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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I apologize for the long hiatus since my last post. I've had this story on my desk for weeks, but the sheer brilliance of it finally brought me back to this blog.

New York City's first completely non-smoking apartment building will soon open at 1510 Lexington Avenue. Residents will be prohibited from smoking both inside and within the immediate outside perimeter of the building.

This story might upset a lot of people - after all, the building is banning a legal activity. However, allow me to explain my positive excitement over this news.

The government did not have a finger in this decision. This is not a public housing project. Rather, this is a private, family-owned apartment building that saw unmet market demand for smoke-free housing. CBS New York reported:

And even with a surplus of apartments on the market, Kenbar [Management] feels theirs will be in demand. Backing that up was a Zogby poll in July, which found that 58 percent of New Yorkers would be willing to pay more for a smoke-free home.
If you want to be free to smoke in your apartment - fine, live someplace else.

All levels of government can learn a valuable lesson from this story. There is no need to force private businesses to ban smoking in their establishments. If a market for smoke-free establishments exist, the private sector will respond to it. The government will cause more harm than good by intervening in these matters that lie outside its proper scope.

For example, Ireland's smoking ban in pubs has been highly lauded around the world. However, it is not as widely known that in the first year of the smoking ban, over 100 pubs went out of business. According to Stephen Kelly, chief executive of the Federation of Retail Licensed Trade:
The much-promoted view that non-smokers would be rushing to premises has not materialised. We expect another 100 to close next year.
If non-smokers want to spend their money only at smoke-free establishments, the private market will react far more appropriately than the government in taking actions to accept their money. Government intervention is tailored to only meet the needs of the majority (or, more specifically, the majority of the electorate). The private market, on the other hand, meets the needs of every individual - an incomprehensible concept to supporters of big government.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Child labor is a sensitive subject for many people around the world. However, this must not discourage objective analysis of the practice. A simple search for "benefits of child labor" turns up very little relevant information. Due to the sensitive nature, I recognize that not everyone will appreciate this post, but I hope you can appreciate the spirit in which it is written - the spirit of reason over emotion.

I want to remove your cultural blinders with regard to child labor. In most of the more developed countries of the world, child labor is seen as a dark memory from the past, virtually inexistent in these countries today. However, stating the obvious, not all countries developed at the same rate. Many countries are significantly less developed, and as such, child labor practices are still common.

Before going further, I feel obligated to draw a distinction between forced and unforced child labor. Forced child labor includes any form or slavery or indentured servitude, including prostitution. While adult prostitution is a legitimate enterprise, children are not mindful beings with regard to sex.

Unforced child labor includes agricultural and factory work, barring the previously stated distinctions. These children are free to work or not to work. No one is forcing them to hold these jobs. This is unforced child labor, and it should not be condemned by people not living in the given country.

Growing up in the United States, I was only eligible for one kind of job at the age of thirteen - agricultural work (with strict limitations on the number of hours and the times of day I could work). No one forced me to work. I wanted to work. However, the International Labour Organization would still have classified me as a child laborer - and therefore, someone needing rescued. I did not need rescuing and neither do many of these children who want to earn a little extra money to help their families - or simply to stay alive.

In some countries, there are more orphans than orphanage capacity. These children must not only sustain themselves but also any siblings they may have. Why should they not be allowed to earn income? Why do foreign governments pressure these countries to prevent these children from earning an honest living?

Before factory jobs were available in these countries, many children simply died. These "sweatshops" pay wages significantly lower than the wages in more developed countries, and sometimes significantly lower than wages after you factor for purchasing power parity. However, they are still better than other job alternatives.

I have seen the jobs and working conditions of children in non-factory jobs in several lesser developed countries. Instead of hauling large amounts of recyclables or firewood over long distances, these children could be sitting in a factory making textiles, AND earning higher wages. Why should we deny them this luxury?

I am stating the obvious to say that child labor creates a trade-off between labor and education. However, if your choices are death and education, would you really choose education? Education is a goal many families in lesser developed countries hope to attain for their children. Studies show, and I have seen with my own eyes, that when these families receive any surplus income at all (after paying for their basic necessities), any children who were working are sent back to school instead.

Child labor is an unfortunate practice that prevents children from receiving a proper education. However, it is also a godsend to many children and families who would otherwise not earn enough money to survive. Allow these lesser developed countries the chance to improve their situations themselves rather than pressuring them to adopt our customs, which evolved only after achieving a more advanced state of development.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Due to an increased work schedule and the necessity of studying for the GRE and foreign languages, I will be posting less frequently. However, in place of short, daily posts, I will post longer, more detailed analysis of current events and various policy issues. I hope you continue to follow.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

China holds a lot of U.S. dollars. They essentially fund our continued deficit spending. We hear many reasons as to why they continue to hold and acquire more U.S. currency. We hear almost as many reasons why this is a dangerous situation. Unlike many of these supposed explanations, this analysis is not meant to scare you.

The reason China continues to acquire more and more U.S. dollar assets is because their economy has failed to evolve from the export-driven model that has raised them to where they are today. In order to sell goods in the United States, Chinese companies (or the government) must be willing to accept U.S. dollars as payment. Since China exports a greater monetary value of goods to America than it imports from the U.S., China is left holding excess quantities of dollars (and large quantities at that).

The U.S. government only sees that we import more than we export - and fools themselves into thinking this is a problem. The government has correctly identified one reason for this trade imbalance: China's fixed exchange rate. However, it is mistaken in its attempts to change this.

China manipulates its currency more than most countries. For years, the U.S. government has pressured China to relax its control over the currency (while increasing control over its own currency with each passing year). This is not a healthy solution to the "problem." Because China manipulates its currency, China essentially is forced to extend the United States an unlimited line of credit. China's strictly controlled exchange rate only hurts China.

As for what China does with their dollar reserves - they invest it - and often in (or with) American enterprises at that! In 2008, Chinese state-owned enterprises invested $35.7 billion overseas, including the $14 billion purchase with U.S.-based Alcoa of a 12 percent stake in Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto Ltd.

If the U.S. government doesn't shoot itself in the foot by either pressuring China or prevent Chinese companies from investing in the U.S. (which almost always strikes me as absurd), we'll find that China's dollar reserves will eventually make their way back.

Of course, lowering our tax rates will do a great deal toward expediting this process (and have the pleasant effect of decreasing the use of overseas tax havens).

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Dwight Filley begins Risk Homeostasis and the Futility of Protecting People from Themselves by stating:

There is a growing body of evidence...that points to the surprising conclusion that most coercive measures intended to increase safety either have no effect or an opposite effect. Thus for example, when the government mandates the use of automobile seat belts, fatality rates do not decrease as expected. This counter-intuitive result is consistent across a broad range of governmental attempts to protect people from themselves.
I firmly support the risk homeostasis theory, and in reading on it lately, I just as strongly believe it applies to the environment. Particularly, environmental homeostasis applies to government mandated fuel economy standards.

Here's a story that may sound familiar. An environmentally conscious person who normally takes mass transportation to work every day buys a Prius (or another highly fuel efficient vehicle). The government may have even influenced the decision by providing an economic subsidy. Now, this person feels better about driving to work over taking mass transit.

Yes, the vehicle travels many miles for every gallon of fuel. However, the mass transportation system is still running. Every efficient gallon of literal fuel adds figurative fuel to the problem. This environmentally conscious person became comfortable in the thought of driving a vehicle with admirably-high fuel efficiency, forgetting the reason why mass transportation was the favored option all those previous years.

When the government manipulates the market, more harm occurs to the environment than would otherwise result from individuals making decisions according to their own free will (i.e. free from coercion). Forcing the automobile industry to increase fuel efficiency standards or providing economic subsidies to individuals who purchase more fuel efficient vehicles distorts the market and changes behavior. Ironically, the government's fuel efficient mandates and market manipulations will lead to increased subsidies for government-run public transportation systems, further hurting taxpayers, the economy, and the environment.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

I try not to repost often on this blog, but Greg Mankiw posted a couple gems on judging economic downturns. I will try to condense the two posts:

The question: Does comparing the decline in real GDP provide the best comparison of recessions?

According to this method, the current recession is the worst since the Great Depression. However, Mankiw is quick to point out:
Note that the phrase the worst since the Great Depression may inadvertently lead the reader to think that we are somehow getting close to the Great Depression in severity. As the chart shows, that is not at all the case.

One might wonder why the unemployment rate was higher in the 1982 downturn if that recession had a smaller decline in GDP. Part of the answer is that the 1982 recession followed closely after the 1980 recession, from which the economy had not fully recovered when the next downturn began.
This second paragraph implies that the 1982 recession may have been more severe than this method indicates. By this logic, the more comparable (using this method) 1957 recession was likely more severe, too (following the 1953 recession so closely).

An economist at an unnamed financial firm responded to the first post, and Mankiw reposted his analysis. The anonymous contributor begins by stating:
I prefer the unemployment rate for historical analysis. In olden days, it was likely better measured than real GDP. And before 1947, there is no quarterly real GDP.
He provided the following chart, depicting the difference between the civilian unemployment rate and the natural rate of unemployment as defined by the CBO.
This method places the current recession at just about the severity of the 1982 recession. As the current unemployment rate will likely continue to increase, it is rather safe to assume this recession will surpass it. However, we must take care to remember Mankiw's words regarding the proximity of the 1982 recession to the 1980 recession.

The contributor continues:
Another way to gauge the slack is to focus on a single demographc. Let's take married men, spouse present. They are the most stable segment of the labor forcce [sic], and here is their unemployment rate:
It has been terrible this time, but not as bad as the early-1980s. Why this time seems worse is the unemployment rate for teenagers is a record high. I think we should give some blame to 3 consecutive annual hikes in the minimum wage.
I have previously posted on the effect of the latest minimum wage increase.

I encourage you to read the full posts, especially the contributor's analysis in the second link.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Local, an English-language Swedish news site, reported that the Swedish Film Institute gave 500,000 kronor ($69,000) in taxpayer money to fund a feminist pornographic movie:

Engberg has also tried to make feminist porn before, which has resulted in a lesbian porn film and a film of women's' [sic] facial expressions at the point of orgasm. Her vision is to get make [sic] the porn industry more appealing to women, all in the name of feminism. She also claims that women's sexuality is more multi-faceted than men's.

But to argue that girls having sex with girls and women masturbating is somehow a good alternative to mainstream porn feels like a completely alien concept to me, and to many other women. Furthermore, most people would agree that the state should not fund pornography. And when it does, should it really only benefit women, all in the name of equality? If a man had sought and received similar funding for ‘regular’ porn, it wouldn’t have taken long before there was an outcry from supporters of equality between the sexes.
I am glad the author of this article acknowledges that the government should not fund pornography and should not fund initiatives that only benefit certain groups in the name of equality. These are positive developments that demonstrate why Sweden is shifting away from its socialist tendencies at a time when other countries (e.g. the United States) are regressing.

However, the author passed on the opportunity to take this line of thought a step further by stating that the government should not be in the business of funding movies in general (pornographic or not). After all, the classic Swedish Film The Seventh Seal didn't receive public funds.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments

One of my favorite organizations is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I previously posted on their defense of free expression at Bucknell University.

Always on the prowl, FIRE has recently come to the aid of Thomas Thibeault, a recently fired (and suspended, which I'll soon explain) professor at East Georgia College. Prior to his firing/suspension, Prof. Thibeault was a respected professor who never received a negative review and was recently placed on tenure track.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Thibeault engaged in the following conversation at a routine sexual harassment training session:

The story Mr. Thibeault told related to a conversation he said he'd had with a student a week earlier. She was complaining that she did not want to go to another professor's office because the professor stared at her cleavage. At the meeting, Mr. Thibeault said the student was wearing a very low-cut top "designed to draw attention to her cleavage," according to his written statement. She also had a tattoo on her chest, he said, and her cleavage was "decorated" with glitter (or maybe it was barbecue sauce, he said).

"I told the student that she shouldn't complain if she drew such attention to herself," Mr. Thibeault says he related at the meeting with the vice president. Then he says he asked the vice president what provisions in the college's sexual-harassment policy protected against "complaints which are malicious, or in this case ridiculous."

Mr. Thibeault says Ms. Smith, the vice president, said there were no such provisions, and he says she instructed people to report to the college any stories they had heard about sexual harassment by other professors. Mr. Thibeault says he told Ms. Smith the policy was "flawed."

First, the college believes professors should have no protection against unfounded sexual harassment claims. Second, the college wants professors like Prof. Thibeault to report other professors for unfounded sexual harassment claims. As I told my own college's disciplinary review board during my undergraduate years, "Finger-pointing is not accountability."

Two days after challenging the school's sexual harassment policy, Prof. Thibeault was fired by EGC President John Bryant Black for "sexual harassment," calling Thibealt "a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity." He was given the choice of resigning or being fired. Thibealt, who was denied the right to face his accuser or even here the accusation made against him, refused to resign. Black then threatened him with arrest if he did not leave the campus and not return by 11:30am.

Less than one week later, Thibealt received a letter from Black, stating, "EGC has begun dismissal proceedings....Their charge is to advise me whether or not dismissal proceedings shall be undertaken." Apparently, Black realized he violated Thibealt's right to due process as guaranteed by the Georgia Board of Regents. The dismissal proceedings led to Thibealt's suspension.

Here's a quick summary of events:
  • Black fires Thibealt
  • Black threatens Thibealt with arrest if he does not leave the campus
  • Black informs Thibealt his case is under review
  • Black suspends Thibealt
After all of this, Thibealt still has not been informed of either his accuser or the accusation made against him. According to FIRE director Adam Kissel:
It is hard to imagine a worse failure of due process in this case. Nobody knows what the actual allegations are because they are being kept secret, even from Thibeault himself. In the stunning absence of any charges, evidence, or hearings, it is clear that EGC has punished Professor Thibeault for speaking out against a flawed harassment policy.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By November, every classroom (over 3,000) in the Jersey City school district will have a hand sanitizer dispenser in an effort to combat the dreaded swine flu, and teachers will be required to force students to use them multiple times each day.

The worst part of this nonsense is that people are applauding these unnecessary, wasteful, and potentially hazardous decisions. As I previously wrote:

...the difference now is that there is no backlash against the schools for enacting it. Public schools have finally found a parental fear they can exploit...
Students will be forced to apply hand sanitizer before entering class in the morning, before and after lunch, and after every use of the restroom. The school has not stated what the punishment will be for students who decide they don't want to be forced to sanitize their hands and refuse to use it.

After quickly researching the negative side effects of excessive hand sanitizer use, it seems you can easily categorize the products as either alcohol-based and non-alcohol-based. The products without alcohol run the risk of creating drug resistant strains of various diseases - certainly a very bad thing.

Alcohol-based products must contain at least 60% alcohol to effectively kill bacteria (any less and you're just moving the bacteria around on your hands). Excessive use over several years has led to reports of arthritic-like pain. Additionally, this level of alcohol is highly flammable. I feel sorry for the poor students using Bunsen burners after lunch.

Finally, there have been numerous reports of alcohol intoxication from ingesting hand sanitizer. Intoxication can occur by simply licking your hands after applying the hand sanitizer. But it's ok...it's not like children ever put their hands in their mouths...

Besides, as Jersey City Superintendant Dr. Charles T. Epps stated, forcing students to apply hand sanitizer is the "best way to keep them safe."


In other news, Chinese universities are forcing international students to take their temperature every day and report the results to the university. Getting ideas New York and New Jersey?

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I was at the US Postal Service website (www.usps.com) the other day when I realized - the address is www.usps.com. Wouldn't it be more accurate if the address was www.usps.gov? After all, the US Postal Service is a government-run monopoly (and not a "natural" monopoly, either).

However, the US Postal Service also owns the .gov domain (www.usps.gov - opens in a new tab/window). Perhaps a more suitable domain would be www.usps.monopoly.gov.

The European Union has plans to privatize the postal services of its member countries in the next two years. When will America try to catch-up? I'll have more on privatizing the US postal service in a later post.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm steadily making my way through the Libertarian Reading List, and I will share any major findings along the way. I just finished reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was a solid but not outstanding book until the final few chapters, which were amazing for their insight. I will focus this post largely on passages from pg. 293-294. (Note: Shevek is the main character of the book, Takver is his partner [there are no husbands and wives, which are viewed as property], and Odonianism is the label for an anarchic ideology).

Shevek had learned something about his own will these last four years. In its frustration he had learned its strength. No social or ethical imperative equaled it. Not even hunger could repress it. The less he had, the more absolute became his need to be.

He recognized that need, in Odonian terms, as his 'cellular function," the analogic term for the individual's individuality, the work he can do best, therefore his best contribution to society. A healthy society would let him exercise that optimum function freely, in the coordination of all such functions finding its adaptability and strength....With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice - the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind [emphasis added].
The chapter continues:
Fulfillment, Shevek though, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell....

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.
Le Guin writes from a largely anarchistic point of view, but The Dispossessed applies equally well to libertarians (I have nothing against anarchism, but this blog focuses mostly on libertarian thought).

A recurring concept in the book is that the end does not justify the means - the end is the means. You cannot achieve peace through violence; you achieve violence that spreads. You cannot achieve economic freedom through control; you achieve control that spreads.

As libertarians, we must not compromise our values in order to achieve partial success. It is our responsibility to be stubborn. We may not accomplish much, but we will not achieve desired ends through undesired means.

I do not know if Le Guin chose "four years" on purpose, paralleling one presidential term, but the lesson applies. Even when politicians are moving the country away from freedom, the time is not wasted. Pain is not wasted.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

A recent article by Daniel Griswold stresses the tangible, positive benefits of globalization in our lives. The main problem with promoting economic freedom is that its benefits are not easily visible. Griswold stresses in his article:

The consumer benefits of variety can be harder to quantify than a simple drop in price, but they are just as real. A 2004 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the real incomes of American families are about 3 percent higher because of the greater variety that imports bring. That translates to a real gain of $1,300 per person or more than $5,000 for a family of four just from the expanding varieties that trade has brought to the marketplace.
As I have stressed to environmentalists, you must stress the economic benefits before you can influence people to change their own behavior/beliefs. You cannot (or, at least, should not) force them to change. In this case, proponents of free trade must stress the benefits in as tangible and easy-to-understand manner as possible to win over the minds of economic isolationists.

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My friend Kevin over at Questing for Atlantis asked with regard to this Campus Progress comic, "Can you guess what's wrong here?"

It’s the implicit suggestion that any level of unemployment is unacceptable.

The silliness of this idea is so plain on its face that I was hard pressed to believe the cartoon was serious and not a fun bit of satire on leftism taken ad absurdum. Except since it’s on Campus Progress I don’t think that’s too likely.

Anyhow, basic economics lesson. There are a lot of different kinds of unemployment.

  • There’s frictional unemployment, people temporarily between jobs and looking for their next job.
  • There’s structural unemployment, resulting from a mismatch between the skills sought by the labor demand and the skills possessed by the labor supply.
  • There’s seasonal unemployment, a result of people working in industries that only operate at certain times of year. The people in Most Dangerous Catch are a good example.
  • There’s classical unemployment stemming from wages set above a market-clearing level
Full post here.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Greg Mankiw's blog pointed me to this development - France is preparing to enact a carbon tax. Now, I've previously written on the merits of a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system (carbon quota), but France presents an interesting case - they have both.

Also interesting is the title of the BBC News article on the story: France Set to Impose Carbon Tax [emphasis added]. When BBC reported on the EU cap-and-trade (carbon quota) program, they did not describe it as an imposition upon the people. Of course, they may have just chose the word because two-thirds of French voters are against the tax.

Mankiw was quick to point out that the French carbon tax will be revenue neutral either by offsetting current taxes or through a tax rebate. Additionally, the carbon tax will not overlap with any industries covered under the EU carbon quota program.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

This Reuters article on Google made me feel all warm inside (Eleutherian warming). Basically, Google has decided to invest money in alternative energy technologies. Yet another private company displays that the government has no business spending taxpayer dollars on research by politically connected researchers.

Bill Weihl, a leading Google energy researcher, stated:

Typically what we're seeing is $2.50 to $4 a watt (for) capital cost. So a 250 megawatt installation would be $600 million to a $1 billion. It's a lot of money.
Weihl's team is attempting to cut the costs of producing key components to as much as one-fourth their current cost. Instead of taxpayer-funded government subsidies for otherwise uncompetitive technology, Google plans to use innovation to allow the technology to complete on its own economic merits. This is libertarian environmentalism that everyone can embrace.

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I'm still upset that UBS caved to the U.S. government's demands to break Switzerland's secrecy laws by providing the names of 4,450 UBS clients. However, I'm not nearly as upset as the Swiss. RealClearWorld reports, "The Swiss public is critical of UBS but resentful of outside meddling with its secrecy laws." Great, more people that are upset with the United States over invading privacy.

The author, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, makes a solid point:

Blaming bank secrecy for the illegal origin of funds that find their way to Swiss banks is like advocating press censorship because deceitful politicians give TV interviews to win votes. Governments that blame foreign banks for tax evasion and money laundering are whitewashing their own incompetence. Incidentally, not a few dictators -- Robert Mugabe comes to mind -- with Swiss bank accounts obtained their cash from foreign aid provided by the very governments that accuse those banks of harboring illegal funds.
The United States needs to stop looking to other countries to solve U.S. problems. Most problems involving money held overseas are a result of the cumbersome U.S. tax code. More on this in a future post.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Continuing my assault on political overreactions to swine flu (yes, people are still talking about it), the Massachusetts state assembly is trying to pass legislation that will allow the authorities to ignore your Constitutionally guaranteed liberties in the event of a "pandemic."

According to WorldNetDaily:

[The bill] would allow authorities to forcefully quarantine citizens in the event of a health emergency, compel health providers to vaccinate citizens, authorize forceful entry into private dwellings and destruction of citizen property and impose fines on citizens for noncompliance.

If citizens refuse to comply with isolation or quarantine orders in the event of a health emergency, they may be imprisoned for up to 30 days and fined $1,000 per day that the violation continue.

I wish I could say that I can't believe the state's Senate actually passed this bill. I can only hope the state's House has enough sense to table it - never to be seen again (at least until another over-hyped disease comes around to spur politicians into a liberty-taking frenzy).

Here are a couple of great lines from the proposed bill:
  • to require the owner or occupier of premises to permit entry into and investigation of the premises
  • to close, direct, and compel the evacuation of, or to decontaminate or cause to be decontaminated any building or facility
  • to decontaminate or cause to be decontaminated, or to destroy any material
  • to restrict or prohibit assemblages of persons
  • to require a health care facility to provide services or the use of its facility
  • to procure, take immediate possession from any source, store, or distribute any anti-toxins, serums, vaccines, immunizing agents, antibiotics, and other pharmaceutical agents or medical supplies located within the commonwealth as may be necessary to respond to the emergency
  • to collect specimens and perform tests on any animal, living or deceased
I don't want to know how many liberties the Massachusetts government wants to take from its residents through this one bill, but I'm pretty certain the Constitution was designed to protect U.S. citizens from exactly this kind of government intrusion.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Beginning September 13, homeless residents of Utrecht, Netherlands (a beautiful city, in my humble, world-traveling opinion) will become official tour guides of the city. While the homeless residents are licensed by the city (and therefore, not completely a private market solution), I still love this innovative idea.

The nonprofit organization, Altrecht, developed the program with the city of Utrecht. Simone Lensink, a spokeswoman for the organization, described the program:

The idea is for people to rediscover the town and in particular those areas where their guides used to sleep or do drugs. This is a small part of the history of Utrecht.

These are people with a unique background. They had to learn to be social and to be able to tell their story in an interesting and coherent manner
Altrecht recognized that a market existed for "underground" tours of Utrecht. I am sure demand exists in other cities around the world, too. Customers can learn a new side of the cities they visit (or where they already live), and the city's homeless men and women can earn money for performing a real service - not a government handout or fake make-work job.

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The Financial Times recently ran an article titled, "Obama speech to pupils riles Republicans." Why are so many Republicans upset over a speech by President Obama to the country's children? After all, when parents began to threaten to keep their children home from school that day, the White House released a transcript of the speech in advance so parents could make an informed decision.

The FT article touched on an interesting point not just about the Republican Party but the minority party (whichever of the two major parties happens to hold the title). Matthew Yglesias from the Centre for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank, stated:

The opposition party seems to have made a strategic decision to be in opposition.
The article also stated that when Republican president George H.W. Bush made a similar speech to students in 1991, Democrats opposed the decision. This led me to wonder, is the minority party always a party of oppositionists?

Why does the minority party always seem to outright oppose most decisions by the majority party? Why does neither the majority nor minority party provide solid, objective rationales for their policy decisions? Do they honestly believe the subjective, misleading statement they make or do they believe the American people are too stupid to understand objective explanations for policy decisions?

Taking this line of thought further, what would happen if a strong third party received seats in Congress? Would a third party automatically become oppositionists, too? Would a strong Libertarian Party become oppositionists?

Additionally, when does opposition encroach on the majority party's freedom of expression?

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Friday, September 4, 2009

John Stossel has set himself apart from the majority of the U.S. press corp - by raising the standards by which he performs his job. In analyzing the government's cash-for-clunkers plan, Stossel states:

It wasn't. As usual, the program has been judged only by its first and most visible consequences, violating Henry Hazlitt's teaching in his classic, "Economics in One Lesson":

"The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

If you weren't struck with an intense bolt of joy upon reading this, perhaps you should peruse more of this blog (or check out books in the Libertarian Reading List). The article is so good, it deserves to be quoted a little more:
Let's start at the beginning. The government paid car owners to trade in their old cars, which will be destroyed. But the government is running a deficit. So it doesn't have $3 billion to hand out. It must borrow the money, which reduces the amount of money for other investments. Moreover, the government must raise taxes in the future to pay back the principal and interest -- or the Federal Reserve will monetize the debt through inflation. Either way, we pay.

That isn't all. Those car buyers were either going to trade in their used cars soon or they weren't. If they were, Cash for Clunkers simply moved up the schedule. The stimulation of the auto industry occurred earlier. Big deal. But if buyers planned to keep their cars longer, the program imposed costs that are less visible. Without the government incentive to buy cars, consumers would have bought other things -- computers, washing machines, televisions. The manufacturers and sellers of those products didn't get to make those sales. Why should the auto industry get privileges at the expense of others?

Then there are the mechanics who would have serviced those used cars. They've lost business. Some will be laid off. Nor should we forget low-income people who depend on the used-car market for their transportation. The cheap cars they would have bought were destroyed.

Of course, politics is all about the immediate and the visible, so not only will politicians completely ignore this legitimate analysis (except for a few Republicans - but they also support plans with immediate and visible effects when they're in the majority), but they are expanding the program to appliances.

That's right, and just in case you thought purchasing a new microwave and selling the old one at a yard sale, the federal government is cracking down on yard sales!

The campaign is called "Resale Roundup," and it targets any product that has been recalled by its manufacturer. According to the Kansas City Star:
The commission's Internet surveillance unit is monitoring Craigslist and other "top auction and reselling sites" for recalled goods.
If this commission has no better use for its resources, then it does not have a legitimate reason to exist.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Swine flu! *gasp*

Those two words have caused a panic in public schools across the United States. Why? It's basically just the flu with an "exotic" name. Yet, schools are taking extreme measures "for the children" - and parents are letting them get away with it.

In New York (surprise, surprise...), schools are passing new "hands-off" rules. The schools are banning all physical contact. Now, a rule like this is a school's dream-come-true. Several schools have tried to implement similar rules in the past. However, the difference now is that there is no backlash against the schools for enacting it. Public schools have finally found a parental fear they can exploit to allow them to ban all physical contact.

Schools are going so far as to request athletes to limit skin-on-skin contact during practice and games. According to one parent:

Less contact would mean less germs and less illnesses and I think it's a good recommendation.
Only it's not a recommendation - it's a rule. More accurately, it's a punishable offense. Fearful parents see this rule as a means to protect their children. Schools see this as an opportunity to gain further control over the lives of their students.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I read the following headline on The Hill, AFL-CIO, Dems Push New Wall Street Tax, and my first reaction was...why? First, why would anyone propose this tax (during a recession no less!)? Second, why does the AFL-CIO care?

The bill's supporters answer the first question - in their way. Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO, stated:

It would have two benefits, raise a lot of revenue and discourage speculative financial activity. The big disadvantage of most taxes is that they discourage some really productive activity. This would discourage numerous financial transactions.
At least she recognizes that it will discourage financial transactions, but why does she actually view this as a positive development?

Grover Norquist (say what you will about him, but he really does have some great insights) once said the biggest mistake Democrats have made in recent history was passing legislation to create tax-exempt individual retirement accounts. This reduced the financial dependency of U.S. citizens on not only government welfare programs but also labor union pensions. Realizing their "mistake," this tax is an attempt to regain some lost ground in their control over Americans' lives.

Supporters of this tax are hoping that the average American is too stupid to realize that if an investment firm is making money, the average Americans investing in their funds are making money.

From a previous post:
In 2005, 50.3% of U.S. households owned financial equities such as stock and mutual funds. This is up from 49.5% in 2002 (which may not seem like much but represents an increase of more than 4 million households). As such, taxing these large companies constitutes taxing roughly half of American households.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Due to the popularity of my previous post on abortion, I felt a follow-up was necessary. The previous post focused on the question, "If abortion was illegal, what should be done with the women who have illegal abortions?" This post focuses on the legality of abortion and what rights, if any, do a fetus possess.

Before beginning, a clarification is necessary. The abortion issue is not an argument between pro-choice and pro-life. Rather, it is an argument between pro-choice and anti-choice. Many people who are pro-choice are also pro-life. They would not personally condone or perhaps even recommend an abortion, but they also will not impose their morals on others. Therefore, even if you are anti-abortion, you can still be pro-choice. In this post, I will only use the terms pro-choice and anti-choice.

One of the strongest anti-choice arguments was made by Jim Stone in his essays Why Potentiality Matters (1987) and Why Potentiality Still Matters (1994). Russell Blackford responded to Stone's arguments in a 2002 essay, The Supposed Rights of the Fetus. He summarizes Stone's argument as such:

Stone introduces the idea of "strong potentiality", arguing that a fetus is, in a strong sense, "a potential adult human being". Since he believes that no ethical right to life is entailed merely by membership of the species homo sapiens…he emphasises that certain "goods" are typically enjoyed by adult human beings, including self-awareness, social interaction, and the possibility of moral stature. The argument is that a fetus has the capacity to develop into a being which is capable of enjoying these goods, and that this is prevented by abortion.

Stone's concept of a person, borrowed from John Locke, is that of a being which has "reason, reflection and self-awareness"....Stone's argument, then, can be revised, without any material distortion, along the lines that to abort a fetus is to frustrate its potential to develop into a person and enjoy goods typically available to persons living socially with other persons.
Stone defines weak potentiality as an entity, such as sperm or an unfertilized egg, which cannot become an adult human being by itself. Blackford notes that Stone's definition of strong potentiality required him to also define "normal development." Stone defines this by stating an entity "develops normally if it follows to the end the developmental path primarily determined by its nature which leads to the adult stage of members of its kind."

This definition of "normal development" holds the first flaw (albeit, a minor one) in Stone's argument. By his definition, if a fetus's DNA indicates a disorder which will limit its lifespan so drastically that it will never reach adulthood, then it does not possess strong potentiality and can be aborted.

A second flaw is found in Stone's response to Feinstein's argument:
Without awareness, expectation, belief, desire, aim, and purpose, a being can have no interests; without interests he cannot be benefited; without the capacity to be a beneficiary, he can have no rights.
Stone argues that given Feinstein's argument, it would also be permissible to painlessly kill an infant. However, the 14th Amendment states that only born citizens have the rights granted to individuals by the U.S. Constitution.

A stronger argument against Stone's analysis is made by Blackford:
For example, we could imagine that a powerful computer has been developed, and has been programmed in such a way that it will continually upgrade itself and eventually reach self-awareness. Are we now under an ethical obligation to provide it with electrical power until such a time as it becomes self-aware? Perhaps we must ascribe to the computer a right to continue in existence, without being reprogrammed, once it has become a person, but it is not obvious that we are ethically obliged to supply it with a continuous source of electricity prior to that point.

Yet this device seems to have a "nature" in an analogous sense to the genetic program of a fetus. Unless specifically religious considerations are introduced, or some kind of quasi-religious significance is imputed to functional "design" arising from biological evolution, the situations of the fetus and the advanced computer cannot be distinguished.
Apart from potentiality, there is a fundamental different between morality and legality. Wendy McElroy compares abortion to gambling and drug use - activities that some may consider immoral but are not actual violations of rights. This comparison will upset many people, but let's look at her rationale before angrily judging her.

McElroy rests her argument on the sovereignty of the individual and that the fetus is merely a biological aspect of the pregnant woman's body:
The principle of self-ownership states that every human being, simply by being a human being, has moral jurisdiction over his or her own body. Thus, even if the fetus possesses rights, those rights could never include living within and off of the woman's body, for this would be tantamount to asserting that one human being could own the bodily functions of another...that two people can have rights in one body. The word used to describe a system in which one man has property rights in another is slavery [emphasis added].
You cannot compare this situation to a simple case of trespassing. When a person with rights trespasses on your property, you can ask them to leave before shooting them. You cannot ask a fetus to leave your most private of properties - your body.

McElroy makes a most libertarian argument in support of abortion. Yet, there are still libertarians who oppose its legalization. While Libertarians for Life do not base their beliefs on potentiality, they do believe that rights are granted to the fetus at the moment of conception. First, this does not fit with John Locke's definition of a person (previously stated) or the 14th Amendment, but stronger arguments exist.

In response, McElroy refers to Ayn Rand's fallacy of the stolen concept:
In this fallacy, a word is used while the conceptual underpinnings which are necessary to the definition of the word are denied. Thus, the antiabortionists use the concept of 'rights' without regard for the fact that the fetus is not a discrete individual, the alleged rights conflict, and the rights involve two people claiming control of one body. Whatever version of rights is being attributed to the fetus, it is not the natural rights championed by libertarianism.
According to Blackford:
[A fetus] cannot experience any frustration of its desires, because it has no desires. The mere failure to meet this interest does not inflict any pain. It does not experience fear, so the wrongfulness of our action cannot consist in inflicting upon a entity something that it fears. Nor has it begun a life whose coherence or value may be ruined by being cut short. We do not reveal ourselves as cruel if we terminate the development of a merely potential person painlessly, or with minimal pain. It is difficult, in short, to see why the interest is one that must command our respect. It seems to be a totally theoretical interest. It might unkindly be called a contrived one.
I will end with a funny, yet true, story.

In college, a friend and I engaged a Catholic priest in a debate on abortion during a Newman Club meeting. It was a surprisingly civil, academic debate with my friend and I holding opposing viewpoints from the priest. My friend then engaged the priest in the following dialogue:

[Friend]: "When does a fetus receive a soul?"

[Priest]: "At the moment of conception."

[Friend]: "What happens when the fertilized egg splits and becomes identical twins?"

[Priest]: *stunned blank stare*

Posted by Eleutherian 1 comments
Monday, August 31, 2009

The publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a scathing editorial in the state's largest newspaper, seemingly discouraging Nevadans from reelecting Senator Harry Reid. Now, this blog will never endorse one candidate over another, but Nevada, your senator has abandoned you.

Last week, upon meeting the Review-Journal's director of advertising, Senator Reid shook his hand and said, "I hope you go out of business." A senator should never say this to a constituent - especially during a recession. Harry Reid has lost touch with his constituents.

As the newspaper's publisher,
Sherman Frederick, wrote:

Such behavior cannot go unchallenged....it must be called what it was -- a full-on threat perpetrated by a bully who has forgotten that he was elected to office to protect Nevadans, not sound like he's shaking them down.

No citizen should expect this kind of behavior from a U.S. senator. It is certainly not becoming of a man who is the majority leader in the U.S. Senate. And it absolutely is not what anyone would expect from a man who now asks Nevadans to send him back to the Senate for a fifth term.

Nevadans, libertarians will not abandon you. Libertarianism is the ideology of environmentalists, of family values, of women's rights. Las Vegas was created for libertarianism, and Nevada will make a great western foothold.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments

The U.S. government apparently does not like the fact that they infringe on less civil liberties than the UK government. Last week, I posted on a British law, allowing the government to shut-off Internet access to private citizens if they are caught illegally downloading. I stated:

In the United States, state government can revoke a citizen's driver's license because driving is a privilege, offered by the state. The Internet is not a privilege. If the government does not provide Internet access, then it cannot revoke your access to it.
Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia wants to change that with Senate Bill 773. The proposed bill will allow the President to disconnect private Internet connections - in cases of national security - of course.

Why should citizens be upset about trading civil liberties for security? After all, it's not like disconnecting private Internet connections will prevent Americans from receiving unbiased information from around the world or essentially shutdown our Internet-dependent economy.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Friday, August 28, 2009

It is a natural process for modernization to reduce the influence of traditional belief systems. Such a tradition hinders progress by favoring traditional practices over developing a system based on the rule of law, sacrificing individual freedom and self-interest. These points are supported by the thorough analysis by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel in their book Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy:

The shift from traditional to secular-rational values becomes slower and stagnates, while another change becomes more powerful – the shift from survival to self-expression values, through which people place increasing emphasis on human choice, autonomy, and creativity.
The Confucian tradition fit China well for its stage of development when it was largely an agrarian society. Before agrarian societies reach proper levels of industrialization, farmers are at the mercy of nature (or in many societies, gods of the earth) for their existential security. Farmers in China found this sense of security in the Confucian tradition and trust in a strong central government.

Every society begins to shift away from traditional beliefs and practices once a certain point of industrialization is reached. Yes, it is a good thing that China has moved away from such a traditional system that hindered its growth and development. However, history has consistently shown that top-down reform movements orchestrated by the central government are not necessary to produce such a change. As a result of the infamous Cultural Revolution, economic growth stagnated or declined, the education system halted (with illiteracy reaching as high as 40% in some areas), priceless cultural artifacts were destroyed, and an estimated 400,000 to 3,000,000 people lost their lives. These atrocities could have been avoided had the natural course of modernization been followed.

The only beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution were the Communist Party. According to Friedrich von Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom:
The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people.
As a result of the revolution, the Confucian tradition, which already valued a strong central government, was replaced by a more secular belief structure through the use of extensive government propaganda, reprogramming, and occasionally violence. It was risky to destroy a system that already favored authoritarian rule to institute a new, secular system. Inglehart and Welzel have stated:
But these secular beliefs are no less dogmatic than religious ones. Secular beliefs and doctrines do not necessarily challenge unlimited political authority; they usually legitimize it, as did fascist and communist ideologies.
The Cultural Revolution was only necessary as means for the Communist Party, specifically Mao Zedong, to further consolidate power over the people.

Of course, perhaps even Confucius would agree with this quote on the virtues of self-interest by the American environmental essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
If not Confucius, then perhaps the leaders of the Han dynasty would agree with this statement, as is implied by the historical records of Sima Qian:
When all work willingly at their trade, just as water flows ceaselessly downhill day and night. Things will appear unsought and people will produce them without being asked. For clearly this accords with 'the Way' and is in keeping with nature.
I believe Emerson, who greatly appreciated environmental symbolism, would agree with this statement, as would the great free market economists of our times. This appears to be the Chinese historical equivalent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.

However, I do wonder if perhaps Sima Qian, in writing “the Way” (note the capitalization), was not referring to market forces but rather to Daoism, which began during the Han dynasty. In fact, this passage from his historical account seems to conform to the Daoist concept of wuwei (无为). The forces of nature, like a river, work harmoniously with the world. Problems only arise when outside forces (such as government) exert its will against it, disrupting the harmony.

Posted by Eleutherian 1 comments

Venture capitalists are the backbone of private investment. However, the Obama administration wants to increase regulations, making their job more costly and less efficient. According to Steve Forbes:

Even though most venture capital outfits are relatively small and rarely, if ever, use debt, the Treasury wants to apply a bewildering array of rules similar to those for investment advisors and banks. Thus, instead of focusing on funding the next potential Apple, Microsoft, or Oracle, VCs will have to devote considerable time and resources to filling out disclosure and compliance forms. Treasury Chief Timothy Geithner's lame excuse is that since reform should cover the entire financial industry, leaving out venture capitalists would be a form of discrimination. Alas, there's more at work here than pigheaded logic.

This Administration truly believes that the private sector is a destructive, unguided missile that needs the constant and close supervision of Washington politicians. Without it we'd be subject to more disasters like the current financial crisis. In other words, Washington doesn't like the idea of venture capitalism because VCs and the entrepreneurs they fund create and do things without anyone's permission.
While Forbes may or may not be paranoid about the administration's intentions, the regulations will truly have a chilling effect on private investment. If the private sector cannot provide the investment in technology necessary to stimulate the economy or protect the environment, then the government will be forced to spend yet more taxpayer money.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Libertarian environmentalism is not a contradiction of terms - nor is free-market environmentalism (another good summary can be found here). Free-market environmentalism, however, is too focused on property rights and tort reform. While these are both highly productive and praiseworthy measures, I believe a broader approach is necessary. Simply put, libertarian environmentalism seeks to improve the environment without the use of force.

Many environmentalists today (I dare say a majority) rely too heavily on force to achieve their goals. They look to government to punish and coerce individuals to behave a certain way. The government often acts in accordance to their will, as the government has grown accustomed to using force to achieve other goals.

Environmentalists and the government justify their use of force by reason of market failure. To the contrary, it is the government's failure to allow the market to correctly function.

Rather than relying on force, libertarian environmentalism encourages environmentally-friendly actions through economic incentives. You could replace the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the Environmental Incentive Agency (EIA), replacing negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement.

Critics of both libertarian and free-market environmentalism are quick to bring up global warming. While I am more inclined to believe in climate change over global warming, I made my feelings clear in yesterday's post on the topic:

If a cap-and-trade system (hereon more accurately referred to as a "carbon quota") were implemented in the United States, the level of emissions would be completely arbitrary. No scientist knows the level of carbon dioxide at which the atmosphere become irreversibly unstable. Without knowing the upper limit, any restriction in quantity will necessarily be made through guesswork (or, even worse, through politics - i.e. what sounds politically popular).
Do not allow the supporters of cap-and-trade ("carbon quota") mislead you by stating they are "creating a market" for carbon. They are using force to achieve an unscientifically-based goal.

I will not completely ignore the climate change issue. In a previous post on climate change in Africa, I stated:
I won't deny the existence of climate change. However, it is more a regional phenomenon than a global one. For example, many environmentalists cite the melting glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a sign of global warming. These people overlook basic science. The area surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro has been largely deforested by the local population. Due to the deforestation, less water evaporates from the trees, providing less snowfall to replenish the glaciers each year on the mountain.
A 2006 study by Quan Li and Rafael Reuveny found that increased levels of political freedom have been shown to lower CO2 and NOx emissions, decrease rates of deforestation and land degradation, and reduce water pollution. If force was the appropriate means to achieve environmental goals, authoritarian countries like China would have spotless environmental records.

As I mentioned previously, factors such as deforestation are major contributers to climate change. Forcing a carbon tax or carbon quota on the economy is not the most efficient way to tackle problems like deforestation that directly contribute to climate change.

However, I will not deny the role of increased carbon emissions on climate change. I previously blogged on private sector solutions to this problem, including a group of UK and US scientists who plan to create wind-powered ships to increase cloud cover, reflecting the suns rays, without affecting regional weather patterns. The plan costs $9 billion to test and launch 1,900 ships (a cost of less than $5 million per ship). There's no need for the government to force individuals' behavior when private sector solutions are available.

Posted by Eleutherian 4 comments
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I've been following the carbon abatement issue for a few years now, and in the debate between a carbon tax (tax on price) and cap-and-trade (tax on quantity), Terry Dinan, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)'s Senior Advisor for Climate Policy, has been the clearest, most reasoned voice. This post will cover her finding in my favorite paper on the issue, available at the CBO website.

I will be speaking largely from the table below (click to enlarge):

If a cap-and-trade system (hereon more accurately referred to as a "carbon quota") were implemented in the United States, the level of emissions would be completely arbitrary. No scientist knows the level of carbon dioxide at which the atmosphere become irreversibly unstable. Without knowing the upper limit, any restriction in quantity will necessarily be made through guesswork (or, even worse, through politics - i.e. what sounds politically popular).

Having stated that, the CBO recognizes that if the government somehow managed to guess the correct carbon quota to match the actual cost of reducing the carbon, then there is zero difference between a carbon tax and a carbon quota (in terms of reduced emissions and cost). This is illustrated in the "Expected Outcomes" column on the table.

It is far more likely that the government will guess incorrectly. If the cost is higher than expected, a carbon tax will reduce less carbon than a carbon quota, but the carbon tax will provide the greater net benefit as the emission reductions were achieved at a lower total cost.

If the cost of reducing carbon is lower than expected, a carbon tax will reduce more carbon than a carbon quota and do so at a greater net benefit. This illustrates an obvious limitation of a carbon quota. Even if the price level would encourage greater reductions, a carbon quota will always reduce carbon by the same amount.

Posted by Eleutherian 3 comments
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The British government has declared that they will begin to cut-off Internet access to people who illegally download movies and music. Despite claims by groups such as Open Rights Group that this decision limits free expression, the British Phonographic Industry openly supports it as a new tool to fight piracy. The movie and music industries would trample every personal liberty to fight piracy.

In the United States, state government can revoke a citizen's driver's license because driving is a privilege, offered by the state. The Internet is not a privilege. If the government does not provide Internet access, then it cannot revoke your access to it.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments

Reuters reports that African Union leaders met ahead of the UN summit on climate change to agree on a request of $67 billion per year from "rich nations." The request rests on the argument that "rich nations," not African countries, are responsible for the climate change in Africa.

I won't deny the existence of climate change. However, it is more a regional phenomenon than a global one. For example, many environmentalists cite the melting glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a sign of global warming. These people overlook basic science. The area surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro has been largely deforested by the local population. Due to the deforestation, less water evaporates from the trees, providing less snowfall to replenish the glaciers each year on the mountain.

Deforestation and land degradation is rampant throughout much of the African continent. It was not caused by "rich nations."

As for the request of $67 billion per year, this sum will have no effect at best. In 2005, the Center for Global Development released a study, finding that short-impact aid worked better than aid that had a long-term goal. The study also found that aid "had a zero effect on growth when it reached 8 percent of the recipient’s GDP, and after that the additional aid had a negative effect on growth."

So, up to a certain point aid can work, but efforts past that actually impede growth. Therefore, the continued aid given to the average African country is actually harming it, with 15% of its GDP coming from aid in the 1990s. Most likely, that percentage has increased, especially with the Millennium Development Goals.

The additional $67 billion per year will likely cause more harm than good.

Posted by Eleutherian 0 comments
Monday, August 24, 2009

This post concludes a series on privacy, stemming from Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother (on the Libertarian Reading list).

A common response in support of trading privacy for security is "I have nothing to hide" or some variation to that regard. However, the "nothing to hide" argument assumes privacy is about secrecy/deception, or as Bruce Schneier puts it, "...they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not." Rather, privacy is most often an issue of accountability and trust.

Here's an extreme example of this point from Little Brother:

There's something really liberating about having some corner of your life that's yours, that no one gets to see except you....There's nothing shameful, deviant or weird about [getting naked or squatting on the toilet]. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
However, one of the handicaps in the battle against privacy invasion is the vague definition attributed to "privacy." Daniel J. Solove does not attempt to provide one standard definition, instead referring to privacy as a "web of related problems."

This web goes beyond the typical complaints of surveillance, including information processing and dissemination. Solove expanded, "The problems still exist regardless of whether we classify them as being 'privacy' problems."

Since "I have nothing to hide" is a poor argument, Solove rephrased it to make it stronger:
The NSA surveillance, data mining, or other government information-gathering programs will result in the disclosure of particular pieces of information to a few government officials, or perhaps only to government computers. This very limited disclosure of the particular information involved is not likely to be threatening to the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Only those who are engaged in illegal activities have a reason to hide this information. Although there may be some cases in which the information might be sensitive or embarrassing to law-abiding citizens, the limited disclosure lessens the threat to privacy. Moreover, the security interest in detecting, investigating, and preventing terrorist attacks is very high and outweighs whatever minimal or moderate privacy interests law-abiding citizens may have in these particular pieces of information.
While this argument is stronger, it is still flawed. First, the original assumption of "hiding a wrong" remains. Second, intense data mining, especially impersonally by computers, looks for irregular/nonstandard trends in collected data. Essentially, this data mining approach creates suspicion out of irregular/nonstandard behavior. This promotes conformity and discourages free expression, as the surveillance of even legal activities discourages their use.

Advocates of security over privacy will often justify their position on data mining by touting the technology as the solution to finding a needle in a haystack. However, the combination of surveillance and processing created the haystack in the first place. These techniques also create a problem known as the false positive paradox.

Wikipedia provides a good definition and example:
If there is a medical test that is accurate 99% of the time...about a disease that occurs in 1 out of 10,000 people, then the expected value of testing one million people would be the following:

Healthy and test indicates no disease (true negative)
1,000,000 * (9999 / 10,000) * .99 = 989901
Healthy and test indicates disease (false positive)
1,000,000 * (9999 / 10,000) * .01 = 9999
Unhealthy and test indicates disease (true positive)
1,000,000 * (1 / 10,000) * .99 = 99
Unhealthy and test indicates no disease (false negative)
1,000,000 * (1 / 10,000) * .01 = 1
However, as Doctorow points out in Little Brother:
Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twenty-thousandth of a percent.

Terrorism tests aren’t anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate, sometimes.

What this all (means) is that the Department of Homeland Security (has) set itself up to fail badly. They (are) trying to spot incredibly rare events - a person is a terrorist - with inaccurate systems.
Let's assume that a terrorist test is 80 percent accurate. In New York City, the test would indicate false positives for over 4 million citizens. Instead of finding 10 terrorists, the test would label millions of citizens, who likely love their country, as enemies of the state.

Unfortunately, the U.S. judicial system has consistently ruled in favor of security over privacy. Solove concludes, "...the lack of Fourth Amendment protection of third party records results in the government’s ability to access an extensive amount of personal information with minimal limitation or oversight."

The courts ruled this way because plaintiffs were unable to meet the court's demand to prove harm caused by privacy invasion. However, like the environment, overtly harmful single events rarely occur. Rather, harm occurs as very small events compile over time.

The extent of harm caused in an individual case should not be the judicial litmus test for its legality. In Smith v. City of Artesia (1989), the court ruled, "Privacy is inherently personal. The right to privacy recognizes the sovereignty of the individual." Privacy holds a social value; it need not conflict with the interests of society as a whole.

I touched on this social value in a previous post:
Data from the World Values Survey has dispalyed a significant correlation between confidence in state institutions with effective democracy (Confidence in non-state institutions shows no correlation). If government security measures continue to intrude on privacy, the relationship between citizens and government institutions will continue to decline.
The courts risk further eroding institutional trust if they do not, at the very least, begin upholding the privacy clauses in contracts. One of the very few proper roles of government is upholding contracts, maintaining the trust necessary for the free market to work effectively.

Privacy is not all about secrecy and deception ("hiding a wrong") - although it can be used for such purposes. Privacy is, first and foremost, about trust and accountability.

Posted by Eleutherian 2 comments
Friday, August 21, 2009

USA Today reported yesterday that the recession has increased demand for publicly funded burials. Why does the government fund burials in the first place?

First, it is difficult to separate burials from religious practices. The government has no business funding religious activity.

This leaves the question of what to do when a person dies. The solution is simple - donate the body for scientific research. Hospitals, universities, and other scientific institutions are always accepting donations.

If a family cannot afford a burial or cremation, the government has no responsibility to provide one for them. A family can donate a body to science and still celebrate the life (or mourn the passing) of the deceased with a quiet, inexpensive service (minus body).

Even if money isn't a problem, donation should still be an option. Even as a man of faith, I recognize the fact that I will not care what happens to my body after I die. Respect for the dead applies only to their memory, not their bodies. I will have my body donated to science, perhaps allowing a researcher or medical student to grok my life. The loved ones I leave behind can celebrate/mourn in whatever way they see fit. The government will not have a hand in my burial (unless, of course, they kill me).

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The idea for this post came from a video by the Motorhome Diaries crew interviewing Steve Horwitz, blogger and professor of economics at St. Lawrence University. I recommend checking it out (under five minutes).

As recently as one hundred years ago, in many more developed societies, husbands had nearly total control over the family. Going back another hundred years, families were essentially enterprises. Today, it's difficult to think in such callous terms, but each family member was essentially a unit of production. Families had many children, not out of love, but out of necessity. At the time, many children increased economic security through additional units of production and to ensure that parents had a safety net if they reached old age.

Economic freedom allowed families to hire workers outside the family (by extension, allowing children to find work outside the family). Previously, the only work found outside the family was through an apprenticeship with a tradesman, guild, or clergy. However, they required family connections. This is a similar process found in labor unions today. In postmaterialist societies, unions are backward (i.e. reactionary), antiquated entities, continuing a practice that is no longer necessary in more developed countries.

Additionally, increased economic freedom reduced the average family size (so carbon Malthusians should give credit where credit is due). Children are no longer viewed as a necessity (except in Russia, which speaks volumes as to the country's level of economic freedom). Rather, children are born out of a loving couple's honest desire for children. Instead of forcing them to work, parents are now able to invest in their children, demonstrating societies' changing views with regard to children.

Increased economic freedom changed families for the better. In today's society (at least in more developed countries), arranged marriages are a rare and antiquated practice. Families no longer require the political and/or economic benefits of marriage. Marriage has become about love over finances (for the most part).

This same process (one might call it the human development process) has increased homosexual rights, particularly with regard to same-sex marriage. As marriages are no longer about economic/political partnerships and families no longer need to rely on children as units of production or to provide a future safety net, it is financially realistic for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

At the end of the video, Dr. Horwitz makes the following statement:

You have people on the right, conservatives, who love (or they say they love) free markets but don't like these sort of changes [e.g. homosexual rights] that capitalism has brought forward....If you're going to really have markets, you can't stop this kind of ongoing cultural change.

On the other hand, people on the left have the opposite problem. They like the cultural change but refuse to give credit where credit's due, which is to recognize the role that capitalism has played in bringing those about. To the extent that they're stifling capitalism, they're stifling the very dynamism that produces those social changes they like so much.
The hypocrisy by both major political parties is rather amusing (and sad). Katherine Mangu-Ward with Reason Magazine touched on a related issue regarding homosexuals and the major political parties, stating:
But you know who your real friends are, LGBTers. And we're going to help you get through this. Besides, who knows better than libertarians what it's like to be in a long-standing lopsided love affair with a mainstream political party?
She's right, LGBTers. Given that the libertarian platform has formed the basis for your rights, it's in your self-interest to support the continuation of this platform - libertarianism.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The United States government has a monopoly on marijuana research. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the only government institution legally allowed to provide researchers with marijuana. Unsurprisingly, the government uses its monopoly status to only fund and/or provide marijuana for studies seeking to depict marijuana's negative attributes.

According to Reason Magazine:

Even when researchers have received Food and Drug Administration approval for their studies, NIDA frequently refuses to sell them the pot they need to carry out their research, essentially exercising a veto on the FDA’s decisions.

With NIDA bogarting America’s only federally sanctioned weed, the number of privately funded medical cannabis studies currently taking place in America right now is exactly zero. Of the 14 studies investigating marijuana in any way, 13 are NIDA projects looking into drug abuse.
This is too bad, as not only does it put the United States at odds with Latin America, but also censors viable research linking marijuana use to reduced risk of cancer.

A recent study by researchers at Brown University, Boston University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Minnesota has found that even with cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol, "10 to 20 years of marijuana use was associated with a significantly reduced risk of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma..."

Lead researcher Dr. Donald Taskin admitted that the government funded his team's research to find negative health effects of marijuana use. Instead, Dr. Taskin stated:
What we found instead was no association (between marijuana smoking and cancer) and even a suggestion of some protective effect.

At this point, I'd be in favor of (marijuana) legalization. I wouldn't encourage anybody to smoke any substances. But I don't think it should be stigmatized as an illegal substance. Tobacco smoking causes far more harm. And in terms of an intoxicant, alcohol causes far more harm (than marijuana).

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Continuing my series on privacy vs. security, I would like to draw your attention to a recent post at the Blog of Bile. New York City police officers were harassing would-be subway passengers, forcing a bag search or turning individuals away from using mass public transportation (no wonder public transportation can't turn a profit).

However, while the city's police officers were taking time away from pursuing actual criminals to harass innocent pedestrians by invading their privacy, their efforts were completely ineffective. Not every subway station was checking bags. A terrorist would have to be completely incompetent to simply not walk a few blocks to station without a police bag check, affording him/her complete access to the NYC subway system.

New York City wasted taxpayer money and police resources to create a false sense of security by invading the privacy of innocent pedestrians.

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Vogue model Liksula Cohen wants to sue an anonymous blogger for calling her a 40-something skank who "may have been hot 10 years ago." A New York court ruled in her favor, ordering Google to unmask the anonymous blogger, making her open for a defamation suit.

First, I can't believe a U.S. court ruled to unmask an anonymous blogger for stating her opinion. Justice Joan Madden rejected the defendant's claim that blogs, "serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting."

This Canadian model is apparently accustomed to Canadian defamation law, where the courts will convict and imprison citizens for speaking their opinion about other people.

The only leg Cohen has to stand on is New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). However, this precedent only applies to defamation of public officials. Cohen's ego doesn't stretch that high. Additionally, the decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) removes liability for defamation when the defendant is stating an opinion. As far as I know, stating that someone is hot or not is still an opinion.

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"Why are New Yorkers nihilists?"

"Because the light at the other end of the tunnel is New Jersey."

I heard this joke in a World Views course in college, and it came to mind immediately when I read that the northern city of Paterson, NJ is debating a curfew on adults (a first in the nation). The city's police officers are incapable of doing their job, so they want to mark every resident of the city as a potential criminal.

The city is currently spending taxpayer money to legally justify the action. However, since the ACLU has promised to file suit against the city, it is a waste of time and money. The city would be better off spending all this money to improve their police force instead of using it to harass its residents and then to defend this harassment in court.

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