A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

Not Iraq. Not Gaza. Not Ukraine. This is #Ferguson, Missouri.

Featured image from Radley Balko’s Facebook page. I didn’t see any prohibitions on sharing, but I will take it down if requested.

The above scene is not from some third world country. It is from Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was gunned down by police.

Here’s another picture, from another friend’s Facebook wall:

Ferguson Police 2

 

These are not Army soldiers. This is a local municipal police department in a city of 21,000 people. Why on Earth would they need cops with full body armor, gas masks, and assault vehicles? Maybe this can be some explanation (taken from Twitter):

Meanwhile, the local government has completely shut reporters out of the city:

Journalists encountered a threatening response from police as they tried to cover the protests in Ferguson, the Missouri town that has been upended by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

While there was a spate of looting on Sunday night, Monday’s demonstrations were peaceful. Protestors faced tear gas and rubber bullets from officers trying to break their ranks up. At the same time, police told local media to get out of the area.

This is not America. This is the purview of a third world tinpot dictatorship, not the leader of the free world and the greatest democracy in the world. Period. They do not need to be stomping people just laying on the ground, or engaging in illegal chokehold manuevers to kill a man who was only selling untaxed cigarettes. Or getting a warrant to conduct a horribly invasive anal probe eight times for “drugs” on the flimsiest of evidence. Or firing dozens of rounds through a van full of children. Or any other terrible acts by police.

Slowly, over the past several years, the police have been transformed from a law enforcement agency to a sort of Russian style “Internal Troops” division. Do we really want to import Putinism over here to the United States?

It is past time for Americans to wake up to this and demand action. Demand that police face the full consequences of their actions. Demand that “paid administrative leave” be ended. Demand the mindlessly stupid War on Drugs is declared over, and demand that out of control cops are reigned back in. Demand that cop cameras be used everywhere, and can’t be altered or lost by the cops they cover.

This madness needs to end. We are the nation that leads the free world. Time to act like it.

 

Get Off The Couch: The Participation Income

This month, Cato Unbound is hosting a discussion on the libertarian case for a basic income. As readers of this blo–oh, who am I kidding. Anyone who knows me knows I am a libertarian who supports a basic income as an alternative to the current welfare state morass – both on a pragmatic “it’s better than what we got now” stand and on a principled basis. (But then, I am slowly becoming disaffected with the term libertarian anyhow.)

One point that has come up repeatedly on discussions about the lead essays is that a basic income of any form would create a nation of layabouts. After all, the argument goes, if you collect a check just for being a citizen, who would actually work? I think that’s a problematic argument for many reasons, but I just wanted to toss out there one variant that does require some effort on the part of recipients: the Participation Income.

I think it was first proposed by A.B. Atkinson in 1996 – though I don’t really know, I was just Googling things. One such Google result [PDF] gave me the following:

A ‘Participation Income’ would be paid to any individual ‘participating’ in society. The list of ‘participations’ would include employment or self-employment, retirement, absence from work because of sickness or injury, inability to work because of disability, and approved forms of voluntary activity. Students, trainees, those caring for dependents (the young, the elderly, or disabled dependents), and those unemployed but available for work, would also be counted as ‘participating’.

So basically, you have to do something in order to get the basic income, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be paying work. Studying, taking care of the elderly or children, volunteering – these all count. (Dunno about the last one in the above quote, though.) I don’t know if this would meet critics’ standards, but at the very least it would require that something be put back into society, something productive happening, in order to receive benefits.

Personally, I can see issues with this. How do we determine who is “participating”? Who will determine and how will they determine what counts as eligible participation? It’s yet another battlefield ripe for political combat, with all the terribleness, shrill partisanship, and uncomfortable silences at the dinner table that come with it. It also seems to be pretty invasive, as I am sure people will demand more accountability than simply trusting the applicant that they have participated. But then again, we have W-2 forms, so something along those lines may suffice.

To be honest, though, I’m not terribly worried about a basic income (or my preferred form, a Negative Income Tax) turning America into a nation of layabouts. We sort of have that problem already, for starters (though it isn’t as bad as some conservatives may think), and furthermore, life without work is not at all pleasant. People need work to have meaning in their lives; without it, many grow unhappy and listless. (I know, I’ve been there.) People are constantly trying to do and make new things – sure, not everybody, but look at all the various projects on Kickstarter, or volunteering activities, or new code developments made when somebody was out of work. I think if people knew there was something like a basic income to catch them if they fell, they wouldn’t just stop doing things and collect a check – they might take some risks to develop a new product or company, knowing they have something there if they fail. How many of us want to do something like that, be an entrepreneuer, but are afraid that if we screw up our families will be living on the sidewalk?

In short, I don’t think everyone will stop working. One commentator, Martin Brock (no idea if that’s his real name, as it’s only Disqus), however, does make one comment that I thought was pretty insightful:

I don’t fear a nation of layabouts. I fear a nation of actors, musicians, painters, novelists, astronomers, photographers, videographers, philosophers, talk radio hosts and political opinion bloggers all producing vastly more drama, music, art and the rest than other people actually want to consume while trying to consume the dwindling supply of goods no longer produced by all of these actors, musicians and painters.

Some of these people might be wondrously “productive”, in the sense of laboring conscientiously to produce lots of wonderful stuff, but if this stuff has little market value, because so many people produce so much of it, the people are not so “productive” in the economic sense.

The world is full of starving artists without a UBI, so I can only imagine vastly more artists producing far less than the cost of their maintenance with a UBI.

Yeah, that actually might be a problem. I know I would happily go off into my room and write science fiction all the time if I had a basic income. The question is, how many Americans would do that? Seeing the multitude of posts on social media, I would be willing to bet a lot (though many would be painters, sculptors, audio remixers, etc.) who then wouldn’t be producing other things. This would probably put a lot more strain on the rest of the economy – i.e, on all the other people producing things – and it might even threaten the very same basic income because at some point we wouldn’t be able to fund it.

But not doing anything? Sure, there are some indolent Americans. Hell, there are maybe a lot of indolent Americans. But there aren’t that many who would stop doing anything except collect a check. More likely, they would take that check and go do something with it.

I also just want to say that I’m not ignoring the public choice considerations here. It’s very likely that any variation on a basic income plan to replace welfare and the minimum wage and reform the tax system that goes before Congress will be butchered and mutiliated horribly. It’s in the nature (and interests) of legislators to craft legislation benefitting their benefactors, and I am sure that one interest group or another will try to bust it or just add it on top of the current welfare morass. But just because that’s a possibility doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reform the system by proposing this. If such considerations were to stop policy proposals before they began, then libertarians could never work on public policy — and I find that a very silly position to take.

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

Hobby Lobby Case And Derailing Secular Gains

I’m going to go out on a limb here with this Hobby Lobby case and say something that is going to be pretty controversial. Just not in the way you might imagine.

The current Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, as well as similar incidents and issues around the country, are keeping the religious level of the United States high and preventing the gradual shift to a more secular nation.

I’m not saying that because conservatives and religious folk are using the suit to maintain their religious beliefs – through employer health insurance – against the tide of reasonable secularists. No, I’m saying this because I think those who want to force employers to violate their religious consciences are in the wrong and are reinforcing the other side.

Look at this this way. Say that Hobby Lobby is allowed to avert the contraception mandate and other health insurance requirements by claiming a religious exemption. Okay, so those things are now no longer paid for by your employer. (This is far different from saying they are dictating people’s lives outside of work. Not paying for your decisions does not equal dictating those decisions. Some CNN commenters have forgotten that.) This fact, I assure you, will be loudly trumpeted throughout the media and people will know about it.

Now let’s see what happens. Those who don’t support the policy will refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby and not give them any money. Indeed, I suspect this will be a majority of Americans, even Christians. Of course, those who actually shop there will be far smaller, but I think there will probably be a boycott movement or two. They might even have some success.

Let’s have this process continue. More people become secular, and instead of forcing their ideas on the religious folk, just allow them to live their lives (without harming anyone else, of course.) The religious folk don’t see themselves as under threat as they do now, and may actually start to talk to the more secular people out there. They may even see them as Americans. And with that, you might actually get through to them, and if not cause them to rethink their views, maybe their children will.

Compare to that to what is going on in America today: we have cases like Hobby Lobby dominating the media, where religious people feel they are under attack by a pernicious, left-wing, godless conspiracy. They go on the defensive and start to rally and organize. They use the Supreme Court case as a perfect tool for fundraising and email list collection. And they naturally shut themselves off from listening to the other side, as they perceive what is coming at them not to be words, but bullets.

It happens with pretty much every controversial topic these days, if not since the beginning of time.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see a world where religion is something of the past, where people have stopped believing in supernatural beliefs and instead relegate such things to the realm of fantasy (and maybe get a bit too excited about their favorite TV show). I want a world where science – proper science, not the bastardized progressive worshipping meshuggnah we seem to have today (to see what I mean, Google “anti-vaccine,” “GMOs,” “fracking,” etc) – rules the day, and we can leap far beyond our current selves and advance into a new world where suffering may just possibly be eliminated. We might have room for some secular philosophy such as Secular Humanism or (a toned down variant of) Objectivism, but for the most part I don’t even want that, as they still carry faint threats of straightjacketism and dogmatism in the wings.

However, what is going on today is the wrong way to go about it. Such change can never be forced. European nobles attempted to do so by forcing their subjects to follow the same religion they did; what they got were centuries of religious warfare and pointless struggles. Not until John Locke came around with his revolutionary ideas that, in someone’s mind, that person is sovereign (and thus religion is a wholly individual choice) did this silliness begin to come to an end. Let’s not forget either that this country was, philosophically speaking, built on Locke’s ideas.

By using government to try and force employers to violate their religious consciences – in the name of “health care,” no less – we’re risking starting that up again, and undoing all the advances we’ve made in the past two centuries. Do I think it will come to actual violence? I find that unlikely – Americans talk a good game about kicking ass and being manly, but in general we’re rather reluctant to actually bite, as declining crime rates show – but on the other hand, you never know. Two months ago I didn’t think Russia would actually invade and annex a part of Ukraine.

I do think, however, that it is a largely unnecessary and pointless antagonism of the religious America – which is still about 79% of the population, if my memory serves. We really shouldn’t be having this debate in the first place; government shouldn’t be telling employers what they can and can’t pay for, and if I’m brutally honest we should never have tied health insurance to employers in the first place! (Thanks, FDR.) It’s just as my friends Trevor Burrus and Aaron Ross Powell say: politics makes us worse. It leads to fights that, if government stayed out of the matter entirely, would never have become fights. One side would do X, the other side would do Y, and we’d go our merry ways. Instead, because government force is involved, everything becomes a battleground that must be fought over, lest the “other” is able to impose it’s values onto you at the expense of your liberty.

We cannot force our way to a more secular nation. It can only come naturally and through organic processes.

It’s truly tragic, especially when you consider how it’s harming our society’s development. Oh, we’re still progressing in many key areas, but I just think if some people stopped trying to push their own ideology on everybody else and just let things work naturally, society would be progressing a lot faster.

 

PS: If you like this blog post, you might like my Op-Ed on Why The GOP Should Not Turn Away From Secularism over at Practical Politicking.

 

Image from Matt Wade Photography, via Wikimedia, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

2014 Predictions Part 1: Politics

Recently, a friend of mine noted that not enough people–mainly pundits–actually put their reputation (and even money!) on the line and make hard predictions. He admired a lefty blogger for doing so last year when said blogger made a line-in-the-sand prediction that everyone would be sold on Obamacare by today. (Naturally, my friend disagrees with this lefty blogger on several issues, though not all.) That got me thinking to what predictions I would make, so, well, at the end of 2013, here are a few.

I’m probably not going to make anything definite, or super-hard; I always try to hedge my bets as there’s always a degree of uncertainty. You can never be 100% certain about something; if you are, you’re probably wrong. But then I’m not sure about that either.

And also, because this turned out to be longer than I expected, I’m breaking it up into parts. Part 1 is politics; part 2 will be science & technology; I may be a part 3 for society; with part 4 a catch-all for anything miscelleanous, if I get to that.

So, here are some predictions I have for 2014, along with some that go a little beyond that…

Continue reading 2014 Predictions Part 1: Politics

Scrapping The Welfare State, Giving Out Cash, & A New Future for Liberarianism

Man, that title sounds hella-pretentious, but it’s immediately what came to my mind reading this article by Matthew Feeney on Reason.com, Scrap the Welfare State and Give People Free Money. It is a fine argument for replacing our current welfare system with a form of basic income, which I have come around to over the past two years (roughly) living in Washington DC. After leading in with the recent news that Switzerland has created a basic income (on top of their preexisting welfare system, which is dumb) he gives this key passage (emphasis mine):

Without the Swiss proposal being attached to drastic welfare reforms the plan is, I think, unfeasible. However, that the particular proposal in Switzerland is not ideal does not mean that libertarians should shy away from proposing something similar. Being morally comfortable with some degree of government wealth redistribution might be contrary to anarchism, but it is not contrary to libertarianism, and were libertarians to argue for replacing the current welfare system with a basic national income we would be better positioned to not only highlight the fact that libertarianism is not the heartless and selfish philosophy it is commonly portrayed as, it would allow for a more humane and effective way to deliver welfare than the current system on offer.

I’m sure that will greatly offend the Rothbardians in the audience, but I really don’t care about those guys anymore.

Matthew also makes this other key point, which is that the welfare system actually hurts and dehumanizes people:

In discussions about welfare it is astonishing how often the current system is portrayed as humane, just, or charitable. However, one of the tragedies of the current welfare system is that it strips welfare recipients of their dignity while treating many of them like children, and functions on the underlying assumption that somehow being poor means you are incapable of making good decisions.

Many welfare recipients are required to undergo drug tests, despite the fact that many Americans take illegal drugs while still being good parents and holding down a job. If employed professionals are able to fulfil their duties at work while also maintaining a recreational drug habit, why should welfare recipients be treated differently? In fact, in the last year welfare recipients in Utah were found to test positive for illegal drugs at rates less than the national average, and in Arizona 87,000 screenings between 2009 and 2012 yielded one positive test result.

Perhaps the best example of the demeaning nature of the current welfare system is the SNAP program, otherwise known as food stamps, which works by giving recipients a card that can only be used to buy a selection of government-approved goods. Alcohol, tobacco, pet food, and vitamins are only some of the products that those on food stamps cannot buy because the powers that be have determined that they know what is the best lifestyle for food stamp recipients.

Since I moved to DC, and “enjoyed” it’s sky-high prices for rent, food, utilities, clothing–well, everything–I’ve started to abandon my old view that we shouldn’t have welfare, period. As much as I do not like the idea of welfare itself, or the idea of wealth redistribution whatsoever, I now realize a couple of things:

  1. The American public will never buy a political system completely lacking in wealth redistribution, period. You can call this stupidity, you can call this a decline in American virtues, you can call this the bandwagon fallacy, you can call it whatever you wish–but it is reality. No matter how much I would prefer a more Nozickian (or heck, more Randian) government, the majority of Americans will consistently vote against such an idea. Trying to push that view is just a waste of time, energy, and resources.
  2. As much as I would like  a more Nozickian state, and a completely free market economy, the current welfare system has so thoroughly ruined poor Americans there is no way to abruptly transition to a welfare free society. There are millions of Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty, a cycle partially perpetuated by the government (at all levels), and we’re going to be able to just switch and leave them behind. We have to light a path out of that and into the next stage. To us the words of philosophy professor Michael Munger, it’s not so much a libertarian destination as it is a libertarian direction–and I’m okay with that.

Considering that, the only real alternative available is a negative income tax. I’ve come to champion this proposal of Milton Friedman’s, for multiple reasons.

  1. It combines both welfare reform and tax reform in one package, making it more likely to get libertarians and conservatives onboard.
  2. It is more effective at helping the poor, so it should (in theory, anyways) be attractive to leftists.
  3. Unlike other universal basic income schemes, it is actually sustainable.
  4. It does not trap anyone in poverty, but instead lifts them out; poverty trap problems are neatly dealt with.
  5. I believe that it also avoids the problem of disincentivizing work; while those under the threshold do get money, they still have an opportunity to gain even more money past that threshold instead of receiving nothing. Also, many would appreciate a safety net to fall back on should their business attempts go awry, which may encourage them to go out and be more productive, rather than sit back and do nothing out of fear.

About a week ago, on Bleeding heart Libertarians, philosopher Fernando Teson laid out the basics of a philosophical school he called “sufficientarian liberalism.” I don’t want to quote the entire thing, because it’s brilliant, but it’s essentially where I have come to be. Teson notes that most libertarians readily acknowledge that free markets and (classically) liberal societies generate tremendous wealth and are the best tool for bringing people out of poverty. He then adds:

Here I take a different tack. Classical liberals should endorse a political system that includes a safety-net for the poor while simultaneously abolishing virtually all other barriers to market entry. This means no more subsidies, no more tariffs, no more licencing of professions, no more burdensome regulations, no more state-run education, no more barriers to immigration, no more unproductive public spending, and no more bloated bureaucracies (you can add an appropriate public-goods proviso.) Call this view sufficientarian liberalism. The view is sufficientarian, not egalitarian: it advocates state redistribution of resources only toward those who cannot provide for themselves.

Sufficientarian liberalism can be philosophically justified. In the Doctrine of Right Kant argues that to sustain the civil condition the state must provide means to those incapable of providing for themselves. But the state cannot legitimately redistribute resources beyond this, because doing so would encroach on people’s protected freedoms. The only legitimate reason for coercion is the establishment and maintenance of the civil condition. That is why the state can punish criminals: the state hinders the freedom of someone, the criminal, who has hindered the freedom of his victim. Now property-less persons cannot act autonomously because they are subject to the permissions and wishes of others. Therefore, the state must provide them with the material means of acting autonomously, as required by the civil condition. If you are charmed by this view, then you have a first-order, ideal justification of the sufficientarian liberal state.

But suppose that Robert Nozick is right and no redistribution, not even to the poor, is justified. In that case we can no longer justify sufficientarian liberalism on first-order principles. However,  we can still defend it as a second-bestnonideal political arrangement. If the Nozickian utopia is unattainable, then classical-liberals’ best strategy might well be to support institutions that frontally address the plight of the poor. Now imagine a society where the only redistributive job of the state was to help the poor. That society would be an immense improvement over the crony-capitalist systems we endure today. If we couple a safety-net with vast deregulation of markets, and we add the fact that freer markets help the poor more than known alternatives, then the classical-liberal has the upper hand, because the defender of the welfare state has lost her main argument for big government.  If the poor are provided for, all that remains of the welfare state are subsidies, privileges, rent-seeking, and various other inefficiencies. I doubt honest egalitarians can defend that.

Although the comments section is rife with diehard libertarians and anarcho-capitalists flinging barbs, nothing here sounds too controversial to mainstream Americans. I wrote earlier about “market democracy” being a true American centrism; that was a more abstract view of things, while this is a bit more concrete (though still not a specific policy platform.) People really don’t give that much of a damn about income inequality; they only care that there are people starving and want them to be not-starving. Even the poor, I think, don’t really care if they’re making less than a Wall Street banker, they just want enough to get by. (And if they have political power, that definition can be “Let’s get the government to get us plasma TVs and a Cadillac too. I still think that would be easily dealt with in a negative income tax system.) Teson also makes the necessary point that this system would have to be combined with a deregulation wave; I don’t think an NIT on its own, without a dramatically freer market, would really help people all that much. There are a great number of government actions–such as the Dairy Price Support Program making milk more expensive, to monetary idiocy at the Federal Reserve killing the buying power of the individual dollar bill, to various regulations propping up barriers to entry and killing the competition that brings prices down–that artificially raise prices and make things more expensive, especially for the poor. Unless those things are done away with–and thus, in the process, making there a lot less poor to go around–anything else will have a blunted impact on poverty. (And though it shouldn’t be mentioned, such a plan should also include reducing the military budget by half–at least–and enacting serious entitlement reform, which may actually end up being scrapped if such a system was implemented.)

That’s a pretty damn good view of centrism to me.

I think what Feeney is writing about here is actually the future of libertarianism. He’s right that this isn’t ipso facto against libertarianism, just anarchism, which I don’t think libertarianism really is (no matter how much undead Murray Rothbard stamps his feet about it.) And while I suspect both of us are going to get a lot of flack from more hardcore libertarians who will claim we are sanctioning state theft, that has been going on for well over a century in America and centuries elsewhere; we are advocating lessening it greatly, and ultimately such a thing is going to be seen as a cost of living in society. Should there be a cost? That’s a philosophical discussion for another day.

TL;DR: I think a basic income of sorts can be justified on broadly libertarian grounds; it is clear that such a system is superior to our current welfare state; and I think that libertarians should stop beating their heads against the immovable rock they’ve been killing themselves with for decades, adopt this plan, and actually move the ball down the field beyond our 30-yard line, because it is getting to be really, really ridiculous at this point.

And I’m very, very thankful it is beginning to get a wider audience.

GOP: Listen to Libertarians; Ignore Social Conservatives

Earlier this week, Virgina voters went to the polls and narrowly elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe–who is a veritable dirtbag–over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who is pro-life, wants to force transvaginal ultraounds, hates gays, and is a climate change denier. Meanwhile, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 6.5% of the vote as well. Naturally, this means that Republicans are blaming libertarians (and Libertarians) for this loss (while some conservatives are already blaming “ze establishment.” More on that later.)

Two major points need to be said about this. The first point is that Robert Sarvis did not cost Cuccinelli the election. Indeed, most of Sarvis’ voters, if they didn’t have Sarvis as a choice, would have either voted for McAuliffe or would have just stayed home. Indeed, one theory I have seen floated around is that he brought extra voters to the polls who may push Republican Attorney General candidate Mark Obenshain over the top against his Democratic opponent, so Republicans will have to turn around and thank the Libertarian Party (grudgingly).

As Chris Cilizza notes,  most of Sarvis’ fans would have stayed home. As Neil Stevens adds, Sarvis voters “were more interested in voting for him than they were in tipping a close election between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.” He increased turnout and in turn highlighted a growing part of the populace: libertarians. (Even if they don’t label themselves as such.)

Here’s the second point: even if Sarvis cost the election for Cooch…

GOOD.

I wholeheartedly agree with my friend Tom VanAntwerp, who wrote:

Libertarian candidates do spoil elections for Republicans. And that’s awesome!

Republicans need to remember that they are not entitled to anyone’s vote. (Nor are Democrats, for that matter.) They have to run a solid campaign that promises what people want if they hope to win. And over time, when they do win, they have to deliver. When Libertarians draw enough voters away from Republican candidates such that they lose, they should take it as a sign that they promised the wrong things and delivered the wrong things.

The Republican reliance on social conservatism will continue to be a growing weakness, and Libertarians will exploit it. And if Republicans hate that Democrats win because Libertarians exists, then they should take the views of the libertarian swing vote more seriously.

Republicans and conservatives only pay attention to libertarians around election time–and that’s always with pathetic bullying antics and fearmongering of what would happen should the Democrat win. When libertarians protest at this, or after a Republican/conservative loses, there are always cries that libertarians need to work within the system, stop being purists, and learn to compromise. Never do these individuals admit that at no point did they or their candidate throw libertarians more than a symbolic bone. Never do they admit that they ignore libertarian philosophy and libertarian policy proposals, and just move brazenly on in their conservative worldview, never stopping to consider other viewpoints, that maybe if they want to win they have to build a coalition that includes them making some compromises to attract more voters.

Daniel Bier put it well in an October posting for The Skeptical Libertarian that “Small Government Is Popular–The GOP Isn’t.” And why is this the case? Because the GOP continues pushing social conservatism at a time when the country is becoming increasingly liberal on social matters. Gay marriage enjoys majority support, as does marijuana legalization. Huge majorities–even Republican majorities–support immigration reform, specifically reform that is more permissive than today’s miserable condition. And religiosity–as much as that is a word–has dropped to about 60% last year, while 20% of Americans have no religion. Among those under 30, that number is 1 in 3.

If the Libertarian Party is costing the GOP elections, then good. That’s a sign that Republicans and conservatives are turning off voters with their policy packages, and that if they want to win, they better start coming back to the center and actually start incorporating libertarian ideas in their platforms, campaigns, and policies. If they want libertarian support, then they’re going to actually have to start being more libertarian.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they will heed that lesson, since they’re already blaming everyone but themselves for this defeat. Earlier, I cited Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of the establishment, yet as it turns out, Tea Party groups didn’t spend a lot of money helping Cuccinelli either. That they flail around pointing fingers instead of being introspective on where they failed doesn’t bode well for conservatives learning a thing or two.

And, of course, it should be repeated: libertarians did not cost Republicans this election. But Sarvis did tap into a growing percentage of Americans who are libertarians, and this growing voter base is not interested in right-wing ideas on social issues. So maybe not today. But in the future, it will increasing start to cost Republicans. The only question is when they start to buy.

Blaming libertarians is not productive. Neither is consistently running socially conservative candidates, nor kepeing their heads in the sand. If conservative Republicans want to see where their problems are, they need to stand up, turn around, and take a long, hard look in the mirror.