Friday, December 16, 2005

A Tyrany of Choices?

In one of my many debates with the lefties that surround me, my opponent brought up some supposed psychological research that suggests that people are happiest when there is a perceived limit to the choices available to them. He took from this that free markets aren't all they're cracked up to be. After all, the abundance of choice is one of the reasons to support liberal economic policies. This assertion runs deeply contrary to libertarian thinking, and I'm sure many libertarians would be quick to right off this sort of thing as socialist at best and fascist at worst.

I am also inclined to recoil from such talk. It may, however, be worth while to reexamine the virtue of choice. For this purpose, I'm going to assume that the aforementioned research has some truth to it, though I haven't encountered it myself.

Let's assume, then, that the present abundance of choices in our society do not lead to the same degree of happiness that one would have in a soceity where there was less choice. The first question that comes to mind is how one would go about creating this better society.

In order to limit the choices available to people, someone would have to impose such a limit, and see to it that some sort of system remained in place to sustain these limits. Socialism is certainly one option.

Without delving too deeply into the arguments against and for socialism, I will just state here that there are many reasons to reject socialism, many of which have nothing to do with the matter of choice as such. The main reason is that there is no way from preventing socialism from leading to totalitarianism, because the government is charged with controling all resources, and must thus control virtually all choices individuals make, and because any dissent poses a great threat to the government monopoly over the allocation of resources.

Let us focus, however, on the issue of choice as such, and for the interest of argument submit that, all things being equal, less choice at least can be better than more choice. My responce to this is that, even if this is true, it is relatively meaningless. After all, most would agree that, all things being equal, it is better to have less suffering in the world. The problem is, in matters of government policy, all things are never equal, and one can no less reduce choice in isolation than one can suffering. All government policy, because it relies essentially on coercion, has unintended consequences. In debating this issue as a matter of policy, then, one must discuss the actual consequences any change would induce.

One change resulting from a reduction of choice is an accompanying reduction in the quality of resources which competition brings about. I think most would agree that, even if our choices are to be limited, we have good reason to desire a high standard of quality for the resources we consume.

These argument may not carry much wait for the sort of collectivist utopian for whom I must reiterate these basics principles of economics. Their ultimate assumption, I believe, is that they, or some theoretical benevolent leader, is in a position to decide what's best for the people, and that one thus need not worry about the market's ability to alocate resources, because surely a benevolent dictator or a central commitee can do the same thing without all the waste and the mess.

Over a century of seeing the unfathomable brutality stemming from this assumption has forced many collectivists to tiptoe around their core ideas, and focus more on semantic games and scathing indictments of Walmart et al. It behooves liberal-minded people everywhere to bring such people to face their assuptions, and let them stand the open scrutiny they certainly could not withstand.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Backup on "Syriana"

Richard Cohen speaks the truth about "Syriana" in today's Post. He pretty much makes all the points I did, and much more eloquently at that. I hope people don't get the impression from that last post that my motivation for this blog is to hate on the left. Cohen is a self described "liberal", and I have every hope that there are many other thoughtful liberals like him who aren't afraid to decry the irrational paranoia of some on the left, which, after all, can only harm their movement in the long run. There are, after all, many things to legitimately criticize about U.S. foreign policy, and the left can play an important role in disrupting the clanish groupthink of the right, which has gotten us into quite a bit of trouble.

There is certainly no dirth of similar paranoia on the right. One need only look at the hysterical rantings of O'Reily and co. about the supposed "war on Christmas". I have plenty of scorn to heap upon the deeply irrational and illiberal Christianism that has infected conservatism in this country, and which, it can be argued, poses a much greater threat to the openness of our society today.

I'll be linking to any other liberal commentator who speaks out against the simplistic paranoia of "Syriana".

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Some thoughts on "Syriana"

Warning: This post contains spoilers for those who haven't seen the movie yet!

I recently went with a friend of mine to see the film "Syriana". I was taken with the first rate acting and the density and elegance of the editing. As I left the theater, however, I had the impression that all of this was a facade for something very banal and perhaps even sinister.

The film has been widely praised for its disturbing portrayal of the international oil business, and several critics have pointed to its conspiracy theory plot. Many critics have tried to portray the presentation as in some way nuanced or complex. My impression, however, was quite different. The message, not so subtly imbedded amongst all the quiet dialogue, is this: the U.S. government actively conspires with the oil industry to subvert the sovereignty of other nations, in this case Saudi Arabia, with the sole interest of supporting American companies and with flagrant disregard for the majority of people. This is what causes terrorism.

Now, this is a fair enough statement to make on its own, and one, in some regards, not entirely removed from the likely truth. Yet I find it both dishonest and cowardly to make such a blunt point in the form of a work of fiction- one which, moreover, is based "loosely" on a non-fiction work (how loosely, I don't know).

The message of the film is in essence an accusation, yet because it is a work of fiction it isn't based on actual fact, and indeed doesn't claim to be, it romoves itself from the arena of serious debate. I heard an interview with the writer/director, in which he claimed that the film was informed by what he had observed in his travels in the Middle East. If he had indeed revealed the sort of vast conspiracy that the film portrays, one would think that he would present his finding as fact. Surely this would cause a scandal of rarely seen proportions. Equally certain, however, is that the exact events of the film, or even a facsimile thereof, have not taken place. What, then, is the purpose of this project?

I would be more willing to accept this film as an exploration of certain highly relevant themes, were it not for the simplistic portrayal of the characters and their motivations. All of the government officials and corporate executives are clearly only interested in personal profit, and completely indifferent in the suffering of others, and sometimes even interested in perpetuating it. George Clooney pursues his work as a CIA agent so vigorously because he's alienated from his family, and is promptly killed once he begins to develop a conscience. Overall, the motivations for the characters are ultimately completely transparent.

What makes this far worse, however, is that the filmmakers attempt to create the appearance of sophistication and ambiguity where none exist. Most of the dialogue and acting serves to rather confusingly circumscribe what amounts to crude characterizations of people and geopolitical events. I find this method deeply insulting to the audience's intelligence.

Most disturbing, however, is the fact that so many people, all part of the educated liberal-left, have already embraced this film, as no doubt others will in the coming weeks. In doing so, their intelligence has been successfully and rightly insulted.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I'm kinda libertarian

I've neglected to present my political leanings in past posts, or at least I haven't given myself a label. I don't like labels, but, if pressed, I identify as libertarian. The following beliefs lead me to this: I am skeptical of the ability of the government to solve most problems, because it lacks important time and place (TP) knowledge, and the sort of accountability you see in the private sector. Not surprisingly, then, I believe in the general efficacy of private enterprise. I also believe that taxation in essentially theft, especially when a person is taxed to pay for something they alone would not opt to pay for. I have also found that identification with the state is usually bound to nationalism and tribalism.

There are, however, several points where I hesitate to agree with what are considered libertarian beliefs. I've detected an almost blind faith in the power of the market to address all concerns of "social justice" and basic equality, when, in fact, neo-classical economic theory doesn't really address these issues on all counts. In fact, in seems that classical liberalism presents certain fundamental rights whose defense necessitates the existence of certain institutions (this is obvious) and some of these rights may go beyond common law principles, or said principles might entail more than often assumed. For example, the availability of some level of basic health care for all. I'll elaborate more on this in another post.

Overall, however, I find most proposals from the left flagrantly disregard basic economic principles, and tend to reveal a contempt for the wealthy and otherwise privileged, and I don't think a sound and truly just system of government can promote such ideas.

Another note to conclude: I find myself more often critical of the far left than the far right. I think this is mostly due to my having attended a college where left wing ideology predominated, and also because I usually find people on the left to be somewhat more open to rational debate, partly because their basic humanitarian impulses are more aligned with my own, though I've encountered many exceptions, to be sure.

I tend to think that the far right is so steeped in nationalism or christianism or both that their assumptions about what is fundamentally good are radically different from mine. That said, their ideas do hold some sway in our society at present and thus perhaps are more deserving of open criticism.

On the other hand, I feel that many people on the left have their heart in the right place, but misunderstand many things about how society actually works. This is caused, I have come to believe, by the sort of complacency that is bread by intellectual isolation- groupthink, as some have labeled it. One of my goals in maintaining this blog is to help inject new life into the humanist community (that sounds awful ambitious, especially since my readership is presently close to nonexistent).

This is my present understanding of my critical inclination. I've learned that these things can change drastically as I assimilate new ideas and facts. I'll make sure to keep everyone updated.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

How I'll be Writing

I've decided that this blog will generally consist more of mini-essays than regular postings. I feel I have more to contribute if I take time to think about what I'm saying. Plus, I don't have the journalistic or political chops to offer many useful insights or references on the fly. I'll occasionally link to things I find interesting, but I plan on taking at least a day to write some longer posts. The last one took me about a week, mostly because I forgot about it for a few days. I hope to sharpen my discipline.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Moralism and Torture

Near the top of the list of annoying pernicious tendencies are moralistic readings of law and punishment. I was reminded of this in this essay by Charles Krauthammer, in which he argues that, in certain cases, we are morally obligated to torture a person. His position is much more thoughtful overall than many others who advocate torture of detainees, if still wrong. Krauthammer advocates torture only when it is necessary to prevent a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, the following passage is typical of what I call the moralistic position on torture:

"Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire."

In short, by committing an act of terrorism, one completely gives up ones dignity, and thus is to be treated humanely merely as a gesture of our largesse.

I'm sure all of you have encountered similar utterances in discussions of terrorism.

Now, it is naturally deeply unpopular to say anything that might be seen as sympathizing with terrorists or other killers. And sympathy has nothing to do with my objection to this way of thinking. It has everything to do with the idea of "certain inalienable rights". Often overlooked in the passage from which this quote is taken is the word "inalienable". In short, that means you can't take a persons rights away, or at least not with any sound justification. This applies especially to the state. This, in my view, is why it is widely accepted, and true, that torture is wrong in all cases.

"But what about the rights of the victims?" is the obvious question, and it deserves a real response. My reading of liberal (read: 'small L') theory is that the only justification for the state's infringing on a person's rights is for the protection of the rights of the whole. To murder is to negate another's fundamental rights and the prerequisite of an open society, and thus it clearly cannot be tolerated. The purpose of the punishment is to protect these rights for all, and the society that they whose existence they enable. What a criminal "deserves" is determined only by what measures are minimally effective to achieve this end.

By contrast, to conceive punishment as retribution, or as compensation of the victim, can only lead to barbarism. What exactly is enough compensation? Is anyone suggesting "an eye for an eye" anymore? The answer is that the latter is clearly forbidden by our constitution. The former has no clear answer.

The moment punishment is determined by a person's very subjective notion of what is morally fitting for another person, all reason and coherency in matters of justice break down. Not one person, nor even a majority of them, in any country, has the right to decide who possesses dignity and who doesn't. Any infringement upon human dignity is only justified by its demonstratable necessity in the name of preserving liberty.

Krauthammer is right to point out that terrorist acts are an attack on the foundations of an open society, and thus are grave crimes that may even go beyond mass murder. All crimes, however, represent a similar threat, albeit to a greater or lesser degree. But to then say that that one surrenders ones rights in proportion to the extent one has violated those of others simply leads to the 'eye for an eye' theory.

The key point here is that human dignity is inalienable, and we must infringe upon it only with great reservation and care. It is far too easy to let ones emotions dictate how we let the state treat people. It is more difficult, but also infinitely more noble and rational, to distance oneself just enough to understand what is ultimately fair and just and what isn't.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

My Starting Point

As a philosophy major, my position on any particular issue tend to derive from the broader principles I adhere to.
One of these is my belief in the necesity of community in arriving at truth. Here I am influenced largely by the later writings of Wittgenstein and by Popper (I'll elaborate on this in another post).
Another is my belief in human freedom as the only certain and universal prerequisite (other than food, shelter, etc) of happiness, and thus the only principle the state should defend. Thus I usually describe myself as libertarian, though I would much prefer the term 'liberal' were it not for the distortion of the latter term in the U.S.
Although I've been attracted to various forms of mysticism, I am deeply sceptical of most religious belief, as I am of any form of irrationalism (post-modernity, etc.). I find many people reluctant to criticize religious communities for fear of appearing intolerant, and I find this tendency troubling. Respect, a term very loosely and lazily used by many, must mean, I think, not only not inflicting harm or refraining from imposing your beliefs on another, but also actively and fully engaging a person, from which thoughtful criticism is inseperable.
I am a firm believer in the scientific method, and believe that its core principles ought to be applied to many other areas of inquiry. The most important of these principles is operating within a theoretical framework that explicity presents the posibility of error, and what error entails. In other words, you have to able to wrong before you can be right.
It is these beliefs which currently inform much of my thinking, though that does not mean there are fixed. I try to remain open-minded without being merely shallow or passive. I certainly hope any readers will feel free to challenge me every step of the way.


While contemplating starting a political blog, the question naturally arose of why we need yet another lehman's commentary on politics, especially one with little formal education in the subject nor on the ground experience. This question made me hesitate for quite a while.
The reason that finally made me do it is entirely selfish: blogging may be the best way to improve my writing and force me to refine my thinking. If anyone else finds what I write in any way useful, I'll be pleasently suprised. I will, however, write as if addressing others who will not automatically agree with me.
I consider intelectual honesty to be a cardinal virtue, and a prerequisite of a truly open society. In that spirit, I will strive not to assert the 'correct' position, but to observe and comment thoughtfully and carefully. I suspect I'll be ambivalent or ignorant in most matters I'll address.
Everyone brings their own assumptions and intelectual background to a discussion, and the next post will serve to make mine clear.