Friday, November 17, 2006

Milton Friedman's positivism

By now we've all heard that Milton Friedman, one of the greatest champions of liberty in all history, died yesterday. Friedman was truly a hero, and did a great amount of good for the world. Most of the regular media coverage of Friedman that I’ve heard entirely sidesteps his economic work (various public radio reports cited "Capitalism and Freedom" and "Free to Choose" as his seminal works, for example) but no one has missed the point that he was a great and influential libertarian, who opposed the draft, activist central bank policy, the war on drugs, and government rationing of schooling. On the first two, Friedman had great and beneficial influence, and on the latter two his ideas will yet win the day.

Of course, his real achievements were in technical economics. His work on the theory of money is a extremely valuable. His work on methodology less so, and his paper on positivism is badly mistaken, I think. But on net Friedman made great contributions to positive economic theory, and for this, even more than for his libertarian policy work, "we" here at Unforeseen Contingencies remember him.

But most of all, when "we" think of Friedman, two things come to mind. The first is a short little article that appeared in the Laissez Faire Books catalog some years back on Milton Friedman’s rules for debate and argument, a list of principles with short explanations of each. I don’t have the list handy (I think I have it in my files somewhere) but what always comes to mind is that Friedman tells us libertarians we are much more likely to convert others and win arguments if we 1) remain positive and of good cheer, 2) are always respectful of our opponents, and 3) always rely on a clear understanding of the facts and the best logic we can muster.

Now this isn’t Friedman’s list; rather, it is what I learned from his list. I think of it all the time and find it extremely valuable. Friedman is right. This is the way to articulate our ideas.

The second thing that comes to mind…I never met Friedman, but did hear him speak at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vancouver B.C. I don’t remember what he said at all, although I recall being very favorably impressed. But what stands out most vividly was that I kept seeing him in the hotel hallways, walking around with his wife Rose. Everywhere and always they were holding hands, and smiling…no, grinning, as though they were having the greatest time in the world, just being together. I think when Friedman suggested we libertarians be positive and of good cheer he didn’t just mean for purposes of debate. This is the best advice on how to live.

The public radio retrospectives on Friedman all point out that early on he was regarded by much of the economics profession as a kook, and treated badly. This apparently didn't faze Friedman at all, and certainly didn't stop him. I think the Friedman approach to living and to spreading ideas --always remain positive and confident -- is a crucial part of why Milton Friedman ultimately triumphed. And it isn’t something that is gone. We should all be Friedmanites now.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

No College Student Left Behind

The Republicans transfer control of Congress to the Democrats with some unfinished business on the table. The proposed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, or "No College Student Left Behind," proposes to do for American universities what No Child Left Behind does for primary and secondary schools, i.e. establish and enforce national "standards" and force colleges to obey. In this case, accreditation of universities would be taken over by the feds, and colleges hence forced to teach whatever the feds decide.

American higher education is still the best in the world. The establishment of federal central planning of higher ed will ruin it, and put it among the world’s worst. First, it’s impossible to imagine competent scientists acquiescing in letting incompetent bureaucrats and politicians tell them what to teach. Within economics, for example, there are currently no official or set standards. It’s impossible for me to imagine any serious economist willing to subjugate her/his own judgement of what’s important and what’s right to the opinion of someone else. It doesn’t happen. I am sure it is similar in physical and life sciences. To become a competent scientist, you must pay in far more sweat and tears (and maybe on occasion blood) than the average layman can imagine. Hence competent scientists are loathe to sacrifice their judgement to the whims of the politically-motivated below-average layman. And since competent scientists have other, quite lucrative, employment options, a NCSLB policy would drive the competent from universities.

Second, what sort of standards would rule in a NCSLB environment? This is a very hard question for me to answer, because it depends on who will be able to seize control of the NCSLB bureaucracy. Will it be leftist multicultural diversity advocates? Fundamentalist Christians? Neocons? Someone else? Whose version of political correctness will become the educational law of the land? Regardless of who wins, the battle for control will be bitter and costly, and the victory short-lived, as it will start all over again on a regular basis. Instead of truth, as the professor on the ground sees it, standards will be dictated from the "Center," as the Soviets called it, and war for control of this central planning apparatus will be permanent. The one thing that is certain is that if true doctrines receive PC status, it will be purely by coincidence, and not because of some systematic process for selecting better ideas.

Third…well, aren’t points 1 & 2 bad enough? Point 3 has to do with the negative effects of bad education and stupid ideas on Americans, considered both as a polity and a workforce. Most of the destructive things that government does to screw America (e.g. deficit spending, welfare statism, unilateral belligerence abroad) are countered by the dynamism of the American economy and people. But NCSLB cuts to the heart of America’s strength. It threatens to wreck our superior human capital, and our system. Idiotic ideas will become official dogma, and the current, admittedly imperfect, system of weeding out bad ideas will be replaced with one that "weeds in" bad ideas.

Unfortunately, this Republican proposal sounds like something the Democrats could easily adopt in a show of bipartisanship. And Bush would no doubt sign a NCSLB bill, if one got to his desk. This plus some additional "anti-immigrant anti-terrorist" police state measures, and a good dose of closed-border protectionism, would be enough to finish America as a free country and a superpower. (And when America loses superpower status, it will get its ass kicked by angry people from the rest of the world.)

There is a brighter side, I guess. If the Democrats bypass their important task of impeaching Cheney-Bush and pursue these sorts of ""constructive" measures, my costs of moving permanently to Ukraine, China, or some other place that is gradually increasing in freedom will be greatly reduced. And I’d probably be happier in these places, given that it was sure that America, the freest alternative, was degenerating and beyond hope. Small comfort, I know…but small comfort is better than none.

(I was really hoping to go to Russia, but the success of Putin's "No Sovietism Left Behind" makes that a doubtful prospect.)

Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, has written his own take on NCSLB. He hits the nail on the head, and I highly recommend his essay.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Conrad Burns: Good Riddance

As I write this, neither national nor local (Montana) news observers are calling the outcome of the race for U.S. Senator in Montana. But Democrat John Tester has an 8% lead over Conrad Burns, with nearly 50% of the vote counted. Burns has lost, thank God. This thoroughly corrupt and disgusting buffoon is out, and will hopefully go back to Nebraska where he belongs. No more racist jokes, no more insults thrown at flight attendants, no more attacks (physical attacks) on exhausted firefighters, no more embarrassing pork stolen from taxpayers in the rest of the country…if, of course, Tester takes a lesson from Burns experience.

Hopefully, in general the Democrats will take a lesson from the disaster the Republicans have brought on the country and themselves…corruption, fiscal madness, wildly growing government, corruption, foreign policy quagmires, and more corruption. On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi has just promised the "most honest House ever," just what the Republicans promised when they took over some short few years ago. Pledges like this are the first sign of corruption -- the honest never waste breath proclaiming their future innocence: honesty is way of behaving, not a policy to announce. As the Onion puts it, the big winners in this election are the politicians. Nothing has changed the calculus that gives the politician the incentive to "give" the public benefits while deferring and hiding the costs. The Democrats won’t learn, and won’t prove to be better than the Republicans. But what they might contribute is a willingness to fight the Bush administration, hopefully bringing us gridlock and, unintentionally, a stop to the growth of government for a time.

Well, gridlock is good. If only it didn’t depend on George W. giving some sort of principled opposition to Democrat agenda, I’d be reassured. Well, if not that outcome, maybe the Democrats will spend all their time impeaching Bush. It’s not a sensible 2008 strategy for them, but it would be a good thing for the country – if only because it would keep the politicos at each other’s throats and away from ours.

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