Thursday, June 30, 2005

Protecting our rights: Castle Rock vs. Gonzales

It is usually thought that a proper function of government is to protect our rights. Most of us might visualize this as government officials -- police officers, say -- taking actual measures -- arresting a criminal, say -- to prevent actual violations of our own personal rights to life, liberty, and property. In some cases this indeed is what happens, and certainly it's a staple of television fiction. We are not wrong to believe that government may well defend our personal, individual rights.

Where we may go wrong is in assuming that this is actually the duty of government, or worse yet, that government is bound by law to protect us -- at least under American law. As the courts have repeatedly observed, individuals have no such right or entitlement to protection; from the legal standpoint, protection of our individual rights is not mandatory.

The latest decision in this regard is the SCOTUS ruling in Castle Rock vs. Gonzales. The story is nightmarish -- a woman repeatedly telephoned and visited a police station to report that her estranged husband had taken their three daughters, in violation of a restraining order, and even reported to them where he had apparently taken them. The police repeatedly dismissed her and failed to take any action. Subsequently the husband murdered the three girls and committed sucide by attacking the police station.

The mother then sued the city for failing to enforce the restraining order. She claimed a that she held a right to have the restraining order enforced, particularly since the order included a note to police that "You shall use every reasonable means to enforce this restraining order. You shall arrest...or seek a warrant for the arrest of the restrained person when you have any information amounting to proabable cause that the restrained person has violated or attempted to violate this order..."

The Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, that Mrs. Gonzales had no "entitlement" to police enforcement of the restraining order. The words of the dissenting justices, Stevens and Ginsburg, are particularly interesting: "It is perfectly clear, on the one hand, that neither the Federal Consititution nor any federal statute granted respondent or her children any individual entitlement to police protection."

They go on to develop other arguments as to why the Gonzales suit may have had merit, but the point is clear -- all nine justices agreed that the state has no duty to protect the rights of any individual citizen from violation by third parties, something the courts have consistently ruled over the years. If, for example, a criminal invades your home and victimizes you, and you are able to call the police, the police have no legal obligation to come to your aid. They generally will, but if they do not -- as in the case of two women who were repeatedly raped over the course of a twelve hour ordeal, and who were able to telephone police repeatedly over the period -- the police are perfectly within their rights.

Who then is * personally responsible* for defense of your rights?

You are -- not as a *last* resort -- as an *only* resort. The responsibility for defending our rights lies within each of us. The court rulings may make no sense to most of us (how else to understand that the entire federal system is established to scure our "common defense" and "blessings of liberty"), but the courts are consistent -- we have no "entitlement" to police protection.

Actually, this may not be so crazy -- although it doesn't seem to be the point made by the courts, since ultimate authority rests in us individuals, "the people," so too does ultimate responsibility -- for defense of our own rights, and those of our fellow human beings. Contrary to what advocates of a disarmed public say, it is *not* the responsibility of the police to protect us. It is our own responsibility, and we each ought to arm ourselves with the knowledge and tools to do so.

Meanwhile, we ought also to work to have malpractice laws extended to government agencies. If the police aren't there to defend actual individual rights, then they should be.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

WMDs and the Ethics of Individual Rights

Senator Richard Lugar has recently released a survey of various arms control researchers that places the probability at 29% that a nuclear weapon will be used in the next ten years in a terrorist incident.

One survey contributor, Professor Graham Allison of Harvard's Kennedy School, stated publicly (on Warren Olney's "To The Point" 22 June 05) that he places the probability of the detonation of a nuclear weapon, possibly in the United States, by terrorists at greater than 50%. He has suggested a set of relatively low cost actions that could be taken to greatly reduce this threat, but which aren't being pursued -- at least not particularly vigorously.

This issue raises two extremely important points for anyone interested in promoting freedom.

1. What would be the effect of a terrorist nuclear attack? I don't mean the physical effects -- I mean the political & cultural effects. (If you're uncertain about physical effects go to and have fun placing blast zones on the U.S. cities of your choice.)

In the aftermath of a successful nuclear attack, we would expect at the very least the imposition of martial law and an end to liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, and probably the persecution large numbers of people on political, ethnic, and religious grounds. The details are not so important as the overall picture -- America, and maybe most of the world, would quickly become a genuine police state, and much of the public would approve. Let me be so bold as to make a prediction (something I am usually loathe to do): Prospects for liberty would not be particularly good.

Hopefully efforts such as the Lugar report will trigger some reasonable preventative action, and hopefully Allison's estimate that the probability can effectively be reduced below 1% is correct -- it would be rather pleasant to suppose the probability of a nuclear-incident generating a police state is down from the current 30-50%

2. More generally, this raises an issue that has bothered me for some time yet seems to be completely off the radar. Never mind the particular threat raised by Allison et al. Given continued economic growth and continued advance of technology, the capability of developing one's own WMD's is likely to be in the reach of the individual, at least in the developed world -- if it isn't already. (Figure that in the U.S. average income should roughly quadruple in the next 50 years, given the historical 3% growth rate. I don't have good measure of the rate of growth of technology, and knowledge, but it is obviously rapid.) And beyond traditional WMDs there's the growing capacity of the individual for commiting cybernetic, electronic, and other forms of high-tech mayhem.

All of this will serve as incentive and excuse for establishing much more authoritarian political regimes...which in turn will also provide increased incentive for mayhem on the part of those who are oppressed or imagine they are.

The biggest part of this problem is that human civilization has made remarkable advances in developing and adopting technology and means of producing wealth. We have done much less well in developing -- and particularly adopting -- ethical systems that are similarly advanced. We employ the latest 21st century technology and medieval (or even more primitive) mystical ethical systems side-by-side.

A basic principle of any modern ethic ought to be (to paraphrase Ayn Rand) that no man should regard other men as prey. An ethic suited to our contemporary world would hold it anathema for one to violate the rights of another. It is a libertarian ethic.

Such an ethic isn't against human nature, as some might argue; it is inherent in the what Adam Smith called our "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange." But neither is the tendency to prey on others against our nature. development and widespread adoption of a libertarian ethic calls for intentional, conscious, concerted effort.

One way to do this is for libertarian adherents of this ethic to practice it at all times -- to make certain that they remain civil and respectful of all others, to show that being a libertarian doesn't just mean wanting the govermen off our backs -- it means absolute respect for the individual. Such an ethic ought to be appealing to most people, and we had better start speading it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Unforeseen contingency defined

FAQ: "What is this 'unforeseen contingency?'"

FGA: "Unforeseen contingency" is a term used by economists in the literatures on contracting and modeling knowledge. It is the same phenomenon that Austrian school economists call "sheer ignorance."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has given one of the clearer popular definitions of this: "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

More precisely, if something is an unforeseen contingency for you, then you do not know that thing. And you also do not know that you don't know it. And you don't know that you don't know that you don't know it. And you don't know that you don't know that you don't know that you...

(After arbitrarily many iterations we return to our narrative) In other words, you are *unaware* of that thing. Its possibility is an unforeseen contingency for you.

The primary theme of this blog is that the universe is largely made up of what are, for us humans, unforeseen contingencies. Luckily, we have various means (namely our senses, and reason) of discovering a few of these possibilities. Unfortunately we are at least as capable of fabricating false possibilities and deceiving ourselves, primarily through such inventions as religions, ideologies, and cultures.

The purpose of this blog is to remove some sheer ignorance, to bring some otherwise unforeseen contingencies to light, and to dispel some of the inventions humans have developed to deceive themselves.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?