Thursday, July 27, 2006

Test Pattern

After careful consideration, my reply to requests from Hezbollah and Hamas for equal time on my blog to present the political Islamist viewpoint.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Devil's Backbone 2005

I shouldn't leave this small stage with a grumpy look, so here's a photo of me in the 2005 version of the Devil's Backbone, climbing the snowfield below Hyalite Peak. Last year we had more snow & less heat, so I finished pretty easily.

It's a tragedy everyone doesn't hate heat as much as I do -- if they di, there'd be absolutely no fighting in the Middle East (except possibly for places on boats to Antarctica).

Happy summer.

We'll return after a brief word from our sponsor

I don't actually have a sponsor. I will, however, take a brief break from blogging and most other activities while I relocate from Montana to Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, where I will be a visiting professor for the coming year, teaching Austrian Economics and History of Thought.

In the interrim, for your viewing pleasure, here's a self-portrait taken 22 July during the Devil's Backbone 50 Mile Run. If I do not look that enthusiastic it might be owing to the fact that even though it's still early morning and we're above 10,000 feet (3,300 m.) the temperature is approaching 90F. I gave it up at the 25 mile point (the only place besides the start/finish where you can get off the ridge) to avoid making a mild case of heat exhaustion worse. Luckily one of the guys at the turnaround station had his truck parked 2 1/2 miles below the ridge, with an icebox full of Molsens and Heineken, which he offered to share. Several of us "exhausted" runners set new records in the mad dash to the truck.

For more info on this and other great Bozeman area ultras see Tom Hayes' great website.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Libertarianism and War

Libertarians are averse to war. As the slogan goes, "War is the health of the state." War is a bad state affairs, compared to peace, production, trade, life. War, and fear of war, is one of the strongest tools a government has for cowing a citizenry and "justifying" iron control of society. War results in suffering and death. War is bad.

But is war ever justified from a libertarian standpoint?


The affirmative answer is based on application of the law of self-defense. There are two confounding factors that I will address – the role of the state and the need to avoid thinking in terms of collectives.

How can war be justified? Violence is justified for defense of individual rights, and only for this. War is justified when it is waged for this reason. Consider the basics of the common law regarding use of deadly force in self defense – a clear application of the concept of individual rights. The general framing of this law holds that three conditions must be satisfied before deadly force may legitimately be used:

1. The aggressor must have intent to inflict serious harm.
2. The aggressor must have ability to inflict serious harm.
3. The defender must have no reasonable, less drastic alternative defense.

These conditions are quite sensible applications of a “reasonable man” standard. Deadly force is extremely serious and ought not be engaged in readily nor for “light and transient causes.” This three step test is applicable to any situation, whether one is confronted by an individual, a mob, or an organized group. This last is relevant to the question of war – George III’s Britain, Hitler’s Germany, and Hezbollah are all examples of organized aggressors whose actions resulted in justifiable war.

Two confounding factors: first, since war is almost always waged by states, and the state itself is based on violations of individual rights (it’s funded by taxes), doesn’t that automatically render war (or any other state action) illegitimate?

No, it doesn’t – to argue that it does is simply poor reasoning. Whether a particular action itself is justified is a different question from whether the means used to pursue that action were obtained legitimately. If a police officer were to stop a lunatic from raping and murdering an honest citizen, only a sociopath would object that the police officer’s action was wrong because it was funded by taxes. (An especially twisted sociopath would even hail the would-be rapist as a hero, just as some pseudo-libertarians hail Lukashenka or Hezbollah as heroes). An action needs to be judged on its own merits, and also contrasted with real alternatives. To simply selectively dismiss actions because they didn’t originate from a hypothetical ideal is at best a pointless exercise in the Nirvana fallacy.

The second confounding factor – doesn’t war necessarily depend on thinking in terms of collective guilt and innocence, a fallacious misuse of concepts applicable only to individuals? Again, no it doesn’t. It is important that we avoid the fallacy, that we distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, between the guilty and the bystanders, and be careful in applying the three rules above when deciding who is a legitimate target. But careful application of the law of self defense addresses the issue.

Then what about the question of “collateral damage” – inadvertent harm to those who are not legitimate targets? It’s never certain that such collateral damage won’t result from a legitimate act of self defense, and to make such certainty a requirement would simply make self defense impossible. Non-aggressors aren’t proper targets, and pains should be taken to avoid inflicting harm on them. But this doesn’t require us to give up self defense. A “reasonable man” standard applies here as well.

So there is such a thing as war that is justified from a libertarian standpoint. Of course, none of this will satisfy armchair purists who insist that every action undertaken be unobjectionable in every way they can imagine, ex ante and ex post. But that’s a standard that is literally impossible to satisfy, and hence belongs in the realm of theology. Such fantasies are completely irrelevant to making choices in the real world.

Friday, July 14, 2006

G8: Seven Democracies and a Tsar

The meeting in St. Petersburg ought to be the last meeting of the G8. Russia doesn’t belong in this organization. Putin’s Russia is not a part of the “West,” and has set its own decidedly non-Western course in terms of domestic institutions and foreign policy. Domestically, Russia is returning to authoritarianism and rule by a strongman. Putin’s regime is effectively eliminating free media and freedom to organize political opposition in Russia – Russia hardly qualifies as a democracy today, reason enough to remove it from the G7. In terms of foreign policy, Russia is continues to view neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova as escaped colonies, and actively sabotages their independence. It actively supports Lukashenka’s brutal dictatorship in Belarus. It also tries to play its own games – incompetently, I think its clear – with Hamas and Iran. The Russian economy is built on natural resources – especially energy – and dominated by state monopolies in this sector – a very poor basis for long run economic performance. In short, there’s little about Russia that qualifies it as a modern and advancing country. But this isn’t a return to Soviet times, either – it is much more akin to Russia’s Tsarist traditions.

What Russia does have going for it is that it is big, and nuclear. No doubt the first world will continue to try woo the Russian government with continual moral lectures and political concessions (such as membership in the G8). Just as in 1997 when Russia was called “too big to fail” (and hence additional IMF tranches were thrown away in a futile attempt to stave off Russian default), Russia is today seen as “too big to let go” even though it has already left the advanced countries and set off on its own, purely Russian course – advancing steadily towards the 19th Century. It’s unfortunate that Western leaders have so little backbone – the proper way to deal with the Russian regime isn’t confrontation – but neither is it capitulation and accommodation. In particular, Russian participation in things such as G8 and WTO should be conditional, not automatic, and conditions should certainly include staying the hell out of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and an end to active support for the Iranian nuclear efforts.

War vs. (r)Evolution

What wonders religious faith can accomplish! The willingness of Islamists to plunge the world headlong into Armageddon (or whatever their idiotic theology calls it) may be dragging us all into another world war. It’s clear that radical Muslims are making bids (probably uncoordinated) to escalate their various jihads. Fortunately, they are still small in number and weak militarily, and their dogmas have little appeal, relative to liberalism. Unfortunately, real (classical) liberalism appears not yet a likely alternative for much of the Muslim world, and the sheer numbers of Muslims make them a formidable potential opponent, should the world degenerate into religious war. Hopefully world war will be averted, and the forces of globalization (which at heart are liberal) will continue to take root around the world, including in Muslim countries.

But world war isn’t an impossibility. Israel’s apparent determination to wreck (or even eliminate) Hamas and the misnamed Hezbollah is completely understandable and clearly justified. These groups are a combination of military unit, political party, and government faction, they are dedicated to eliminating Israel and Israelis from the face of the earth, and they actively aggress against Israelis...hence Israelis are fully justified in trying to eliminate them. Whether Israel’s attempts to crush these organizations can be successful in the long run is another question, since the resulting destruction antagonizes the surrounding populations… but then it’s hard to see that Israel has any good alternative.

Meanwhile, the apparent Pakistani government support for the terrorist bombings in New Delhi last November and now in Mumbai are making it likely that India will respond militarily against Pakistan. Again, India’s alternative to military response seems only be to continue tolerate savage quasi-governmental attacks on its existence (which is admittedly in far less jeopardy than that of Israel). Such forbearance might make sense over a short period, if it helps to gain a peaceful resolution, but such toleration can’t be maintained indefinitely.

The blundering of the Bush administration in Iraq cost it the opportunity to finish destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda now flourishes in Iraq and elsewhere. Bush’s tolerance for Pakistani and Saudi tacit and overt support for Muslim terrorists has only worsened matters. The EU efforts to negotiate with Iran are failing (blame Iran, not the EU). Russia’s foolish support for Hamas and the Iranian regime has also thrown fuel onto the fire. (“Foolish” – Russia’s decision to forego partnership with the West and Europe and forge its own foreign policy may make sense from a Russian standpoint, but its choice of alternative “allies” is inane and incompetent.) (Suggesting that Putin is following time-honored Russian foreign policy traditions dating to the tsars.) None of this is reassuring for those of us who do not want to see a Crusader vs. Jihadist world war.

I think that the Israeli position is correct: there should be zero tolerance for organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah– an armed political party that advocates destruction of anything resembling a liberal order and imposition of totalitarianism. How to actually eliminate them is another matter. The most important step is discrediting their philosophies in the eyes of the populations from whom they draw support – without this, killing their members doesn’t solve the long run problem. And the key to discrediting their philosophies is offering a superior alternative, that of reason and classical liberalism. But this means that instead of a war we need a revolution – an intellectual revolution. Unfortunately, “waging” intellectual revolution is a more subtle activity, and ultimately is something that takes effect via evolutionary means; it doesn’t lend itself to central planning the way war does, and doesn’t appeal to religious moralists, chicken hawks, munitions manufacturers, and like groups.

I’m reminded of the theory developed by Soviet cosmologists as part of their SETI program, which developed classifications for extra-terrestrial civilizations based on levels of technological advance. On the resulting scale, our own global civilization was ranked as pre-civilized, but nearly at the point of advancing to the lowest classification. The Soviet scientists also argued that this “cusp” was inherently a crisis point, during which a proto-civilization might easily destroy itself if it was unable to develop an ethics that constrained its newly-acquired technological power. We do seem to be at this cusp, and it is a crucial time for us libertarians to push reason and the rights of man as a universal standard.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Presidential Press Conference in Chicago: Why Market Process is Superior to Politics

Most theories of government failure seem to be built on the notion of rational ignorance (unsurprising, since they generally assume neoclassical maximizing agents). I think that rational ignorance is a secondary factor – sheer ignorance, bounded rationality, and the knowledge problem are the heart of the matter.

President Bush’s 7 July press conference should remind us of why politics works so badly, in comparison to the market process. Bush spoke like a simpleton, as usual. I suspect that he cultivates this as a political tool – he’s always speaking to a base that wants simple, straightforward, clear doctrines – and Bush comes off sounding stupid while he’s at it. But the real stupidity isn’t in Bush, I think, but in the people in the press and public who swallow obvious nonsense and worse without a thought. And one of the fundamental reasons politics works badly is that nonsense can be swallowed without a later reckoning that reveals the error. Some examples of nonsense:

1. On immigration and guest worker programs: Bush again called for a tamper-proof ID that guest workers would need to show to employers before being hired. For such an ID to work, it will have to satisfy two conditions. First, it will have to be mandatory for everyone, including American citizens. An employer can’t distinguish between citizens and non-citizens. And since it will be illegal for any person to be hired without the ID, this is a proposal to have a mandatory government work permit for everyone – no one will be able to work legally without government permission. In the countries that have tried this scheme previously – the USSR, Communist China, and their spinoffs – this has always been used to enslave the individual. If such a system is instituted here, the same will happen. Everyone will work and eat only with approval of the government.

Second, such an ID will have to be tied closely to the individual who holds it – this means it will be a biometric ID using fingerprints, retina scans, DNA, etc. To make it even more tamper-proof, it would ideally be physically attached to the individual, e.g. with a subcutaneous microchip. As an atheist, I don’t have much faith in bible prophecies – but isn’t it obvious that this is straight out of Revelations? Shouldn’t this nightmare be an issue where civil libertarians, free market advocates, religious conservatives, and in fact everyone other than plain totalitarians can join in fierce opposition? Apparently not, and the only reason I can think of is a general inability to realize what the proposal means – i.e. an inability to think. (Hopefully people will wake up before we end up with these internal passports, although the REAL ID has already been signed into law. I guess here there will be an eventual reckoning that reveals the error, at least – small comfort that when we all have our 666 tattoos we’ll recognize our earlier stupidity.)

2. What to do about high gas prices: Bush emphasized pushing for energy independence as the long run solution. This makes no sense at all, since imported energy is cheaper. Bush himself later correctly identified the benefits of free trade in general. The press corps demonstrated again a near inability to think at all, since they swallowed this obvious nonsense.

(Asides: Credit where it is due: Bush’s shorter term proposal of reducing environmental red tape to permit construction of new refineries would indeed work, and is a good idea.)

(Second aside: Of course I am in favor of higher gas prices anyway, so long as they are free market prices, and our current higher prices are not a crisis nor even a problem – they are not strictly free market prices, but it is mostly market forces that are driving them higher.)

3. On diplomacy: Bush kept repeating that unlike other approaches to solving international problems, diplomacy is “cumbersome and slow.” Oh yeah? Is it really more cumbersome and slower than unilaterally getting bogged down in a hopeless and endless military quagmire? Bush himself insists that no end date can be placed on the U.S. occupation of Iraq. How is diplomacy slower than a military response that might go on forever? In talking about how long diplomacy takes he even pointed out that his administration has been working for four whole days trying to organize an international response to North Korea’s missile activity. Obviously four days is a short time, and Bush is speaking nonsense simply because it works for him politically.

These examples make my point – people are capable of swallowing all sorts of nonsense that would be revealed with even tiny bit of critical thought. In neoclassical economics, the rational agent can deduce all logical consequences of the information he receives. Clearly this is falsified. Of course, in rational expectations models it’s enough if just some agents are rational in this sense, or more accurately, if agents are on average correct. But all of this is falsified as well – in political processes, there are no good feedback mechanisms to give signals of success or failure – and it is hard to imagine how there could be when individuals seem incapable of even simple critical thought.

Economists Mises and Hayek both argued that the fundamental problem of society is the struggle with uncertainty. They also argued that the market process gives us a means of overcoming, to a surprising degree, this uncertainty. In particular, losses reveal errors, and consistent losses transfer resources from those who persist in making mistakes into the hands of those who don’t. Furthermore, market prices are an information signal available to anyone. No such mechanisms operate in the political sphere, where at best the mechanisms – e.g. natural selection – are “slow and cumbersome.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Granite Peak 3 July 2006

Granite Peak with me in the foreground. An hour earlier it was snowing, an hour later we were dodging lightning.

Great fun!

(Left click the photo for an enlarged version.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Granite Peak

I’ve just returned from an attempt on Granite Peak, MT (12,799 feet) with four friends. The trip was extremely successful – all of us had a great time (with one exception, to be explained soon), everyone set various personal records, and we all returned more or less intact.

For starters, four of us established personal records (PRs) for high altitude base camps – 12,100 feet, just below Tempest Mountain. We were pounded with snowstorms, hailstorms, graupel storms, windstorms, lightning storms, which helped make the experience of being crammed into a tent very sweet. Mats “The Crazy Swede” Roing climbed Aconcagua (22,xxx feet) in Argentina earlier this year, so it was harder for him to set altitude PRs in Montana – but it is certain he’s never had a higher base camp in this state. Fernanda “The Brazilian Wonder” (I have her last name somewhere, but it’s not important here) set all sorts of PRs, as her highest altitude climb previously was New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington (6,xxx feet). She seemed entirely impervious to the effects of altitude, cold, and heat, proving that my Brazilian friend in Rio Professor Salgado is wrong when he claims Brazilians are too sensible for mountaineering. Jeff “Right Fine” Ross, King of the Cowboy Climbers, set high altitude camp & climb PRs as well. (Jeff is the photographer atop Koch Peak pictured on my website; he’s also a darned good webmaster for anyone needing such services.) I set a PR for highest campsite, and tied my own PR for highest climb in Montana. We all had a great time.

Dushka, the faithful canine companion, also set some interesting records – besides this being her highest climb and camp, she also set a personal high altitude stick-retrieving record – multiple retrieves at 12,108 feet. Finding a stick at that altitude was itself something of an accomplishment, although I think credit for that goes to Jeff. Very few are the Labrador retrievers who have retrieved at altitudes higher than this. But poor Dushka did not particularly enjoy the trip – she loves hiking & climbing, but every time a tent is set up, her heart visibly sinks, as she realizes “another night without my couch and big bag of dog food, huddled uncomfortably between the sleeping bags, oh why oh why are we doing this?” She also seemed unhappy about being snowed on and having to hide from lightning, but didn’t complain. Well, actually she did complain, but not too much.

Happily, I did not set a record for nearness of lightning strikes, as I don’t think any came nearer than 400 meters. This probably was a record for me for number of lightning storms in one trip, though – and for number of times spent hunkering in a 2-man tent pretending the rain fly was capable of deflecting lightning. During one of these hunkering sessions, Jeff and I had a spirited debate about the speed of sound – whether it takes sound 4 seconds or 8 seconds to travel a mile. Based on what I could remember of sub and super sonic bullet speeds as well as the lightning scene from “In Search of the Castaways” I supported 4 seconds per mile, which made our “FLASH one-thousand-one BOOM” counts much more reassuring. On the way out across the Froze to Death Plateau we raced a particularly nasty looking storm – Dushka and I had gotten well ahead of the others, trying to get as low as possible before the lightning started flying (on FTD you are usually the highest point) and came across a camp with two tents. Dushka immediately ran to one and introduced herself – and the occupants, two climbers from Duluth whose names I now can’t recall – invited us in, just as the hail began slamming down. We appreciated that greatly. As I was diving into the tent I noticed that some of the lightning was bypassing the plateau and striking the canyon floor thousands of feet below us – what fun to look down on a lightning bolt (especially when this means it missed you).

Earlier that day, atop Tempest Peak, Jeff and I both had our jackets start buzzing as they charged with static electricity. Mats and Fernanda both felt themselves buzz. I don’t know if Dushka felt anything, but she seemed as eager as any of us to get the heck back down to basecamp at that point.

But we all came back safe and sound, and this is the criterion of success in the mountains. (Or as Penn & Teller say, “no permanent damage.”) We didn’t try summitting Granite, for perhaps obvious reasons, which means we have a great excuse for returning to FTD Plateau (all but D. are excited). And it was a very fun trip; I have perhaps exaggerated the lightning (or perhaps not); and between the storms there were long hours of blue skies and spectacular views. And the food – not my usual summer sausage, tortillas, and cabbage – I hadn’t realized Fernanda cooks professionally, but she does, and she insisted that we not take turns at it. As a result, the cuisine was – well, had I been doing it we wouldn’t be talking about “cuisine.” “Grub,” maybe. Fernanda, your cooking abilities are exceeded only by your ability to push on at high altitude. As Mats says, “awesome!”

What connections with “unforeseen contingencies?” Lots. Anyone who travels in the backcountry thinking they are aware of everything that could possibly happen, and are ready for it, is a damn fool. (Although I think few mountaineers make this error in thinking – it’s mostly a fallacy of pure neoclassical economists, socialists, and other armchair theorists who are unaware of what Hayek called the “knowledge problem.”). Usually unforeseen contingencies in the backcountry are bad news – but not always. We had not expected that at 11,000 plus feet someone might hand us a complete set of ingredients for making onion and pepper and bacon pizzas – but such did happen. We shared a campsite with Eddy and Tim, a Jackson Hole Mountain Guide and his Highpointer client from Ohio (Highpointers are people who set out to climb or otherwise attain the highest points in each of the 50 states – not much of a challenge in, say, Iowa, but west of the Great Plains it starts getting interesting.) Tim banged up his shoulder in the morning while they were working on self-arrest techniques on a nearby snowfield, and they had to abandon their climb…hence they gave us all the excess food we would take.

Another unforeseen contingency – or maybe just ironic twist of luck. Tim had to bail on his Granite attempt – but given the conditions he’d never have summited anyway. And when we left him he was thinking about renting a car and heading over to Idaho to do Borah Peak, which is all footwork – so wrenching the shoulder may have gotten him another western high point, while staying well and staying the course wouldn’t have. I hope you summited Borah, Tim.

I had planned on writing something a little more philosophical, rather than just a disjointed trip report, but I have one or two readers who are actually interested in disjointed trip reports, so I’m posting this. The philosophy will be coming in a few days…and maybe some photos.

To my fellow adventurers, Mats, Fernanda, and Jeff – thanks for a great time. Let’s do more soon. To my poor little dog – after you have slept a few days, we’ll just do some day hikes, and never above timberline so there will be plenty of sticks.

The adventure continues!

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