28 December 2009
22 December 2009
It is certain that in matters of learning and philosophy the practice of pulling down is far pleasanter and affords more entertainment than that of building and setting up. Many have succeeded to a miracle in the first who have miserably fallen in the latter of those attempts. We may find a thousand engineers who can sap, undermine and blow up with admirable dexterity for one who can build a fort or lay the platform for a citadel.
20 December 2009
By saying that those costs would be picked up by the federal government, the Journal means that they will be borne by the citizens of other states. The citizens of Nebraska will be exempt from paying for the tremendous expansion of Medicaid, while the citizens of other states will not only pay their own share but also Nebraska's portion as well.
I want the same exemption.
I don't believe for one second the suggestion that the new programs will cost only what the Senate and the CBO currently estimate. It would, first of all, be the first federal government program in history to cost only what its supporters say it would up front. And I find the idea that they will cut $500 billion from Medicare laughable. I promise you, it will never happen.
(This past July, President Obama promised, "That is why I have pledged that I will not sign health insurance reform that adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade. And I mean it." Do you believe him? I certainly don't. What's he willing to wager on that promise? If he's wrong, will he rescind the bill? Will he pay personally for the difference? If he's so confident that he can speak of even "one dime," why shouldn't he?)
So this will add hundreds of billions of dollars--trillions, even--to the mounting national debt that our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay. These future generations will have to work all their lives to pay for the benefits we demand now for ourselves. I think that is morally wrong. It is akin to forced labor. Paying for the benefits now, through current taxation, is one thing. I would still oppose it, but at least it's closer to having those who benefit from the program also be the ones who pay for it. But financing it through debt makes future people--who had no say in the program, who were not asked, who did not voluntarily join the agreement--nevertheless have to pay for it. How can that be justified?
So, I repeat: I want the same exemption from paying that Nebraska's citizens will enjoy. I will go farther. I want an exemption from paying for the entire thing, not just expanded Medicaid coverage, and I want a permanent exemption (like Nebraska's citizens) for my children and descendants for any and all debt created by the program. In return, I offer never to use or benefit from any government health insurance or health care program.
Mr. President, will you grant me this exemption?
One other question. Wouldn't Nebraska's special exemption violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?
08 December 2009
Insofar as Fox News adds different perspectives to the national conversations, then, I applaud them for it, whether I agree with those perspectives or not.
[UPDATE 12/9/09: Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, which owns Fox News, wrote an op-ed in the WSJ today under the title, "Journalism and Freedom."]
02 December 2009
27 November 2009
I highly recommend it.
[Hat tip: Kruse Kronicle.]
23 November 2009
(I am not sure what the protocols for responding to reviews are, so I decided to post them here, rather than somewhere on the Amazon site.)
Currie-Knight misspells my name throughout his review. I wouldn't hold that against him, but it does suggest perhaps that he does not pay attention to details. Perhaps that explains some of Currie-Knight's curious criticisms.
Here is his first objection, pasted exactly as it appears on the amazon.com page (thus without the numerous sic's from me):
I am a bit skeptical of Otterson's central idea that the only just ethic is one which treats all people as ends rather than means. Not that we should not do this, but the very capitalism Otterson defends does not always do this. Employers see employers as means, employees see employers as means, producers see consumers as means (to more revenue) and consumers see producers as means (of getting products and services). The entire process of bargaining (getting the most from the other for as little expenditure as possible) involves seeing the other as a means to get what you want for as little cost as necessary. I could be wrong, but that Otterson did not even entertain this objection floored me.
This would indeed be a serious omission, not least because it seems obviously false that people are allowed morally to treat others only as ends and never also as means. Even Kant himself is careful to make the proper distinction--not just between treating others as ends or as means simpliciter, but also between treating others as ends or also as means.
Thankfully, I did not omit addressing the objection Currie-Knight accuses me of omitting. On p. 6, I write:
Of course persons may be treated as means--when one pays someone else to mow one's lawn, for example--but persons may never be treated merely as means. Respecting the lawnmower's personhood would entail, for example, making him an offer and allowing him either to accept or not as he judges fit; allowing him to choose is a recognition that he has his own 'ends' or goals or purposes--he is a person, in other words, not a thing. (italics in the original)Apparently Currie-Knight missed that discussion. On to his second objection:
Neither did Otterson consider the idea that "Respecting the individual" (a) may entail more than the negative liberty of leaving her free to make decisions for herself, but (b) may not be a value that overrides all other consdierations in every case. The obvious argument in favor of public education is that we may accept small incursions into taxpayers' liberty over their money in order to enhance each individual's ability to exercise judgment by educating them at public expense. Otterson's argument, at all times, seems to reduce to pointing out that doing this violates individual sovereignty and disrespects the individual (to which the utilitarian replies that they've already admitted that it does, but that the benefits outweigh the costs. (In fact, a plausible argument could be made that as education enhances one's ability to live independently, the state is respecting individuality by helping children cultivate it.) Otterson doesn't show oterwise and, as such, talks past his opponents.)
This is really two objections. The first, that I did not consider the idea that respect for an individual might entail a requirement to do more than simply respect the person's freedom, seems especially puzzling, since the topic comes up repeatedly. Much of the book's chapters 3 and 4 specifically address our obligations to the needy, for example. Having already argued on behalf of "classical liberal" limits on state power, I argue in these chapters that those limits similarly entail limits on what the state should do to address the needy.
But I specifically--and, I thought, emphatically--argue that state obligations do not exhaust our personal moral obligations. I argue that we have personal obligations to help the needy, and that those personal obligations do and rightfully should go well beyond the state's minimal obligations.
Here, for example, is what I claim on pp. 113-114:
Now, opposing the use of political means for this kind of relief does not mean, however, opposing all kinds of relief for those who need it. On the contrary--and this cannot be emphasized enough--it means only that such cases as require the help of others are all matters of social means and social power. So the objection [I raised] is only to the use of political means, not to the provision of help generally. My argument is that when help is required, social means, and social means only, should be employed. People who need help, families that need shelter, infants who need formula, children who need operations, students who need scholarships, adults who need a second chance, laid-off workers who need new job training--in these cases and any others like them, if help is required, then take action! Do not wait for someone else to do it. Do not shift your personal moral responsibilities onto distant agencies or unknown third parties and believe that you have thereby fulfilled your duty. If in any particular situation moral responsibility attaches to the doing of something, then that responsibility can be assumed only by individuals--which means by you and me. So let us roll up our sleeves and get to work. (italics in the original)
I go on to argue that my conception of moral responsibility towards others is in fact far more demanding than my opponents', precisely because it places the responsibility on each of us personally. Now that is a controversial position to take, and one might dispute it on several grounds; several of those objections I raise and address in the text. But I did indeed discuss it, quite extensively.
Perhaps Currie-Knight missed that section of the book as well.
His third objection, noted above, is that I fail to consider utilitarian benefits to certain kinds of intrusions on personhood, in particular with respect to publicly subsidized and regulated education. Perhaps respecting the 'personhood' I defend is a reasonable default position, but, Currie-Knight suggests, that does not mean that there might not be specific occasions on which slight curtailment of absolute respect for 'personhood' is not overbalanced by the good that results. And education is a prime example.
This is another excellent objection to raise, one that any thoughtful defender of my view should take seriously; failure to address it would be a grave omission. Thankfully, however, I do address it, and I do so at quite some length.
Here is the opening paragraph, for example, from chapter 4, "The Demands of Poverty":
I argued in chapters 2 and 3 that only the limited, "classical liberal" state is consistent with respecting people's personhood. In that way I claimed to have made a "principled" case: because respecting personhood is the bedrock moral principle, disrespecting it is wrong regardless of other considerations. At the end of chapter 3, however, I suggested that the argument left one central question as yet unaddressed: What about the poor? I argued that respect for personhood meant allowing only social, not political, power to be employed to help others. But perhaps restricting the state so that it secures and enforces [this negative conception of] 'justice' will benefit those who already have (substantial?) private property. Again, where does it leave the poor? What exactly is our obligation to give to those who have less than we? If the poor suffer unduly under the classical liberal state, perhaps "general welfare" out to supersede or trump the "principled" case made earlier. (p. 129)This seems to approximate exactly the objection Currie-Knight suggests. But note that that is the first paragraph of this chapter. I go on to devote the rest of the chapter, as well as the subsequent chapter, to addressing precisely this issue. That is quite a lot of the book for Currie-Knight to have missed.
Regarding education, I note that I devote about two-thirds of chapter 6, pp. 208-238, to discussing a range of arguments in favor of and against government involvement in education aside from the "principled" one I had defended earlier. I specifically take up the utilitarian argument by looking in some detail into the empirical results of various educational policies (pp. 229-37).
Again, one might contend that my response to the utilitarian argument is inadequate; perhaps one would argue that I overlook some of the benefits of state-regulated schooling, that I unfairly disparage the results, or perhaps that I overstate the alleged advantages of market provision of education. But to claim that I did not consider the issue is simply false.
As I state in the Preface to Actual Ethics, the book is meant to be a primer--not the final word on any of its topics, but the first (or the first few). Currie-Knight recognizes this and credits me for it; I thank him for that. The book was also written to be provocative, lively, and (I hoped) more entertaining than your typical work of political philosophy. I hoped that it would, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, constitute a fillip to discussion and perhaps reexamination in the marketplace of ideas.
As the above suggests, I think Currie-Knight's objections miss their mark, and by a lot. But his review is its own fillip in the marketplace of ideas, and it has provoked me, at least, to revisit some of the arguments in my book. For that, I thank him, however unhappy I am with the substance of the objections he raised.
Apparently, simple belief in God has little positive or negative correlation with economic growth; belief in heaven correlates positively, and belief in hell correlates with even bigger economic growth. The effect is apparently strongest among developing countries.
Researchers are not quite sure why this is. One speculation is that fear of punishment is a more primal motivation in human beings, and thus a fear of eternal damnation has a strong power to motivate people. So if one believes that one will be punished in the hereafter if one breaks the rules of morality, one tends to break them less often. The connection to economic growth might then consist in the fact that people who break such rules less often tend to cooperate more, work harder, cheat less, and so on--all factors in encouraging economic growth.
I find this plausible, though of course the issue is quite complicated: there are many factors influencing economic growth. Even if a link between religion and capitalism is conceded, however, it would still leave wide open the question of what to do about it. How large-scale shifts in belief or in culture take place is still largely unknown. How one might try to affect such shifts is thus even less well understood.
As an aside, I note that in my Actual Ethics, I made a related claim:
Good judgment develops [...] not only by enjoying the freedom to exercise it, but also by being required to take responsibility for its exercise. [...] Another way of making the same point: if you were going to create your own new religion, one requiring people to sacrifice and change their otherwise everyday behavior, it would help to have a hell. Promises of good things to come if one behaves the way your religion prescribes will take you some distance, more with some people and less with others; but your efforts will be considerably aided if you also have punishment for bad behavior. (pp. 11-12)Not quite the same claim, and I was talking about the development of human judgment, not economic growth. But both seem to agree that (1) human beings respond to incentives and (2) negative incentives for unwanted behavior are at least as important, if not more, than positive incentives for wanted behavior.
UPDATE 11/27/09: This post generated a bit of discussion at Kruse Kronicle. I find myself siding with Michael Kruse in the exchange. I would add to that discussion only the recommendation of a book I found quite interesting on the subject: The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills.
19 November 2009
10 November 2009
The story explores what happens if we take seriously the imperative that people should be equal. Not, it should be noted, what happens if everyone has equal opportunity, since that, after all, will lead inevitably to unequal outcomes; nor what happens if everyone is equal before the law, since that too will allow unequal outcomes. It explores, rather, what the world might look like if the state took it as one of its duties to ensure that no one had any more of anything than anyone else.
Is it unfair that some are smarter, more beautiful, more talented than others? Is it especially unfair that some indeed are extraordinary, far beyond the range of most humans? If so, and if the state's job is to minimize unfairness, then perhaps it should undertake to minimize these differences as well. If you spend a few seconds thinking about that you will be able to imagine the directions Vonnegut's story (and I presume the movies) go.
There was another movie adaptation of Vonnegut's story in 1995, this one under the same title (see here). I haven't seen it, but I will put it on my list. (I am a bit worried, however, about Sean Astin in the title role: Rudy might be plucky, but does he have the power and beauty that Harrison Bergeron does?)
09 November 2009
I will never forget where I was on that day when I heard the news; neither will I forget the images of people climbing the wall, dancing on it, singing out in protest, even while the East German border guards futilely soaked them with fire hoses. The guards knocked some of the revellers down, but it was too late: the wall was coming down now because it could not withstand the determined onslaught of people striving for freedom. It was a great day for humanity. I hope you too will celebrate it.
There are numerous stories, tributes, and memorials available on the internet. (Incredibly, my local newspaper, The Record, has not so much as a mention of the event in its front-page news section or on its editorial page. Shame on you, Record editors.) Professor Bradley Birzer wrote this provocative essay in commemoration of the event, which I highly recommend.
04 November 2009
"The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another." --Vladimir I. Lenin in a lecture entitled "The State," delivered at Sverdlov University, 11 July 1919.
"It would thus appear that the State, instead of originating according to any of the conjectures made by English and American writers on the subject, originated as a class-weapon of conquest and confiscation, and that its primary function was, and still is, to maintain the stratification of society into the two classes noted [namely, "a relatively small, owning and exploiting class which lives by appropriating without compensation the labour-products of a relatively large, propertyless and dependent class"]." --Albert Jay Nock, "The State," The Freeman, 13 June 1923.
30 October 2009
I am pleased to announce that the Institute has invited me to become a member of its Board of Policy Advisors, an invitation I was happy to accept. (Here is the link directly to the page they created for me.)
I look forward to working with the Institute, and I am happy to add their site to my blog roll at right. I also look forward to opportunities to head back to my beloved Chicago now and again.
22 October 2009
That got me to thinking. Are there other wealthy top executives working for institutions that have received federal money, and who thus should perhaps also be targets of U.S. Special Master on Compensation Kenneth Feinberg's critical eye? Why, yes: American universities.
But hold on a second! There are even bigger fish to fry: coaches. They routinely make many millions of dollars per year, often more than anyone else at the university. And all the universities take millions in federal research grants, even so-called "private" universities (see here and here, for example).
(Now, don't respond that the coaches are paid out of booster or otherwise voluntarily-contributed or generated funds, not out of the federal monies: exactly the same can be said, and is said, for the Wall Street executives, whose salaries are paid out of the profit they generate, not from the federal funds.)
University presidents and Division-I coaches are not "charity cases" either, and many of the universities for which they work have endowments in the hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars (see here)--so they're not exactly hurting for money. Thus if the populist argument for federal oversight and restriction of pay for top executives at federally-supported institutions holds in one case, why not in these as well?
16 October 2009
Harris's answer is that people's personalities are not simply the result of genes combined with household environment. It turns out that children's peers have far more to do with the personalties they eventually develop than their parents do. If she's right, that is simultaneously relieving--and disconcerting--for parents. It is relieving because it means parents should not worry as much as they do to make sure the home environment is perfect. On the other hand, it is disconcerting because it means that much of the responsibility for how children turn out is outside the parents' control. Once the parents have contributed their genes, for the most part they are cut out of the picture.
There is more to the story, and Harris's full book is well worth reading. But here, to whet your appetite, is a selection of passages from the book:
1. "Differential treatment by parents--the tendency of parents to treat their children differently--accounted for only 2 percent of the total variance [in children's personalities]. Differential sibling interaction also accounted for 2 percent. Family constellation variables such as birth order and age differences between children accounted for only 1 percent" (p. 86).
2. "[...] the results showed sizable differences between siblings that could not be attributed either to genes or to aspects of the home environment they shared" (p. 86).
3. "[...] the results showed that parents were reacting to the genetic differences between their children, rather than causing their children to be different" (p. 87; italics in the original).
4. "Only highly abnormal conditions--conditions of severe deprivation--cause permanent deficits [in brain development]. The environment needs only to provide the bare minimum; beyond that minimum, there is no evidence that variations in quality or quantity make a difference" (p. 127).
5. "[...] interventions designed to improve parents' child-rearing methods might change children's behavior at home but will not affect their behavior at school" (p. 131). [I am not sure whether that makes me, as a parent, feel better or worse.]
6. "Because children discriminate sharply between situations, the way to improve their behavior in school is not by modifying their parents' behavior but by modifying their environment at school" (p. 135).
7. "[...] the assumptions that underlie popular theories of personality development--that learned behaviors transfer readily from one situation to another, that children learn things at home which they automatically carry with them to other settings, that their experiences with their parents will color their subsequent interactions with other social partners--are incorrect" (p. 140; italics mine). [The last, italicized part of that passage I found particularly striking.]
14 October 2009
13 October 2009
For those of us who aren't brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least fifteen hundred "subskills." At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about twenty per mile, one study found), evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticpating the future actions of others--even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler, or checking voice mail. A survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 "items of information," or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above--and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive. (pp.51-2; emphasis in the original)
09 October 2009
The discussant, Art Carden, who is a professor of economics at Rhodes, posted a notice of the event here.
I hope to post some comments about the presentations later.
05 October 2009
I retain my position as professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University, and this new association will not interfere with my duties at YU. I will work with the Fund as it seeks to expand its range of activities and as it seeks support to fund them.
If you don't know about the Fund, have a look. It has several excellent programs for students, both during the summer and during the regular academic year, and its Washington internship programs are second-to-none.
11 September 2009
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information or for the accuracy of the reproduction of the texts, but a few minutes glancing at the Adam Smith page and its reproduction of The Wealth of Nations suggests it is solid.
(I notice, however, that the site does not have my books, so that's clearly a strike against it.)
10 September 2009
29 August 2009
But here is my question. Why aren't those fans rioting instead? Here is a team that is not only totally out of the race this year, but hasn't won the World Series in over a hundred years. One hundred years! It requires almost deliberate planning not to win in that many years. I don't know how the Cubs do it, but they somehow manage always to lose when they need to.
Why do Cubs fans put up with it? Indeed, not only put up with it, but actually continue to be fans! And when the rare occasion happens that the Cubs win, they cheer. How can anyone cheer for or support a team without any expectation whatsoever that they will win?
26 August 2009
24 August 2009
And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works." --Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), The Law (1850)
14 August 2009
12 August 2009
The relation of language to thought has puzzled us ever since. Interestingly, however, for some time now--certainly through the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first--political reformers have operated on the assumption that the direction of causality goes from language to thought, not the other way around. Thus controlling language leads to controlling thought. If people can be trained not to say certain things, they will in time, it is thought (hoped, feared), no longer think those things. The prohibitions can become so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, habitual practice that no longer requires deliberation or conscious self-control. And that, of course, is tantamount to controlling people, which is the ultimate goal of most political reformers.
The point was brilliantly made in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is recently explored again by one of today's great essayists, Theodore Dalrymple. (I have my own brief discussion in chapter 7 of my Actual Ethics.)
Although I am no expert on the matter, I tend to think the political reformers are right: controlling speech is a first, and a significant, step toward controlling behavior. Whether language ultimately determines thought or the other way around, I am not sure. But as the range of taboo speech increases, the realm of free exploration of thought shrinks. It is for that reason that I think it must be resisted. Control one's speech for decency, clarity, penetration, perspicacity, wit: but not for political expediency. Refrain from saying what is unintelligent, unbecoming, or ugly: but not what offends bigotry.
11 August 2009
31 July 2009
But the article concludes with a whimper: everything is pretty much okay, so don't worry; putting forth effort to learn isn't necessary for being an intelligent person.
That is a comforting falsehood.
(On this topic, one might read Mark Bauerlein's sobering book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).)
23 July 2009
Elmendorf seems clearly right, at least to me: the Obama administration's claim that universal insurance will save money is hard to take seriously. But that is beside the point. What is more troubling is the apparent attempt to silence dissenting opinion. As I mentioned in a previous post, officials at the EPA, apparently with approval from the Obama administration, recently took actions to quash a report from some of its own scientists that questioned some of the central assumptions behind Obama administration climate initiatives. This second incident now suggests a worrisome pattern.
Politics should not trump the truth, and our political agendas should not be allowed to interfere with the vigorous pursuit of the truth. We often do not know what the truth is, and often people of good faith disagree about important issues. That is an abiding fact of the limitations in human abilities. The only way to make the most of our limited abilities, however, is to allow open discussion and debate, and to encourage unfettered pursuit of the facts, regardless of where that leads.
09 July 2009
Believe me, praise like that does not come easily from me. Everyone interested in Smith scholarship should read the book.