Friday, July 28, 2006

capitalism and morality

The other day I went on a rather embarrassing wild goose chase. I spent ages looking for disc 5 of the second season of 24. About half of the stores I visited didn't have 24 at all, some stores had one complete season and some had the second season but not the particular disc I wanted (which was the most frustrating of all). When I finally found the dvd, I was very, very happy and I enjoyed it very much. So in the end I had a reasonable day, but it would have been better if I had found the dvd at the first store I went to.

While I was charging around miserably I wondered what a saint would have done to ease my suffering. Some people will probably suggest that she would have kindly explained how stupid I was for doing what I was doing, but I'm pretty sure that would have just made me angry as well as miserable. It would have been better if she whipped out a copy of the dvd and given it to me, or directed me to a store that she knew would have it; in other words provided the good (dvd) or service (directions) I wanted. An altruist could have done many other well meaning things like giving me a sandwich or something. but those other interventions would probably be superficial or wasteful.

Doing this seems more capitalist than saintly but that's what would have made me happy and if you take a rule utilitarian approach to morality then that would been the good thing to do. It doesn't stop being good because I'm charged for what I'm getting. At the very worst the price could have been higher than I was willing, or able to pay, but that would have just meant I was in the same state as when I started, without dvd.

At the stores that stocked 24, most of the dvd's were out and when I asked about 24 at the others, it was clear that I wasn't the first person to ask (one assistant remarked to a friend, "we really should get 24 in stock"). If the stores wanted to make more money, they would probably stock 24 and everybody concerned would be better off.

Of course, we are not at the end of the moral road once people start stocking 24. A good capitalist may still spend his money in more or less good ways. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are giving away billions of dollars, but other rich people spent vast amount cloning their pets. There are two things to say about this; firstly running a successful business is a good thing to start with and secondly, for genuine altruists, the more money your business makes the more resources you can devote to good causes.

Rule utilitarianism assumes that we don't have knowledge about the long run effects of our actions and moral rules like, "don't tell lies" or "keep promises" are usually effective in having good consequences. It's easy to think of cases where these rules should be broken though; a famous example is the crazed ax murderer who asks a parent where her children are, in this case, its best to lie. The more information we have about the definite effects of our actions the better we can judge the effects of our actions. So, just as with the parent who gives her children away to ax murderer, businessmen can be judged immoral if their search for profit has easily foreseeable negative consequences.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

confirmation bias

If you feel strongly about a particular issue, there is some really smart person out there who has written a book explaining why you are right. If your friend disagrees with you and you can't win the argument you can be sure that the author of the book would kick her sorry ass in a debate. This helps us believe that our beliefs are intellectually respectable. Once we have discovered the experts that support our views we can think up reasons why these people are reliable and well intentioned while the "experts" who disagree with us have ulterior motives for saying what they do.

The tendency to give more weight to people who agree with our views and dismiss arguments or evidence from the other side is called confirmation bias. Julian Baggini has a good article on it here. The problem with confirmation bias is that we all suffer from it and I think its especially problematic in blogging because most blogs focus on their on little pet issues and are read by like minded people. I think it's quite interesting to see how confirmation bias acts when someone has legions of followers on some particular topic but then differs with the consensus view among those fans on some other topic; how should those fans react? I think the instinctive response is to say something like, "He's a smart guy but everybody makes mistakes" or find some other motive for why he has that view. For example; most libertarians love Robert Nozick and they usually love killing and eating animals. But Nozick argues that using animals for our pleasure is not justified in his libertarian masterpiece Anarchy, State and Utopia. In my experience libertarians are not bothered by this fact and don't hesitate to dismiss his argument. Of course, Nozick's attitude towards animals just made me more confident that he's right on other things.

So if it's true that people are mainly interested in justifying beliefs they already have what does that say about our attitude towards truth?

moral arithmetic

Tyler Cowen has a short post on incorrect moral arithmetic
1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, foreigners are still "worth less" than citizens.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic. #2 is false.
I don't really think he's going out on a limb here, it's similar to agreeing that while parents should take care of their own kids that doesn't mean their own kids are "worth more" than other kids. People can probably agree when it's put like that but its difficult not to get the feeling that people who live in rich countries really do think they are more important than people living in poor countries. As always the comments are interesting
No libertarian economist could listen with a straight face to an official in a socialist government explaining "Trust me, I'm making policy for the good of the people of my country." Yet the very same economists will solemnly swear that they only advocate policies for the good of all the people of the world (which is even more improbable) and that their own tastes and self-interests has zero to do with it. Nowhere is this more obvious than when economists who know very little about immigration start preaching on the subject.
Tyler's normally lucid prose style has collapsed into Hegel-like vagueness. This may not be an accident. Whenever the subject turns to immigration, Tyler's usually sharp insight turns dull and clouded by arational emotions.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Report: Everything Made In Sweatshops

It is now literally impossible for anyone anywhere in this country to purchase any single thing that doesn't infringe on someone's human rights.
and it's not just in developing countries either
Chao added that even the few items still made in the U.S., such as designer T-shirts and certain Toyota sedans, are also produced in deadly squalor, mostly by illegal immigrants.
The Department of Labor recommended no immediate course of action in response to the report, which was compiled by 135 government employees in an 20-by-80-foot Quonset hut without air-conditioning working six 18-hour shifts a week for $1.15 an hour.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

More on liberal murder

In a sentence or two this is probably the most famous statement of my kind of liberalism
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

theism and libertarianism

I've sometimes been asked if I can prove the non-existence of god and when I agree that I can't I'm asked why I?m not an agnostic rather than an atheist (the same question applies to religious believers who agree that they can't prove that god does exist). The most written about argument against the existence of a theistic god (i.e. all powerful, all loving and normally some other things as well) is known as the problem of evil. If god is all powerful and all loving, why is there so much suffering in the world? Either god doesn't want to stop the suffering or he can't. In my experience, people are not bothered much by this argument when it's brought up in debate but it is often discussed publicly after major natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis. Attempts to evade the problem are known as theodicies, of which there are many. The most well know theodicy is the free will defence. It's more important that we have free will than we be happy all the time and having real free will means being able to choose genuinely nasty ways to occupy our time. As a consequence, the existence of serial killers is not incompatible with a god who loves us.

For the purpose of this post you'll have to take my word that the free will defence is generally regarded by both atheistic and religious philosophers as the best way out of the problem of evil. On this account, freedom to choose between good and bad things is more important that happiness or any other kind of material welfare. God doesn't just allow us to plan evil plans and then thwart us by giving us an epileptic fit or tipping off the police or the betrayed lover, he allows us to actually do bad things.

In a police state like that outlined in George Orwell's 1984, everything we did would be monitored by the authorities and if someone broke the rules he would quickly be whisked away. We are not free in a society like this and we wouldn't suddenly become free if Big Brother started strictly enforcing the (true) code of morality outlined in the Bible (or other religious text of your choice). The more closely the law enforces those moral rules the more it would seem easier if we were simply programmed to do the right thing in the first place (still allowing individuals "freedom" to like or dislike the things they did as they did them), which god consciously decided not to do.

So when religious people argue that maybe the state shouldn't do anything if someone is attracted to others of the same sex but that homosexual sex should be illegal, I think they are arguing against the kind of freedom that they rely on to justify why the world is often such an unpleasant place to be. If theists are statist then I think there is a significant tension in the belief system.

To be a good Christian, it is important that one chooses to follow Christian ethics. And while Christians may regret that society is not as Christian in character as they would like, they should try to persuade people, not force them to change their ways.

At least one person reading this will be thinking now that I'm arguing in favour of legalising murder and rape etc. I'm not. I'm not in favour of this because when I exercise my freedom to murder, I deprive somebody else of their freedom to make any choices at all. However if I decide to spend my money on heroin and destroy my life, that's an example of the exercising of freedom that doesn't deprive anybody else of theirs.

Is this ok?

For years it?s been seen as a problem in need of a solution that there were fewer women at university than men. Now, female attendance has shot past male attendance. Is this a problem that the government should tackle with affirmative action for men?

Gary Becker has a post on the issue here. I like this blunt, casual statement about female students
On pretty much all objective measures, women deserve to have greater college representation than men because they study harder, get better grades, are more likely to graduate from high school, complete their school work in a more timely fashion, write better, and in other ways outperform young men.
Is this somehow offensive?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Follow this link for an illustration of just how awful theocracies like Iran can be.

Monday, July 17, 2006

libertarians against immigration

I'm pretty impressed by the consistency of the libertarian bloggers I read. They all reliably defend easy immigration on principle while not denying the costs of immigration. But as reliably as they defend it the commenters rail against it. Usually, if the topic is taxation or gun control they will be as hardcore as can be regardless of any practical problems with their preferred policies (I don't think a flat tax of 0% is imminent in England or America). When it comes to immigration they sigh and lament the fact that with the welfare state, immigrants will just hop over and mooch of the hardworking citizens. Never mind that the claim is mostly wrong in practice (immigrants work harder than natives) I don't understand why they suddenly become so resigned about the inevitability of the welfare system that they all hate.

There is quite a long post on this over at Catallachy. Probably the most famous proponent of anarcho-capitalism Murray Rothbard made exactly this argument. This from a man whose main problem with David Friedman (another noted anarcho-capitalist) was that Friedman did not hate government enough. He wanted to eliminate the state with immediate effect regardless of the cost yet he was in favour of increasing government powers (to catch and deport immigrants) and limiting consensual arrangements between people when it came to immigrants.

Why is this? I'd guess it's just the natural impulse of humans to prefer "us" to "them". To prefer our colour, language, religion, sports etc. That?s fine on a personal level (though its not a long way from racism or xenophobia) but it?s difficult to understand libertarians sudden approval of using government to preserve their arbitrary preferences.

more on medicine

I just finished reading Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. One of his chapters is about occupational licensure. He argues against licensing and tackles medicine because that is where the case for licensing is the strongest.

Basically, licensing laws act as a barrier to entry into the profession which drives up prices. Many routine procedures that a technician could do must be done by doctors. So, tough regulations mean that we have few doctors and those that we have spend to much time doing stuff that others could do more cheaply and if unqualified people try to perform the procedures they get sent to prison.

Other regulations mean that it is hugely expensive and time consuming to bring a new drug to the market meaning that drugs are very expensive and people who could have been saved by earlier access to the drug are now dead.

My point in this post is not (just) to rage against government regulations but to contrast this form of government action with the fact that homeopathic remedies are provided by the NHS in England.

People defend tight regulation of the medical profession on the grounds of protecting the public from getting bad medical care, which is understandable. These regulations show that the government thinks it unacceptable that people take risks in their medical care, even if they are aware of them. The increased costs that follow create a market for alternative medical care that must not look anything like regular medicines so it can avoid falling foul of the regulations. People often point out that if "alternative" medicines actually worked, it would just be regular medicine but "alternative" medicines depend on their difference for their existence.

The bizarre thing is the way this all works. Government regulation limits the availability of decent medical care and makes it expensive. As a result, alternative remedies (of the sort that the regulations are there to stop) become very popular and because they are so popular the government subsidises it! As the Jamie Whyte article points out, the government doesn?t think the remedies actually work. So where have all the high minded ideals that result in the regulations on regular medicine gone?

dilbert blog

This is pretty funny, it's about an American footballers ghost written autobiography. He claims that his book, written in the first person contains a misquote of himself. As Scott Adams says
In other words, Terrell Owens didn't actually write the book he wrote, and there's some question as to whether he read the book he wrote.


Good article by Jamie Whyte in The Times. Normally homepathy is perfectly safe because its just water but it can be harmful, especially when provided by the government as it is in England. If the government endorses it, then people will be justified in thinking that it works and may choose not to take actual medicine despite the fact the the NHs says that "Homeopathy should be a complementary, not an alternative therapy." As a result some of the people who take homoeopathic prophylactics for things like malaria, contract malaria. As Whyte says
Most people will quite reasonably take the fact that the NHS offers homoeopathy as certification that it works. Since the NHS knows that homoeopathy does not work, it is intentionally misleading the public. The popularity of homoeopathy only aggravates the crime.
I especially like his closing paragraph,
We live at the historical high point of human civilisation. It is neither a fluke nor a miracle. Our liberty and prosperity flow from of our commitment to Enlightenment values. Our leaders should never forget it.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

crap crap crap crap

Things just go from bad to worse. Nadal thrashing Federer in the Wimbledon final is the worst possible outcome in all of sport. In the comments of a previous post I expressed my doubt that Nadal would ever get to a Wimbledon final. Secretly I worried that he would become a threat sooner or later. Even more secretly I hoped that he would be on the plane with the Italian soccer team as it went down.

Apart from anything else, it's depressing how weak the men's field was. Not so long ago I thought men's tennis was really strong, but the showing of other top players besides Federer and Nadal has been pathetic.

Friday, July 07, 2006


This is a pretty good article on anti-americanism. I think this bit is pretty much spot on
Americans find themselves damned either way. If they remain within their own borders, they are isolationist hicks who are shirking their responsibilities. If they intervene, they are rapacious imperialists.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


In my self-pitying posts below I've mentioned that sporting results just haven't been going my way recently. Of course, logically I thought that meant that Germany should have lost to Argentina and the Italian side should have been killed in a plane crash. Alas no, either Germany or Italy will play in the final, probably against England. It seems that the universe simply has no sense of justice. To cap it all off, cycling has been hit by another massive drags scandal and the two favorites, Basso and Ulrich are not racing!

Alarmingly, there is still scope for things to get worse. Ronaldo will probably be killed by a missile thrown from the crowd and still be blamed for Brazil's loss in the final after Totti converts a penalty awarded for an Inzaghi (sp?) dive. Federer will lose to Nadal in the final after being two sets up and having 19 match points.

Update: Well, Totti scoring the winning goal in the world cup final is still a possibility but at least Henry and Zidane will be able to play in the final. Poor old Saha, he couldn't have played for more than 10 minutes since the group stages and he's suspended.