Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardFirst, Do No Harm
Posted at 11:30 pm on August 3, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

Just as the Kony 2012 phenomenon swept through the Internet earlier this year, so now does the current Chick-fil-A kerfuffle.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Chick-fil-A specifically, but instead about some things I’ve learned and observed over the past few weeks as I followed (and often commented upon) the controversy.

The comments Dan Cathy made about same sex marriage didn’t greatly disturb me apart from the notion that they were completely wrong-headed and just blatantly silly. After all, the president of the United States pretty much expressed the exact same opinions up until recently when we learned that his views had “evolved.” One can be cynical about that, as he is up for re-election and the timing of that “evolution” was, how do I put it, convenient. But, one can also be charitable about it. We tend to admire a person who is willing to change their mind on an issue.

Still, the comments in and of themselves were enough to dissuade me from doing business there. Truth be told, this was not anything near a huge sacrifice for me as I’ve only been a patron there less than ten times in my entire life.

When it came out that Chick-fil-A had given millions of dollars to groups who actively advocate for and use the power of government as a means to deny basic individual rights, it brought up the level of ire I had towards the company. If Chick-fil-A were to go out of business tomorrow, that would be just fine with me.

But, things rapidly got out of hand, as the issue became more inflamed. A call for a general boycott turned into calls for government action against Chick-fil-A. Various mayors and city council members vowed that they would not allow any new franchises within their cities. State-funded universities began campaigns to ban the stores from their campuses.

I must give credit where credit is due, as many liberal minded people opposed these actions. But there were (and are) plenty of people who support these measures.

This, of course, set off a counter-protest where people flocked to Chick-fil-A to show their support. I like to think of myself as a rather incredulous person, so I’m not overly impressed with many of the claims that this was a counter-protest in support of “free speech.” I’m sure there were people involved for whom that was their primary motivation, in that they were protesting an obvious overreach and stated threats from clueless and bumbling government officials.

No, this was a counter-protest that wrapped itself in the moniker of “traditional family values,” which the people involved believed were under attack.

The obvious point that needs to be made here is, one is not very credible if they say they are protecting “free speech” with one breath while advocating against another basic human right.

Thus, during and after the counter-protest, those who opposed Chick-fil-A began to ratchet up the issue. I received two private messages from friends on Facebook informing me that they noticed that I had “liked” Chick-fil-A’s page. They were sure, they said, that this was done in the past, but they wanted to point it out to me so I could correct that error.

Now things were getting downright creepy. It was then that several things occurred to me.

I witnessed very few people (on either side) being intellectually consistent about this issue. I decided to test this theory out by asking (on various threads and in person) this question, as can be seen in this blog post:

“Chick-fil-A gives money to groups that advocate against individual rights. That’s bad. It’s why I won’t be doing business there anymore. You seem to be showing a great deal of outrage over this, so allow me to reframe the problem on a larger scale.

The president of the United States actively assassinates people in other countries. He reserves the right to assassinate American citizens by way of secret committee. He reserves the right to keep any of that information from you. He maintains a prison on an island where no average American is allowed to go, where he oversees a program of torture and secrecy. He actively rejects the “will of the people” by violently shutting down marijuana dispensaries in states that have democratically elected to allow them. He has deported more people from the United States than any president in U.S. history, and he still does not actively campaign for same-sex marriage.

In my estimation, the president of the United States has done inestimably more damage to humanity than Chick-fil-A could ever hope to accomplish.

Will you be withdrawing your support for him this coming election?”

Only one person said yes to that question, and he made that decision long ago. The responses ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing, here):

  • Romney would kill more people.
  • Not voting would only add to the problem.
  • The president wouldn’t do those things if it wasn’t for the Republicans.
  • It’s not a fair analogy.
  • You have to work within the system if you want to change it.

It seems to me that these are very unsatisfying answers. My reply to these assertions would be:

  • Should I eat at Chick-fil-A because another restaurant would be more homophobic?
  • Would boycotting Chick-fil-A only add to the problem?
  • I find it hard to believe that a president who gives himself the authority to assassinate Americans couldn’t also find the authority not to assassinate Americans.
  • It’s an apt analogy in that you’re holding a restaurant up to a higher moral standard than the president you vote for.
  • If that’s the case, you should be spending your money at Chick-fil-A in hopes that they will change their stance.

Those are specific examples. The overall gist of the counter-arguments was that Romney will do all those things but also fight against same sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation.

The counterpoint here is obvious.

The price that some people are willing to pay for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation is assassination, torture, deportation, murder, and misery elsewhere.

I rephrased the question:

“If the president of the United States were successfully able to completely change the policies in Russia so that same-sex marriage were legal, women’s rights were enshrined, abortion rights were protected, and there was complete universal health care coverage and drastic financial regulation, but actively targeted Americans with drone attacks, tortured them without due process, and randomly inserted heavily armed soldiers into metropolitan areas, would you still vote for him?

If not, why?”

I’ve received no answer to that question.

The inherent contradiction between the answers to those two question (though they are the same in every way, except for the people affected by the policies) is this.

People delude themselves in thinking that the first choice is at best virtuous, and at worst necessary, and recognize that the second choice is murderous.

But, in fact, both choices are murderous.

The last question I ask is, what’s the threshold? What act would the president have to do that would be so vile, so evil that you would not only withdraw your support for him, but actively oppose him?

If targeted, secret assassinations of American citizens by way of secret committee and operating a secret prison where people are tortured without due process on an island where no average American can ever visit isn’t enough for you to oppose him, where are you willing to draw the line?

I’m not overly optimistic about the answers I would receive to that question for this reason: Groupthink, identity politics, and the idea of “collective rights” makes us do incredibly stupid and evil things.

There are many people still alive who not only actively apologize for, but support the tens of millions of deaths that occurred under the Stalin and Mao dictatorships. There are many more who still claim that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was “the right thing to do.”

Today, there are people who explicitly support assassinations, murder, and torture for ideological reasons. There are also many who implicitly support it because of their ideology.

Meaning, the concept of gay rights or women’s’ rights or class rights are more important to them than individual rights, namely the right not to be murdered or tortured. They are choosing the group they identify with over the individual. So long as the president perceived as working for these group rights, individuals elsewhere pay the price.

They are just as bad as the people counter-protesting in the name of “free speech” while advocating for the rights of Christian values. As long as Christian values are being upheld, the individual does not matter.

Groupthink clouds judgement. Mob mentality destroys it. The group infused with overwrought emotion and righteous indignation discourages dissent or reason.

I’ve known people in my life who have said bigoted things. Some of those people I love dearly. I know, to the deepest depths of my soul, that most of them are not bad, bigoted people. They have expressed mistaken views, which can change. If I didn’t believe that, I would not associate with them.

If I am intellectually honest, I must admit that others have the same qualities.

Acknowledging these simple things decouples you from what the group thinks and forces you to relate to individuals qua individuals. When you’re facing an individual rather than ideological groupthink, it tends to tamp down the anger a bit.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

The concept of rights based on identity politics is a ridiculous notion. I don’t believe in gay rights or women’s rights, or rights for the poor, rights for the rich, for the handicapped, men’s rights, transgender rights, American rights, terrorist’s rights, or for any other group rights.

There are only individual rights.

I fight for same-sex marriage not because I have many friends who are gay and have a personal stake in the matter. I fight for same-sex marriage because it’s a fundamental right, left up to only the individuals involved. I fight for the free movement of people across borders not because I identify as an immigrant, but because it is a fundamental individual right to go where you please, so long as you’re not hurting anyone. I fight for the rights of children not being murdered in Afghanistan, not because it gives me an ideological advantage over someone else, but because it is a fundamental human right not to be murdered from the sky.

I cannot and will not make a choice between them. I’m not willing to shrug my shoulders at one issue to gain an ideological victory on another issue.

People tend to get very indignant when I tell them I do not vote in national elections. Whatever reason I give them, it only makes them more angry. I’ve been told that I’m apathetic (clearly not true), that I have no right to complain (ironically ironic), that I am contributing nothing (obviously false) or that I should be ashamed (I’m not).

Countering these points almost always leads to more conflict.

That’s understandable. When it comes down to it, it’s a religious debate, and people tend to get very uncomfortable and defensive when their beliefs are challenged.

But the real reason I don’t vote is simple. I’m an individual. I try to face the world on those terms. I try to identify with everyone (regardless of gender, race, or country of origin) on those terms.

Voting is a mob action. Voting makes people view the world through a collective lens. It’s always an issue of “us” against “them.” When it’s “us” against “them,” the end result is always someone else suffering so you can get what you want.

Nobody should suffer because of my preferences. Nobody need die for abortion rights or the right to get married to whomever you please.

That’s why I am completely disengaged from the political process.

I don’t ever want to be put in the position where I hold the restaurant I eat at to a higher moral standard than the president I vote for.


Filed under: Culture, Foreign Policy, Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Justin M. StoddardNobody Believes What They Say They Believe
Posted at 9:20 pm on August 1, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans believe in creationism over evolution. That is, they believe that the earth was formed roughly 10,000 years ago and was first inhabited by Adam and Eve. Another 32% of Americans believe that evolution was/is theistically guided; meaning that life took millions of years to evolve, but God guided the process. This fits in line with the intelligent design argument.

These numbers are often referred to with great shock and concern from the scientific community. Many on the left of the political spectrum are also very anxious about the implications. Evolution, after all, is a scientific fact. It’s been proven to a degree of certainty which leaves no serious scientist in doubt. We know via empirical evidence that the earth is billions of years old. We have a rough, but fairly good, understanding of how life was created. We understand the evolutionary process. Nearly every field of science confirms at some level that evolution is a hard fact.

When people get together and insist that creationism or intelligent design be given time in the classroom, there is always a loud and ferocious cry of protest. In recent history, nearly every single proposal to do so has been soundly defeated. Intelligent design took such a beating in the first decade of this century that it’s not seriously considered by much of anyone, anymore. Creationists have taken their education outreach to the confines of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Atheists, in particular, make a much concerted effort to pile onto creationists. They are derided, made fun of, insulted, mocked, slandered, and generally reviled at conferences, in various fora, etc. One need only make a brief visit to any serious atheist or left-leaning website to see what I’m talking about.

Now, it may be that creationists often overreach and deserve some of the criticism. There is, after all, the pretty well defined Exclusionary Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of what people believe or don’t believe, people generally don’t want other people to push their beliefs on them or their children.

Being a creationist may also signal other intentions to people. You may be against stem cell research, or gay marriage, for example. People make assumptions. Some assumptions are right, and some are wrong. It all just depends.

Regardless, those who don’t believe, or don’t believe as strongly seem to view those who do as extremely irrational, if not just plain stupid. I suspect there is more than just a bit of class warfare going on, here, but the basic point remains. For the most part, nonbelievers loathe the irrationality of those who do believe.

I think atheists and those on the left often overstate their case for alarm on the issue. There is good evidence to suggest that even though 46% of people say they are creationists, a good portion of them don’t actually believe it. Here’s where it gets tricky. They may believe they believe it, but their actions often belie those beliefs. Many creationists are taking a literal interpretation of the Bible, after all, but clearly nobody actually literally follows the tenets of the Bible. You don’t see people taking and killing slaves, or murdering their children, or adhering to the abstinence of shellfish or woven cloth because the Bible dictates it.

If people actually literally believed in the tenets of the Bible or the Koran, then there would be an incredible amount of bloodshed, violence, and anguish in this world. Also, there would never be any such thing as “interfaith” dialogues. If your way is the only way to heaven, what’s the point in understanding other beliefs?

People like Sam Harris are extremely alarmed that the former head of the Genome Mapping Project and current head of the NIH is a person who has a “close personal relationship” with God. It seems to me, however, that Francis Collins is a brilliant doctor and scientist regardless of his personal religious beliefs. In other words, his belief in God has nothing to do with how he conducts his job, regardless of what Sam Harris thinks.

I perceive religion in America as something that’s been tamed. As Bryan Caplan says in The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval.

There’s more to that quote, which I’ll reveal in a bit.

There was a time when I would have seen these poll results as extremely troubling, but not really anymore, given the reasons I’ve explained above. The problem isn’t usually with religion, but in how government sometimes favors religion over the individual.

Here are the results of another recent poll taken in New York State. Regardless of political allegiances, nearly 70% of voters from every region polled favored raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour. Certainly more Democrats than Republicans agreed with the proposal, but even 58% of Republicans were in favor.

Just as with creationism (as pointed out above), the case against minimum wage laws has been definitively made. They don’t work. It has been empirically proven that minimum wage laws increases both unemployment and poverty. They adversely affect African Americans and teenagers the most. They quite literally shut people out of the workplace.

It can be argued that creationism is wrong and irrational, but in today’s modern society, you’d have a harder time proving that it was overly harmful. Contrast that with minimum wage laws, which are clearly very harmful.

My question is, why does one belief get so roundly derided by the public at large (even when the majority of the public believes in God), when the other belief gets pretty much a free pass?

In fact, it’s more than a free pass. People who believe in minimum wage laws are afforded an elevated social status. Don’t believe me? Go to work tomorrow and say the following: “Minimum wage laws hurt the poor, cause more poverty, and create unemployment.” What do you think the reaction will be? You’d be perfectly correct in saying it. Facts would be on your side. You could cite countless empirical studies and refer to most any economist (left or right) on the subject, and they would back you up.

Creationism is banned from the classroom, but incredibly harmful economic beliefs aren’t. Why?

I suspect it’s a bit of psychological projection. Voters may think they are being rational about a subject, but they most likely aren’t. As the rest of Bryan Caplan’s quote goes:

“Thus, it is in mind set, not practical influence, that voters resemble religious believers. Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval. Political/economic misconceptions, in contrast, have dramatic effects on everyone who lives under the policies they inspire–even those who see these misconceptions for what they are. If most voters think protectionism is a good idea, protectionist policies thrive; if most believe that unregulated labor markets work badly, labor markets will be heavily regulated.”

And if voters think that minimum wage laws are good idea, then minimum wage laws will be implemented, regardless of whether they actually work.

This is because voters have no incentive to be self interested in the voting booth. Votes are free, and a person’s chance of swaying an election one way or the other may be anywhere from one in millions to astronomical. This means that a person can vote socially and enjoy the social benefit of doing so.

If voters were really as self-interested as everyone insists, they would be spending much more time determining the truth of the matters they are voting on. For example, if a single vote cost a person $10,000 and only affected him and his loved ones, he’d probably get it right. Since votes are free, effect everyone equally, and have little to no chance of making a difference, you are free to skip self interest and vote socially instead. Minimum wage is popular, so that’s the way you go. Being against gay marriage is popular, so that’s the way you go.

As with creationism, it’s my opinion that even though people say they are enthusiastically in favor of minimum wage laws, they don’t actually believe what they say they believe. If minimum wage laws really did help the poor, helped alleviate poverty, and were inclusive for all minorities, they would be advocating for even higher wages. Why not more than $100 per hour?

Currently, we have very smart people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson advocating for income redistribution, the idea that robotics will eventually cause mass unemployment and poverty, a call for mass “investment” into NASA, and governmental health care reform.

These ideas go from pretty silly to economically horrible. Sam Harris shows little understanding or depth in his arguments. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes horrible errors in logic, and Richard Dawkins just gives us feel-good rhetoric without understanding the economic ramifications of what he’s espousing.

Compared to these ideas, creationism is the very least of my worries.


Filed under: Culture, Public Choice
Comments: None
 

Justin M. StoddardI Have a Very Simple Question
Posted at 5:28 pm on August 1, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

Conor Gaughan makes a very good and salient point about Chick-Fil-A and the current controversy surrounding the company.

When gays get so angry about a chicken sandwich, it is because Chick-fil-A has given around $5 million to fight to discriminate against us. When we praise brave Eagle Scouts who give up their badges in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s prejudice, it’s not about scoring political points; it’s because there are kids in dens who are being taught to believe that they are less than equal. When we rant about the pastor who preaches that gays should be thrown into a concentration camp, we scream out of fear. And our fears are justified — in the last seven days, a lesbian in Nebraska was carved with a knife, a gay man in Oklahoma was firebombed, and a girl in Kentucky was kicked and beaten — her jaw broken and her teeth knocked out — while her assailants allegedly hurled anti-gay slurs at her.

I am your coworker, your frat brother, your cousin, your neighbor. And I am watching as you defend institutionalized discrimination.

And right he is. This is precisely why I don’t give any money to Chick-Fil-A. It’s precisely why I gave up on the Boy Scouts and sent them back my Eagle Scout award over 15 years ago. I don’t like associating with bigots. I would rather not give them my time, or my money. To me, bigotry (whether it targets homosexuals, asians, African Americans, or any other group) is the most base form of collectivism.

Let me now write my own paragraph.

When people get so angry about the president, it’s because the office has given billions of dollars to prop up countries that actively kill homosexuals and other groups not in line with the regime. It’s because the president has admitted that it is pretty much he alone (along with a select, *secret* committee) that targets people for assassination by drone attack in various countries around the world. Thousands have been murdered thus, the majority of them innocent bystanders or children. To get around this, the president unilaterally pronounced that anyone near a drone strike was from now on labeled a viable military target.

We get angry because the United States has the highest prison population per capita in the world. The majority of which are non violent offenders. These people languish behind bars when a simple brush stroke from the president would at least set in motion the process of freeing them. So far, no word comes from the president. In fact, he has ordered the DEA to step up raids of marijuana dispensaries in states which democratically voted to allow them.

We get angry because this president has deported more people from the United States than any president in history. We get angry because GITMO is still open, and in fact is receiving a multi million dollar upgrade, despite his promise that the very, very first thing he would do would be to close it.

I emphatically make this point, and a dare anyone to refute it. The actions of the President of the United States over the past 3 1/2 years have had monumentally more ruinous effects on society than Chick-Fil-A could ever dream of achieving.

Chick-Fil-A actively gives money to people who spout hate? The president actively murders people half way around the world.

Now, let me ask a question. To all the people out there righteously angry at Chick-Fil-A. To all who are calling for a boycott (which I support), or encouraging municipalities and college campuses to ban them (which I do not support), or just generally chiding anyone they meet who dares eat at Chick-Fil-A (for whatever reason)…let me ask you…

Who will you be voting for this election?


Filed under: Foreign Policy, Freedom of Expression, Immigration, Politics
Comments: 1 Comment
 

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
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Eric D. DixonTo Protect and Subvert
Posted at 12:42 am on January 24, 2012, by Eric D. Dixon

Public choice article of the day, from The Atlantic:

Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to foster rapid growth and make up for unhygienic living conditions. Many bacteria that live on animals adapt and transfer to humans, spreading superbugs that are often resistant to treatment.

For more than 35 years, the FDA has recognized that giving antibiotics to farm animals poses a risk to human health, yet the agency has done almost nothing to stop it. Indeed, it has mastered the art of making inaction look like action. Last May, NRDC and our partners sued the FDA to prompt it to take action. Instead, the agency retrenched.

It started by claiming the livestock industry could police itself. In our lawsuit, we asked the FDA to finally rule on two citizen petitions — one filed 12 years ago, the other six years ago — urging the agency to stop the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. In November, the FDA announced that although it shares concerns that the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster is dangerous for humans, it would deny the petition because it was pursuing an alternative strategy.

This “alternative strategy” turns out to be just another name for the status quo. Instead of banning the use of antibiotics in healthy animals, the FDA is allowing the livestock industry to follow a voluntary approach. But we already know voluntary doesn’t work. The FDA has been operating under that model since 1977, yet the practice has expanded exponentially over the years. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.

In December, the FDA tried to further justify its inaction by erasing the historic record. Back in 1977, the agency proposed to withdraw approval for the use of several antibiotics in animal feed based on findings published in two notices posted in the Federal Register. The notices containing the findings have been listed in the Federal Register for more than three decades. But just before Christmas a few weeks ago, the FDA pulled the notices. Soon after it buried its 35-year-old proposal, the agency tried to have it both ways. On January 5, it proposed banning off-label uses of a class of antibiotics known as cephalosporins on healthy livestock.

To be clear, although I’d like to avoid the consumption of antibiotic-treated livestock as much as possible, I don’t think the FDA should ban it — a clear overreach of government power.

FDAThe lesson here, though, is that when a government agency is tasked with protecting the public interest, public-sector incentives make it a near certainty that the agency will eventually instead collude with special interests in working against the public interest. Instead of serving the one function that is clearly useful for industry oversight — education and advice to consumers who can then make a more informed choice — the FDA has become a legal arbiter of illusory safety.

If the FDA allows a product or practice, the public at large regards it as safe. If the FDA disallows something, society assumes danger. But instituting a top-down decision-making process to centralize the level of risk that consumers should be allowed to take leads to a system that serves nobody well. Life-saving drugs are barred from being used by people who are more than willing to accept their potential hazards. The sale of healthy food is criminalized because of the mere possibility that it could make somebody sick, despite the fact that people can and do get sick from the FDA-approved alternative. And, as shown in The Atlantic, because people trust that D.C. paternalists are looking out for them, they carelessly consume anything that the FDA has let slip through its otherwise iron grip.

A bureaucratic overlord is incapable of choosing the correct balance between risk and reward even for the people in his neighborhood, let alone for more than 300 million strangers scattered throughout the country. There is, however, an alternative, as Larry Van Heerden noted in The Freemam:

The first step to correct these problems is to abolish the FDA, stripping the government of the power to approve drugs (and medical devices) for the market or to remove them from the market. Any rule-making for disclosure and lawsuits for fraud should be devolved to the states.

Even if the FDA were omniscient, objective, and impervious to outside influence, it would be wrong to give it the power to withhold drugs from the market. The proper function of government is to protect individual rights and guard against fraud, not to restrict freedom of choice to protect people from their own ignorance. In fact, the FDA has shown itself to be imperious, subject to prevailing political winds, and indifferent to the thousands of deaths and injuries it has caused.

[…] Forcing all consumers to live by rules that cater to the least responsible individuals imposes huge costs on everyone else and ultimately fails to protect even the willfully ignorant.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Drug Policy, Food Policy, Nanny State, Public Choice, Regulation
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Wirkman VirkkalaThe Method of Sachs
Posted at 1:43 am on January 20, 2012, by Wirkman Virkkala

There exist trenchant criticisms of the libertarian idea. Henry Sidgwick, in his The Methods of Ethics (seven editions, 1874-1907), provided a concise set of challenges to the doctrine as he understood it. Each of his points is well worth addressing. And yet when today’s major thinkers muster up their inner dialectician to rail against the freedom philosophy, they usually fall flat, get caught up in inessentials and absurdities.

Take Jeffrey Sachs. In “Libertarian Illusions” he attempts to unveil and discredit the ism behind the Ron Paul phenomenon. It’s a pretty lame attempt. Here’s his basic characterization of his target:

Libertarianism is the single-minded defense of liberty. Many young people flock to libertarianism out of the thrill of defending such a valiant cause. They also like the moral freedom that libertarianism seems to offer: it’s okay to follow one’s one desires, even to embrace selfishness and self-interest, as long as it doesn’t directly harm someone else.

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.

A well-educated liberal-leaning friend of mine gave the exact same rap years ago. He also referred to “liberty as a value,” so I’ve long pondered that odd phrasing. I think of liberty as a condition dependent on relationships (with other people). I don’t primarily think of it as “a value.”

I value liberty, yes, and will agree with Sachs that it is not my only value; I have many others. Nearly all freedom-lovers do. They have lives. Personal lives, communal lives, careers, hobbies, interests . . .

Yet, I do value liberty highest in the political and legal context(more…)


Filed under: Philosophy
Comments: None
 

Eric D. DixonThe Reign of Fonzie Economics
Posted at 12:10 am on December 10, 2011, by Eric D. Dixon

The Fonz fixes a jukeboxWhen I was a kid, I loved watching “Happy Days,” even at its shark jumpiest. A big part of the appeal was the adolescent power fantasy of Arthur Fonzarelli, a disco-era caricature of a 1950s motorcycle hoodlum-with-a-heart-of-gold. As the series progressed, Fonzie developed an almost mystical aura, becoming somebody who could make almost anything happen through the sheer power of his cool.

The Fonz could knock down doors with a slap of his hand, summon any girl with a snap, and most often on the show displayed his classic power of fixing the jukebox by banging on it. It’s a seductive fantasy that one might be able to fix a complex piece of machinery through an application of blunt force, without having to worry about the intricate mechanisms that actually allow the machine to work.

Unfortunately, this is the mentality that has reigned for decades in applied public policy.

Is the economy broken? Bang on it. That’ll get it chugging along again. Wait, that didn’t work? You didn’t bang it hard enough. Or maybe your leather jacket needs to be a little cooler next time. At any rate, it’s your fault. If you’d only smacked the economy the way that Fonzie showed you, it totally would have worked.

Economic prescriptions thereby stem from a non-falsifiable tenet of faith in a grown-up power fantasy.

This kind of magical thinking convinces many because it is accompanied by a veneer of rigorous thought. There are even equations! Surely, equations are scientific! But as economist Don Boudreaux pointed out at Cafe Hayek:

The ability to write letters on a board in the form of an equation, to give those letters names that seem to correspond to some imaginable economic things, and to assemble quantitative data on those things, is not necessarily good science.

Keynesian macroeconomic variables lump heterogeneous goods and services into undifferentiated masses, no longer to be understood as the complex workings of a dynamic system of social cooperation. But just because you can gather a bunch of statistics and aggregate them into a variable doesn’t mean that the variable has a meaningful application to the real economy.

If you want to fix a jukebox in real life, a mechanic might be able to get the job done by tinkering with the machinery until each piece once again functions correctly. It’s easy for people who have a facility with physical forms of engineering to take a similar view of the economy, thinking that if only the right people were in charge, they could tweak policy here and there to ensure successful outcomes for everyone. Adam Smith explained why the economy can’t be successfully engineered in such a way:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Even though an economy can’t be planned, or even tailored, successfully from on high, that form of scientism is at least understandable. It at least takes into account a small measure of the complexity of decentralized economic activity, even if it doesn’t — indeed, can’t — consider the rest. Keynesian macroeconomics is far worse, shunning even the scientistic attempt to grapple with at least some heterogeneous microeconomic factors as being the causal source of economywide trends. Instead, they insist that policymakers expropriate as much cash as humanly possible and wallop the economy with it as hard as they can.

Economist Steven Horwitz summed up the real prescription for economic recovery:

Being too focused on Keynes’s aggregates can also mislead us as to the best ways to get out of the recession once we’re in it. It may look as if all we need more is investment or more jobs. But once we understand that the “fundamental mechanisms of change” have to do with the boom’s microeconomic misallocation of capital and labor, we see that what is needed is a reallocation of resources not just more of them. Capital needs to move out of unproductive lines and back toward productive ones, and the same is true of labor.

Stimulus spending, bailouts, and extension of unemployment benefits only prevent the fundamental mechanisms of change from doing their work in unwinding the errors of the last decade. The cure for macroeconomic discoordination is freeing up the entrepreneurial market process to reallocate and coordinate resources. But 80 years after Hayek first made the point, the fascination by economists and politicians with Keynes’s aggregates continues to conceal the fundamental mechanisms of change, and in so doing, also continues to block the processes through which a sustainable recovery can take place.

In the end, the economy is not a jukebox, and neither a mechanic nor Ben Bernanke in the coolest leather jacket ever made can save it from its turmoils. Instead, the economy is made up of hundreds of millions of people with billions of plans, many of which fail but some of which succeed. Nobody knows for sure which plans will pan out in advance — not the people making them, and certainly not their public officials.

Only by letting individuals, alone or in voluntary association with others, respond to local conditions with unique knowledge can the best plans be discovered, expanded, and replicated. That process is made much more difficult when they face continual interference from central planners who only pretend they can know what’s best.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Economic Theory, Efficiency, Government Spending, Market Efficiency, Regulation, Spontaneous Order, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Wirkman VirkkalaCoke Buyers Are Sovereign
Posted at 9:42 pm on December 1, 2011, by Wirkman Virkkala

The good folks at Coca-Cola really want to innovate. They probably admire the late Steve Jobs. They’ve lots of neat ideas. Helping polar bears is one of them. So, to honor the polar bears (or at least ballyhoo their cause and plight), Coke folk changed the color of the can of their main product, Coca-Cola™. They made it white. You know, “polar” color.

And then came the uproar.

Coke buyers didn’t like it. Many returned the product, thinking that it was either Diet Coke (whose silver can is, actually, very similar to the new white can) or else a modified product. A few Coke drinkers said that the drink tasted different. There was general confusion, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

Mel Cyr, a 17-year-old Coke drinker from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., said she and other teenagers attending this week’s National 4-H Congress in Atlanta scratched their heads after seeing the white cans. “You can’t change something that’s classic,” said Ms. Cyr.

4-H delegates from Wisconsin said their chaperone was mistakenly served a regular Coke on the flight to Atlanta from Milwaukee after requesting Diet Coke. “The flight attendants were really frustrated” and apologized for the mix-up, said Sara Harn, 17, of Brooklyn, Wis.

Obviously, this is another innovation from Coca-Cola that didn’t take – reminiscent of the infamous “New Coke” of a few decades ago. Coca-Cola’s clientele was so negative that the august Atlanta company switched plans, and is now switching back to the red cans we all know and love, far ahead of schedule.

A lesson for us all. Consumers are sovereign. You can innovate up and down your line, but if consumers aren’t buying, you aren’t selling.

The doctrine of consumer sovereignty was defended, in the 20th century, by two curmudgeonly economists, W.H. Hutt and Ludwig von Mises. The word choice was spot-on. “Consumers are sovereign” doesn’t mean that producers are meaningless. But the sovereign(s) have the last word, it’s the sovereign who must be pleased.

And that’s what capitalism is all about.

This lesson is probably hard on the innovators at Coca-Cola. Take the lame ending of that Wall Street Journal article:

But Ed Rice, the 81-year-old chief executive of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, a longtime Coke distributor in Springfield, Mo., thinks the white can was innovative and engaged consumers. He downplayed confusion between the cans.

“If you put the cans side by side and blink, you might have to take a second look,” said Mr. Rice, who loaded his first Coke truck in 1945. “But I think there’s a distinct difference.”

Yes. But not distinct enough.

And besides, the customer is always right. Well, right in the one way that matters most on the market, right in being sovereign.


Note: I’m quite aware that the concept of consumer sovereignty is a metaphor, really, and not a technically pristine term. It was introduced by Hutt and Mises to counteract the nonsense now once again popular, the idea that corporations “push” us to do things against our will. This is patent nonsense, at least when it applies to the trades we make, the things we buy. We are pulled by producers, yes. But not pushed. We have the means to object. We can take our money elsewhere. We can simply not buy the product. As proven, once again, by the folks who drink Coke.


Filed under: Economic Theory
Comments: None
 

Justin M. StoddardSteve Jobs: A Man of Good Works — Part I
Posted at 10:30 am on November 6, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

First, allow me to clarify a few points about the video below before I start into the meat of the matter.

The video is obviously edited — for what purpose, I do not know. It could have been to cut down its length or to stitch together a narrative that puts the person being interviewed in the worst possible light. Though, admittedly, given his statements, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I understand that people who are put on the spot with a camera in front of their face are going to stammer and search for words. After seeing thousands of these kinds of videos, I’m convinced that people generally do not do well when confronted with on-the-spot interviews.

  • The sentiments expressed seem to be endemic to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • The easiest way for me to address this is to take it point by point with a wrap-up at the end.
  • This is going to be a long post.

Man on the street: “The top one percent don’t produce anything.”

There are some awkward questions that need to be asked in response to this assertion.

Besides the obvious catchy “one percent of the people own 43 percent of the wealth” trope, why not move that arbitrary line to the top five percent? If the top one percent own 43 percent of the wealth, wouldn’t it follow that the top five percent own even more of the wealth? How about the top ten percent? The top 25 percent?

The arbitrary line is chosen because it fits nicely into the idea of the proletariat struggling against the bourgeois. What is being insinuated here is the top one percent own the means of production while the 99% are the factors of production.

How is the “1 percent” being defined here? One percent of the population of the United States or of the population of the world?

The question matters a great deal, for a couple of reasons:

One percent of the population of the United States is a little more than 3 million people (approximately the population of Mississippi). Just playing the numbers game, it strains all credulity to accept the assertion that the more than 3 million people being referenced here don’t produce anything.

One percent of the world’s population is about 70 million people (approximately the population of California, New York, and Ohio combined). Of course, this takes credulity to the breaking point.

The question hardly needed to be asked. The only population statistic being used here is the population of the United States. The OWS crowd skirts over the fact that if they were to count the entire population of world, the majority of them would end up in the top 1 percent of people who control wealth. That’s simply an argument they dare not broach. I’ve addressed this briefly here, but I’ll expound on it just a bit.

Even adjusting for purchasing power parity, if you make $34,000 or more per year, you are in the top 1 percent of world income earners. Income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 and someone who makes $500,000 per year in the United States seems pretty significant, but not nearly as significant as the income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 per year in the United States and someone who makes $7,000 dollars per year in India, or $1,000 per year in Africa.

The standard argument against this line of reasoning goes like this:

“Living off of $1,000 a year in sub-Saharan Africa is a lot easier than living off of $1,000 a year in the United States. In order for the comparison to actually have any meaning we need to adjust income for the cost of living in these various countries. In some places it is possible to live off of a dollar a day, and in some places you can’t live off of a hundred dollars a day.”

Lest I be accused of making up my own argument to refute, that’s a response I got on a recent Reddit thread addressing what I said above.

At first blush, this makes quite a bit of sense. Commodities do seem to be more expensive in the United States than they are in the Sub-Sahara (unless you are living in a country with hyper-inflation). Earning $1,000 per year will certianly not give you the purchasing power to buy or rent a house or an apartment. You may or may not be able to afford transportation. Food and clothing would also be difficult to acquire.

But, one is tempted to ask; would you rather live in the United States with an income of $1,000 per year or in Sub-Saharan Africa with an income of $1,000 per year?

Here are the two main problems I see:

First: The United States (and other First World countries) have many orders of magnitude more consumer goods and commodities to choose from than all of the Sub-Sahara put together. In the United States, $1,000 goes much further because there is so much more you can do with it. You must also consider basic welfare entitlements to every poor citizen in the United States to be used for food, shelter and clothing, along with other factors of income like child support payments and not being required to pay taxes.

It further discounts the ability to barter for goods, rely on charity, and utilize the cast-offs of the rich and middle class. Our country is awash with high-class “junk.” It is very easy to acquire clothes, furniture, gadgets (TVs, microwaves, phones, radios, etc.) just by asking for it. It’s unbelievable how much stuff the well-off just leave on the curb for others to pick up. Whole virtual communities like Freecycle and Craigslist thrive around the concept of either exchanging these types of goods or just giving them away. If you are savvy enough, it is possible to get hundreds of dollars worth of name brand products for free through the practice of extreme couponing. There are literally hundreds of blogs dedicated to the concept of extreme frugality, meaning there are people in this country who choose to live well below the poverty line by recycling, reusing, budgeting, couponing, growing their own food, bartering, etc. From all accounts, they have healthy and happy lives.

Second: If you take all other factors into consideration, even for those at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, life is comparatively much better here. On average, people in the United States live 20–35 years longer than those in the Sub-Sahara. In America, there is an infant mortality rate of eight out of every 1,000. In Mali, the rate is 191 out of 1,000.

While millions have perished in Africa because of famine, I have not been able to find any account of a single person starving to death in America because of an inability to acquire food. There are rare cases in which people are starved through abuse or neglect, but the issue of general access to food was not a factor. On the contrary, we are constantly reminded that we have an epidemic of obesity in our country. Looking at population statistics, this is a problem that affects the poor almost exclusively.

Millions more have been butchered in war, slavery, and genocide in Africa during these past 20 years. With the exception of 9/11, war, slavery, and genocide have killed exactly nobody in America — unless you count the “War on Drugs.” (I’m excluding here our military adventures overseas — which both liberals and conservatives love — and focusing on civilian deaths within our borders.

More than 1 million people die from AIDS/HIV in the Sub-Sahara each year. Nearly 2 million more contract the disease yearly. The region accounts for about 14 percent of the world’s population and 67 percent of all people living with HIV and 72 percent of all AIDS deaths in 2009.

Contrast that to the United States, where there are approximately 1 million people infected with HIV. About 56,000 new people become infected each year, while roughly 18,000 per year die from AIDS.

Even the poorest of poor in America have the means and ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases that ravish other populations.

This represents just a cursory look over publicly available data, of course, but many inferences can be drawn. Living off $1,000 per year in the United States is actually a lot easier than living off of $1,000 per year in the Sub-Sahara.

In the United States, $1,000 per year still makes you pretty well off compared to a huge majority of the world’s population. Instead of the OWS asking why this is the case (different economic and political policies have different economic and political outcomes), they are insisting that it’s not the case, in the face of all empirical evidence. It’s a complete break with reality.

All of this begs a basic question. We know that there are millions of people living in Africa on $1,000 per year or less, but are there people living on $1,000 per year in America?

Maybe. According to the 2008 United States Census, the number of individuals living on $2,500 or less is 12,945. If you count households instead of individuals, that number drops to about 3,000.

Looking at demographics, we find that many of those either live on Indian reservations or in closed off religious communities. The vast majority live in very rural areas, with the exception of some communities in Texas and California.

This brings up another awkward question. Can we differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy poor? Is it safe to say that those living on an Indian reservation are most likely the victims of centuries of oppression, paternalism, and other factors beyond their control, and deserve our sympathies, while those whose religious doctrines call for unsustainable familial and community growth (though still collecting welfare entitlements) don’t?

Back to the original point. Taking this all into consideration, the speaker (along with 70 million of his fellow human beings) is more than likely in the top 1 percent of income earners in the world. Does he produce nothing? Do the other 70 million people produce nothing?

If he had a shred of intellectual honesty, he would advocate taxing anyone who makes $34,000 per year or more at a very high rate so that money can be redistributed to the absolute poor in Africa, India, China, Afghanistan, etc. If you’re going to advocate forced redistribution, what’s the more moral course of action? Paying off student loan debt and making secondary education free for those who are extraordinarily rich in comparison to world standards, therefore giving them further opportunities to collect more wealth, or giving that money to someone who will quite literally starve to death without it?

Interviewer: “Steve Jobs didn’t produce anything?”

Man on the street: “Steve Jobs took in the wealth that others produced. No, he didn’t.”

Even though you can tell he’s searching for the concept, what he’s attempting to recall is the Labor Theory of Value, which suggests that the value of goods derives from their labor inputs. Some take it a step further and suggest that goods should therefore be priced according to those labor inputs rather than in response to the demand for those products.

This murderous idea has been refuted too many times to count and isn’t taken seriously by mainstream economists. As with the devastating yet simple argument against Pascal’s Wager, this is a case of rudimentary logic pitted against religious thinking.

If a laborer labors all day making mud pies instead of pumpkin pies, he may well have put in a great deal of work, but still produces absolutely nothing of value. Not understanding why someone would do that, I come along with a novel idea. Why not hire that labor (which is obviously motivated to work) and have him make pumpkin pies instead? Which is more valuable, the labor or the idea that moved the labor in a profitable direction?

Given time, one of my workers gets a workable idea that it will actually make it more time- and cost-efficient to divide the labor and go into business for himself making ready-made pie crusts to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people.

Another person figures out that growing local pumpkins for production is not sustainable or efficient, so he saves his capital and starts an import business to buy pumpkins to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people. Of course, that import company creates demand from pumpkin farmers halfway across the country, signaling to them that they need to hire more people. But what about packaging? How will I wrap all those pies? Where will I get the metal for pie tins? How do I even make a pie tin? What if I want to branch off into cherry pies or apple pies? What if I want to sell coffee with those pies?

The Labor Theory of Value is an epic failure of imagination. At any given moment, there are two types of birds on the face of the earth, those that are airborne and those that are not. Do you know what the number of birds in each group will be, say, 10 seconds from now? The answer may well be impossible to ever figure out, but there is an answer as concrete and real as the computer screen you’re looking at. It will take a great deal of dispersed observation, knowledge, and computer power to ever figure out the answer to that question, but it takes an even greater amount of imagination to think of a use for the question in the first place.

On the labor side of the equation, how many people per day, independent of each other, not even knowing of each other’s existence, were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality?

Can you imagine it? Can you even begin to try to imagine it? When you do, dig deeper. When you do that, dig deeper still. You will find yourself trying to comprehend a voluntary network of a number beyond your comprehension all working independently but in concert with each other in order to make that idea a reality. The vast majority have no earthly idea that they are working toward a common goal.

If you’ve read the essay “I, Pencil,” you can start to grasp the amazing complexity of what goes into creating one simple product. Once you’ve started to grasp that concept, you realize that an iPhone or a Macbook is nearly infinitely more complex than a pencil.

When you think you have a grasp on all of that, add into the mix all the competition that Steve Jobs inspired in the economy. Microsoft, Google, Android, Unix, Linux, smart phones, laptops, programming, software and hardware development, battery efficiency — the list goes on and on.

Multiply everything above by factors unimaginable when you add in each new facet of competition.

How many people were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality? Like I said, there is a concrete answer to this question. I don’t doubt that computers will some day be able to figure it out. I’m not confident that it will ever happen in my lifetime. However, if you are able to imagine the several billion neurons in your brain exchanging countless bits of information each second, culminating in what we call human consciousness, then you are getting close to the complexity involved in the network of voluntary exchange Steve Jobs helped put into motion.

Now think of the consumer side of the equation. For the purpose of this example, let’s limit ourselves to the latest model iPhone. For about $199, plus a two year contract with a cellular phone company, you can walk out the door with an iPhone 4S.

Putting aside for a moment all the apps you can use, these are the features that come built in, off the shelf:

  • Two cameras, front and back. Rear camera is capable of HD, low light photography, f2/4 lens with face detection, and photo editing software.
  • 1080p HD motion stabilized video camera, accompanied by an editing suite and the ability to share videos instantly with anyone on the Internet.
  • Facetime video teleconferencing over a WiFi connection using either the front or rear camera.
  • Unlimited texting to other iPhone, iPad, or iPod users, with the ability to exchange videos or photos.
  • A digital assistant that is able to help efficiently organize your daily life. It syncs with any other device you use on iCloud.
  • A phone. Pretty standard, but it lets you talk to any other human being on the face of the earth who also has a phone. It’s ridiculously portable, so you can use it anywhere there is cell phone coverage, which is pretty much 90 percent of the United States.
  • Email. Check your Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, or any other industry-standard IMAP and POP mail systems. Access multiple accounts at once. Write and send email without ever touching your keyboard by using its voice recognition software, Siri.
  • Internet. You have a virtual world of information at your fingertips, accessible to you any time and anywhere.
  • An iPod allows you to access your complete music library, with instant access to many thousands of songs.
  • The video player allows you to rent or buy movies from iTunes, and either stream them or download them to your device.
  • The photo organizer will store all your photos and organize them by location, date, or face. Take a photo and it will automatically share with all other devices hooked up to iCloud. Share photos by text, Twitter, Flickr, or Facebook. Print wirelessly through AirPrint.
  • App Store with access to over 500,000 paid and free apps.
  • iTunes to buy music, movies, TV shows, and ringtones. Download whole college courses and thousands of podcasts.
  • Maps+Compass, with an automatically updated GPS displayed on up-to-date maps. Search for a location. Zoom in and out, view live traffic information, and receive point-by-point travel directions.
  • Game Center allows you to play games against others over the web.
  • Calendar.
  • Contacts allows you to organize everything you want to know about a person — address, all phone numbers, email addresses, birthdays, notes, websites, and anniversaries. Make a change on one device and it is updated on all others through iCloud.
  • Find My iPhone assists you in finding a lost or stolen iPhone by viewing its location on a map. Remotely wipe all info, remotely send a message to your phone to tell others it’s yours, and lock remotely.
  • Newsstand to read magazines, newspapers, etc.
  • An up-to-the-minute stock ticker.
  • Extended weather forecasts for multiple cities and locations.
  • A notebook.
  • Access to YouTube.
  • Voice Memos.
  • Calculator (scientific).

Another exercise in imagination, if you will: Consider every bit of technology listed above (we will ignore the wonderful advances in lithium battery, sensor, and storage technology for the purposes of this exercise) and the infrastructure needed for it to work. Now take it back in time just 20 years, to 1991. Keep in mind, all of this wonderful technology is crammed into 4.5 by 3.11 by 0.37 inches, with a total weight of 4.9 ounces.

How much would something with comparable functionality cost back then?

The logical answer would be that the technology did not exist 20 years ago, so it would be priceless. But this is a thought exercise, so we can at least break down some of the components and price them individually.

In 1991, the most common portable analog phone (cell phone technology was still in its nascent stages) was a Motorola MicroTac 9800X. It was lauded for its compact size, and for being the first flip phone on the market. It was an inch thick and nine inches long (when opened), and weighed close to a pound. The only thing it did was make phone calls. The quality of the calls were reportedly pretty bad. You couldn’t use the phone while traveling outside your metropolitan area, and it was pricey to make any phone call.

It sold for anywhere between $4,153 and $5,822 in current dollars (adjusted for inflation).

The first digital camera was released in 1991. It was a Kodak Digital Camera System, and had a resolution of 1.3 megapixels. It also came with a 200 MB hard drive that could store about 160 uncompressed images. The hard drive and batteries had to be tethered to the camera by a cable.

Cost in current dollars, adjusted for inflation: $33,317.

This is where I stopped. At just two laughingly inefficient components (according to today’s standards; back then, they were miracles of technology) in comparison to what comes standard on any iPhone available for $199, I was already hovering around an overall price of $40,000.

Extrapolate all of that out, including all the infrastructure required to make it work, and you can easily conclude that literally all the money in the world in 1991 could not buy you an iPhone.

Today, I can walk into a store conveniently located near me and get a device that makes it nearly impossible for me to get lost, lets me communicate with people I’ve known my whole life who are scattered all over the globe, allows me to take wonderful pictures and record moments of my life, provides access to all the information available on the Internet, streams any number of movies or TV shows directly to me, tells me an extended forcast, lets me video chat with my daughters and phone anyone I wish, along with any number of other things — all for the paltry sum of $199 and the price of a two-year contract.

A product that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Queen of England, and any royal prince would be unable to purchase 20 years ago is now as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. That’s what Steve Jobs produced. And, as a bonus, the wealth created by his idea provided the means to countless other people around the world to purchase what he produced.

Interviewer: “The system you’re interested in is one in which somehow that voluntary web of association is no longer allowed.”

Man on the street: “Correct.”

This pretty much speaks for itself. In this guy’s preferred system that disallows voluntary economic association, in order to get from point A to point B, a whole lot of murder, mayhem, theft, and rape will have to occur first with an end result of abject poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Interviewer: “So, instead of those voluntary associations, what would you put in its place? Who would make all those decisions?”

Man on the street: “All decisions would be made democratically.”

There’s quite a bit of political philosophy that can be addressed here, but the next question pretty much sums it up for me.

Interviewer: “Like, for instance, when Athens democratically decided to kill Socrates?”

Man on the street:

This is a brilliant rejoinder. Popular democracy is nothing more than mob action. If everything is up for a vote and decidable by the “will of the people,” then there can be no individual rights, ever. The individual will always lose.

The argument I often hear in support of popular democracy goes a little something like this: Wouldn’t you vote against Hitler to keep him out of power? Well, the very fact that someone like Hitler can run for an election tells me that the system is completely invalid. If the election is deemed valid and workable because he weren’t voted in, it would be just as valid and workable if he were voted in.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is, “No, but I’d gladly shoot him in the face.”

Even the OWS crowd seems to understand that popular democracy is basically the rule of the mob, because they have set up rules in their assemblies dictating that 100 percent consensus must be reached before anything passes. But that just makes the mob smaller.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe there’s any need for individuals like Steve Jobs in this system to flourish based on their particular talents or particular genius.”

An argument from belief is a religious argument.

Also, framing an argument based on what you think that other people “need” is highly paternalistic. At worst, if carried out to its logical conclusion, this line of thought is murderous, if not genocidal.

What is not acknowledged or understood here is the notion that a person’s talents and particular genius are priceless. A person’s talent and particular genius is nearly the whole sum of a person. Disallow a person to use his talents or genius in voluntary association with others, and you’ve essentially murdered his spirit. You’ve destroyed the greatest resource on the face of the earth, and it can never be replaced. Ever.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe it’s possible to continue this kind of system. It’s a retrograde system. It’s a system that no longer works. It creates war. It creates mass unemployment. It creates poverty.”

I’ve already eviscerated this notion above. It obviously does work. It obviously does not create mass unemployment or poverty. It obviously does not create war.

In three minutes time, this person said he would do the following if he were in power:

  • Disallow voluntary association.
  • Steal money (and everything money represents) that doesn’t belong to him.
  • Impose mob rule.
  • Hobble those with talent.
  • Impose poverty on the masses.

None of this can be done without a whole lot of guns and a whole lot of cold-blooded murder. And in his mind, Steve Jobs creates war, poverty, and unemployment?

I’ll just put these few examples here.

  • Deaths in the Soviet Union from communism: 20 million
  • Deaths in Communist China from communism: 65 million
  • Deaths in Cambodia from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in North Korea from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in Africa from communism: 1.7 million
  • Deaths in Afghanistan from communism: 1.5 million (and climbing)
  • Deaths in Eastern Europe from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Vietnam from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Latin America from communism: 150,000
  • Deaths caused by Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan:  60 million

Combined with all other genocides, wars, famine and repression caused by national governments, the death toll for the 20th century is approximately 160 million.

If you took half of the population of the United States (every other man, woman, and child) and shot them in the head, you would have the number of people murdered by governments, the majority of whom were killed by their own governments.

  • Communism, socialism, Nazism, imperialism, theocracy, statism: 160 million dead.
  • Steve Jobs: Zero dead.

Of those 160 million murdered, how many may have turned out to be like Norman Borlaug, the man credited with saving up to 1 billion people worldwide from starvation? For those of you counting, that’s one seventh of the world’s current population. Can one honestly confront that number and still insist that talent and genius are not important? That free association should be done away with? That mob rule should prevail?

Man on the street: “You know, to hell with Steve Jobs.”

As Billy Beck brilliantly said when he linked to this video on Facebook, “Have you ever seen a man cut his own throat with philosophy?”

Well, dear reader, you just have.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Economic Theory, Efficiency, Gains From Trade, Labor, Market Efficiency, Philosophy, Property Rights, Regulation, Rhetoric, Taxes, Trade, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Eric D. Dixon‘We Don’t Need a Special Master to Level the Playing Field’
Posted at 3:59 pm on October 26, 2011, by Eric D. Dixon

Cafe Hayek‘s Russ Roberts tells the House Oversight Committee that he wants his country back. Highlights of his testimony:

We are what we do — not what we wish to be, not what we say we are, but what we do. And what we do here in Washington is rescue large companies, large financial institutions, and rich people from the consequences of their mistakes. When mistakes don’t cost you anything, you do more of them. When your teenager drives drunk and wrecks the car, you keep giving him a do-over, repairing the car and handing him his keys, he’ll keep driving drunk. Washington keeps giving bad banks and Wall Street firms a do-over: ‘Here are the keys; keep driving!’ The story always ends with a crash.

And:

We need to stop trying to imagine we can design housing markets, mortgage markets, financial markets, and compensation.

Watch the whole thing:

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Politics, Public Choice, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

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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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