective price of producing, selling, and possessing certain drugs. While drug use in the U.S. has not been reduced as a result of the drug war, drug warriors imagine that without the drug war the social problems associated with drug abuse would be significantly worse. Conventional neoclassical economic analysis supports this conclusion because for almost all goods, the "law of demand" states that higher prices cause consumers to reduce consumption. Empirical data from Spain and the Netherlands call this simple analysis into question. Raising the price of a drug fails to address the ultimate causes of abuse and addiction. Prohibiting drugs use "sends a message" that drug use is unwise and not tolerated by society. Unfortunately, many other messages about drug use are also being sent and received, so that the legislative message may not persuade everyone.

It is clear what supporters of this policy wish it would accomplish, but less clear whether it does so. No person gains shelter from the danger that a loved one may fall victim to drug abuse through the mere existence of laws proscribing drug experimentation.


In addition to the direct cost of funding the personnel and equipment required to prosecute the war on drugs, a number of side effects result. The mission of the police force is distorted in several ways as a result of the drug laws. Drug law enforcement incurs an obvious cost in terms of the police employees hired, the capital equipment maintained, and the additional bureaucracy required to support these. Less obvious costs include the increased complexity of the police force's mission, the increased risk of corruption, and the reduction of trust between police officers and ordinary persons that results from enforcement of drug laws. The mass incarceration demanded by the drug war also has direct and indirect costs, in that taxpayers must finance the prisons and guards to confine drug prisoners, and society must sacrifice the economic contributions that prisoners would otherwise provide. Further, racial disparities regarding apprehension, prosecution, conviction and sentencing exacerbate existing racial tensions. Coercive paternalism distorts the mechanisms of society by allowing the majority to dictate to minorities.


Supporters of drug prohibition believe that drug abuse and addiction harms the drug user, the drug user's family, and the entire community. Drug use flouts the authority and legitimacy of the law and the law's makers. Drug use "desecrates the temple of the body".

Opponents sometimes take the position that virtuous actions that result from coercion do not confer any virtue on the actor. If the punishment should fit the crime, nonviolent lawbreakers should be punished nonviolently. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Alternatives and Causes

Drug prohibition does nothing to address the base causes of drug abuse and addiction. Other disadvantageous social phenomena, like marital infidelity, lying, alcoholism, divorce, etc. impact society negatively, but no one suggests starting a "war on cheating." Alcohol prohibition was tried, and declared a failure. While alcoholism is still a problem, other approaches have succeeded in some degree in changing attitudes toward drinking and ameliorating the problems associated with alcohol abuse.

The effectiveness of punishment depends on 3 variables: severity, speed, and certainty. The uncertainty and slow speed of drug law enforcement goes far toward explaining the relative failure of the drug war. Yet proponents of the drug war do not have any serious proposals for increasing the speed and certainty of their solution.

New York Times asked "Have we lost the war on drugs?"

Tolerance is not a value in itself

Occasionally I see someone preaching the virtue of tolerance without specifying what is to be tolerated. This is a lot like leaving "racial" out of the phrase "racial discrimination". "Racial discrimination" has managed to nudge other kinds of discrimination out of our minds, so that it is nearly the case that "discrimination"="racial discrimination" and we must find a new word to replace the old neutral meaning of the word used by itself. A complicating example occurs to me - "gender discrimination" - which might, in the right context, give its meaning to the word "discrimination" by itself. But this just emphasizes the other part of my point, which is that "discrimination" used to mean something like "differentiation" or "categorization", it used to lack its current negative connotation. So now, when a speaker wants to express the idea, for instance, that someone has recognized and taken action based on the relevant difference between two species of ant, it sounds odd or even incomprehensible to use the word "discrimination" or "discriminate", yet I can't think of a word that has come into common use to replace these.

Similarly, "tolerance", on its own, is no virtue. No one wants to tolerate murder, theft, rape, or arson. Racism is not tolerated and should not be. To make our meaning clear, we need to use "tolerance" in a phrase that specifies what is tolerated (such as "religious tolerance," "racial tolerance", or "ideological tolerance"), or perhaps better, just think in different terms entirely.

Does the idea of tolerance imply a yes/no evaluation, or is there more of a spectrum? Two values, tolerable or intolerable, or a range from "very tolerable" through "tolerable" to "not very tolerable" to "sort of intolerable" to "intolerable"?

The best use of "tolerance" I can think of is when someone does something unwise or mildly unethical, something of which I disapprove but not the sort of thing that makes me want to call the cops or run away or look for a big stick to defend myself with. So if someone does something stupid or rude, I may tolerate it without approving of it. In this sense, I would prefer to live in a society that tolerated drug addiction - I don't approve, but there is nothing I can do about it in a reasonable way. And I hope and expect that such a society would be better prepared to discover effective and nonaggressive means to help addicts cope with their problems.

I applaud writers' tendency to simplify ideas, and certainly language evolves as we use it. So I feel a bit embarrassed to bring this all up. But sometimes clarity and simplicity take opposing sides, and this time at least, I vote for clarity.

Utopia: Left, Right, and Otherwise

Rough draft.
Are political differences more about values or practicalities? I'm going to try to argue that our ideas about utopia (values) don't differ that much, that it is ideas about what will work that divide us politically. Maybe in the process I will talk myself out of this idea, or clarify what I really think.

In utopia, everyone contributes to society and gains from society, without regard to economic status, ethnicity, religion, gender, * etc. Children learn about the world**. Art, science, and commerce thrive appropriately, in a way that is not destructive or wasteful***. People get appropriate help when they make mistakes****. The question is, how can we achieve this?

The left believes that we can achieve this only by increasing taxes, regulations, legislation, and other forms of government control and subsidy. The government should fund art and science, control commerce, use rewards where possible and punishments where necessary to guide imperfect people toward the good. We will achieve this only after we eliminate income inequality and the role of hierarchy and greed in society. Democratically controlled government provides us the means to achieve our ends.

The right believes we must achieve these goals by going to church, teaching our children, by wrestling with these issues ourselves, each of us. Government at best serves as a last resort blunt instrument for dealing with situations where the other institutions of society have failed. They tolerate more income inequality and hierarchy, less lifestyle difference. For them, ironically, the state is less vital, but we owe it great obedience and respect.

How would a libertarian utopia differ from a right wing utopia? Right wing more eager to use the blunt instrument.

What is the next step toward utopia?

What are the most important issues? Low hanging fruit?

hot buttons:

* gay marriage
** school prayer, sex ed, evolution
*** environment
**** death penalty.

home runs:
cell phones
civil rights
women's movement
gay rights

strike outs:
wart on drugs
war on terror

Saturday, November 17, 2012

liberty activist strategy

When I was first exposed to libertarian ideas, I thought that the US government was in good shape but could be greatly improved. I had a naive belief that I could persuade others as easily as I persuaded myself. I was mistaken.

People complain about the government, but they do not want to change much. Also, as imperfect as the status quo is, people don't like the idea of repealing a lot of stuff without knowing what will take its place. People are skeptical about radical solutions to things they don't see as problems. Voluntary, decentralized solutions have many advantages over coercive, centralized approaches, but they must grow organically, and we face a difficult task in getting started. If we wait around for political solutions, we will be waiting a long time. We need concrete demo projects, things when we can accomplish something and build.

On the other hand, the Internet, cell phones, etc. have changed us. I hope that things like Wikipedia, kickstarter, Facebook, and twitter are just the beginning of a new civil society.

As a result, I want to cultivate alternatives to government, provide proofs of concept for giving jobs to civil society that currently depend on tax finance. This may be no less difficult, but at least one will have something to show for one's efforts at the end of the day, whereas in a political fight, the winner takes all and the losers' efforts are mostly wasted.

The objectives: expose the coercion in the current system, delegitimize it. Offer non-coercive alternatives. We should not depend on political success, but should not reject it, either. I have trouble imagining any positive use of politics, other than repeal of defective legislation. I'm biased, so we may find unexpected opportunities.

Here are some projects worth looking at: Fr33aid (, porc411 (, liberty engineers, freedom box (

I want everything to be transparent, though this can be a challenge. Morale boosting in reach can tend toward us-them enemy imagery, which is lots of fun but looks bad to outsiders. I want to avoid that vice. I should want anything I write to end up on the front page of the NYT. I hope I am up to the challenge.

Opportunities: activist groups learn and accomplish. DIY self-knowledge. List government services, try to compete.
Outrages: photocrime, TSA, botched drug raids, DMCA abuse, Patriot act, NDAA, stop and frisk
Outreach for protolibertarians
Outreach for anti libertarians
Product or social activity that competes with, supplements, or supplants the status quo
Tactics: false positive DOS, fragility, delegitimize, infiltrate, compete, go viral, persuade the public
Who is the intended audience?
How will other audiences respond?
What is the objective? Will your dance partner follow your lead?
bitcoin Emule BitTorrent TOR FLOSS SSL/TLS
Gandhi, MLK, Allinsky, Gene Sharp

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse" as constitutional amendment.

The principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse is seen as a limit on ordinary people. This was not unreasonable back in the days of common law. The nanny state has made it into a joke. What if we reframed it as a limit on government?

The legislature would need to produce a brief and clear set of laws. The executive would need to give some lawbreakers a warning on their first offense. Judges could throw out cases based on incomprehensible laws. And good citizens could actually be expected to know the rules of the game.

I'm not sure it relates directly, but I want to toss this in: Reserve violent punishment for violent offenses. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

comment on UPB page 44-45 universality

In mid page 44, Molyneux begins discussing universality. A moral theory "must be applicable to all people." So no one can be exempt. He makes no mention of different circumstances. Can a "universal" moral principle specify circumstances where different sorts of behaviour are required or prohibited?

Molyneux often uses physical metaphors. He makes analogies with "all rocks must fall down." But what about the behaviour or state of water, which is a solid at low temperatures, a gas at high temperatures, and a liquid in between? A complete physical theory would explain all these phenomena in combination, and in some sense be universal. But the theory must predict/explain different sorts of results for experiments  regarding water performed at different temperatures and air pressures. Can a moral theory include descriptions of different prescriptions and proscriptions that depend on the circumstances of the persons involved?

If I used logic to derive a moral rule, and nothing in the derivation referred to circumstances or specifics other than that the rule applied to a human, we could generalize it to all humans. Actually, a moral rule would need to refer to the moral agency of the subject, since moral rules cannot apply to babies or incapacitated persons.

What sorts of circumstances might change the application of a moral rule? Ownership? Can I use deadly violence to defend someone else who is in danger from an aggressor? In another part of the book, Molyneux states that moral rules should apply to persons in a coma, yet not to persons with diminished intellectual capacity.

Is there some transformation that we can perform on my imperftect, circumstance driven rules, to turn them into universal rules, in the way that we might consider a universal theory of water to include information about ice and steam?

what happened to the cypherpunks?

I hope they all went underground on a darknet, or something. Kinda boring if they just quit.

EFF is still plugging away.

The TOR project is trying to make it possible to browse the web without getting tracked.

In Europe you may be able to vote for one of the pirate parties. We need one in the US - does the LP count?

The crypto project seems to want to pick up the cypherpunk torch.

I2P is an anonymizing network.

News from Bruce Schneier. has an irc channel for discussion of crypto/privacy.

Bitcoin may realize David Chaum's dream of digital cash, but that phenomenon deserves its own post.

Second Realm is an online mini book PDF inspired by TAZ, crypto-anarchy, and agorism, but trying hard to be more practical.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Workers of the world, Avakian!"

I finally had a chance to listen to Cornell West's interview with Bob Avakian. ( I enjoyed it much more than I expected I would. I suppose that is because Avakian stuck to complaining about actual problems, only briefly pretended to care anything about science, and avoided explaining what he thinks the cause and cure of the problems might be, other than "put Bob in charge". If you put the word 'crony' in front of 'capitalism' every time he said it, I could agree with nearly everything he said. I am curious how many police home invasions per day and nonviolent people in prison would be enough to convince him that fascism has arrived.

I suspect that power would corrupt him instantly. He clearly thinks Stalin and Mao got it mostly right, and if he had a chance he would improve on their examples in a way that would never allow those pesky artists, democracy advocates, or entrepreneurs to disrupt his prison world. He has no credible cure for the ills he diagnoses. He worships equality and sees markets as sacrilege, and anyone who opposes him is in for some trouble. I wonder what he thinks of the Scandinavian social democracies?

One thing I should learn from his negative example - don't stick to the same old strategies for 40 years, if they don't work. Of course, maybe they *are* working for him, and he's actually quite happy with the status of his revolution - not enough partisans to start building barricades, but a sufficient number to pay for his lifestyle.

comment on UPB page 125 appendix A

This is UPB in a nutshell. It should probably have been put somewhere earlier in the book. It doesn't really help me. There are 12 points, which summarize Molyneux's definitions and arguments. Except the conclusion is left out?

At this point, I can almost make an argument that I think restates Molyneux's ideas. I'm frustrated because I'm still not really sure that I am even close.

One thing has become very clear. Molyneux regards someone who uses language in the ordinary way, especially to argue for or against general propositions, to have affirmed some additional propositions simply by engaging in this activity. His best example of this depicts someone trying to argue that he himself, the person arguing, does not exist.

For me to argue that I do not exist, I must argue. To argue, I must exist. So however brilliant my argument for my own non-existence may be, it entails a contradiction, which indicates that at least one of my assumptions is wrong and my conclusion cannot follow from my argument. Since the contradiction arises from what I am doing rather than what I am saying, it is called a 'performative contradiction.'

Molyneux seems to believe that he has discovered a number of additional propositions implied by the activity of arguing, and he bases his argument largely on these.

Molyneux writes:
"Moral theories that are supported by logic and evidence are true. All other moral theories are false."

Is this the heart of UPB? Is this all he wants to say? Then, armed with his battery of performative contradictions, he can set about confirming or contradicting various moral theories.

I should review some of his critiques of various theories, to try to understand what sort of performative contradictions he is using and what it is about the defective theories  that he finds illogical or contrary to evidence.

One approach I remember, was that in his discussion of murder he took the approach that the only two rules that UPB would allow on ground of universality were "always kill" or "never kill," and he eliminated "always kill" by pointing out that it was impractical, failed the coma test, etc. What I still don't understand is why he expects us to be willing to consider only those 2 options.  He further confuses me by using "murder" instead of "kill", but this is begging the question, since the definition of 'murder' is "wrongful killing." (I saw this point on the internet, I wish I had a link to the original.)

proportional budgeting

What if we switched to a form of proportional representation that put a portion of the budget under the control of each party? When I fill out my income taxes each year, I also register my political party, and the taxes I pay go into a separate budget under the control of my party? People could be entitled to government benefits (or not entitled) depending on their party membership. So the Democrats could produce whatever handouts they liked, and Republicans could build fences. If I'm a centrist, maybe I could start a centrist party, or just split my taxes between R & D.

Other government revenue would be split proportionately among the parties.

Hayek described something vaguely similar in his "Constitution of Liberty" if I recall correctly. I think he had a separate body determining the amount of the budget, and then a parliament could wrangle over how to spend the budget.

Government debts? Okay, I need to think about this a while. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Individualist Collectivism

If people need to belong to a group, they will group together. Are there instances where someone or something will prevent them? False consciousness? Free rider? Stupidity?

Manipulators can use group dynamics to control others. A knee-jerk individualist responds to this idea by seeking an end to group dynamics, denouncing collectivism, fighting it head on. Perhaps a wiser tactician would use judo, turn the force of the opponent to a different purpose. That is, the individualist should seek a way to use group loyalty and feelings of belonging to resist manipulation and strengthen the status of individual rights.

What would a human superorganism look like, a family, a club, a corporation,  a labor union, the boy scouts, AA, a cult, a tribe?

Can capitalism itself be seen as a superorganism? If so, its immune system stinks.

"Pure" collectivism focuses on the state because it's big and powerful. But the scale is all wrong. People do not find it easy to group together to control cheaters, in fact the cheaters tend to rise. Oppression emerges.

"Pure" individualism also fails to control cheaters and satisfy our groupish instincts.

We can't escape our dual nature, part chimp, part bee (to steal from Haidt). So we need to embrace it somehow. How?

No one embraces the straw man version of the atomistic individualist. Is the straw man collectivist any more real? In my version of the straw man, a collectivist sacrifices the rights of individuals for the benefit of the collective. Whoever gets to define the collective good gains power at the expense of others, by disregarding the rights or opinions of others. But this is arbitrary. To harm a part of the superorganism is to harm the whole, isn't it? No human scale surgeon knows how to treat the diseased tissues of the superorganism. So a real collectivist must take care in disregarding individuals, and we can believe that pure individualism provides one possible answer to the question of what benefits the collective most.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Comment on UPB page 38 and 39

The guts of this page contain 3 principles Molyneux wishes to establish.
1) Morality is a valid concept.
2) Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind.
3) The validity of a moral theory is judged by its consistency.

1 seems vague to me. Valid by what criteria? What does it mean for a concept to be valid or invalid? I know generally what the difference between a valid drivers license and an invalid one.

2 is clear. 3 seems to imply 1, and clarify it. What does 1 add that is not provided by 3? Perhaps I have not read enough Ayn Rand.

Do moral rules exist? He answers 'no'? By which he means that they can be violated, they do not limit behavior generally, but limit the behavior of those committed to pursuit of certain goals.

What is Molyneux's purpose in including these 3 principles? What attack does he forsee that calls for this defense? "Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind" seems to say it all, but could benefit from some support.

At the bottom of page 39: "Thus any valid scientific theory must be (a) universal, (b) logical, (c) empirically verifiable, (d) reproducible and (e) as simple as possible.
"The methodology for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same as the methodology for judging and proving any other  theory."

Has Molyneux established either of these statements? It seems that the latter statement is what he cares about, so he means to say moral theories should be (a) universal, (b) logical, etc. This approach makes sense if we consider moral theory as an instance of the broader class of scientific theories. Perhaps he has tried to establish that somewhere in here or previously?

Quantum theory was not always logical. Some cosmology is not yet empirically verifiable, though it might develop in that direction. These are quibbles, but they should probably be dealt with.

Comment on UPB page 37

I still do not know what "universally preferable" means. I am starving for a concrete example, rather than an analogy.

When someone argues, someone "exhibits UPB." "The very act of debating requires an acceptance of universally preferable behaviour (UPB)." If only I knew what UPB meant. I can't help thinking that there is a logical argument that Molyneux should make here, that would make this conclusion clear by proceeding step by step. This page leaps to the conclusion, with hardly a hint how we poor plodders might follow.

One point that might apply directly to the investigation, hidden in among the digressions on this page, is the idea that when arguing, a blank stare does not suffice to replace an argument or a concession. Here we're idealizing debate a bit - my impression is that many debaters never do actually concede a point, but rather change the subject, and written debates often employ ignoring (the equivalent in ink of a blank stare) as a tactic. But I am also digressing, as in ideal debate, a point is pursued until there is agreement between the debaters. Perhaps this forms the basis of the claim that debate implies acceptance of something. But what? How?

Sunday, October 7, 2012


In my ideal internet, I would have my own server and provide email and web hosting services to my family and pals. This server would be connected to the net with a fast connection. I could use my server to encrypt and proxy my access so my ISP can't spy on me.  None of my traffic would be in the clear, with an obvious destination, and even traffic analysis would be difficult. Every person would control her/his own data. My identity would be associated with my home server, to assist in authentication. Lots of other nerds could do the same thing, and share expertise.

So what's stopping me? Cost. Cowardice. Distractions. Priorities.

web of trust instead of lastpass

Why can't/don't we use public key crypto for authenticating on google, facebook, etc., all the web 2.0 services? Instead of all the usual jazz, why don't I just hand out my public key to the various services? It would provide better authentication more securely.

It is inconvenient to have a separate username and password for every service I use. There are various security issues.

One strong implication of using public key crypto: I'd better never lose my private key.

What happened to the cipherpunks and their web of trust idea?
I could make it  so my wife can also unlock my stuff with her private key, or my lawyer, in case of my death.

It would be best if the services themselves accepted public keys for authentication. But we could create a web app or software like lastpass. It would maintain a database of my usernames and passwords with the URLs of the services they match, encrypted with my public key. It could automatically update/randomize my passwords. This sounds so simple, does it exist somewhere already and I don't know?


If the popularity of the ideas of liberty and the unpopularity of the government was sufficient that violent revolution could possibly succeed, nonviolent change would be even more possible and desirable. 

Comment on UPB page 33-36

I think I understand the top half of the page, though I don't yet see much relevance. Perhaps I will need to revisit this later.

Bottom half of 33 and top of 34, section "Preferences and Universality": Molyneux asks himself "can some preferences be objective, i.e. universal?" This confuses me. Is universality supposed to be identical to objectivity here, or does one imply the other, or what?

The author then proceeds to clarify what it would mean for a preference to be objective (universal?), by giving some analogies. Or are they examples? It's not clear. If these are not examples, then he never answers his question before moving on to a new topic. If they are examples, then he could have concluded the section by saying something like "I've shown an example of an objective preference, therefore objective preferences exist."

In his example, Molyneux claims it is universally preferable for a sick person to treat themselves with antibiotics. For the moment, let's not quibble about cases where some other reasonable treatment might be as good or even better than antibiotics, assume that antibiotics are clearly indicated. The sick person has a goal, which is to return to good health, and by assumption we all know that antibiotic treatment is his best option.

The universality aspect comes from our ability to place any person in that situation and get the same answer, right? Not that all persons should have some preference with regard to the specific person's action, but that any person in those circumstances should prefer the proper treatment, given that she/he is ill and wants to recover.

Does the objectivity of the preference derive from universality, or from our assumption regarding the cause and effect relationship between the malady and the cure? Will no subjective factors creep in, such as the sick person's attitude toward risk? Some people are allergic to antibiotics, does that break universality?

If we could predict the future perfectly, the sick person could just choose a preferred outcome. Presumably in this perfect information case all persons would agree and make the same choice. So with perfect information, objectivity implies universality.

But what if we step back from this assumption of perfect omniscience and instead give persons a more realistic but still well-informed choice, such as, given your diagnosis, there's such a chance of full recovery with antibiotic treatment, such a chance of failure of the treatment, and such a chance of complications like allergic reaction. Different persons will have different attitudes toward risks associated with different actions, how do we save objectivity and universality? Perhaps the cases that UPB deals with are less ambiguous?

An actual example of a universal preference would illustrate the idea in a helpful way. This example didn't help me much.

Page 34, Section "Arguments and Universality": This begins a long list of premises Molyneux believes derive from the act of arguing, so that anyone who makes an argument implicitly accepts their truth. This will allow him to accuse certain arguments of being self-defeating. The list goes on for a few pages. I'm not sure about the relevance of these premises, I'm skipping most of them for now.

Page 35, Premise 5: Molyneux states in the section title that "an objective methodology exists for separating truth from falsehood." But what he claims within the section is "truth is more than a matter of opinion." I suppose it is possible for the author to consider these statements to mean the same thing.

Further, I'm not sure it follows that engaging in argument implies what Molyneux claims. He could have made a stronger claim, that argument implies a belief that argument itself or some other process known to the arguer can objectively separate truth from falsehood. Why hold back? Perhaps because argument fails in many cases to fulfill this ideal, so Molyneux instead makes a weaker claim. Is he merely claiming that participants in an argument must implicitly accept that the separation of truth and falsehood is at least possible? His claim entails the idea that arguers must concede that such an objective method exists, but falls short of claiming that they have knowledge of it in the sense of being able to use it. That seems odd.

Another odd thing. Molyneux writes, "The moment I provide some sort of objective criterion for determining truth from falsehood, I am accepting [etc.]" Is it the case that all persons engaged in argument must "provide some objective criterion?" Perhaps I simply don't understand what he means by that, but it seems to me that most persons I argue with fail to provide a criterion of any kind. Perhaps I am quibbling again, what can I guess he really means, if not the idea my brain keeps tripping over?

Page 35, Premise 6: Some quibbles. I believe that when Molyneux titled the section "Truth is better than Falsehood", he was using an imprecise readable shorthand for saying something like "Believing and acting on the truth is preferable to believing and acting on a falsehood." Does falsehood exist objectively?

Perhaps what Molyneux really intends is something like this: someone who uses facts to try to win an argument, by admitting that true facts outrank falsehoods in such a context, admits that true facts outrank falsehoods in all arguments generally and also admits that the idea of truth has a meaning and is relevant and when we argue we universally prefer the truth. Well, I'm still not very satisfied I know what's going on, but I'm impatient so I'm going to move on.

fact checking the presidential election

A friend of mine emailed me:
> Whenever I'm confused about what politicians say, I go to the nonpartisan site
Perhaps I am too cynical, but I no longer believe anything a politician says about what she/he will do in the future. In 2008, Obama was all about hope, change, closing gitmo, healthcare for the uninsured while not disrupting everyone else, hands off the states experimenting with medical marijuana, transparency, yes we can. I've forgotten, did he promise to do something about "too big to fail?" I admit, some of these goals would be difficult to achieve, and we could perhaps forgive him for trying and failing. But he did not even achieve the ones he could have accomplished with an executive order. Healthcare is the only area where there is any possibility that things may have improved, and only a partisan could feel comfortable with either the process or the product in that case. 

The only reason I can imagine that a democrat would continue to support the president is because he is not a republican. But are we really sure about that? Can you help me think of some issues, in addition to healthcare, where we could not plausibly swap McCain for Obama? If McCain had won in 2008, what would be different today, besides no Obamacare and numerous left-wing groups lobbying to prosecute McCain for war crimes, violations of civil rights, and contempt for the constitution? Maybe McCain would not have treated the UAW quite so politely. It turns out, in this game we play for low stakes.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Belated introduction to comments on UPB

I want to understand Stefan Molyneux's UPB idea. His book defeated me on my first try. I do not yet fully understand it and so I don't know whether or not or to what degree I agree with him. I have decided to write a commentary as I go along in order to clarify things for myself, make note of problems I have, and suggest solutions. I make it my final goal to restate Molyneux's argument in a brief, simple outline form, one that Molyneux would not object to. When I can state his idea clearly, then I can decide whether or not I agree.

I am sometimes tempted to discuss peripheral issues, of which many exist, or to quibble or speculate. I will try to avoid this, or at least admit to it when I can't resist. I intend to restrict the commentary to discussion of Molyneux's central argument, what it means, whether or not it works, and what it might need added or subtracted to make it succeed.

I can't resist making one gripe at this point, since it motivates the commentary. The text of Molyneux's book confuses to me with vagaries, digressions, distractions, and irrelevancies crowding out what seem to me to be the salient points. Perhaps if I continue in a reasonably fair spirit, I will find that these complaints exaggerate the case. I am not optimistic about this. Even if I end up in agreement with Molyneux, I suspect I will continue to think that he failed to express his idea well. Perhaps his long contemplation of this idea brought him too close to it, and he may be forgiven for losing the capability to assume the perspective of a newcomer.

On my own behalf, I apologize for my use of professor-speak. Somehow I can't resist. Perhaps it would amuse the reader to assume I do it with a touch of irony and self-mockery. Probably that is too generous and I am the cartoon rather than its author.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Comment on UPB page 30

On this page (4th paragraph) Molyneux defines ethics as "any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent - and binding." So is his example that appears higher on the page "If I want to live, [...] I must eat" an ethical theory?

Perhaps Molyneux is ignoring the question of moral nihilism, which denies that the categories of good and evil have any significance. Hence he would be assuming that people want to know what is good and what is evil, and their goal is to gain this knowledge, and he has things to say about what sort of approach can succeed. So, what does he have to say to actual moral nihilists (see L. A. Rollins, "The Myth of Natural Rights"), or persons who think that atheism implies moral nihilism? To my mind, a defense of secular ethics needs to address the question of why anyone should care.

Paragraph 5: "preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired." Molyneux refers to this desired goal again on page 32. At some point in the text, Molyneux must reveal to us the desired goal or goals of the participants in the UPB discussion. Could it be that it is obvious that we all wish to be good, and Molyneux is just helping us figure out right from wrong? I am willing to believe something not too far from that, but the more obvious it is, the less reason there is to leave it out of the text. We argue, therefore we seek truth?

Let me take a casual whack at the idea. I shall steal from Jonathan Haidt again ("The Righteous Mind"). (Geez, can I think a thought without quoting this guy?) Actually there are two ideas struggling in my brain that both came from Haidt. One works against Molyneux by claiming that our reasoning is mostly rationalization, that we make up our minds first (quickly, intuitively) and then use reasoning to justify our behaviour. We could interpret this to mean that we do not want to know right from wrong, we want a way to justify doing what we want. But the other idea, in the same book, claims that our moral intuitions evolved to help us overcome problems of cooperation that other species have failed to overcome, hence laying the groundwork for language, technology, and human domination of the other species. So we all want to think of ourselves as good. Well, except for the pyschopaths. So the argument is less about making a logical case for the necessity of striving for the good, it's more an empirical observation and evolutionary explanation of why (nearly) everyone prefers to obey morality. 

Comment on UPB page 10

Points 7 and 9 give weight to the ethical instincts, but say nothing about the limits of such. Go to India and ethical instincts are different and much more extensive (see Jonathan Haidt "The Righteous Mind"). Point 9 contradicts itself when parsed strictly. No new counterintuitive truths can sprout from the theory without violating intuitions. Clearly Molyneux meant something like "the best theories give us good reasons to believe some of our intuitions while denying others." Or something like that. Or perhaps he would put a different meaning on "instinct" and "intuition" that allows only the most universal taboos, such as murder, rape, and theft.

commentary on UPB page 32

Here I will comment on page 32 of "Universally Preferred Behaviour - A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics" by Stefan Molyneux. I don't understand this book, and my not understanding starts (or at least, grows conscious) on page 32.

Paragraph 1 - no comment.

Paragraph 2: "Preferences are central to any methodology claiming to define the truth-value of propositions." "Central" is vague. The sentences that follow do not explain, but illustrate with the example of science. "If you want to determine a valid truth about the behaviour of matter and energy, it is preferable to use the scientific method." He seems to want to show that it is instrumental, we seek a goal, we choose the best method of achieving the goal. It's easy to agree with the example, but he does not show how we came to agreement, or what compels someone who wishes to disagree to give in. Is this merely circular, with "scientific method" defined more or less as "method for determining truth?"

All that may explain some of my confusion, but perhaps it is beside the point for Molyneux. I think what he is trying to say is, ethics consists of attempts to determine the truth-value of ethical propositions, and by adopting that as our goal, we must adopt certain approaches or admit certain restrictions. Presumably, he will explain later why we have adopted that goal and how we know what methods or restrictions our goal implies.

Doesn't this goal-orientation violate Molyneux's proscription of arguments from effect (page 9)?

Paragraph 3: Let me paraphrase. Preferable means required, but not inviolable. If you violate the preference, you (certainly? probably?) fail to achieve the goal (or your chances of success are reduced?). The law of gravity has no exceptions. We can violate preferences. Our goal may be to live, but we may eat arsenic and fail in our goal. Valid truths must exhibit internal consistency and must not be falsified by observations.

Is Molyneux bait and switching us here? Previously, we were justifying the use of the scientific method, or disparaging other methods, and comparing that to the need or non-need to adopt UPB in ethics. Here he is discussing a different level, the strictness of the truths that we approve with each method. Perhaps he means that we adopt UPB in ethics for similar reasons that we adopt the scientific method, but the sort of theories each produces are different. And that ethics differs from physics in important ways that require us to take a slightly different approach, though we need not, must not abandon internal consistency and empirical testing. Nothing prevents us from violating ethical truths. But if they were truths about the possibility or impossibility of certain actions, they would belong to physics, not ethics. Ethical claims are not about possibility or necessity or cause and effect. But what are they about? What distinguishes an ethical theory/truth claim from a scientific one, for Molyneux? Maybe he covered this earlier in the book and I've forgotten. I should review, I've been stuck in this section for quite a while.

Paragraph 4: Ethical theories must be internally consistent and not contradict empirical observations. This paragragh is unusually clear, but contains one weasel-word that violates Molyneux's characteristic boldness - he uses the phrase "near-universal preferences." I think I understand universal preferences, and non-universal preferences, but what the heck is a near-universal preference? Why did we need to slip that in here?

Paragraph 5: "Valid theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable." At this point, I don't know what it would mean for an ethical theory to be empirically verifiable or not. An example might help. He may mean that the theory validates our moral intuitions. But what happens if some result is counterintuitive?

Paragraph 6: No comment.

Paragraph 7: "Preferences do no exist objectively within reality." I think Molyneux means that preferences exist only in the mind. I'm not sure, because in other contexts I've heard him belabor the existence of various things, e.g. the United States of America, in a way that blurs things for me. In any case, what does this imply for the preference he discussed at the top of the page, for pursuit of physical truth claims using the scientific method? Might it be the case that in spite of their non-existence, preferences tend to converge for persons with similar purposes? Could they diverge?

Paragraph 8: Makes me all quibbly. Preference consists of a relationship between consciousness and matter. I'm not sure where that is going. By the way, does consciousness exist objectively within reality?

Paragraph 9: Ordinarily, we are pretty safe assuming that a person's behaviour reveals that person's preferences. What about deception? Not relevant here?

cult of rationality

I want to join an organization that is like AA for irrationality, to try to overcome, to the degree possible, my cognitive biases. Loose organization, no membership, no leaders, few rules, based on face to face meetings. The idea would be to figure out how to live smarter, try to adapt around my biases. Sponsors? 12 steps? Merit badges?

Initiation into this cult requires the candidate for initiation to show that she/he is immune to the manipulations cults use to recruit members and so will never join a cult.

Irrationality is more like an eating disorder than alcoholism. Can one forswear all forms of irrationality, even on a "one day at a time" basis? I suppose it's more reasonable (rational?) to take a "pick the low hanging fruit (if any)" approach.


Like wikipedia, only for arguments, especially political ones. Wild claims, documented claims, conspiracy theories, rebuttals, etc. Ideally, when you encounter the internetwit, you could tell him (usually) "Hey, you're spouting a weak version of , which has been thoroughly rebutted at . Do you have anything to add, something I haven't heard before?" Hard part is, how to prevent it from becoming the magic land of trolls. It would need a very serious reputation mechanism, to keep serious arguments at the top, wackyness off to the side. Do we want one emergent version, or might it show different stuff to you depending on who you trust? You could choose a popular curator, or a group, or curate yourself.

Or it could be a linking protocol. This sort of link implies agreement, that sort implies rebuttal. Maybe my universal web commenting idea will solve this without a specific wiki? Tunable search for comments on this page, supporters, likes, rebuttals, dislikes. What else?


I want to play a game that sharpens my understanding of computer security attacks and defenses and helps me to pick the low-hanging fruit with regard to keeping my data secure. Of course, the internet itself is just such a game. But the action variance is too high (too boring until it is too exciting, and not in a good way). I want to play a lower stakes game that teaches me how to play the real game (on defense) as safely as is reasonable.

Why aren't people trying to sell me more software for this purpose? The antivirus companies are there, but they hardly count. I saw a crazy commercial on TV a few weeks ago, I didn't actually feel tempted to buy, but I was pleased that there's at least a market for security for home PCs. I think their deal was they have you go to some web site, and it scans and does whatever. Not sure if/how it differs from antivirus.

universal web comment protocol needed for tunable search

Email and the web triumphed by defining open decentralized protocols that in principle anyone with a computer could use, and still can. Unfortunately, they are a bit high maintenance, so most people do not run their own server with a direct connection to the internet backbone. Most use an ISP. The ISP can spy on them.
Web 2.0 enabled crowdsourcing. We contributed to the construction wikipedia.
Web 2.0 deprecates protocols. Google, facebook, twitter etc. capture our comments and wall off our/their content from the rest. Every web site wants you to get a username and password to make content for them. AOL's walled garden strikes back from the grave! Governments like China love to target the centralized data vaults. Mark Zuckerberg is the devil. He wants to own our data. Faceless... bookless.
We need a truly decentered protocol for commenting and collaborating. I should be able to publish comments on anything, and find useful comments on anything, one system everywhere. Wikipedia should be like a torrent, a truly decentralized peer-to-peer document perpetuated by usage. Similarly with Google's web index. Facebook is just training wheels for the web.
If anyone came up with a better search paradigm than Google's could they resist becoming another Google? Can the web return to its internet roots, or is there no turning back?
Diaspora*,, Friendica, tent, and the open microblogging standard are Daviding against the web Goliaths. I guess there is still some hope.

Why did delicious fail? My comments should be on my server in a peer-to-peer network, and searchable from google or any search engine. I should be able to comment on any URL or URI. Authentication based on public key crypto web of trust.

I should be able to tune my searches on google depending on who I consider an expert. If you are my only expert, stuff you like would top my search results, stuff you ignore would be in the middle, and stuff you dislike would be at the bottom. Or I could mark you as an anti-expert - stuff you dislike goes to the top. Or I have multiple experts, and their attitudes vote on my search results.

Google had the right idea - people's use of the web should self-generate the rankings of pages. But because both humans and bots inhabit the webosphere, this didn't work out. Can we fix this with pubkey crypto/web of trust and tunable search? It doesn't matter if x is human or a bot if I can make x an expert or antiexpert. Otherwise we need a turing test or captchas.

Bots may end up with even better reputations than some humans, by aggregating humans, or by evaluating mechanically. Biz model for bloggers?

Reverse reputation lookup - who rated this page highly? Who uses this page a lot?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Things to do

Things I want to do.
Things I used to want to do.
Things I have to do to avoid things that would be even worse.
Things I have to do to avoid feeling guilty.
Things I need to do to avoid smelling bad.
Things I am curious about.
Wild ideas.
Things to do with my family or friends for fun.
Things I wish I had done already.
Things I wish I could do right now.
So many Things. What's first?

Monday, October 1, 2012

When has the government shrunk in a good way?

In the U.S., abolition of the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Second Bank of the U.S., plus deregulation of trucking and communications in the 1970s reduced the scope of government slightly. Alfred Kahn, the unsung hero. Cypherpunks defeated the idea that the government should treat cryptography as a munition and control it's use.

In New Zealand in the mid 80's, budget and foreign exchange crises forced major reforms including privatization of public monopolies. Not sure whether it had so much lasting effect. I'm sure almost no one in New Zealand thought the crisis was a good thing. I think Canada went through a similar but milder crisis more recently.
Switzerland and Hong Kong were never that big to begin with.

Pretty underwhelming. Is government like cancer, it gets bigger until you die?

We don't want the government to collapse, because it will damage many lives as it falls. We need it to evolve. O'Reilly Press was touting the idea of "gov 2.0", the idea being that we should exploit the Internet to make government more transparent, flexible, and accountable. I guess I am looking forward to gov 3.0, which will be polycentric, contractual, and voluntary.

Hating Haidt

Well, actually Haidt is pronounced like 'height', so not such a clever title after all. Damn. And I don't really hate him, in fact I like his book and enjoyed his TED videos.

I do want to criticize Haidt's confounding moral stories. His empirical work involves telling subjects stories where someone breaks some sort of social taboo in a way that he hopes will make it really hard to find a victim that was harmed by the violation of the taboo. That way, he eliminates the care/harm basis of morality and will reveal the intuitive role of his other 'moral modules' (fairness, autonomy, sanctity, loyalty, authority... am I getting those right?).

For instance, he has a story of a brother and sister who commit incest, but it's only once, they are careful not to cause a pregnancy, and though they decide never to do it again, it makes them feel closer, in the story at least. Other stories involve the guy who had sex with a dead chicken before cooking and eating it, and the family who ate the family dog after it died accidentally. I see three problems.

1) Morality should condemn risky behavior, even when the gambler does not lose. Your moral evaluation of a decision should not change based on the outcome. When people make decisions, they must consider risk of harm. This before-the-fact aspect of moral evaluation seems at least as important as the after the fact, ex post aspect. Yet they must be the same, since it makes no sense to condemn something that hasn't happened yet, but excuse an identical choice after it has played out. Since the ex ante evaluation is more restrictive, it wins out.

Imagine this story, in Haidt style, as an example. A man goes to a bar and without initially intending to, gets drunk. He stumbles to his car, aware (and amused) that his abilities are impaired, but he gets in the car and drives home successfully, though with some weaving, etc. He flops into bed, and other than a headache in the morning, no one is worse off or knows anything about his adventure, which he barely remembers himself. What is our moral evaluation of this person's actions? Although he took a serious risk, he has not actually harmed anyone. What is the moral difference between him and a nearly identical person, making identical choices, but who was unlucky enough to kill 4 people accidentally? Risk of harm is relevant to the care/harm foundation.

2) In these stories, the protagonists break various social taboos in secret, and Haidt claims no harm is done and no one knows. But the persons involved know. I don't know about you, but I don't want to have any of these incidents show up in my personal narrative, the story I tell myself about me. I want to just say no to the chapters on incest, bestiality, and dog cuisine, even if you could guarantee secrecy and 'harmlessness'. That's part of morality for me, not just "Is someone else harmed?" but also "Will I be harmed? Is that the sort of person I want to be?" I guess you could say that if we did not have these social taboos, I would not consider myself to be harmed by experiencing them. I doubt that Haidt would accept what I say, but I don't know how he would respond. Should I impose my own decision on others, or theirs on myself? Does it make sense for me to treat myself differently?

3) Haidt asks his subjects to evaluate the morality of the actions of the persons in his stories. He avoids the question of whether these actions if morally condemned should be formally proscribed by law and hence punished formally, or perhaps legal but informally punished. I can't see how he would ignore this. To me, only violations that involve significant harm (the care module) seem worthy of being backed (and punished) by formal law. I condemn plenty of other things as wrong, but I'm not so willing to give these evaluations the force of law. Perhaps this makes sense, because only harm caused by force should be punished by force. (What about fraud?) The punishment should fit the crime.

Haidt seems to want to add a new category to the old pair of 'malum prohibitum' (evil by prohibition) and 'malum in se' (evil in itself). Unfortunately my latin stinks, so I don't know a good latin word to make the phrase 'evil because it's disgusting'.

I should probably have admitted at the beginning of this post that I had trouble processing some of his ideas/claims about 'thicker' morality in other less individualistic cultures, based on the sanctity, loyalty, and purity modules. Maybe it's not the sort of thing you can easily learn from reading a book. Haidt himself claims to have only barely intuited the outlines before visiting India, where it became much more real for him.

Saletan reviews Haidt:


Sunday, September 30, 2012

my kinda socialism (rant on)

The music labels tried to hang on to their deal, suing napster and grokster and your grandma. And they won every battle, right? So now they're happy, right? Kazaa & emule etc. Has Apple saved their business? They're on life support. That industry, music distribution,  got socialized - now everyone owns it. No more stupid lawyer tricks, no more getting the government to subsidize your business model, and the whole idea of intellectual property has a black eye. This is revolutionary entrepreneurship. Who's next?

No, I Won't Sue

I adopted my motto, "Breakfast impossible" back in the 1980s, though I doubt I can prove it. How long has this blog been sitting around gathering dust on Well, no longer than has existed, anyhow.

Now a google search reveals that youtube is hosting a web video series titled "Breakfast Impossible". Crud. There goes my SEO. What shall I do?

Hmmm, maybe someone looking for a fan site for an extreme low budget Americanized Dr. Who superhero ironyfest will enjoy getting bait-&-switched to my self-indulgent rants on cognitive biases, skepticism, epistemology, and libertarian theorizing?

Maybe they should make me a character in the series. But instead of a superpower, all I do is sit around making blog posts and sending them into the past of the primitive internet (series is set in 2171) in order to alter history.

There you go.

Inconvenient Geniuses and Annoying Saints on Damascus Pilgrimage

We easily fall into the trap of explaining our political, religious, philosophical, etc. differences as caused by the ignorance, laziness, selfishness, stubbornness, or stupidity of those with whom we disagree. Surprise me by showing me someone who never feels this temptation. Some of us try to resist, but none escape the impulse. 

I claim that everyone who has a position on some significant idea could find, if they cared to, the name of some person widely regarded as a genius or a saint that opposes them on this particular issue (or once opposed them, if the genius/saint is dead or experienced a change of mind/heart). (Feel free to send me counterexamples, I'd love to receive them.)

In some ideal rational world (Plato's Republic?) we would all be open-minded and look dispassionately at reasons and evidence, and if we disagreed, we would disagree exclusively on values, not on facts or theories. Perhaps, in these circumstances, we would more easily find agreement, and find disagreement less divisive. The saints and geniuses, at least, would all be in agreement in regard to the facts.

We do not live in that world. Debates rarely (never?) change anyone's mind. When we encounter an idea that contradicts our intuition, we ask ourselves "Must I believe this?" Often the answer is no, and any small perceived ambiguity or difficulty in the evidence or reasoning lets us off the hook. In other cases, when presented with arguments that appeal to our intuition, we instead ask "Can I believe it?" and we find that just a crumb of credibility will suffice. 

I've stolen this "Can I/Must I" from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind. He claims that intuition evolved as a quick and dirty guide to action, and that reasoning evolved to defend the decisions made by the intuition. From this standpoint, our thinking fails to bring us to agreement because we have pushed beyond the boundaries of the circumstances where it evolved. We face decisions about abstract ideas that impact us only indirectly, while our thinking excels at dealing with immediate concrete decisions that impact us and our immediate social group directly.

We could examine the implications of all this, and the difficulties and weaknesses, and perhaps I'll make another blog post on that someday (or you can send suggestions). What I am actually interested in now (finally!) is to wonder about those persons who finally do change their minds. Perhaps it reveals my bias, but I easily thought of some famous right-wingers who repudiated the left: David Horowitz, Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan. John Stuart Mill supposedly moved toward socialism at the end of his life, though I'm not sure whether he repudiated his individualism or merely radicalized it (Fabian society? Karl Marx? or Henry George? Lysander Spooner?) And we cannot overlook Saul's experience on the road to Damascus. Friedrich Hayek? John Stossel? Julian Simon? Bjorn Lomborg? David Ramsay Steele.

I hope my readers will suggest names to add to this list, but even more urgently, names of scholars or scientists who have examined this question of how someone's passionate dedication to one side of a debate moves them to passionately support the opposite. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Skeptical Libertarianism or Skeptical of Libertarianism?

My political beliefs are among my most unusual thoughts (though not unique). Extraordinary beliefs call for extraordinary evidence, so I ought to feel suspicious toward them. But its not easy.

When I look at government, it seems so hidebound, inflexible, non-adaptive. My father-in-law is very convinced that the Scandinavian social democracies have everything licked, so that is evidence against me. My confirmation bias makes me uninterested in actually looking at Sweden, and eager to listen to persons who explain it away with ideas about small ethnically homogenous groups having better tools for dealing with free-riders.

Conventional attitudes seem just as problematic, but they have the advantages of familiarity and popularity.

I need good evidence, but good evidence is scarce in politics. The sample size of government experiments is usually 1, and there is almost never a control group. Supporters love the stimulus and are certain it saved us from far worse. Detractors look at the same outcome and draw the opposite conclusion. There are almost certainly collective goods and coordination problems where the right collective decision could improve significantly over laissez faire, but once the mechanism exists it is vulnerable to serious abuse.

Political events happen at a different scale, what I do about my political beliefs has little/no impact on my life, so weak feedback fails to steer me clear of error.

Market advocates and critics both tend to concentrate their attention on markets. Public choice theorists tried to analyze the government, with varying success. The Chicago guys usually find that government is efficient, despite their association with market advocacy. I'm thinking of Gary Becker. (I of course prefer Bryan Caplan.)

Is there/could there be a Hayek of big government, someone with a deep, relatively optimistic and inspiring understanding of how government can work? There are many kinds of actual markets and actual governments. Hayek explained how markets work and why we need them. Who did that for government, as elegantly? Is it possible? (Update - the Nobel committee seems to be suggesting Elinor Ostrom as a sort of Hayek of the left - I'll have to get her book!)

How is corporate governance different from city governance, or national? Too many variables.
Our theories of the firm are weak, and public choice theories confused.

Could governments use rivalry more? In the US, different levels of government compete in some sense for jurisdiction. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches are rivals in some sense. Different bureaus compete for resources, different legislators compete for influence, votes, and contributions. Could technology, or creativity, take us further in this direction? Would it be an improvement?

Open source software and Wikipedia are examples of collective decentralized non-market non-government phenomena. The gift economy is not the same as government. How can we cultivate it?

Governments vary in size, in democracy, in dynamism, and in centralization. Size consists of scope, budget, revenue, debt, and employment (at least).

Can we also think of government as the stable equilibrium in the big game? Molyneux points out that it is rarely government employees who are the ones that enforce our attitudes toward government, we do it to each other, punishing defection and rewarding loyalty. When I gripe about bureaucrats, its not a buraucrat (usually) that tries to take me down a notch on the internet.

Markets can be thought of as skeptical, as many different approaches can strive, and failure will weed out those corresponding to weaker hypotheses. What is it that weeds out the failures of government? Where could the feedback come from? What are the hypotheses, and how could we test them? Do the various employees and officers of government have the right incentives and information?

Lessig says that code is law. But lately entrepreneurs have used proprietary protocols to add new capabilities to the web, causing concerns about privacy, transparency, monopoly, etc. Diaspora, identica, vs Facebook and google. So in a way, Facebook is writing law. OTOH, I can use diaspora instead.

Is it possible to limit a government with a constitution? Can competition limit government growth? Is government growth inevitable? Can we govern without monopoly? What experiments would reveal the limits of the possibilities, and what would it be worth to know? Is any sort of constitutional change possible in the US now? To what degree has the constitution succeeded in restraining government? The supreme court has guarded certain rights jealously and consistently, abandoned others. Or do I read the constitution with bias?

In my notes I mention that Claude Shannon developed information theory to explain and predict the capacity of noisy circuits to carry information. I've forgotten why I thought that was relevant here. Maybe government is made up of noisy circuits? Or the market is?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is Libertarianism a Cult?

I don't think so. The liberty movement is too disorganized to qualify. The Libertarian Party? Don't make me laugh. They are terrible at recruiting and retaining members. They are famous for schisms and infighting. Maybe they'd like to be, but if so they haven't done their homework.
To me a cult is characterized by a rigid hierarchical leadership structure, secrecy, an us vs. them culture, and emphasis on recruiting and maintaining members. This varies.
Are libertarians cult-proof? I doubt it. Interest in Libertarianism means that a person tends to be idealistic and interested in abstract arguments. These sorts of things a big part of the bait that cults tend to use. Someone who wants to do the right thing and change the world may be persuaded to join a strange group, sever contact with family and friends, and donate time and money to a worthy cause.

Doomsday cults want to survive the end times. Some will sell you self-improvement (scam). What sort of cult would people join willingly? 7 tactics of coercive mind control

More truth and action

Skepticism helps learning, certainty helps action. Someone who is too skeptical and reflective will never get anything done. Someone who is not skeptical enough will get scammed.

What is the opposite of a conspiracy? A large group, operating in total transparency, attempting to accomplish nothing? Can a conspiracy be transparent? I want to accomplish things, and a small group is all I can hope for initially. But I don't like secrecy.

Books and links

I keep a list of books I've read or want to read or am reading at .

Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society" is online at .

Steve Hassan's web page on cults is here:

Coercive mind control tactics:

Book depository (rival for amazon?)

Occupy wall street NYC general assembly decentralism:

Freedom engineers

Freedom box

Divia Melwani


Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyond Statism vs. minarchism vs. Anarchy

DRAFT: This is not the final version of this article, but I decided to publish now and regret at leisure.

Throughout his published works, Friedrich Hayek challenged the socialists of his day, accusing them of "constructivist rationalism". I believe that this criticism applies to both sides of the anarchist - minarchist debate. Although this debate never seems to die down, when analysed carefully the differences do not amount to much. Neither side has a slam-dunk program for achieving their goals or an effective program for action starting now.

Libertarians waste a great deal of time on debating minarchism vs. anarchism. Both sides of the debate want social institutions and customs that maximize liberty and protect persons from tyranny. Anarcho-capitalists propose to achieve these ends by using some form of market competition between organizations providing protection services. The minarchists prefer to limit the growth and scope of government to the "night watchman state". Neither can point to actually existing societies as exemplars of their approach, though they will point to various historical phenomena as plausible evidence that their ends may be achieved. Both must explore new intellectual and historical territory to find their Utopia.

What are the real differences between minarchism and anarchism? If examined abstractly, the differences are surprisingly small. Both think that activities and services now monopolized by the government should be decentralized, devolved, privatized, strictly limited, abolished, or whatever is needed to limit the state's ability to violate rights of citizens. Each accuses the other of inadequate protections against the re-emergence of tyranny. Both think that their magic wand will prevent the violation of persons' rights and the ascent of tyrants. But for minarchists, the mechanism is a minimal state, for the anarchists, it's competitive market forces.

These different words carry mostly the same meanings. How so? The current U.S. constitution attempts to separate powers among different branches of the federal government and between the federal government, the states, and the people. Presumably, if a minarchist ever had a chance to amend the constitution, replace it, or start anew in some other place, they would extend this approach, opening up as much government activity to competition as possible, and institutionalizing rivalry where it is not yet seen. The only way I can make sense of minarchism is to suppose that its supporters hope to find mechanisms that enable each part of the minimal state to be restrained by the people or by some other part of the minimal state, in a way that makes collusion difficult. The minarchists will tolerate monopoly production in certain limited areas, but would put safeguards in place, such as high standards of transparency.  Separation of powers and rivalry sound a lot like competition to me. Think of the articles of confederation as anarchy with territorial DROs.

Tactical differences exist between and within the two rival groups, with slightly different attitudes toward voting, the nonaggression principle, taxes, etc. Minarchists seem to want something like the status quo but with lower taxes and smaller government. Anarchists are more likely to want/expect serious change in other institutions and ways of life beyond the mass devolution of government power. They are more likely to fall into the trap of radicals who think of all soldiers as war criminals, all policemen as corrupt brutes.
What do they have in common? They both want reasonable foreign policy, an end to the war on drugs, end the Fed, etc. And neither program can proceed until these goals have become broadly popular. The objective must be viewed as doable, as right, as worth doing. That is the big challenge facing both.

The typical minarchist objection to anarchy questions the stability or instability of a society without government. But how would such a society arise in the first place? This is mostly ignored by both sides. It's quite possible to believe that an anarchist society is possible and could be stable, yet still find no practical path from the status quo to this utopia. But similarly, minarchism might be possible but practically unobtainable. The U.S. constitution attempted to split the powers of government, to have rivalry (competition) within the organization itself, and some at least of the founders intended the states to have nullification power, for the states to protect people from the federal government, and for the federal government and voting by foot to protect people from the states. Yet these restrictions failed to prevent the various branches and levels of government from colluding to achieve the growth of the state.

Do anarchists and minarchists share a utopian vision vulnerable to the criticism of constructivist rationalism? Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism argued that society is too complex for any individual or group to comprehend well enough to start over "from scratch" and build utopia in one wrenching frenzy. He thought that prices, customs, and legal traditions (especially common law) allowed society to solve problems that no one really undertands. Looking at the Soviet Union through the lens of this idea, the main problem was not the incentives or intensions of the people in the system, but the static nature of the system, the impossibility of knowing whether a new idea was an improvement or not, or whether changes in tastes, needs or other circumstances indicate that production of some good should change. Looking at the anarchist-minarchist debate similarly, we see that both sides employ some hand-waving in regard to the specifics. Some of them have convinced themselves that they know how society ought to be organized, but Hayek would not believe them.

Instead of arguing about abstractions, I am more interested in trying to think of concrete action I can engage in that will move society forward. I am not opposed to the experiments of others, so long as they allow my experiments to proceed, and in fact I expect each to benefit from the experience of the others. From that perspective, the minarchist-anarchist debate just wastes my time.

Marshall Fritz liked to point out, in slightly different words, that if either of these camps thought of a good solid step in the right direction, the other camp would almost certainly go along. We would have to take many steps toward freedom before facing a fork in the road where minarchists and anarchists must part ways. The real problem is finding that first step, we have no need to prepare for a decision we may never face. If we faced the task of building a society from scratch (neither to be expected nor truly to be desired), perhaps the an-min debate could shed some light on our path. Fortunately for us, we face a different challenge.

[need sections here on how to make incremental progress, limits of ordinary win-lose politics, how victory consists of changing popular attitudes about what is tolerable, what is worth experimenting with before dismissing]
This approach has some problems. There are large, politically well protected aspects of the state that can't be ignored yet do not seem vulnerable to an incrementalist approach - foreign policy, income taxes, debt, the fed, the war on drugs.

I think the homework assignment for minarchists is, come up with specific ideas for amending or rebooting the constitution that might actually limit the size of government. Similarly, the A-Cs need to get a proto-DRO happening. Even better would be for all of us to think of some way to run multiple experiments and let the system evolve.

What would Hayek have them do? He advocated incremental changes and mechanisms like common law. In his vision of common law, judges set precedent based on specific cases, which formed the default for following cases. If judges decide badly, those who are actually involved usually have an option to make contracts to get around the bad decision, or a legislature could correct the mistake. Hayek himself could be accused of rational constructivism, in his authorship of his book "The Constitution of Liberty" in which he took a first stab at solving the minarchists' problem, attempting to synthesize a design for a constitution that would preserve rights by examining the failures of previous constitutions. Perhaps the idea to take away is that whatever path we take we will make mistakes, so we need to prepare for failure as well as success, and force our new institutions to compete in some way with the old ones.

My spell checker wants to change all minarchists to monarchists. One little letter!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

reading "You are not so smart"

Actually I am listening to the audio book. It has lots of good stuff about biases. I am not sure how convincing it would be to an Objectivist, or a postmodernist, anyone with a strong prior attitude about how rational people are and what that means. This makes me want to blog about alternative hypotheses about human rationality.
A bias is a tendency, not a certainty. The author discusses a bias (forgot the name, can't flip back, darn audiobooks) where if you give evidence against someone's position they actually "double down" and become even more convinced of their own position.
But of course, this does not happen in every case, does it? Or else we change our minds in a different way, not by encountering evidence in an argument. If all these biases ruled every case, no one would ever change their minds. And we would probably all be prisoners of the same meme.
That is a specific instance of a more general criticism of such psychology experiments. Statistical significance is not the same as practical relevance. If showing me a picture of a pretty girl drinking a coke makes me 5% more likely to choose a free coke over a free pepsi afterwards, do I really care? On the other hand, it seems very likely to me that some biases, like confirmation bias, exert a strong influence on our lives, and we may be able to benefit greatly from learning how to recognize them and push back against them.

Posts and comments on this blog are licensed under the creative commons attribution-sharealike license. This is my first draft, I may come back and change stuff, including the license. Is that fair? No, probably not.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Truth and Action

What do I want to do? Which of my beliefs can I depend on with sufficient confidence to base my plans on them? Action needs truth. But sometimes the only way to find truth is trial and error.

I am pretty average, and I am vulnerable to the same biases, influences, and mental traps that send many into error. So if I know something general about people, it should apply to me too. And I must apply my skepticism to everything, including skepticism itself.
Where do our beliefs come from? Why do we sometimes change our minds suddenly, other times gradually, others not at all? We may respond to reason and evidence, but psychology throws some doubt on that. It is possible that our emotions influence our beliefs, or that unconscious brain processes may be at work, honed by evolutionary forces during our hunter-gatherer past to keep us viable as a part of a tribe, but ill suited to our lives as global infovores.
Even the wise, the good, and the powerful can be influenced or flim-flammed, so I'd better not get overconfident. Everyone can probably think of smart people or saintly types who agree with them on some controversial issue. We may find it more difficult to admit that the other side of some serious controversy also has a few brains and saints. I do not believe that anyone can truthfully say "Everyone who disagrees with me must be stupid or evil." Bias and influence lay traps for everyone, and even if I succeed in avoiding one trap, I need to watch out for the next. And if no one is exempt from these dangers, some of society's most central beliefs may be wrong.
Philosophy and psychology each describe some of the belief traps we trigger. Religion, politics, and economics sprout controversial beliefs for us to test. This is not a polite dinner party.
Join my cult. My cult has no charismatic leader. It does not demand that you donate your worldly fortune or labor or deny your family. My cult believes that we can challenge our beliefs, can train ourselves to resist dishonest influence, communicate fairly and honestly, and make space for those who disagree with us.
Action requires confidence. Wisdom requires doubt. Life requires us to balance them.

Posts and comments on this blog are licensed under the creative commons attribution-sharealike license. This is my first draft, I may come back and change stuff, including the license. Is that fair? No, probably not.

This blog - commenting and licensing

I intend for all the content I create and put here to be licensed with a creative commons license.
I think what this means is, anyone can quote it or use it in whatever fashion they like, so long as the derivative creation is also licensed as creative commons. I am not a lawyer or even particularly well informed, so I may have some details wrong.
I think the specific license is their attribution-share alike license. I'd like for anyone to be able to use the text in any way, even commercially, so long as they disclose that I was the author of whatever I wrote.
The share alike aspect is a bit more confusing to me. I certainly intend to share my ideas as widely as possible. I'm not sure I want to demand sharing for derivative works. It seems possible that I might change my mind about share alike.
If I can write a book or publish an article based on what I scribble here, I'd like to be able to do that. If someone comments on the blog and writes something interesting, I'd like to be able to include that. I intend to acknowledge the authorship of the comments, the degree that is possible. If someone published comments using a pseudonym, I'll give credit to the pseudonym. If I manage to get paid for the book or article, commenters will not get paid. Let them write their own-use my text if you like, just give me credit.
Of course, it is most likely that no such book or article will ever come into being, commercial or otherwise. But I want to make my expectations clear.