Thursday, August 31, 2006

Feral Genii

And while I'm linking to blogs that I strongly advocate reading, let me plug Jennifer's Ravings of a Feral Genius. A very interesting and entertaining writer, with a lot of good things to say.

Why I Am Not an Environmentalist

D.A. Ridgely at Inactivist posted on his town's recycling regulations, and points to an excellent piece on the problems with environmentalism as a religious movement (as opposed to the environmental movement as an attempt to promote greater recognition of certain externalities generated by certain activities, a movement that now is largely triumphant).

Read the piece. And read Ridgely and the others at Inactivist, which is a wonderful blog with many other interesting writers.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Yes, Religion Does Have a Purpose

Amy Alkon, a militant atheist, writes of a woman who complained about college Christian groups that threw pizza socials. "Of course they threw pizza socials," I want to say. "College students like pizza socials. That's half the point of a group like that. It's an excuse to have pizza socials."

I'm not a religious person. But I'm often frustrated by atheism's most public figures; religion has done a great deal of good, and they don't like to admit it. Amy Alkon is usually such a person, and even though I typically agree with her I find her a bit shrill whenever the subject comes up. But today she gets it right. Religion is as common as it is not because the Pope is a nefarious hypnotist with a supernatural ability to compel us to submit to his beliefs, but because religion serves a number of real purposes in most people's lives.

The most obvious benefit is psychological; belief in god gives an order to the universe that makes a lot of people feel more secure about their lives. I don't need religion to balance me; I trust that everything will turn out well, and try to make it so, but don't need god to keep me from freaking out. But if your church helps you get through the day, put in that extra bit of effort, or just generally makes your life happier and better, more power to you.

But a lot of atheists miss the wholly practical advantages of belonging to a church: a social network. Church socials give you a place to hang out and meet people in your area (and things to do with them)—something that lots of twentysomethings, especially in the cities, say is becoming harder and harder to find. Without her church my grandmother would spend her days sitting at home watching the shopping network on TV; instead she has a circle of friends, places to go, and things to do so she doesn't get terminally bored. Church is an opportunity for business networking as well, putting parishioners in contact with all sorts of people from the community whom they might want to talk to. It's a convenient structure to organize large-scale charitable activities. And it can be a place to turn if you have a run of bad luck and need some help to tide you over.

Churches these days aren't doing as good a job at a lot of these as they used to, largely because we don't let them. The important part of a social network is the 'social' part; as fewer people participate, whether from secularization or other reasons, the networks become less valuable and people have less reason to join in. But we don't yet have a good replacement. In the long run I suspect the internet will provide; as the social networking sites figure out how to create interfaces that actually allow their users to network socially, they will replicate many of the benefits that churches used to provide in abundance.

But many atheist spokespeople remind me of G K Chesterton's comment on overambitious reformers:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

When someone like Richard Dawkins (a very bright man whom I much admire) calls religion a virus and explains that it serves no purpose and is actively harmful, he alienates the majority of Americans who know that their religion benefits them. The secularist spokemen won't be taken seriously until they can admit that religious organizations benefit their members, and find some other way to provide those benefits.

And that's why I think Amy is basically right when she says we should have Atheist organizations. Not because atheism needs to be a religion, but because people like to have groups that can throw the pizza parties. Form a club for atheists to hang out, chat, meet members of the opposite sex, and go on camping trips, and a lot of them will love to join. It's really all about the pizza.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Interesting pro-National Health Care Argument

Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek posts a critique of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article on universal health insurance. A good post, but nothing shockingly new. But Tom West in the comments has a nuanced and interesting defense of a Canadian-style system that I'd not heard before:
I think you misunderstand the advantages of a national health-care scheme. If the Canadian model is any indication, you can get about 90% of the health outcomes for close to 50% of the costs.

Two things, however. National health-care works because it *is* rationing. Anybody who thinks they can get the advantages of national health-care (much lower costs) without the downside (somewhat lower health outcomes) is completely fooling themselves.

Frankly, unless Americans are willing to accept this trade-off, (and I don't think they are) it isn't possible to gain the primary benefits from a national health care system...It's easy to be told "there's nothing we can do for Grandpa any more". That doesn't work when next door somebody
is doing something (mostly fruitlessly spending dollars, but there will be *some* successes) for their Grandpa.)

...(A better analogy instead of steel is cars. People are currently buying BMWs, but if the government centralized it, we'd all be riding Toyota Corolla's. A *lot* cheaper, but not quite the same thing.)

I believe I've run across parts of this before, but Tom is the first person who's laid it out this clearly. National health care saves money because it forbids expensive, low-benefit treatments. It gives you a way to feel you've done everything possible without actually spending money on all the things that are possible. If no one can get these treatments—say, because private healthcare is outlawed—you can't feel bad about not spending barrels of money to extend Grandma's life another six months. Thus the scheme is dependant on outright forbidding many treatments, and insuring that there's no superior private option availalble. (Tom notes that the US provides a last-resort outlet, which lets off some pressure but isn't terribly visible and so doesn't bother most Canadians.)

Tom is right that this will save a lot of money (though moving to a Canadian system in America removes Canada's outlet, and ensures that we don't have one either). But this plan also means that you aren't allowed to get healthcare that could save your life. I find this thoroughly repugnant. That's a moral argument, not an economic one, and I can't prove its objective truth. But I can't buy into Tom's scheme; and I doubt that most Americans, were the plan presented to them clearly, would either.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

An Unsung Victory for School Choice

After last year's hurricane-induced destruction, you'd think New Orleans would have better things to do than run controversial and expensive experiments with large government programs. But with most of its sunk costs refloated on September's floodwaters, the city has a nearly unprecedented chance to try again and redesign its infrastructure properly (not that it could really design it any worse). I earlier argued that this was the perfect time to kill flood insurance subsidies, but I knew that actually wasn't going to happen. But time pressure and organizational difficulties have forced the Big Easy to try something arguably even harder. This year will see the largest and most dramatic implementation of school choice in the country.

Now, any purist libertarian could immediately point out all the problems in our program. Money doesn't travel to private schools, only to chartered public schools. This means that no school can charge more than the "voucher" and still get payments; further, the schools are bound by the constitutional constraints, like the Establishment Clause, that limit all public schools—so no religious or creationist schools. I'm sure there are a number of hoops the charter schools must jump through to get funding. But this is in many ways closer to a full voucher program than anything else I've seen get actually implemented.

The men and women who are launching new schools are, predictably, enthusiastic about the program.
The city's pre-Katrina public schools were "kind of like the restaurant that everyone's forced to go to and still it gets worse and worse and worse," said James Huger, a real estate developer who is leading a private group setting up one of the city's 28 new charter schools. "In a real society, there's not too many bad restaurants that stay in business."

Now, there won't be many bad schools that stay in business either, he said.
But incredibly enough, government officials also seem to have signed on to the arguments we libertarians have been making for decades. Leslie Jacobs of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education:
I think over time, as people adjust to the system, more and more parents are going to begin to choose...I don't think every single parent is going to be engaged and exercise their choice, but I think we should give every parent the right to exercise that choice. And it is going to empower a lot of parents who didn't feel empowered before. That will force schools to see parents and students as their customers.

Still, a couple of things to keep in mind before we all get too excited—even if the experiment pans out. If we see a dramatic improvement in school quality, that's not necessarily due to the school choice system; it would be hard to set up a more dysfunctional school system than the one we had before the flood. Second, New Orleans was in a sense primed for this already. Partly because we're a very religious city, and partly because our public school system sucked so very badly, we had an unusually large, far-reaching, robust, and respected system of private schools. Parents here are used to thinking about where they should send their kids, so the whole charter school setup wasn't nearly as new or confusing as it would have been in other cities.

And I can't decide whether I think the advent of votech schools like the Priestly School of Architecture and Construction is good or bad. That education is probably a lot more useful for many of the prospective students, who weren't really college-bound anyway. And yet, America has a long tradition of believing that all citizens should have a liberal arts education to allow them to participate effectively in the public square—a tradition that these votech schools are working against. But most of the students these schools serve probably would have gotten no real education, liberal, vocational, or otherwise, in the prior setup; on balance, I think anything that lets more people become more educated more easily and cheaply is a good thing.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Someone Deserves a Raise

You know you're a hopeless dork when you laugh out loud—repeatedly—at one of the lead articles in The Economist. So I'm a dork. A sample:
Men, studies show, are exceedingly good at rotating three-dimensional shapes in their head. Perhaps women once stared open-mouthed in wonder as their mates juggled pyramids of imaginary polyhedra. Such tricks are also quite handy for engineers who specialise in building large bits of machinery, digging tunnels or slinging bridges across rivers. But, now that the rich world has about as many tunnels and bridges as it needs, and the large bits of machinery which aren't made by computers and robots are made by the Chinese, their usefulness is limited...

Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody's confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Card on Schwartz

I just ran across this old Orson Scott Card essay on Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice, and I think he gets it exactly right. Schwartz had great ideas about the way we process choices and how we can let the number of options available to us dominate our lives and make us unhappy. He wrote what seems to be an excellent book about these ideas. Then he used the same ideas to push an odious and ill-thought-out political platform, saying the government should take away our choices because they just make us unhappy anyway. In doing this, he completely missed his own point.

Card rejects this paternalistic logic:
Even though having too many choices is the cause of a lot of misery, the solution is not to eliminate choices. A few months ago, in the former East Germany, we were talking to a German who said, "I just don't understand why you need so many kinds of soap. In the old days, we went to the store and bought soap. It was so simple."

Well, I don't want that system. I like having choices. I wish we had more of them. Or at least I wish that they wouldn't keep taking choices away.

But it isn't the choices themselves that matter. It's the sense of control of our own lives. And, paradoxically, we often get far more of a sense of control—of autonomy—by voluntarily limiting our own choices than we get by leaving all our options open, all the time.

We can't overcome the paradox of choice by globally removing some options. I may be happier if they cut us down to just three types of toothpaste, but the guy who desperately needs Colgate Platinum Whitening Fluoride Toothpaste would be pissed. Similarly, most people might not mind if we cut down to two laundry detergents, but I need the hypoallergenic stuff; the time I tried washing my clothes with regular detergent I itched nonstop for the next two weeks. More choices means we can find the things that really suit us.

The solution to the paradox of choice is to figure out which choices matter and which ones don't. Richard Feynman made this point years ago: he said that when he was in college, he put a lot of mental energy every day into deciding which dessert he should eat for lunch. He realized that was stupid and declared that he would just get the chocolate cake every day. Seems silly, but it saved him a lot of stress. Choices are available for those who care; and the rest of us can just pick something and stop worrying. That's a learned skill, but a useful one.

Card's other really excellent point is that removing some choices from yourself can dramatically improve your life and increase your freedom. Once again, the key is that each person decides which choices to discard, since I have no way of knowing which choices are most important for you (I'd probably decide to take away your choice to watch sports on TV, since no sane person could possibly want to do that. Sign of a diseased mind, you know). When someone else tells you what you can't do, it's a limit, a constraint, an obstacle. But when you set restrictions on yourself,
they aren't limits. They're choices that have become part of who I am. And my religion didn't force those choices on me; I chose to be part of that religion and chose those rules as part of my identity...

I have more freedom, I think; not less.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Captain Renault to be Next Department of Building and Safety Spokesman

Is anyone really surprised that a fast-track building permit program, designed to streamline large and complex construction jobs, has been used extensively by city commissioners and political donors?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Worst Argument Yet

There've been a lot of rather dumb arguments against allowing Plan B to be sold over the counter. But one in yesterday's New York Times, from Concerned Women of America president Wendy Wright, takes the cake:
There’s clearly no way that the F.D.A. or Barr Labs could put a gender restriction on who buys the drug. You could have a statutory rapist buy the drug in order to cover up his abuse.

So, we shouldn't allow Plan B to be sold over the counter because it might be used to prevent teenage pregnancy? That's like banning e-mail because it lets people keep in touch with each other. Forbidding the Salk vaccine because it protects kids from polio. Stopping free trade because it lets us buy cheap stuff.

Oh, wait.

Anyway, the article on the whole appears to be good news: the FDA's acting commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, is willing to go ahead and approve Plan B for over-the-counter sales. Likely just political grandstanding, since his confirmation hearing was today, but potentially good news nonetheless.

And you know, I can't stand Hillary Clinton, but on occasion she does something legitimately good:
Assuming that the committee approves Dr. von Eschenbach’s nomination, Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Murray said they would block a floor vote on his confirmation until the F.D.A. made a final yes-or-no decision on the drug’s sale. Under Senate rules, any senator may place a “hold” on a floor vote to approve a nominee.

The senators removed a similar hold last year that had blocked a former F.D.A. commissioner, Lester Crawford, who then faced confirmation hearings. At that time, Dr. Crawford assured them that a decision on the drug would be made by Sept. 1, 2005, the senators said.

“We lifted our hold in July 2005 on Dr. Crawford’s nomination after receiving assurances that the F.D.A. would act by September,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Instead, what they did was to make a decision, and their decision was not to make a decision. Almost a year later, we’re still waiting for a decision.”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Minarchy is Good, but not God

At Reason's Hit and Run, Cathy Young has an excellent new article up about the Starchild Abraham Cherrix affair (and no, I didn't make that name up). The short version of the story: Abraham is a 16-year-old cancer victim. He went through a painful chemotherapy treatment, only to suffer a relapse. Deciding he didn't want to suffer through another chemo course, he declined and pursued an "alternative medicine" treatment, the Hoxsey method, with his parents' support.

If that were the whole story it would just be another example of idiots determined to prove Michael Behe wrong. But Abraham's parents were sued by the Department of Social Services for neglect. A lower court judge ruled that Mr and Mrs Cherrix were neglectful and made Abraham a partial ward of the county; a circuit court judge reversed temporarily pending an appeal.

This cast the blogosphere—or at least the (mostly libertarian) part of it that I read—into an uproar. Half of them are in an uproar because Starchild Cherrix is getting himself killed, and half of them are in an uproar because the government is screwing with the Cherrix family's right to make decisions for itself.

And the case does raise important questions for any reflective libertarian. It would pretty clearly be better for everyone involved if Abraham Cherrix would either go back and take chemo, or find a quick and painless method of suicide to replace the long and torturous method he seems to have chosen. It's easy for those who wish to defend government-regulated or -mandated treatments to point to this case and say, "See, your 'libertarian' position just doesn't work in the real world; if you had your way you'd condemn this kid to death." Anyone who has no response to this can't really hold libertarian beliefs in good conscience.

This case is particularly tricky because it touches on what I think are the two most confusing areas for libertarian philosophy. First is the treatment of children (and other minors, since I have a hard time calling someone two years younger than I a child). On the one hand, we want to treat every human being as an autonomous agent with the right to make his own decisions toward his own ends; on the other, children have little experience and their parents need authority over them to guide them. We hate forcing upon anyone unasked responsibility for another—on principle because we disdain coerced charity, and in practice because undesired responsibilities are often shirked; but a child must be cared for by someone, and the parents who brought him into the world have an obligation to see that he is cared for. We want everyone to take responsibility for his own decisions and his own life; yet many minors aren't really capable of consent, and shouldn't be held responsible for that whose consequences they can't be expected to understand. And most pertinently, we think families should be able to make private decisions about their private lives without interference from the government. But we recognize that some parental obligations—most obviously, the obligation not to physically abuse your child—merit some sort of outside enforcement.

I don't pretend I can answer really all, or indeed any, of these very real and difficult questions. But I think this is a bad place for the government to stick its nose into. First, Abraham Cherrix is sixteen; even if we've decided sixteen-year-olds can't be granted full autonomy, their opinions on how their lives should be lived ought to command a bit of respect. But even if this Starchild were six, decisions about (quasi)-legitimate medical treatments may be the worst place for the state to intervene. Does the FDA make a list of treatments children can't be given and those they must receive? Do we socialize health care and require regular checkups to make sure parents aren't hiding their kids' ailments to shield them from state-mandated treatments? And what happens when we get into psychological illnesses, and we have mandated treatments for thinking in the wrong way? I could easily see a government forbidding religious teachings because they're damaging to a child's psychological makeup (incidentally, why do we give a pass to stupid religious reasons to reject medical treatments, a la Christian Scientists, and not to plain-old vanilla stuipid reasons?).

The second diffucult area is the tradeoff between extremely rare and nasty events, and much commoner but less troubling problems. Does the real damage drug addiction can do justify the War on Drugs? How many rapes do we need to stop to justify Megan's Law? Should we crack down on parents who take pictures of their naked three-year-olds on a camping trip in the hopes of catching a child pornographer? Ban Myspace because it gives teenage girls a new way to find sexual predators? We have to draw a line somewhere (I mean, laws against breaking and entering on occasion inconvenience honest innocents too, but I think we need those). But a large part of anyone's political orientation is defined by his answer to this question.

And I think the government should lean on the side of inaction here. No matter how many laws we pass, how many regulations we enforce, people will still do Bad Things. We can't stop all of them, and if we try we'll make sure no one else can ever do anything fun or interesting. I won't convict a hundred innocents to stop one child molester; I won't screw up a hundred families' lives for one situation like this. This statement verges on axiomatic for me, so I have trouble defending it beyond a Kantian appeal to the fact that it's just wrong to roll over people like that, even if you feel you're achieving some greater good. Perhaps a detailed analysis of this idea in a future post; for right now, I'll just say that I'm a libertarian largely because I make this tradeoff the way I do.

Part of a mature libertarian worldview is the recognition that the market and minarchy won't solve all the world's problems. We aren't God, so that we can solve all the world's problems and guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong. But the state isn't God either, and things will go wrong with much regulation as surely as with little. Libertarianism doesn't solve all our problems, but it does keep them manageable, and on balance causes fewer than any other system. On occasion we get a situation like Abraham Cherrix's and sigh, in recognition of the costs of a free society. But there is no free lunch; and sometimes the costs are something we have to accept.