Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Brian McCallIt Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
Posted at 12:38 am on January 28, 2012, by Brian McCall

In the It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means category, I’m having to add the terribly abused No True Scotsman fallacy. I’m starting to see this unfortunate abuse with ever increasing frequency.

Here is a short version of it [I know this isn’t the full version, but for the sake of brevity…]:

Person A: No Scotsman dislikes haggis.
Person B: My uncle is Scottish and he doesn’t like haggis.
Person A: No true Scotsman dislikes haggis.

Now consider this:

Person A: All fruit is edible
Person B: Plastic fruit isn’t edible.
Person A: All real fruit is edible. [or substitute true if you prefer]

What is the difference between the two?

In the first, a sweeping generalization is confronted with a counterexample. The response is to change the definition of the term. At first, a Scotsman is merely a native inhabitant of Scotland. Then when confronted with the counterexample, the term Scotsman mutates to become bound up definitionally with the practice of eating haggis, such that the very meaning of Scotsman is “one who eats haggis and is a native inhabitant of Scotland,” and only became so for the purpose of excluding that specific case.

What about the second? Why does it not suffer the same deficiency? Aren’t we changing the definition of fruit just to exclude fake fruit?

No, because edibility is intrinsic to the definition of the term fruit. (I am of course only speaking of the common literal use of the term. Not metaphorical uses like “the fruits of one’s exertions,” or scientific terms like fruiting body.) That’s why it must there be preceded by the qualifier “fake.” Eating haggis is not an intrinsic characteristic of the term “Scotsman.” When Person A says that all real fruit is edible, it is not the same as saying all fruit is red. To be fruit is to be edible.

I’ve noticed this tendency lately. Someone will make a strawman characterization of an opposing political view. Another will respond, asserting a correct or more complete definition. The first will then claim the second is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Some clown with a website says, “libertarianism is always bound up in the continuation of systems of oppression such as racism, misogyny, christianism, nativism, and the like.” It is such an absurd caricature that anyone with even a modest acquaintance with its principles can see that those are not necessary and intrinsic characteristics of the philosophy. Not only that, but they are incompatible.

Someone responded by providing a list of libertarian writers who forcefully oppose those, and he is accused of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy, as if he is engaging in some ad hoc refinement of the scope of the term to include ONLY those writers.

If anything, it appears the converse is taking place. Instead of No True Scotsman, it is All True Scotsmen.

Person A: All libertarians are crazy fruitcakes who believe horrible things I find morally repugnat.
Person B: These libertarians don’t believe those things.
Person A: Well, all True libertarians do, even if they don’t know it.


Filed under: Internet, Philosophy, Politics
Comments: None
 

John W. PayneThe Beginning of the End
Posted at 11:30 pm on December 8, 2010, by John W. Payne

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange turned himself over to British authorities, but it actually makes little difference what happens to Assange personally at this point–his victory is already assured. Assange’s situation reminds me of what Obi Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader in Star Wars: “if you strike me down now, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Assange and WikiLeaks are the first to disrupt the monopoly information systems of world governments and powerful corporations in a major way, but they will be far from the last, and I don’t think most people fully understand the implications of this.

One person who seems to have a rough grasp on what WikiLeaks means in the long run is legendary New Leftist Todd Gitlin. Writing in The New Republic, Gitlin compares Assange unfavorably to Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, because Assange is seeking to cause “system-wide cognitive decline” in the government, and Gitlin understands what that means:

To value “system-wide cognitive decline” is to insist that the state is illegitimate. It should not be pressed to do better what it already does poorly. It should not be smarter. Assange says it should not be.

Gitlin clearly disagrees with Assange’s almost wholly negative view of the state, but what I don’t think even Gitlin understands is that this is ultimately not about ideology or value judgments anymore. As information becomes easier to disseminate, secrets will become harder to keep, and it doesn’t matter whether Assange is free or imprisoned, alive or dead, someone will leak information to the public, and the government’s ability to communicate will be further eroded. In short, system-wide cognitive decline will continue apace.

Assange certainly seems to understand what he’s doing, and zunguzungu offers the best summary of Assange’s apparent strategy to undermine the conspiracies that call themselves governments:

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

“If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.”

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

(That’s an important excerpt, but, seriously, do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. The rest of this post will still be here when you get back, I promise.)

The politicians seem to be dimly aware of the threat an open flow of information poses to them and their power, but the only means they have of striking back is killing the messenger, literally, but they can’t fight the future. As a side note, if you believe that the politicians like Joseph Lieberman and John McCain who have called for Assange’s head are doing so because they believe it will help the average American or anyone but themselves, you are deeply deluded. One of the new WikiLeaks cables reveals that DynCorp, a Texas-based company, has been using taxpayer dollars to buy child sex slaves for powerful Afghan men. No federal politicians have called for investigations into DynCorp, and I almost guarantee that they won’t. They don’t care that tax money is spent to subsidize child rape; they only care that the public found out about it. And that’s why they must try to silence Assange, because he reveals the government as the callous, incompetent organization that it is.

What Assange is ushering in is nothing short of the death spiral of the nation-state. Nation-states are masters of centralization, and they thrived in an industrial era when centralization seemed to be the most efficient means of administration–both in political and business affairs. However, in an era based upon information, decentralization is a far more powerful method for generating and using important data, for reasons explained by Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” over 65 years ago. Once the government’s monopoly on its own information is cracked by Assange and others, the need and likely even the desire for its centralized bureaucracy vanishes.

I don’t pretend to know what will replace the nation-state as an agent of administration, military power, diplomatic relations, etc. As a libertarian, I hope it’s some kind of polycentric government or competing agencies, but that’s far from guaranteed. Despite fighting my entire adult life against the nation-state, I concede that an even worse system could arise from its ashes. However, I am confident that the central mode of governance in the Western World for over two centuries is now on the wane and will begin to disappear over the next thirty to fifty years. Good riddance.


Filed under: Economic Theory, Internet, Politics
Comments: None
 

Lee SharpeThe Case Against Net Neutrality
Posted at 10:06 am on August 11, 2010, by Lee Sharpe

What is “net neutrality”? Net neutrality is government regulation which prohibits internet service providers from diffrentiating internet traffic based upon its content and/or the service being used. Advocates are concerned about internet service providers charging different amounts for different types of traffic or manipulating how internet traffic is processed so, for example, to increase the priority of a certain website’s traffic or decrease the priority of a certain website’s traffic.

Generally, regulation advocates point to something happening, identify it as a problem that government needs to solve, and propose regulation they feel will accomplish that goal. This is not the case with net neutrality because right now internet service providers are voluntarily complying with the standards net neutrality advocates seek to codify. This is even after a federal appeals court ruled in Comcast v. FCC that the FCC (at least currently) lacks the authority to prevent companies from engaging in this behavior. Given all of this, one must wonder why is regulation needed to address this in the first place.

Like many other newspapers, the New York Times runs advertisements. The newspaper and advertiser agree on the ad, where it will appear, how much it will cost, and on which printing(s) it will appear. All well and good. And, of course, the New York Times can reject any ad which it does not wish to run. The reason could be because the content is inappropriate for the paper’s readership. It could be because it advertises a competing newspaper. It could be because the editor has a random grudge against a local business and won’t support its ads. Whatever the reason, the New York Times has the freedom to not run certain advertisements. The freedom to refuse to facilitate speech one doesn’t like is part of one’s First Amendment freedom of speech rights. There is no reason this right should not carry over to internet providers as well, just like any other entity.

Many airlines offer passengers who pay for a “first class” ticket improved service for extra money. This extra service is for those willing to pay more. In addition to covering the costs of providing the extra service, this revenue helps the airlines lower fares for the other passengers, so its existence helps them as well. Similarly, television providers (both cable and satellite) offer various premium channel packages for extra fees. Nothing is wrong with these business models. Of course, nothing is wrong with a business model that handles all traffic equally either. Supply and demand will determine which business models are best just fine, just as described above in the airline and television industries. Congress and the FCC do not need to enforce a particular business model on internet service providers, as it might end up that way in the future. It’s entirely possible that at some point poorer consumers will be served by options of cheaper, more limited internet. Under net neutrality, however, internet service providers would be prohibited from pursuing such plans.

Logically, companies in any industry don’t want to be regulated. So it should cause one to pause when companies in an industry come out in favor of them being regulated. Google and Verizon Wireless did just that in a recent joint proposal to the FCC as a suggestion for how to implement Net Neutrality. In the first four of their seven points, Google and Verizon start off sounding like they support their own regulation. (“This means that for the first time, wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful internet content, applications or services in a way that causes harm to users or competition.”) However, the fifth and sixth create a couple exceptions to their Net Neutrality propsals for “additional services” (it’s unclear how this is defined) and internet service provided wirelessly.

Now that we’ve examined their proposal, we should ask why would they propose it in the first place? The answer is to gain an advantage over its competitors, an example of behavior known as rent seeking. Businesses can and will use not just market advantages to seek profit, but legislative advantages if it can create them. Verizon is already a leader in wireless internet service, and with its FIOS technology and Google’s constant innovations, it seems like these rules are being constructed to create an advantage over more traditional internet service providers which use DSL or cable lines and would thus be subject to the net neutrality provisions while Google and Verizon are comparitively less regulated.

The common response to this by net neutrality advocates is to reject the Google and Verizon plan and adopt a stronger one instead. Indeed, this is already happening by some advocates. History shows, however, that industry is heavily involved in the regulatory process and puts heavy pressure to implement them in its favor. This is common with regulation, since the benefits to a single given consumer from net neutrality are relatively minor, while the costs are borne by the companies. Since these internet service providers don’t really care about much except internet aceess, they have lot of reason to lobby and shape the regulation to their advantage, and bigger providers have more resources to do this. Consumers care, but it is a small fraction of things they must worry about in their lives, and give the legislation little attention. This results in regulation that hurts consumers by distorting the industry away from customers’ true preferences. For example, exempting wireless from net neutrality may mean that cheap wireless limited internet plans exist, while even cheaper cable ones legally can’t, which hurts consumers seeking this type of plan. The net result of all of this is the FCC implementing policies that actually have significant support from within the industry. However, if the regulation was actually achieving its goals, this regulation should actually be opposed by the industry.

If the government regulates net neutrality, policies for internet access are set by one entity: the FCC. However, if the government stays out, each company will set its own policies. If you don’t like the FCC’s policies, you are stuck with them unless you leave the United States. If you don’t like your internet service provider’s policies, you can simply switch to another one. So which model sounds better to you?

Update: The Electonic Frontier Foundation is also worried about the phenomenon I descibed above (Hat Tip to @wilw):

Efforts to protect net neutrality that involve government regulation have always faced one fundamental obstacle: the substantial danger that the regulators will cause more harm than good for the Internet. The worst case scenario would be that, in allowing the FCC to regulate the Internet, we open the door for big business, Hollywood and the indecency police to exert even more influence on the Net than they do now.


Filed under: Internet, Regulation
Comments: 85 Comments
 

Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. 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."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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