Friday, September 15, 2006

Strike Back against the Federal Police State Now!

Nothing like a calm title for a post, is there?

You've already heard that J.K. Rowling successfully intimidated federal TSA Gestapo agents. Now Penn Gillette has battled them, and urges us to all do the same, before it's too late!

Alexander Solzhenitsyn argues in Gulag that even the Soviet people could have stopped the KGB had they stood up to it. We are much freer and stronger than the Soviets, so let's make every effort to stand up to the police state bureaucrats.

Many thanks to Classically Liberal for the story.

George Bush and the Military Commissions Bill of 2006

Credit where it’s due: the Republicans in Congress have finally begun to act as though they really believe that there should be at least moderate constraints on the power of government to torture people never convicted of a crime, or whatever else it is the man who would be king wants to do.

Only an evil man (see photo) would insist on being granted the power to torture (e.g. waterboarding) against individuals simply because paid informants had denounced them.

It’s “a little” late for these Republicans to begin waking up to the dangers of a police state. Where were they when Real ID and Animal ID passed? (Passing these Orwellian measures, that’s where.) But better late than never. May this be a real awakening and not just last minute pre-election political expediency. America is plunging headlong into a full-blown police state, and opportunities to stop it are dwindling.

[Footnote for Americans: you DO know that the federal government has already passed Real ID, which requires that you have a biometric federally approved ID card to travel, engage in financial transactions, and receive health care, which is being federalized? You DO know that starting 2008 you’ll be required by law to implant an ID chip in your dog, cat, horse, cow, or pig, and notify the feds whenever you leave home with them? You DO know that Verichip Inc. has already developed FDA approved technology to do this to you as well, don’t you?

All of this 666 stuff is courtesy of George and his Republicans. How bizarre that “let’s return to the Clinton era” could actually become a libertarian slogan.]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Free Trade -- Let 'em Have It!

In Cato Institute’s most recent Policy Report, Liu Kin-Ming argues that free trade with China is bad – it doesn’t foster liberalization, and only empowers the authoritarian regime. The U.S. government continues to enforce prohibitions on trade with Cuba. George W. appears to be pushing for trade sanctions against Iran.

What’s wrong with these people? All sensible observers know that free trade enriches people. And the wealthier people are, the less people believe they need tyrannical government to protect them. Independently wealthy people never think they need big governemnt to tell them what to do. (Of course, the independently wealthy sometimes do favor dictatorial government, all too often, but never to dictate to themselves. It's only the poor who are willing to be governed with an iron rod.)

Liu Kin-Ming is simply wrong – the Chinese people are much freer now than they were under Mao. Although China does take a step back for every two forward, China is still moving forward. And in fact, the Chinese government has lost control of public discourse there – Chinese are now online, and free speech reigns. The government still blocks connections to foreign websites dealing with the forbidden 3 Ts (Taiwan, Tibet, Tianamen), but the blocks aren’t effective (my students and I could get around them when I was in Beijing), and more importantly, there are no effective controls over the internet within China. Free speech reigns -- thanks to the West-to-East flow of technology and wealth that free trade brings.

Meanwhile, Castro has benefited from the U.S. embargo against Cuba. First, everyone rallies around the flag when a foreign power stands in opposition – it’s a measure of how awful Castro is that there were boat people regardless. Second, the embargo reduced the amount of information that flowed to Cuba. Information is the enemy of totalitarian states – that’s why controlling information is job number one for them. The free exchange of ideas, of merely a few foreign ideas, this is enough to induce people to question a dictatorship, which in turn is enough to make them bring it down. (When North Korea goes down, as it soon will, take note of the role of ideas. And take note of what the North Korean people say about their ideas, before and after.)

Iran – well, no one in the middle east is more pro-west and pro-American than the Iranians. Even the leadership there (e.g. the ruling clerics, not Ahmadenijad) are vaguely interested in good relations with the west. (Maybe even Ahmadenijad is; he did send a letter explaining himself to Bush, after all.) Full free trade with Iran will do two things: it will put more western ideas into Iran, and it will enrich Iranians, in turn making them more adamant on good relations with the west, and less willing to listen to Ahmadinejad’s populistic crap and the ayatollahs’ preaching.

We have the best weapon in the world. It makes everyone richer, it breaks their dependency on local dictators, it gives them prosperity that makes them resist local demagogues. Let’s let them have it – give the world completely free trade, both barrels!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why ignorant fools can systematically succeed

To commemorate Sept. 11, more Pollyanna-ism from Unforeseen Contingencies… Despite our best efforts, I think civilization will survive and flourish. Here's why.

Human beings are ignorant fools. We’re ignorant, in that there’s a tremendous amount that we might know about our world, but don’t – our ignorance borders on being complete. And we are fools, in that we believe things that are simply wrong, even though we have available to us sufficient logic and data to reveal the errors. Much, even most, of what we believe falls into this category.

Nevertheless, we progress, we succeed. An easy way to see this is to look at the last 200, 100, or 50 years of world history. Despite being ignorant fools, the three predominant facts characterizing these periods are 1) record population growth, 2) unprecedented growth in per capita incomes and living standards, and 3) unprecedented increases in freedom of the individual. If we are all ignorant fools, how can this be?

There’s something about human culture. Despite ourselves, we learn and progress.

As I mentioned previously, I’m currently teaching history of economic thought at Hillsdale College. I’ve been working up some lectures on the old Mercantilists, the writers who believed international trade was a zero sum game, a conflict, and that the goal ought to be accumulation of gold by means of running perpetual trade balances. There are numerous egregious economic fallacies in Mercantilism, and it isn’t a sustainable set of doctrines – as the Mercantilists themselves began to recognize, and their opponents – the Classical economists – eventually demonstrated.

While developing my lectures on all this, it struck me that every student in my class, and thousands of students in thousands of economics classrooms around the world, are capable of understanding where the Mercantilists went wrong – and they can “get it” with relatively little time and effort. The Mercantilists compounded error with error – most economic fallacies can be traced to them. My students get all this and see through the errors (they’d better!) And yet they aren’t somehow better or smarter than the Mercantilists were themselves. The Mercantilists tended to be drawn from the most successful businessmen of the day – men who had great intelligence and ability, and proved it with great successes. My students are good, but I am pretty certain that they are neither more intelligent nor harder working than the Mercantilists. The thing that accounts for the difference – why the best thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries never understood what my students grasp in a lecture or two – is the strange ability of humans to capture and communicate knowledge in “culture.” No other animal seems able to do this, except perhaps at the most rudimentary level.

Economist Friedrich Hayek identified this “social learning” as something between instinct and purely rational, fully conscious and explicit thought. He suggested that there is a sort of natural selection of frameworks for organizing societies that results. Similarly, game theorist Ken Binmore has argued that our ethics are developed from a process of natural selection, one which he thinks favors the “Golden Rule,” cooperation, and trade.

I think this is right – and this explains in large part why we can be ignorant fools, and yet we progress. But progress isn’t automatic and inevitable, the way its seems to be in the neoclassical economist’s deterministic view of competitive markets. It’s clearly not automatic: every advance in our knowledge requires human effort, individual effort; it requires reason & hard work. The Mercantilists struggled to understand the world, and made slow progress – they understood national income accounts and the balance of payments, and began to understand the monetary roots of inflation. My students and I understand so much because of their efforts, and the efforts of the Classical and Marginalist economists who followed.

And progress might not be inevitable. Certainly today’s neomercantilists haven’t learned anything – indeed, they do not even understand as much as the old Mercantilists did, since they generally do not even understand the balance of payments concept.

But this brings me back to my same old reasons for optimism. We may be ignorant fools, and many – or most – of us fail even to absorb old truths from the past – but we do have available bodies of knowledge that are increasing and improving, and we do face strong pressures to take this knowledge seriously – we get whacks on the head from the universe when we ignore it.

The crux is whether we recognize when we are whacked, and identify what to do about it. I think our tendency is to eventually wake up and take another step in the right direction. And that’s why we keep progressing, despite ourselves.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Muslims Commemorate September 11

In commemoration of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism has just released a television spot, “Liars.” The video can be downloaded for free from their website, and is worth watching.

In the press release announcing the spot, the FMC notes: “We [feel] that the current war on terror is an ideological battle and only good Muslims can win this battle.

We [know] that Islam is a great religion and that extremism is a result of an ideology called "political Islam" or "islamofascism" as others call it. The basis of this ideology is the rejection of the secular state and the utopian (delusional) ideology that religion and politics must be one and the same.

As to fighting terrorism, we [do] not wait for others to do the correct thing and we [take] it upon ourselves to lay the foundation for defeating Bin Laden and others.”

More power to these good people in their battle (our battle) for freedom and peace.

(The video requires Apple Quicktime, also available as a free download.)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cells – No Excuse Now

A person is much more than a cell, or a small cluster of cells. Thus the old argument that embryonic stem cell research is wrong because it kills a person never held any water. But “we” here at UC at least admit that a person who sincerely believes an embryo is a person could have reasonably opposed such research, given the initial belief.

But the point is moot now, because the old argument is obsolete.

Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. has invented a way to obtain embryonic stem cells from an embryo without harming the embryo: the technique amounts to consists of taking a single cell from an eight-cell embryo and culturing it. This technique of cell removal is already in use for other purposes (diagnostics), and over 1500 healthy infants have been born who developed from such. ACT’s contribution was to figure how to culture a line of stem cells from a cell obtained this way.

No “babies” are harmed in the process, no embryos destroyed…so this is will be a nice way to sort out those who sincerely opposed stem cell research out of respect for human life, and those for whom this was just an excuse and really simply oppose the advance of medical science and relief of human suffering. I expect a good number of the faithful to drop their opposition now, but just as there has been religious opposition to medical treatments such as anesthesia and HPV vaccine (HPV, human papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer), expect some religious fanatics to oppose stem cell research regardless.

In game theoretic terms we’re going to be getting a separating equilibrium. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.

Anyone want to offer bets on the pope’s position?

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