Monday, September 13, 2010

More Cops Meet Dogs

Reason's Radley Balko has a roundup of the latest cop shoots dog stories. I took particular note of the Lexington, Kentucky story, where a police officer pursued a fleeing suspect into a fenced in yard and proceeded to shoot the dog of the family whom the property belonged too. I find the comments particularly interesting in these sorts of circumstances and there's definitely a growing awareness that this isn't simply an isolated incident. Of course you have the typical reflexive defenders of law enforcement, but the commenters in Lexington do a good job of challenging such sentiments.

Of course, far too many commenters wade into the debate over the officers state of mind: Is he a vicious dog killer or was he just simply making the best of a bad situation? As I've pointed out before, judgments of individual police officers tend to be counter productive. Writing off unjustified shootings to lousy police work on an individual level merely perpetuates the very policies that are problematic in the first place. As Radley Balko has asked time and time again, why are police seemingly so ill-equip to handle these encounters with dogs? Why isn't there training? Why aren't there departmental guidelines?

The folks that get worked up over any criticism of law enforcement exhibit the same sort of epistemic closure we just saw from Matt Yglesias's commenters about barber licensing. It's a reactionary defense of the status quo with no actual thought given to the issue in a vacuum.

In terms of these dog shootings, the point isn't that a police officer shooting a dog is never justified, the point is that for all the cases you find across the country a police officer shooting a dog in the course of duty, you have difficulty finding a case where such a shooting was deemed unjustified. The larger, across-the-board problem isn't that this officer shot this dog, but that there are no mechanisms for taking these cases seriously and no mechanisms for ensuring our pets are safe should police come on to our property.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quran Burning and Mosque Building

I'm a day late and apparently Florida pastor Terry Jones did not go ahead with his plans to burn the Quran on the 9th anniversary of 9-11, but I did have a few comments I wanted to share while they're still relevant. A number of conservative commentators have weighed in over the last few weeks making the ridiculous comparison between Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Ground Zero mosque/community center. After all, both building the mosque and burning the Quran are perfectly legal- the outrage is all about the offensive nature of the action.

Of course, it should be a bit more obvious that there's a big difference between burning the religious text of a major religion and building a religious center. One act is clearly meant to be offensive and provocative, while the other is at worst, of ambiguous motivation. And herein lies the problem, that not every "offensive act" is of equal offense. No reasonable people are making the case that Terry Jones is anything other than a giant douche, but there are reasonable people on both sides of the mosque issue, with one side arguing quite specifically that it is not offensive to have a mosque near Ground Zero with the other side arguing that it is in fact offensive.

And I'll stand by my position even if the mosque is never built and the controversy goes away. Putting the mosque there, even if you question the motivations behind it, seems to me to be exactly why America is great. We're not an insidious monster because we keep other people out (like the segregated Muslim communities of many European countries), we're an insidious monster because we let everyone in and the melting pot of a growing American culture oozes to every corner of the globe. The truth is, even the most insular American communities are far more welcoming to outsiders than much of sophisticated Europe (Feel free to challenge me on this if you disagree, but it's more gut feeling than fact- a reflection on the nature of American versus European culture, not the result of any comprehensive survey). Just like those who are fervently anti-immigration, I think the mosque opposition is on the wrong side of history here, precisely because of American tradition

Friday, September 10, 2010

Our Bold Republican Future

For whatever reason I tend to be on any number of odd political lists. I tend to get a lot of e-mails for a wide variety of causes I don't agree with or have no interest in, but I rarely receive anything in the mail. So it was quite a surprise when I opened my mail the other day to find an NRSC Republican strategy ballot (direct from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch no less!). I'm not a registered Republican and I've never given money too any politician, so I'm not sure how I got on this list, but nonetheless, I've got the ballot. I was going to respond, just for the hell of it, and submit some responses to push the Republican party in a more libertarian direction, but that wasn't in the cards. What's troubling was how virtually no space was devoted to limiting the nature of government and how divorced this Republican strategy ballot was from even the most basic of tea party rhetoric.

Before anyone accuses me of taking political mailings too seriously, let me just say that I don't take them all that seriously - maybe I'm a bit out of the loop with the day-to-day workings of the parties - But if this is what we have to look forward too if the Republicans take back Congress (and perhaps the Presidency in 2012) color me unimpressed. I understand that this is a "strategy ballot" but the wording of the ballot specifically asks for opinions that reflect my values. Here are the questions from the ballot:

#1 Which issue(s) do you believe Republicans should highlight in the final months of this year's election campaigns?
* Permanent Tax Relief
* Saving Social Security
* Judicial Nominees
* Marriage/Values
* Medicare Reform
* Border Security
* Homeland Security
* Military/Defense Spending

#2 Which of the Democrats' liberal policies do you oppose the most?
* Raising Taxes By Trillions of Dollars
* Cutting the U.S. Defense Budget
* Undermining Traditional Marriage
* No Reform to save social security
* Blocking U.S. Energy Independence
* U.N. Control of the War On Terrorism

#3 Senate Democrats think taxes should go up so that Barack Obama can "spread the wealth around." Senate Republicans support tax relief for working families, businesses and seniors. Whom do you support?
* Senate Republicans
* Senate Democrats
* Not Sure / Undecided

#4 Senate Republicans support responsible judges who will follow the U.S. Constitution and NOT legislate from the bench. Senate Democrats want to confirm "activist judges" who will use America's judicial system to promote liberal policies and strike down anti-terrorism efforts and law enforcement efforts they view as "too conservative." Whom do you support?
* Senate Republicans
* Senate Democrats
* Not Sure / Undecided

I'm not sure of the point of questions 3 and 4 if this is a "Republican strategy ballot," although perhaps it's a clumsy attempt to weed out the non-Republicans like myself. I'd like to think it's an effort to gauge how turned off people are by the language used, but I doubt it. Then there are the first few questions, which basically only mention taxes in terms of real libertarian concerns. (And as I've been blogging recently, discussing taxes absent a discussion on spending is downright negligent.) Is this what I'm supposed to think is the Republican agenda should they regain power? Opposing gay marriage? Building a fence around the border? Further intrusions into our lives by the national security state? Hell, I even have to wonder what saving social security means, when we're supposed to be upset at the Democrat oppositions to social security reform. And the laundry list of "liberal Democrat" policies sounds more like a Republican's bad dream than reality. I wish the Democrats were serious about gay marriage and cutting the defense budget and I have no idea what U.N. control of the war on terror even means, particularly given that the Obama administration has doubled down on all the Bush-era anti-terrorism tactics and has failed to fulfill the pre-election promise of closing down Gitmo.

This is everything that's wrong with politics and why libertarians have no political home. For everyone who would ever try and convince me to vote or lean Republican, this is precisely why I can't do it as a matter of general principle.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The conservative left, part II

I had wanted to post something a few weeks ago in response to the glut of articles praising social security in lieu of the government program's 75th anniversary, but never got around to it. But after my last post about "the conservative left" it occurred to me that's there's no better example of this reactionary conservatism than the left's support for social security. This isn't just general support for a government run retirement system, but specific support for the American system, as it currently exists. Because social security has been such a rousing success, alternative methods of supporting the elderly need not be considered.

This adherence to tradition, albeit a government tradition in this case is the very nature of the conservative mind. For the forward thinking, the fact that the original social security program was designed at a time when many more workers would be working to support many few retirees should be reason enough to consider perhaps drastic changes to the mechanics of the program. But to those intent on preserving tradition, all the program needs is a few minor tweaks.

There's something to be said that a program may be in need of changing when it takes over 12&1/2 percent of the income of people like my wife and myself who are trying to start our own business. That's over 12&1/2 percent, before income taxes, going to support the elderly regardless of their wealth or their ability to support themselves. But social security proponents are so much in favor of the program as a program for all elderly that they'd consider raising the payroll tax cap (which I believe sits somewhere slightly above $100,000) well before cutting off benefits to the elderly who don't need them.

The traditional narrative is that the big government left wants to help the poor and down-trodden and the free market right wants to reduce government at all costs (including the well-being of the poor), but the nature of the debate doesn't fit that narrative precisely because of the left's conservative defense of social security.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cycle of Stupidity, Part II

Volokh Conspiracy blogger Todd Zywicki weighs in on the Jane-Mayer inspired Kock brothers kerfuffle. Surprisingly (given that we're talking about a generally conservative-libertarian site), a number of commenters weigh in with support for the Mayer piece. The general thrust of that support? That it's important for people to know these billionaires are supporting free market causes and that (gasp) free market causes may help their business interests. I'll leave it to Zywicki and others to point out the numerous cases where free market ideology works against the interests of big business. What I'm more interested is this notion that any of this matters, that disclosure matters in the idea business ... and that is what we're talking about, the idea business.

The implication by Mayer and everyone who's spoken favorably of her piece is that there's some sort of problem with people with money supporting limited government, free market ideas. It's sort of like saying that we ought to call into the motives of old people who support social security or poor people who support welfare. The larger government gets, the more people are likely to be impacted by it one way or another, and it's just ridiculous to disparage the motivation of people who claim to speak from an ideologically pure perspective based on nothing more than the fact such people could benefit from their favored policies. As I stated in the last post, why should money matter more than the quality of ideas? Why is knowing so much about where ideas might come from more important than the ideas themselves? Once you get into the source disparaging business, there's no turning back to the arena of honest intellectual debate.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cycle of Stupidity

Earlier this week, Reason's Matt Welch brought to my attention what he referred to as a "hit piece" by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer on the very libertarian, ultra wealthy Charles and David Koch and their "secret war on Obama." Read the New Yorker piece, take a look at the links, and read Welch's criticism, because I'll only lay out the basics here:

The New Yorker piece is a conspiracy-oriented, connect the dots, info dump on the Koch brothers and their long history of donating money to libertarian and limited government causes (including the Cato Institute, which they helped to found). Apparently, lower taxes and limited government is good for the bottom line of Koch Industries ... so ... connect the dots. As Matt Welch points out, Mayer refers to left-leaning think tanks as "non-partisan watch-dogs" while free-market think tanks are "part of some covert, nefarious plot." I could go on, but you probably get the idea.

Fast forward to the weekend, where Sunday's New York Times ranthis column by Frank Rich, about the "billionaires bankrolling the tea party." Rich points his readers in the direction of Mayer's New Yorker piece and worries that the "Koch agenda is morphing into the Republican agenda," thanks to the tea parties. (Reason's Matt Welch has an additional response to Rich's piece.)

So where does that leave us? Matt Welch was pretty concise in nailing the think tank double standard and then there's the obvious response that a more free-market, libertarian-leaning government doesn't always serve the interests of big business. But conspiracy theories about following the money and other nuttiness aside, what does all of this say about the debate over the nature of our democratic system of government? Ultimately, not much. However serious a tone Mayer's initial New Yorker piece tries to take, it's an inherently unserious topic. A real hit piece would point out that the policy wonks, economists, and scientists working for, say, the Cato Institute are falsifying data and research in their various endeavors. But because that would be a ridiculous accusation for any legitimate think tank of any political stripe, we instead get to read about the Koch brothers and their funding. This isn't to say there's no value in disclosure, but just as in political campaigns, this sort of intense focus on money only comes at the complete disregard for any discussion of actual ideas.

What we end up with is this, culled from the comments of Frank Rich's Times piece:

Hypothetical questions, and no, I am not naive, I'm just posing the questions.

What do these billionaire and multi-millionaire people want to happen in this country ?

What is their vision ? How do they view this country if everything they want actually takes place ?

Let's assume that all social programs are eliminated.

No more social security or medicare, resulting in millions of seniors becoming indigent. Where do they go ? LIve on the streets and then, when they cannot do that anymore because they're too sick from old age, to some kind of euthanasia program like the death panels that some of you invented to try to kill the healthcare legislation ?

No more welfare (AFDC), which is supposed to be only for children, even if the program has been significantly abused, and no more medicaid, resulting in millions of already lower-income people becoming totally broke and unable to get any health services. Where do they live ? On the street ? And, if they get sick are they turned away from the emergency rooms at the local hospitals ?

Let's assume that there is a change in power in Congress and the new Congress, including incumbent GOP members formerly deaf, dumb and blind about the deficit, and the new Congress absolutely refuses to add to the deficit and insists on balancing the budget.

An anti-deficit platform, at the same time that fighting wars and paying, in the aggregate, trillions of dollars for drones and fighter planes and bombs and cyber-security and every possible military "necessity."

No health care reform (just repeal it). No government regulation of financial institutions (just repeal it). No government regulation of business if it means any barriers to amassing wealth. Death of unionization. No restriction on ownership of handguns, hunting guns or assault weapons. No abortions, but no aid to families with dependent children. No federal funding for any states, for any reason. If social security must survive, then privatize it, so that millions of people can be forced to make investment decisions that they have no desire or capacity to handle, and the government forces them to invest in something, even a money market fund, benefitting Wall Street ?

That's what they want ? That's what will make their lives more wonderful and their bank accounts more bountiful ? That's what will make their vision of America come true ?

With all of their money, why don't they leave, instead of trying so hard to eliminate every single protection and support system that exists to maintain a system that has multiple economic classes ? Seriously. Just several islands or take over a small country that has no defenses and no working government and and build your own perfect society. Why not ? Why spend so much money trying to change an entire country when you can so easily go live elsewhere or build a country elsewhere that has the system you so desire ?

Just asking questions, you know? There's absolutely no recognition of the fact that agree or disagree with their conclusions, think tanks do actual work and have very specific policy proposals and recommendations for all aspects of national and local government policy. And there are liberal think tanks, conservative think tanks, and yes, free market libertarian think tanks. But the effect of the Mayer and Rich pieces on some is exactly what I said a real hit piece would be unable to prove: That the other side has no legitimate ideas.

In a way, it's no different from Rush Limbaugh going on the air to explain that Barack Obama hates America and doesn't want the economy to improve. It's part of a two-sided political meme, where the other side is specifically an enemy and not an intellectually equal rival. I could go on and on, but I'm sure my regular readers get the point. The entire point of this blog is to foster discussion and lead my readers in a more libertarian direction based on the strength of ideas. It doesn't matter whether George Bush is a Nazi or Barack Obama is a socialist, what matters, what should matter, are ideas and anyone going to the trouble of convincing you otherwise is not interested in being honest with you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The conservative left

I enjoy reading Matt Yglesias's blog for the same reason I enjoy reading Ezra Klein and any number of other young bloggers from this post-Clinton generation of liberal policy wonks: because they tend to take markets and libertarian arguments seriously. Even when I disagree with their conclusions, they tend to approach domestic policy issues from a reasonably analytical perspective. So it was with great interest as I watched the debate that unfolded on Yglesias's blog this weekend over occupational licensing. It started when Yglesias took the libertarian (or perhaps liberaltarian) position that barber licensing was unnecessary and had perhaps unintended costs that far outweighed the benefits. Ygelesias's leftish readers revolted, some wondering whether he was looking for a date with a Cato staffer, others calling him just plain wrong. It led to a string of posts over the weekend on a variety of licensing issues which are all worth a read:

Barack Obama, Barbering Deregulator
Licensing and Health Care (Which posed the very interesting question of why we can't pay to get our teeth cleaned without the presence of a dentist.)
A Free Market in Legal Services
And finally, Idealogical positioning

I lept into the commeting fray myself this past weekend and was amazed by the ferocity of people's insistence that the government really ought to regulate barbers. When I brought up the fact that local health and safety regulations would apply to any licensed or unlicensed barber, licensing was defended on the grounds that it provided another layer of consumer protection, presumably from lousy haircuts. When I questioned why we needed to license the dude that cuts my hair, but not the guy that makes my sandwich, I was mocked and got some answer about the licensing being for professionals.

A few minor points before I get to my larger one:

1- As a man, I could pay more for a sandwich than a haircut and it's possible that either service could come from a sole proprietor, one of a small number of employees of a sole proprietor, or a an employee of a larger business. And to cut my hair, you need a license, whether you work for the Hair Cuttery, whether you work for Jim's Barber shop, or whether you are Jim the Barber. Yet to handle my food, an activity with seemingly far more health and safety risks, you don't need a license.

2- In the health care licensing post, Yglesias remarked that the need for dentists to present for all teeth cleanings drives up the cost of health care and questioned whether a more free market in dental services would give us lower costs and better dental health. After all, if you could pay for the simple services of a dental hygienist, you could plan on getting your teeth cleaned three or four times a year and you could just see an actual dentist when you actually needed to. Yglesias's commenters balked at the idea: One said we needed to commission studies on the issue, while others worried about the inconvenience of having to go to a separate dentist appointment if the hygienist found a possible cavity. And my reaction was, really? The entire point of markets is to give people choices- if the thought of seeing an unaffiliated hygienist worries you, you could stick with your traditional arrangement. Not one supporter of the status quo could offer an example of how individuals could be harmed by getting a teeth cleaning from an unaffiliated dental hygienist. (And remember now, dental hygienists are licensed as medical professionals and I'm not making the ultra-libertarian argument that they shouldn't be licensed. We're simply asking the question of whether they should be able to do what they're licensed to do without having to work under a dentist.)

My larger point (that it looks like it took awhile to get to) is about the changing nature of political roles. Conservatives became associated with the ideology of free markets and small government because the conservatives of the the early-to-mid 20th century were seeking to conserve those classical liberal traditions. But since the time of FDR, the proponents of larger government have won time and time again, leaving us with the heavily regulated, heavily taxed world where we live today. And that leaves us in the rather interesting spot of free market perspectives as truly radical, while supporters of government are defenders of the status quo. I titled this post "the conservative left" because of the inherently conservative, reactionary nature of Yglesias's commenters. Yglesias titled his last post "ideological positioning," but I tend to see ideology as an intellectual framework that guides policy discussions, not a rigid enforcement of basic principles.

Intellectually speaking, I don't think the left wants to expand government just for the sake of expanding government, but for the sake of helping people and improving people's lives. But just like plenty of tea partiers and self-described conservatives have difficulty describing just what government they'd actually cut, there are far too many folks on the left who take the reverse tea party position of clinging to the existing structure of government no matter how pointless it is (and as Yglesias points out, no matter how many poor people are hurt by that structure.) Ultimately, both conservatism for it's own sake and progress for it's own sake are useless without context and further guiding principles. All other things being equal, maybe it's fair to say you lean towards preserving or altering the status quo, but all things are rarely equal.

What struck me about the defense of barber licensing was how similar it was to the defense we here of drug laws. My argument is always that you very specifically shouldn't decide on the necessity of an established law by considering the fact that the law already exists. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle where bad laws don't get overturned unless they're particularly egregious. The proper way to judge the necessity of a given law is to examine it in a vacuum, a sort of "if we were starting out from scratch" scenario. So the current legality of alcohol and illegality of marijuana is irrelevant in deciding what drug laws make sense, just as the prior existence of barber licensing should be irrelevant in deciding what professions require licensing.

In the vast majority of cases, there tends not to be a good defense of the status quo, precisely because we don't make laws in that sort of logical fashion. What we get are a hodgepodge of special interests and misguided responses to crises, mixed in with well-intentioned legislation. That the rules we wind up with don't always fit together logically isn't a surprise. In fact, given the extent of government regulation in this day and age, it would be shocking if the legislative process produced across the board regulation that fit together logically. The "conservative" reaction to defend government as it exists is misguided precisely because it reactionary and is not based upon any logical principles of how government should work.

I've blogged before about the debate over "epistemic closure" on the right and this may be the equivalent on the left. It's not just a failure to engage "the other side" but a failure to engage the intellectually curious on one's own side. It's obvious (as in the immigration debate) that the failure to engage can be at times a blatant disengagement of reality. But the sort of pernicious failure to engage by Yglesias's commenters is perhaps even worse, a rejection of logic with the facade of reasoned argument.

I tend to get worked up over these issues, no matter how small, where the empirical facts seem to dictate a logical choice. It's why (on much larger issues) I have problems with conservatives who claim to favor small government, but support a bloated, inefficient military and a byzantine immigration bureaucracy. It's why I have trouble with the inconsistency of alcohol being legal while marijuana is not, when marijuana is an equally dangerous if not less dangerous drug. And it's why I have trouble with the argument that my barber, who would have to be extremely negligent to harm me, requires government licensing, but my sandwich dude, who could get me sick by forgetting to wash his hands, does not.

If you want to take the position that drugs should be restricted based upon their relative level of danger, so be it, and we can debate that relative level of danger. Similarly, if you want want to set a relatively low bar for what fields should require government licenses, then let's debate what that bar should be, but you can't even have that debate when peoples position is to support the ad hoc system of licensing that currently exists.