The Progress of Liberty - Blog Archive
Posts from June 8, 2008, to October 27, 2010
Archive Created on December 31, 2010
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This is the archive of all of the original posts on The Progress of Liberty, a blog that Mr. Stolyarov published from June 8, 2008, to October 27, 2010. The blog was hosted by Today.com, which changed its name to the ill-advised BlogDog.com in May 2010, thereby automatically altering the URLs of all blog posts and pages on its network and causing great inconvenience to contributors. BlogDog.com went out of existence in November 2010 without forewarning its contributors or bothering to archive its blogs. Mr. Stolyarov had hoped that The Progress of Liberty could become a method of promoting a more rational and freer world, but Today.com/BlogDog.com repeatedly violated its promises to its contributors, along with neglecting common courtesy. In order to preserve the quality content of The Progress of Liberty, Mr. Stolyarov's posts from that blog have been archived here in a quasi-blog format. Use the index of links below to navigate to each individual post.
Updated in August 6, 2009
The purpose of The Progress of Liberty is to provide you with the tools and principles to contribute to a freer, more prosperous world – where individuals can thrive in peace and work, think, write, and engage in leisure activities as they see fit. The Progress of Liberty is about celebrating and contributing to the advancement of technology, education, culture, and human potential – the emergence of a New Renaissance, during which the problems that had plagued humanity since its beginnings will fall – one by one – to the ingenuity and perseverance of the best among us.
The Internet’s potential as an agent of change has thus far been underappreciated, although recent stirrings of online activism show that this might not be the case for much longer. The 2007-2008 Ron Paul Campaign was enabled in large part by grassroots online activism and donations. With his famous money bombs, Dr. Paul broke fundraising records and enabled his message of liberty to spread to millions, despite being virtually blocked out by the mainstream media.
The Progress of Liberty will give you access to some of the most compelling, interesting, and entertaining content on the Internet. This content will illustrate sound economic principles, the political ideas of liberty and free enterprise, and the philosophy of rational individualism.
This is not a conventional blog – and many of the fixed pages on the blog are just as important as the periodic posts, if not more so. These pages will give you access to educational resources, works of art and music, audio essays, and other illuminating or entertaining features. The ideas featured here are also not conventional – and not simply in that they depart from “mainstream” thought, however defined. They do not fit any stereotypes – be they of libertarian, conservative, liberal, or moderate thinking. Above all, this blog extols the virtue of thinking for oneself and reaching for truth through civil intellectual exchange. The Progress of Liberty does not shy away from controversy and does not fear airing or even featuring opposing viewpoints. Every contributor here is unique in his or her worldview and style of expression, and we welcome any activity that is consistent with our civilized, tolerant atmosphere.
(in Reverse Chronological Order)
* WikiLeaks Exposes Barbarity of Iraq Occupation - October 27, 2010
* Let Us Hope That ACTA Negotiations Fail - September 12, 2010
* Limitations on Miranda Rights and the Gallop Toward a Police State - August 3, 2010
* The First Flying Car: A Major Victory for Human Progress - July 1, 2010
* Creation of Artificial Cell Deals Fatal Blow to Vitalism - May 25, 2010
* Always Think! - February 21, 2010
* Progress in Life Expectancy for 2008 - August 19, 2009
* The Beneficial Act of Holding Money - August 16, 2009
* The Morality of Honest Profit - But It Must Be Honest! - August 11, 2009
* Abolish the Minimum Wage First - and Only Then Abolish Welfare - August 7, 2009
* Libertarianism in a "Messy Reality" - August 6, 2009
* If Highways Were Privatized, Would There Be Collusion? - July 27, 2009
* Preconditions for Success: Departure from Orthodoxy - July 16, 2009
* Patri Friedman Outlines New Approaches to Libertarian Activism - April 18, 2009
* The Taiping Rebellion: A Religiously Motivated Slaughter of 25 Million - April 16, 2009
* The American Conservative Movement as Scam - April 15, 2009
* The Irrationality of the View That Life is Sometimes Not Worth Living - April 14, 2009
* Famous Atheist Composers -- Who Says One Needs God to Appreciate Beauty? - April 12, 2009
* What is the Best Way to Enjoy Life? The Permanent Enjoyment Hypothesis - April 11, 2009
* There is No Experience Worth Dying For - April 10, 2009
* Can Consciousness Survive Physical Discontinuities? - April 9, 2009
* No Guarantees of Liberty in Life -- Make the Most of What You Have - April 8, 2009
* Life and Liberty: Which is More Important? - April 7, 2009
* Avoid Conceding to Theists That Your Premises are Arbitrary - April 6, 2009
* Mr. Stolyarov's Essay on the Benefits of Globalization in The Freeman - April 3, 2009
* How to Reduce Perverse Incentives from Fines - March 21, 2009
* Beware of Disdain for the Particular! - March 20, 2009
* Most Problems are Technical, Not Ethical - March 19, 2009
* Burton Folsom Discusses the Failure of the National Road - March 18, 2009
* A New Argument for Repealing Capital Punishment: The Cost Argument - March 17, 2009
* How a Government Job Helped Ludwig von Mises - March 16, 2009
* The Proper Rational Attitude Toward Traditions - March 9, 2009
* Why Are Happy Endings Popular? - March 8, 2009
* New Bullet-Stopping d30 Gel May Reduce the Casualties of War - March 6, 2009
* Internet Has Beneficial Effects for Poetry - March 5, 2009
* Productivity Maximization Skills: Parallel Use of Faculties - March 1, 2009
* Microlending Site Enables Charity with Actual Beneficial Results - February 19, 2009
* New Tattoo Developed to Help Diabetics Monitor Blood Sugar - February 18, 2009
* Jonathan Swift's Struldbrugs, Immortality, and Negligible Senescence - February 16, 2009
* Mathematician Bob Palais Challenges the Sanctity of Pi - February 15, 2009
* Dubious "Stimulus" Passes Despite Unanimous House Republican Opposition - February 14, 2009
* The Ocean Quahog: A Clam That Can Live for Over 400 Years - February 13, 2009
* Deutsche Bank Admirably Rejects German Government's Bailout - February 11, 2009
* "Liberation by Internet" Translated into Chinese - February 8, 2009
* The Genius of Archimedes and the Appalling Backwardness of a Medieval Monk - February 7, 2009
* Singularity University: An Institution Devoted to Progress - February 6, 2009
* Teleportation Between Two Atoms Achieved: Milestone for Quantum Computing - February 5, 2009
* Cloning Enables Brief Resurrection of Extinct Pyrenean Ibex - February 4, 2009
* Turritopsis nutricula Proliferation Illustrates the Advantages of Immortality - February 3, 2009
* Sir David Attenborough Harassed by Religious Fanatics - February 2, 2009
* Denying Medical Care to Children is Not Part of Religious Freedom - February 1, 2009
* February 2, 2009, Ayn Rand Book Bomb Aims to Increase Awareness of Atlas Shrugged - January 31, 2009
* Refuting the "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic" Argument - January 28, 2009
* Obama Misunderstands the Cause of Economic Crises - January 27, 2009
* Question for Barack Obama: Who is "We"? - January 25, 2009
* Barack Obama, Free Markets, and Recovery from the Present Economic Crisis - January 24, 2009
* All Are Created Equal but Do Not Remain So: Remarks on Obama's Inaugural Address - January 23, 2009
* Praise for Obama's Tolerance for Nonbelievers - January 22, 2009
* Evil as a Failure of the Intellect - January 21, 2009
* Rudi Boa was Murdered for Beliving in Evolution. His Killer Goes Free This Month. - January 20, 2009
* "Defeating Death" Site Highlights the Evil of Human Mortality - January 19, 2009
* Charles Murray Rightly Criticizes the Expectation That Everyone Go to College - January 18, 2009
* Reintroduction of Cinema into Saudi Arabia Indicates Progress in the Middle East - January 17, 2009
* Major Victory for Freedom: RIAA Drops Lawsuits Against File Sharers - January 16, 2009
* Help Contribute to Human Life Extension: Download Rosetta@home - January 15, 2009
* An Atheist's View of Christmas - December 24, 2008
* Decoupling Activities: A Worthy Goal for the Future - December 18, 2008
* Commercial Space Stations: A Step Forward for Private Space Exploration - December 17, 2008
* Crashless Cars: A Moral Imperative - December 16, 2008
* Editorial by Robert Poole Exposes Egregious Government Infrastructure Mismanagement - December 15, 2008
* Physical Immortality is Possible: Ask Turritopsis nutricula! - December 13, 2008
* Refuting an Extremely Silly Argument Against Gay Marriage - December 11, 2008
* Obama Abandons Effort to Impose "Windfall Profits" Tax on Oil Companies - December 10, 2008
* More Individuals Choose Energy Autonomy - Good News for Liberty - December 9, 2008
* Conserve Resources -- Out of Self-Interest - December 8, 2008
* Is China Economically Sounder Than the United States? - December 7, 2008
* Please Extend Individualism to Include Anti-Terrorist Muslims! - December 6, 2008
* Dr. David Sinclair Makes Progress in the War on Biological Aging - December 5, 2008
* New Model Skyscrapers Available in Antideath - December 4, 2008
* Cancer is Going Down! - November 29, 2008
* Excellent News from Turkey Regarding the Possibility of a More Humane Islam - November 28, 2008
* Gennady Stolyarov II Wins Foundation for Economic Education's Eugene S. Thorpe Award - November 8, 2008
* Abraham Lincoln as a Third-Party Candidate - November 2, 2008
* Response to Mr. Merlin Jetton's Critique of My Essays on Road Privatization - September 30 - November 25, 2008
* Changes That Happen Without Majority Approval - September 29, 2008
* Why Universal Surveillance Will Fail - September 28, 2008
* Mr. Stolyarov's Essay, "Liberation by Internet", Published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute - September 27, 2008
* What Brought About the Soviet Union's Downfall? Bankruptcy or Information? - September 26, 2008
* Argumentative Tacticts Never to Use: Argument by Threat - September 16, 2008
* Free-Market Activism Suggestion: Write a Critical Analysis of a Favorite Work - September 15, 2008
* Grammatically Correct But Meaningless Questions - September 14, 2008
* The Republican National Convention and the Dangers of Crowds - September 13, 2008
* Argumentative Tacticts Never to Use: The Lack-of-Precedent Argument for Impossibility - September 12, 2008
* Getting Over September 11, 2001 - September 11, 2008
* Argumentative Tacticts Never to Use: Argument by Consensus - September 10, 2008
* The Ambiguity of the Russia-Georgia Conflict - August 30, 2008
* The Internet and Massive Long-Term Cultural Change - August 29, 2008
* Keys to Free-Market Activism: An Online Presence - August 28, 2008
* Antideath: Promoting Life Through Model Skyscrapers - August 27, 2008
* Argumentative Tacticts Never to Use: The "Yes or No" Push - August 22, 2008
* How to Break the American Two-Party System - August 21, 2008
* Why I Will Proudly Vote for a Third-Party Presidential Candidate - August 20, 2008
* Musharraf's Resignation Should Inspire a Rethinking of US Foreign Policy - August 19, 2008
* Questioning the Consumption/Production and Consumption/Investment Dichotomies - August 13, 2008
* A Majority is Not Required for an Idea to Succeed - August 8, 2008
* How to Become a Public Intellectual: Publish Your Papers Online! - August 7, 2008
* How to Spread Ideas Effectively: Becoming a Public Intellectual - August 6, 2008
* Get a Good Laugh from Edward Current's Videos on Atheism and Religion - July 26, 2008
* YouTube Reinstates Extant Dodo Productions: A Victory for Free Speech - July 25, 2008
* Hopeful News from Dr. Tibor Machan on Promoting Liberty - July 20, 2008
* Carl Menger Was Wrong: Bad Ideas Should Be Countered - July 19, 2008
* Brazil's Semco Illustrates the Power of Decentralized Firm Structures - July 18, 2008
* How Free-Market Activists Should Approach Money - July 16, 2008
* Seeing Both Positive and Negative Aspects of the Status Quo - July 9, 2008
* Four Questions for All Free-Market Activists to Consider - July 8, 2008
* The Progress of Liberty Wins Today.com June 2008 Blog Award - July 7, 2008
* My Critique of the Firm "WALL-E" on Mises.org - July 6, 2008
* Why Free-Market Activists Should Always Use Secular Arguments - July 5, 2008
* Casual Free-Market Activism on the Fourth of July - July 4, 2008
* The Totalist Mentality: The Activist's Worst Enemy - July 2, 2008
* The Free-Market Movement Needs Young People! - June 26, 2008
* Lessons for Free-Market Activists from the Ron Paul Campaign - June 25, 2008
* The Importance of Political Organization for Free-Market Activists - June 22, 2008
* Help Stop the Infighting Among Free-Market Advocates! - June 21, 2008
* Canada's "Human Rights" Show Trials Do Not Recognize Freedom of Speech - June 20, 2008
* Tell YouTube to Stop Banning Users Without Due Process - June 19, 2008
* "Mind Over Matter" Quackery from the Early 19th Century - June 18, 2008
* Sign a Petition to Permit the Construction of a New York Skyscraper - June 17, 2008
* Ray Kurzweil's Predictions on Supercomputer Speed Likely Off by 3 Years - June 15, 2008
* Ron Paul Initiates Campaign for Liberty - June 14, 2008
* Pro-Liberty Activism Program for June 13, 2008 - June 13, 2008
* Pro-Liberty Activism Program for June 11, 2008 - June 11, 2008
* Tools for Pro-Liberty Activism: Digg.com - June 9, 2008
* The Progress of Liberty: Statement of Purpose - June 8, 2008
October 27, 2010
Now that WikiLeaks has released nearly 400,000 documents about the Iraq occupation (see the news here), we can safely conclude that even the single possibly beneficial consequence of this war has been brought to naught. The removal of Saddam Hussein – a sadistic, murderous torturer – has brought about more sadistic, murderous torture in his place by the current government of Iraq, with the knowledge but the inaction of the U.S. armed forces. The occupation did not liberate the Iraqi people, but merely handed them over to a new set of masters – less objectionable from a U.S. foreign-policy perspective, perhaps, but no less odious in an objective moral sense.
I regret my initial support for this war, as I was unaware of its true death toll and the appalling behavior that it directly brought about. Thank you, WikiLeaks, for bringing the truth about this dark episode in history to light. Already, this war’s events have motivated me to rethink my position on war in general and reject this institutionalized slaughter as a solution to any situation. But this recent release has shown to a new extent just how ugly even today’s American wars can be.
September 12, 2010
One can still hope that tensions between the United States and the European Union will derail the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – a truly horrible treaty that would greatly curtail internet freedom in much of the “developed” world. As this article by Professor Michael Geist describes, the conflicts over the agreement’s scope and purpose, as well as particular provisions therein, may be creating a rift that might lead the EU to withdraw from negotiations. This is especially possible after the EU Parliament expressed concern about ACTA’s effects on Internet privacy and freedom, as well as the overwhelming secrecy of the negotiation process. Although the treaty might still be concluded without the EU, my hope is that the withdrawal of a major party will thwart the entire proceedings. As I wrote last month, if ACTA passes, the very progress of human civilization might be threatened as the Internet becomes a black market. If ACTA fails, then at least civilization will have a fighting chance.
August 3, 2010
For those who doubt that the United States is steadily moving toward a police state, this article from Associated Press, entitled “High court trims Miranda warning rights bit by bit” should lead them to reconsider. Apparently, now, one has to explicitly state one’s preference to remain silent in order for the right to remain silent to apply. Moreover, one is only allowed access to a lawyer if one secures a lawyer within 14 days after being released from custody, whereafter – if one failed to secure a lawyer – one could get taken back into custody without the right to see a lawyer. Imagine: just the suspect and the police – with no countervailing power allowed to check on what the police may and may not do in the course of questioning and detainment of the suspect. If this does not scream “police state” to you, what would?
July 1, 2010
I was delighted to see this video of the first flight of the first flying car that will be available for mass production. The Terrafugia Transition, which has fortunately been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, is a welcome development for multiple reasons. The era it inaugurates will feature improved mobility, reduced traffic congestion, increased safety both on the roads and in the air, and, of course, greater human freedom as a result of one more technological opportunity available to a wide market. Technology is the surest way to advance liberty, and the Terrafugia Transition should be celebrated as a step toward a more enlightened, comfortable, and prosperous future.
May 25, 2010
The theory of vitalism, the idea that life is incapable of emerging or being synthesized from non-living components, was completely and obviously invalidated by J. Craig Venter’s recent creation of an entirely artificially designed living organism, the Mycoplasma mycoides. This synthetic bacterium was designed entirely by humans, without emerging from a previous species.
Of course, vitalism was not viable for a long time, and, for intelligent students of the natural sciences, its patent falsehood was evident since Stanley Miller’s famous 1953 experiment, which showed that amino acids – the basic building blocks of proteins – could be generated from simple inorganic compounds in an artificial reducing atmosphere. But now the case against vitalism is so obvious that only the most dogmatic, evidence-averse individuals could still adhere to it. There it is – a cell that was not the offspring of another living organism, but was rather artificially synthesized in its every aspect, much as a building might be constructed by the deliberate arrangement of bricks and beams in accordance with a human-designed blueprint.
I welcome the emergence of artificial life and all of the impressive possibilities that it offers even in the near-term future – from improved and rapidly produced influenza vaccines to microorganisms that can clean up oil spills and synthesize new sources of energy. More important, of course, are the long-term implications of this discovery – which are too vast to be foreseen by any single individual. We humans have an amazing ability to discover and engineer the workings of life, and our own lives should become ever longer and better as a result.
February 21, 2010
There is a dangerous mentality among many people that thinking – using one’s mind to fathom the world and solve problems – is optional or is only necessary for some people, such as intellectuals or individuals in high-paying professional occupations. In fact, thinking is essential and indispensable for everyone; that includes you. Our reason – our ability to accurately identify what exists and to determine how it may best be used to promote our lives and flourishing – is the only means we have of reliably surviving and improving our position. Blindly following orders, routines, or conventions may occasionally enable one to survive – if someone else did the thinking behind these external impositions correctly – but it just as often results in catastrophic failure. Every procedure, institution, and norm should be questioned using critical thinking – and every person should engage in such questioning. The result will be an improvement of societal institutions: their alignment with reason and good sense and a vast improvement in efficiency, innovation, and happiness in all areas of human life. Always think! No one is above or beneath using his mind!
August 19, 2009
This article by Mark Stobbe (“CDC Says Life Expectancy in US Up, Deaths Not”) discusses the slight increase in life expectancy in the United States observed by the Centers for Disease Control for the year 2008. This is excellent news, especially considering that the death rate from heart disease decreased by 5%, the death rate from cancer decreased by 2%, and the death rate from HIV/AIDS decreased by 10%. Praise is due to the scientists and doctors who have caused these perils to retreat – as well as perhaps healthier living habits in the population as a whole when it comes to the heart-disease declines.
We can beat back misery, decay, disease, and death – and the slight growth of U. S. life expectancy at birth to nearly 78 years testifies to this. Moreover, the death rate in 2008 was half of what it was in 1948 – truly a monumental development.
August 16, 2009
I was recently asked whether the super-rich were economically useless because they merely “held onto” money instead of “using” it and allowing it to “circulate” in the economy. I think that the super-rich cannot be accused of this, however, and the basis of the accusation is itself groundless.
The money held by the super-rich is not “dead money” by any means. It is, in most cases, invested into banks that lend it out to entrepreneurs that use the money to purchase capital goods, make products, or provide services to consumers. But even if the money is not invested but kept under a mattress, this is still desirable — as it means that there is less overall money in the economy, chasing the same number of goods, which means lower prices for everyone.
It is important to keep in mind that the amount of wealth in the economy is not the same as the amount of money. Wealth is real stuff; money as it exists today is just a unit of account. If the money stock increases without a corresponding increase in real stuff, we get inflation — which is coming, by the way, because the Federal Reserve has dramatically increased the money supply over the past year. What matters for the health of an economy is not how much people spend, but rather how much stuff is available — which is a direct function of how much people produce. Capital goods, not consumption spending, are what enable us to be wealthier and more prosperous than hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic. After all, those people could consume just as well as we could, given the chance! But the stuff was simply not available to them, because no one produced it!
August 11, 2009
In response to my essay, “Profit is Moral,” I was recently asked whether my ethical praise of profit also applies to cases where the consumer has been in some manner deceived, deliberately under-informed, or invited into a transaction where the other party knew that the consumer would fail to fulfill his side of the bargain.
I believe that honesty is one of the foremost human virtues and a requirement for a workable system of commerce to exist. Thus, the morality of profit applies only to those profits which are made in the course of honest value-trades — that is, trades in which all parties knew what they were getting in advance and made at least an implicit benefit-cost comparison of having the thing they planned to obtain versus not having it.
Transactions that are made on the basis of deception, deliberate concealment of information, or the expectation that the other party would in some manner fail to deliver on its end of the bargain are in violation of the principle of honesty and therefore cannot be considered moral; in a free-market society, they would also be of dubious legality, to say the least.
A related situation is where a transaction is made under duress — for instance by a party that was threatened, intoxicated, or otherwise not in possession of a clear ability to give informed consent. It would not be moral for a seller to exploit these circumstances for profit.
August 7, 2009
I mentioned yesterday that I would not advocate abolishing the welfare system prior to the abolition of the minimum wage. My reasoning? The welfare system is not nearly so damaging as minimum-wage legislation. Indeed, welfare is likely to be acting as a band-aid on the harms of minimum -wage legislation, by preventing those who become unemployed due to the minimum wage from starving. Repealing welfare without abolishing the minimum wage first would be disastrous to many people who would be unable to find employment with the present wage floor in force. The minimum wage acts to keep those with skills insufficient to earn income at a certain rate out of the labor market. Welfare at least rectifies the injustice done to such individuals by preventing them from starving while they are legally prohibited from working. Of course, the welfare system has numerous undesirable side effects on individuals’ incentives to develop their skills and find work in the future. However, there are only certain stepwise procedures by which its abolition might be viable.
A doctor, seeking to cure a patient, must follow one of a limited set of options for doing so. Any individual medical procedure might be desirable in a proper context, but, if a multitude of desirable procedures were arranged in the wrong order, disaster might result. The same applies to fixing problems in the sphere of politics. I happen to believe that the world would be better without both the minimum wage and welfare, but disaster might strike if they are abolished in the incorrect order.
August 6, 2009
Some criticize libertarianism being “too clean and clear” to accommodate a “messy reality,” I beg to differ. I think most thoughtful libertarians recognize the messiness of reality. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were particularly good about this. If you have not done so already, I recommend that you read Human Action by Mises (available for free here) and The Fatal Conceit by Hayek.
But there is a difference between recognizing a messy reality and allowing that recognition to make a mess in one’s theory. The theory can justifiably be clean and elegant, for that renders it graspable by human beings. It is in the application of the theory that the messiness is important and needs to be considered. Many libertarians have not gotten to this point yet, and all too many prefer spending virtually all of their time thinking about how an ideal libertarian society would work rather than considering how such a society can be attained or approximated when we must start with an imperfect and, indeed, quite messy, world. The messiness really comes in when we consider the sequence of desired transitions. I happen to believe that the minimum wage should be abolished before the welfare system is abolished, or else the consequences would be disastrous. Likewise, getting out of the Social Security and Medicare tangles will need to be an extremely delicate procedure, with care taken to ensure that no innocent dependents of these systems are harmed. But to think about these issues cogently does not require the abandonment of libertarianism; it simply requires taking libertarianism to the next, more sophisticated level.
July 27, 2009
I was recently asked by an individual who was favorably inclined toward my position on road privatization about possible obstacles with regard to the privatization of large interstate highways. Would not this market be dominated by a few large firms, which would be able to easily collude with one another to the detriment of the consumer? I believe that this would not be a threat in a genuinely free market.
A historical parallel comes to mind: the railroads of the 19th century — which were competitively built by multiple companies. The railroads spanned up to the width of the American continent, and many railroads were built in parallel, ultimately getting passengers and cargo from the same initial city or town of departure to the same destination. With private competition in the construction of roads, I see no reason why interstate highways could not also be built in parallel by multiple companies, which would then bring about the well-known effects of competition on increasing product quality while lowering the price.
I would also like to note that a lack of capital would not be an issue, as railroads were just as capital-intensive in their time as today’s highways are — not to mention the cost of trains and the crew to operate them. And today, due to the economic growth of the past century, there is much more private capital available for constructing new highways. Moreover, any attempt at collusion by however many private road companies end up existing will be fraught by the well-known problems plaguing any cartel. Cartels that do not have a coercive backing behind them are inherently unstable, as each member has a financial incentive to defect and undercut the rest of the market in price or outdo fellow cartel members by offering a higher standard of quality than was agreed to. Moreover, a free-market cartel would not be able to keep out non-cartel newcomers, who, by charging lower prices or offering better goods, can undercut the entire cartel. Thus, our hypothetical private road companies would need to be worried not only about existing competition, but also about the potential competition that might arise if they were to offer unfavorable terms to the consumer.***
July 16, 2009
How can one succeed in life? How can one become extraordinarily accomplished, prosperous, safe, and happy? Contrary to what most people might think, it is not by following the conventional understandings and definitions of what one ought to do.
The orthodox paths in life have already been tried millions of times. If you want to make something of your life, pursue an unorthodox path. This is not sufficient for success, but it is necessary – so you are doing something right if your approach is unorthodox. I attribute virtually all of my success to date to my numerous departures from orthodoxy.
Not all departures from orthodoxy are created equal, however; some will destroy the individual pursuing them. Any departure from conventional ways must be done for a reason, with a thoroughly considered understanding of why it is superior to what most other people do.***
April 18, 2009
An excellent new essay by Patri Friedman, “Beyond Folk Activism,” discusses some fundamental shortcomings of traditional pro-freedom activism and suggests less intuitive but more powerful ways to overcome these shortcomings. As creatures who evolved in small tribes where everyone had the ability to directly speak to and persuade everyone else, we humans still have the intuition that by talking about an issue sufficiently with the people around us, we can effect substantial change. In the highly complex, technological civilization of modernity – with billions of people to persuade rather than tens – this approach does not work. The best kinds of activism are the ones that do not require the participation or even the agreement of the vast majority of people, and Friedman’s Seasteading project attempts to do just that. Generally, a more sophisticated and effective activist needs to focus on creating new kinds of goods – including technologies and capital goods – that advance the cause of liberty in themselves, without requiring the assent of the general society to be brought into existence.
April 17, 2009
If all the conventional economic and moral arguments against the crackdown on illegal immigration were not enough, then consider this: the recent wave of persecutions and deportations of alleged “illegals” has led to American citizens being indefinitely detained and deported – in direct contravention of U. S. law. This article by Suzanne Gamboa discusses the case of Pedro Guzman, a mentally ill American-born citizen who was deported to Mexico upon suspicion of illegal status. Hundreds of other U. S. citizens have also been deported in this manner.
It is absolutely intolerable for even one American citizen to be denied the rights and privileges of citizenship due to overzealous and sloppy efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. And yet, if anyone is given the colossal power needed to keep track of and punish over 10 million people who have broken a rather silly law, then we can be sure that some mistakes will be made and some innocent people will suffer. The far more reasonable remedy to any of the negative effects of illegal immigration is to render the legal immigration process much easier, swifter, and more accepting – giving many of the currently illegal immigrants an incentive to take legitimate routes to residency in this country.
April 16, 2009
Alarmingly many theists argue that it was atheism that led to the genocides of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot during the 20th century – notwithstanding that atheism is not a positive doctrine and it was rather the dogma of communism that motivated these genocides. However, theists who argue this way often challenge non-believers to give instances where slaughters on such a grand scale were motivated by religious considerations. In fact, there happens to be such an instance, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) in China, where about 25 million people – mostly civilians – were killed in the course of an uprising orchestrated by the Christian convert and religious fanatic Hong Xiuquan. Hong’s regime was not only Christian, it was communistic – abolishing private property and mandating communal living and strict separation of the sexes.
By contrast, estimates of the death toll inflicted by Pol Pot only go as high as 2.3 million. This is still horrific, of course, and inexcusable. However, it is for this reason that I advise theists not to play the death-toll card anymore. Rather, it is important to recognize the dangers of all sorts of fanaticism and dogma, irrespective of their underlying metaphysics. Any set of ideas which does not incorporate a considerable degree of tolerance for opposing views is highly dangerous and likely to lead to horrendous destruction of lives and property.
April 15, 2009
I have no disrespect for many rank-and-file American conservatives – including serious academicians, middle-class professionals, and many college students who genuinely believe the ideas of today’s conservative “movement.” While I disagree with some of these ideas, I can admire those who adhere to them with sincere conviction and a genuine desire to do good in the world.
I have no comparable respect for most of the elites of today’s American conservative movement – who, in their personal lives, clearly do not practice what they preach. I do not simply refer to such religious figures as Ted Haggard or to such political figures as Larry Craig, who were exposed as practicing lifestyles they condemned. I point to much more routine indiscretions committed by the children of such elite conservatives as George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. I point to the routine personal vulgarity – which borders on and sometimes extends into the obscene – of such prominent conservative figures as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, and that artist widely considered to be a paragon of Christian virtue – Thomas Kinkade. This is, of course, not to mention the despicable spousal abandonment practiced by such men as John McCain and Newt Gingrich.
I have, over time, begun to see the American conservative movement as at least partially a scam perpetrated by ethically unscrupulous elites – who do not believe their own teachings – upon morally upright, conscientious, but credulous conservative petit-bourgeois and intellectuals. What the elites want is money and power; they do not actually wish to realize the principles they expound, but they need to expound the principles in order to receive the donations.
It is time for men of integrity among American conservatives to cease being the dupes of the Republican Party, megachurches, big talk show programs, and activist organizations whose real goal is to maintain a perpetual stream of funds from fairly ordinary and credulous people. Think for yourselves – and keep your money, too.
April 14, 2009
In behavioral finance, there is a well-known tendency of many people to consider themselves worse off after a financial net gain that happens under certain circumstances. For instance, if person A wins $10 million but then loses $8 million, he might consider himself worse off than he would have seen himself as being if he had simply won $1 million. Even though in absolute terms A is twice as wealthy in the first case as he would have been in the second, A will see his current position mostly in relation to the $10 million he once had and will thus consider himself to be in dire straits. This is, of course, an entirely irrational mindset; $2 million is clearly better than $1 million, all other things equal.
I think many people are afflicted by a similar mentality with regard to life itself. It is likely that even a majority of people think that life is not worth living under certain conditions. These conditions are virtually always worse than the conditions of those people’s lives at present – and so a descent into such conditions would entail a diminution of the quality of life. However, people who think that life is sometimes not worth living do not venture to make the proper comparison of lower quality of life to no quality of life. Rather, they compare some hypothetical or actual lower quality of life to a former higher quality of life – even though both are better than an absence of life altogether. In despair over their losses of liberty, privilege, health, loved ones, or any other values, they are willing to abandon everything else of value that they have by choosing to succumb to death. This is as irrational as a person who lost $8 million out of $10 million burning the other $2 million out of the belief that wealth is just not worth having unless there is a certain amount of it.
April 13, 2009
Religions and religious doctrines evolve all the time – and this is a fact that warrants hope. I have long speculated that some future strains of Christianity might come to view the promise of resurrection as one of renewed life in this world – not in some ethereal Platonic world of souls that many Christians today seem to consider Heaven to be.
Robert Ettinger, the founder of the cryonics movement, wrote an excellent short story, “The Penultimate Trump,” in 1948. In this story, the suspended animation of humans enables them to be restored to life and youthfulness hundreds of years later. At that time, they are judged on the basis of their past actions and, if they committed sufficient misdeeds, are flown to the penal colony on Mars, which has been renamed Hell. (I recommend everyone to read the full short story, so I will say no more on its contents.) Perhaps the promise of resurrection and judgment will be fulfilled through naturalistic means in this world – and cryonically preserved humans will indeed be judged by their more morally advanced future counterparts upon their revival.
An even more distant future possibility might be the revival of non-preserved humans from even a remoter past, if it ever becomes possible to reconstitute entire bodies and minds from the data included in whatever DNA samples from these persons might have remained. In this case, the “judgment” might consist of deciding whom to revive. We would want Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin around, but not Hitler or Tamerlane.
I myself am an atheist, but I welcome any adjustments in the theological views of religious people that would render such persons more comfortable with and supporting of technological progress that will ultimately benefit us all.
April 12, 2009
One of the most ludicrous allegations made by some theists is that one needs to believe in God in order to appreciate beauty in the world and in art. Such a claim needs only one counterexample of an atheist artist, musician, or admirer of the arts to refute. Several such counterexamples are extremely well-known.
French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) repeatedly referred to
himself as an atheist in his letters. The virtuoso Italian violinist
Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was well-known as an atheist during his
day. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was documented to have said of all
religious creeds and writings, "Not a word of it is true."
French composer Charles-Camille
Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was an atheist, as was Richard Wagner
(1813-1883) during the time when he wrote his most monumental music.
An excellent article by Madalyn Murray O’Hair documents atheistic and freethinking tendencies among some of the most famous composers of human history. If these men could compose works of universally recognized beauty, then surely a belief in God is not required for esthetic appreciation!
April 11, 2009
With regard to enjoying life, I am, of course, not opposed to it – and I, like all human beings, seek out enjoyment in a variety of circumstances. I do, however, try to follow a permanent enjoyment hypothesis, much akin to Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis. That is, I try to sustainably spread my enjoyment throughout my life (and perhaps to increase its sustainable quantity per unit time whenever possible). However, I think it is also important to take care that present enjoyment does not undermine one’s future capacity for enjoyment – and this often requires one to endure a certain level of inconvenience and struggle in order to not suffer much more in the future. Those who maximize enjoyment now at the expense of future enjoyment – or even in a manner that causes great future suffering – are not acting prudently or with foresight as far as enjoying life is concerned.
April 10, 2009
I was once asked whether some experiences were so worthwhile as to justify a willingness to sacrifice one’s life in order to have such experiences. The question was phrased as follows: “Is it possible that a finite life with experience A is preferred to an [indefinite] life without experience A?” I do not think so and, moreover, I think the dilemma is a bit artificial. A life of indefinite duration will always give one the possibility of pursuing experience A at some point in the future. If one missed having A now, one can always catch up on it thousands or millions of years in the future. No A is worth so much to me that I would be willing to cut off my future ability to exist or to experience anything for it.
I think that my argument is the one that better incorporates the idea that anything is better than nothing. If, without life, one has nothing, then anything that one has or experiences while alive is better than that nothing. Ceteris paribus, a longer life is better; that is, being able to live one’s life up to the present plus X years is always better than being able to live one’s life up to the present plus (X – Y) years, where Y > 0, no matter what happens during those extra Y years.
April 9, 2009
A curious dilemma accompanies proposals to keep people alive forever by “uploading” their memories and consciousness onto a computer or outfitting them with new bodies sometime after their deaths – bodies which are identical to the originals in physical structure and the makeup of memories.
Even if, hypothetically, after your death, it were possible to replicate the exact same physical structure and memories of the exact same life history as you have at present, I doubt that this individual would have the same state of awareness that you presently have of your existence and surroundings. Permit me to posit a hypothetical scenario. If a physically identical copy of you were created right now, with the same memories as yourself, you would not perceive the world from the vantage point of this person – although he, too, would consider himself to be you. Now separate this person in time from yourself at present, and you will see that it is unlikely that this person’s awareness would be a continuation of your own. He will be as apart from you, consciousness-wise, as any other person who is not you. Looking back from his vantage point, he will believe himself to have been you and to have experienced your life. However, looking forward, you cannot expect to be aware of what he experiences once his body has been constituted. I strongly suspect that only some underlying continuity of the physical processes within the same body can bring about a continuity of consciousness.
April 8, 2009
Some people have argued to me that life without freedom is not worth living, in part because one’s consciousness can thrive under liberty in a qualitatively different (and better) way than it can under unfreedom. I agree that the individual’s consciousness thrives better under liberty than under non-liberty, but there is also no natural law guaranteeing that one’s consciousness must thrive or that one must have anything desirable at all – including liberty or life itself. I will take everything desirable that I can get, and I do not expect that the cosmos must give me some particular kind of life or standard of living. Rather, I will use any existing state I am in (including a state of unfreedom) to get to a better state – with more liberty, prosperity, and happiness. To give up on any efforts at improvement simply because one finds the initial state of affairs undesirable is to me akin to the attitude of a person who starves himself to death because he cannot access the gourmet foods to which he has been accustomed. Gourmet foods are great, but I will eat gruel if it is my only option for the time being.
April 7, 2009
I often hear the claim that life without liberty is not worth living. Whenever I hear this, I need to ask, of course, what is the purpose of liberty. The purpose of liberty is for the individual to have the ability to take all those actions which contribute to preserving and improving his life. Liberty exists to make life (or at least better life) possible – not the other way around.
Note that a dead person has neither life nor liberty; he has nothing. So there are three options as far as slavery is concerned:
1) Both life and liberty;
2) Life but no liberty;
3) No life and no liberty.
While option 1) is clearly preferable to all the others, option 2) is preferable to option 3), because something is preferable to nothing. Besides, a man who has temporarily lost his liberty can live to fight another day and bring back that liberty when the opportunity is right. A man who has lost his life has also lost his liberty forever; he will never have it back.
April 6, 2009
One approach that many theists will use to convince you that their religion is at least just as plausible as a rational, naturalistic worldview is stating that every worldview requires one to accept certain arbitrary starting premises or value judgments. In the case of the theists, then, the arbitrary starting premises are that their god or gods created the universe and that it/they is/are the source(s) and arbiter(s) of morality. These theists will then claim that an atheist also starts with some arbitrary premises, such as the sole status of the senses and reason as instruments that can convey knowledge as well as the status of the individual’s life as the highest moral value. It is important to avoid conceding that these premises are just as arbitrary as the theists’ assumption that their god(s) of choice exist(s).
When an atheist, materialist, and rationalist discusses his starting premises or axioms, he must be clear that these axioms are either true because it is impossible to meaningfully deny them without lapsing into contradiction or because they are observed to be true through ubiquitous experience — quite unlike the posited deities of any religion. While it is true that every person’s worldview has starting premises, these premises need not be arbitrary, and any system whose starting premises are not arbitrary is superior to any system whose starting premises are.***
April 3, 2009
The April 2009 edition of The Freeman, the magazine issued by the Foundation of Economic Education, includes my essay, “Globalization: Extending the Market and Human Well Being.” In this essay, which won FEE’s first annual Eugene S. Thorpe award, I argue that globalization permits the greatest possible extent of the market – i.e., the entire world. Globalization enables the production of specialized goods that would not have been produced otherwise and facilitates greater product variety. This essay is particularly relevant considering that we may be facing an increased push for economic protectionism in the United States today. A PDF version of the April 2009 issue of The Freeman is available for free.
One of my favorite aspects of The Freeman is the magazine’s highly generous policy of permitting reprinting of its articles under a Creative Commons license. So if anyone wishes to republish my essay in any venue, it is perfectly fine to do so with proper attribution.
March 21, 2009
Punishing violations of the law with fines can be problematic; it can generate perverse incentives for law enforcers, particularly if the fines are used to fund the operations and salaries of law enforcement officials. Then there exists an incentive to invent new kinds of violations just to collect the fines or to punish existing kinds of violations with a disproportionate amount of severity. Many police departments are particularly arbitrary and draconian with regard to punishing minor traffic violations toward the end of the month, because they need to fill a quota of fines collected in order to remain adequately funded.
My proposed solution to this is as follows. Keep the fines as penalties for genuine violations of individual rights and the safety of others. However, the present law enforcement officials should not be able to benefit from the fines. Rather, the fine money should be put into a savings account and accumulate interest until existing law enforcement officials are replaced. Then the successors get to use the fine money their predecessors collected. In this way, the people charging the fines do not get to personally benefit from them and can enforce the law in a more detached, objective, and even-handed fashion.
March 20, 2009
I wrote yesterday that most problems in life are technical. This has particular bearing on those “high-minded” individuals who disdain the technical fields of endeavor as somehow “beneath” them, while preferring to concentrate on the “nobler” things in life – i.e., asking questions of the greatest possible generality whose answers have been disputed for millennia because of those questions' imprecise formulations – formulations that are open to a myriad of semantic ambiguities.
When a man who claims to advocate any set of principles disdains the technical fields in life, he ends up undermining his own principles. By failing to properly organize his endeavors and ensure their practical, real-world success, he sets himself up to replicate the failed systems and schemes of his opposition – virtually by default. I have encountered all too many a “libertarian” or “free-market” organization that operates internally like a central planning board which micromanages the organization’s members while leaving no room for individual entrepreneurship or initiative. By failing to think about how to technically implement their principles, the well-intentioned leadership of such organizations simply reverted to the default accepted modes of organization, which are all rigidly hierarchical, extremely lag-prone, and highly inefficient in some manner or another.
March 19, 2009
Most problems in life are not great clashes of values or principles – either internal or external. Rather, they are technical issues – issues about how in particular to arrange the material world so as to minimize human suffering and maximize possible gain. When the best technical solutions to existing problems are not recognized, this is due more to many people’s stupidity than to their malice.
It is much more intuitive to see the world as composed of grand conflicts of visions – clashes of good versus evil – but the reality is much more tangled and particular. Only by looking at the particular, detailed, and minute – considerations of logistics, technology, communication, and incentives – is it possible to resolve most conflicts so that they do not even get to the “clash of visions” stage – as clashes of visions are simplistic mental shorthand for a large variety of particular technical miscalibrations.
March 18, 2009
In an excellent short essay, Dr. Burton Folsom – a renowned historian and economic thinker with whom I am personally acquainted – explains the reasons for the failure of the National Road, one of the first major federal public works projects in United States history, which was virtually defunct by the 1850s. The road’s construction and maintenance were plagued with inefficiency, as decisions about how to build it were made out of political, not technical, considerations. Even the Jefferson administration – which enacted the construction of the road – was not immune from the influence of pressure groups, each trying to get the road to go into its own district. Ultimately, the National Road ended up not contributing substantively to westward expansion and settlement, as private roads and railroads were preferred for personal and business travel.
March 17, 2009
It turns out that the conventional wisdom, stating that executing a murderer costs less than incarcerating him, is simply false. According to this article from Associated Press, it actually costs over ten times more to executive an individual than to keep him imprisoned for life. Many of the costs occur in the form of lawyers’ fees, the highly convoluted and inefficient appeals system, and upkeep for prisoners who may spend decades on death row. Many states are considering repealing the death penalty now in order to introduce more fiscal sanity into their budgets.
This is one powerful argument for repealing the death penalty; the government cannot do it right and cannot do it efficiently. Why should taxpayers be assessed multiple millions of dollars per executed person? Is that not a case of punishing the innocent – the general public whose members have not committed any crime to deserve such a fine?
March 16, 2009
It is not commonly mentioned, but rather interesting, that Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), the great Austrian economist and champion of free markets, spent much of his life employed in a government position. From 1907 to 1908 and again from 1918 to 1938, Mises had a position with the Kammer für Handel, Gewerbe und Industrie, the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, where he acted as an advisor to the Austrian government on economic matters. (You can read more about this in the biography of Mises on the Ludwig von Mises Institute page.) Mises always gave honest, well-informed, principled advice and several times prevented Austria’s slide into complete socialism. He even convinced the socialist Otto Bauer not to institute a complete command economy!
Mises was benefited by his position in that it enabled him to earn a living despite the frequent attacks he and his ideas encountered in Austria. As a man of Jewish descent, of laissez-faire ideals, and of a highly principled, uncompromising disposition, Mises was often not given the treatment he deserved in academia. He was only able to get an unpaid Privatdozent position at the University of Vienna, despite his extensive record of world-class economic writings. But he could conduct his free private seminars without care for how financially profitable they were or how well-received they were by the academic establishment. By having a position outside of the academic system – and the Viennese society which often misunderstood him – Mises could have a degree of free rein that enabled him to create some of his greatest works.
This can be a lesson to many free-market advocates. Working for the government may be a good career choice – provided that one remains true to one’s principles and does one’s job in a way that constitutes a marginal improvement compared to what would have occurred had someone else (say, a new Eliot Spitzer) held that job. It can also buy one the time and flexibility to develop ideas and products that advance free markets outside one’s day job.
March 9, 2009
The proper attitude toward practices that can be deemed “traditional” is neither to accept them just because they are traditional nor to reject them just because they are traditional. Each approach demonstrates a fundamental dependence on tradition that is simply unwarranted for a rational individual. A rational individual evaluates each practice on its own merits and rejects a practice if he sees a good reason to do so. On the other hand, he does not attack a practice if he does not see anything explicitly or indirectly harmful about it. In this way, it is possible to give all things traditional the benefit of the doubt in the absence of evidence. There are so many known dangers in the world that to fight anything else is an improper allocation of resources. Let traditions stand where they do no damage, but fight them with all of your abilities when they diminish human well-being!
March 8, 2009
I am quite fond of happy endings – in books, movies, plays, short fiction, and virtually any other creative medium. It seems that the majority of consumers of these media share my taste. Why prefer happy endings even if in real life there is no poetic justice much of the time, the good people do not necessarily prevail, and absolutely nasty twists of circumstance can destroy an otherwise promising situation – or even a good life?
Happy endings to particular episodes are indeed possible – although they do not always happen. One of the functions of good art is to show people what can be and ought to be, to paraphrase Ayn Rand. Many people’s lives are frequently dominated by some kind of tragic flaw or misfortune, and they seek – even if they are unable to recognize this explicitly – some kind of alternative, some kind of vision of a world where this obstacle can be overcome. Happy endings inspire individuals to fight sources of suffering in their own lives, whereas tragic endings can often only lead to resignation to a miserable condition. (On the other hand, of course, some tragic endings can be useful in serving a didactic purpose – instructing the audience as to what not to do in order to avoid undesirable consequences. But only a certain proportion of stories needs to have this role.) Even if one’s own life is not dominated by happy endings, one can draw on fiction as a way of seeing and working toward some realistic possibilities for greater success, safety, and prosperity.***
March 7, 2009
An article by Alex Morales reports that an error in satellite sensors has led climate scientists to greatly underestimate the amount of Arctic sea ice by an area the size of California. This is yet another of a series of recent discoveries regarding faulty data which adds to the mountain of evidence disputing the ill-conceived and politicized theory of anthropogenic global warming. Although manmade-global-warming alarmists are still not giving up in trying to rescue their pet theory, empirical reality continues to elude their preconceived mental framework. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green!” Or, more appropriately for the situation, the glaciers of the Arctic spring ever white!
In any good natural science, when the data contradict the theory, the theory must be rejected. It is time for the dubious theory of anthropogenic global warming to be consigned to the dustbin of failed ideas.
March 6, 2009
highly laudable new invention will likely soon be adopted by the
British military. It is d30, a gel that hardens immediately when it
experiences a high-energy impact, such as the one created by a moving
bullet. Thomas Harding’s article, “Military
to use new gel that stops bullets,”
describes this innovative new way of protecting the lives of soldiers
in combat. Moreover, this gel is expected to be applied to many
sporting goods as well to reduce the likelihood of injury due to an
accident in such diverse pursuits as horseback riding, ballet,
skiing, and hockey. The d30 gel is yet another triumph of human
chemistry knowledge and engineering. It promises to make our lives
safer and even to soften some of the devastating impact of wars.
Perhaps civilians during wartime could also be outfitted with clothes
containing this gel in order to minimize “collateral damage.”
Humanitarian organizations could distribute such clothes to areas
that are at risk of being subject to armed conflict.
March 5, 2009
Who says that the Internet has brought about the decline of the practice of poetry? Quite the contrary, the Internet has led to an impressive resurgence of poetry consumption and production, and the popularity of both well-established and new poets is on the rise. The Telegraph article “Internet ‘is causing poetry boom’” gives the details on this amazing development. Because the Internet and a series of related technologies permit voice recordings of poetry to be made and easily distributed for free, this has brought about a revival of interest in and unprecedented accessibility of spoken poetry, which captures many of the qualities of good poetry that might elude silent reading.
As one who has published numerous poems on the Internet, I can safely say that this new medium’s existence was a necessary condition for my own creation of poetry. I would likely not have expended nearly as much time or energy on creating poems if I could not find a reliable audience for them, as I presently do online. When one can seek out appreciative readers and listeners from anywhere in the world, one has much greater chances of success than when one is limited to one’s immediate geographic proximity.
March 1, 2009
Here, I will briefly discuss an approach that virtually anyone can use to maximize productivity – i.e., the amount of work accomplished per unit time. This is not quite the practice known as multi-tasking, as that involves more of a frequent shift from one activity to another – often with time and energy lost in the transition. What I am offering is much less stressful and more effective.
We all have some faculties that can be exercised simultaneously and others that cannot be. For instance, I am able to read and listen to music at the same time, but not read and talk at the same time. I can draw and listen to music, or draw and talk, or draw and listen to a book read to me at the same time – but I cannot draw and read at the same time. I can run and listen to music at the same, and I can run and read at the same time (if I am on an elliptical trainer). I can even run, read, and listen to music at the same time – but it is extremely difficult for me to run and speak at the same time. I suspect that different people may have different combinations of faculties that can and cannot be exercised simultaneously.
The parallel use of faculties involves employing at the same time those abilities that can be comfortably exercised simultaneously. For instance, I am able to get a lot of reading done on an elliptical trainer – while listening to music. Much of my exercise, then, is accompanied simultaneously by work and by leisure.
Time is limited, and all of us have only 24 hours in a day. But by using one’s faculties in parallel, one will find oneself able to accomplish increasingly more – aided by a bit of self-knowledge and creative juxtaposition of activities. To do this, one may need to think somewhat unconventionally about the manner in which a particular task gets done. For instance, reading a particular book might be replaced by reading an audiobook or listening to a voice reader program read the text. Running outside might be replaced with running on a machine. Just thinking about these possibilities might enable you to recognize opportunities for improvement in close proximity that a more passive observer might have missed.
February 19, 2009
Kiva.org, a microlending site, gives individuals the ability to lend directly to entrepreneurs in poor countries who need small amounts of money to purchase equipment for their businesses. The site cooperates with a variety of field partners in other countries and gives lenders the option to pick the entrepreneurs to whom they entrust their money. Each field partner has its own rating, ranging from one to five stars and indicative of the riskiness of the loan. Thus, individuals can select the projects they give to based on their own risk tolerance. The Internet permits for a versatile, dynamic system of feedback regarding which loans actually got repaid and therefore contributed to actual profitable enterprises.
If you are ever in a charitable mood, go to Kiva.org and other sites like it instead of giving your money to huge multinational aid agencies – where you have no verification regarding exactly how and where your money will be spent and whether it will have any real impact. Charity can work, but only if there is a direct, visible link and strong accountability between lenders and borrowers.
February 18, 2009
Mike at Coated.com describes an eminently useful new invention developed at Draper Laboratories – a tattoo that enables diabetic patients to monitor their level of blood sugar without undergoing often troublesome blood tests. The tattoo changes color based on the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, so a moment’s glance will tell patients whether they are in the healthy range. Aside from removing the inconvenience and pain of using needles, this tattoo will enable a quicker response should abnormal glucose levels be detected.
The trend of technological progress is to make virtually everything less painful, less invasive, more customized and customizable, and empowering to the individual. This new tattoo will enable more diabetic patients to lead healthier, fuller lives.
February 16, 2009
In Part 3, Chapter X of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes a subpopulation of immortal humans – the Struldbrugs – which live forever but upon reaching the age of eighty lose the soundness of their mental faculties, their memory, and many human virtues. The Struldbrugs, moreover, continue to senesce and become increasingly decrepit as they become older. Swift makes the argument that this kind of immortality is to be pitied, not desired.
Fortunately, this kind of immortality can only exist in Swift’s fictional world. Living forever while becoming increasingly senesced and losing ever more of one’s faculties is practically a contradiction in terms – considering that it is the accumulation of damage due to senescence that eventually kills people. Any sustainable immortality for real-world humans would have to come through the reversal of senescence by either periodically removing the damage and revitalizing the body or by delaying the process long enough for further, more efficacious treatments to be developed.
So immortal humans will also be forever young – or, more precisely, any biological age they want to be. I suspect that most people will choose to look like today’s 25-year-olds – fully physically and mentally mature but without any signs of bodily decay setting in. This kind of indefinite longevity is precisely what Aubrey de Grey refers to as engineered negligible senescence and outlines in his approach, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). Swift himself recognizes, through the words of Gulliver, that such a kind of immortality would be highly desirable. Non-senescing immortals would, according to Swift, “have their minds free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehensions of death!” Gulliver proceeds to describe how he would accumulate wealth, knowledge, and virtue beyond the limits of mortal humans’ abilities if he could have indefinite life. With a healthy body and a functioning mind, everything in Swift’s description and more could be quite attainable.
February 15, 2009
A refreshing and well-argued short essay by mathematician Bob Palais, entitled, "Pi is wrong!", challenges the nearly revered place of the number π = 3.141592653… in mathematics. Palais argues that due recognition should be given not to π but to 2π = 6.283185307. This would greatly increase the notational elegance of many mathematical formulas, including Euler’s famous formula, eiπ = -1. If a symbol for 2π existed, the formula incorporating it would have a 1 on the right side. 2π is also the number of radians equivalent to a 360-degree turn – and it would be much easier to learn properties of the unit circle in such a notational convention is adopted. Mr. Palais even proposes a symbol for 2π, a π with a third leg in the middle.
Mr. Palais’s argument illustrates the follies of getting locked into a single notational convention – as happens with both languages and mathematical/scientific disciplines. Any given notational convention may have some advantages but is sub-optimal in other respects. It is best to maintain flexibility and openness with regard to notations (and this includes spellings, too!) in the hopes that the best uses of any particular system or element of notation would be found by individuals working on problems to which such notation is relevant. As always, homogeneity enforced by culture – or worse, by force – stifles innovation, creativity, and elegance.
February 14, 2009
On Friday, February 13, 2009, the House of Representatives passed the $787 billion economic “stimulus” package, consisting of $281 billion in tax cuts and $506 billion in additional government spending. I welcome the tax cuts and oppose most of the new spending, and on balance the stimulus is likely to be detrimental – but there is one aspect of this vote that is quite encouraging.
As this article by Andrew Taylor reports, every single House Republican voted against the “stimulus.” This might mean that Republicans have finally begun to revert to once again being a voice for limited (or at least more limited) government.
The Republican Party went on a horrifying spree of spending, inflation, regimentation, human-rights violations, corruption, and incompetence during the past eight years. Republicans deserved to lose massively in both 2006 and 2008. Now they are once again in the opposition. Because they do not control the federal government anymore, and Obama is from the “other” party, Republicans – even the highly unprincipled ones – have an incentive to oppose Obama’s favored policies simply because he is Obama. This might lead them – perhaps inadvertently – to support free markets and oppose further expansions of federal-government power. Perhaps they will pull enough Democrats to their side to block some further federal regulatory and spending increases. Seven Democrats in the House did vote against the “stimulus,” and more might come to oppose Obama on future measures.
I hope, for the sake of the future of all Americans, that Republicans do a better job in the opposition than they did in power.
February 13, 2009
The ocean quahog – or Arctica islandica – is another fascinating organism of extreme longevity, one that exhibits negligible senescence and lives about 5 times longer than the typical human.
In 2007, a clam was found by researchers from North Wales’s Bangor University; the clam’s age was found to be between 405 and 410 years. The clam was named Ming – the name of the Chinese dynasty in power when it was born. It is uncertain how much longer this creature would have lived, as it unfortunately died as its age was being determined. I hope that in the future, less invasive techniques of calculating the ages of ocean quahogs might be found so that it would be possible to observe if and when such creatures die of senescence.
Surely, we humans can do at least as well as a clam in terms of how long we live! Figuring out how to do this is the great challenge of scientists in the 21st century.
* “Artctica islandica.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
* “List of Some Animals and Plants with Negligible Senescence.” Human Ageing Genomic Resources.
February 11, 2009
A genuinely heroic show of independence, integrity, and respect for the free market were shown by Deutsche Bank and its chairman Josef Ackermann, who refused the German government’s offer to bail out the bank after it had posted a loss for the first time since the Second World War. This article from AFP reports the details on this development. It is highly encouraging that at least some people in the business community understand that the free-market system is a system of profits and losses, and that occasional losses – or even regular, major losses – are no justification for seeking government aid. Ackermann rightly pointed out that the losses signaled to him some weaknesses regarding Deutsche Bank’s former business plan – weaknesses that can be revised to improve the bank’s performance. The companies that are bailed out, on the other hand, will have no incentive to correct their flaws, so they will be digging themselves deeper into the already enormous hole they are in.
I suspect that Deutsche Bank will survive the current crisis, while many of its bailed-out competitors will no longer exist in a few years.
February 8, 2009
I was delighted to find out recently that my essay, “Liberation by Internet,” has been translated into Chinese. You can see the translation here and here. I appreciate the work of the translator, whom I will not mention by name, because I do not wish for the Chinese government’s attention to be drawn to him or her.
Chinese-speaking audiences will benefit from this essay in particular, as it explains how the Internet is a means for colossal, unprecedented individual emancipation from government oversight and control. The Chinese government has made futile attempts to censor Internet content by blocking certain search terms on search engines and monitoring some of its subjects’ Internet use. This, as my essay explains and the existence of its translation shows, is not enough to stop the spread of information to individuals who are interested in pursuing truth and liberty.
“Liberation by Internet” has been quite influential in recent months. It has been referenced in a commentary on the blog This is No Place, and I recently received an extensive e-mail from a long-operating computer entrepreneur who had read it and whose experiences corroborated my thesis.
February 7, 2009
What do you do if you are a fourteenth-century monk who needs paper to write a prayer book? Why, you take the writings of one of the greatest mathematical thinkers who ever lived, try to erase them, and write your petty incantations in their stead! This is what a French monk some 700 years ago did to a book by the ancient Greek genius Archimedes. An article by Julie Rehmeyer in Science News discusses this travesty, which led some of Archimedes’ greatest insights to be lost to humanity for seven centuries, until x-ray fluorescence imaging techniques could reveal the text underneath.
The fascinating part of this discovery is that Archimedes was beginning to arrive at the principles of calculus – two millennia before Newton or Leibniz.
The tremendously saddening part of it all is that Newton and Leibniz might have had a much easier time discovering the calculus – or it might already have been discovered before them – were it not for a backward monk who would use anything and everything for his prayer book. In this case, religious zealotry possibly set back the progress of human civilization by centuries. This is, of course, not to mention all those great mathematical works of antiquity that have been irretrievably lost because the monks who erased them were not so sloppy.
When will superstition and fanaticism cease setting back the progress of mankind? When will the savage disrespect for knowledge of some cease robbing the rest of us of opportunities?
February 6, 2009
Google and NASA have contributed funding and support to Singularity University, whose chancellor is to be none other than Dr. Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor and futurist who predicts a dramatic acceleration in the rate of technological progress – which will yield unprecedented solutions to many of the greatest problems currently confronting humanity.
According to its mission statement, “Singularity University aims to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.“
This institution is likely to contribute significantly to technological and scientific progress, as it will serve as a means of integrating knowledge from a variety of cutting-edge fields and thereby reversing much of the rigid compartmentalization that has occurred in many academic and technical disciplines during the twentieth century.
I look forward to seeing what ideas and innovations come out of Singularity University in the coming years.
February 5, 2009
The LiveScience article, “Teleportation Milestone Achieved,” discusses a recent success in actually teleporting information between two atoms – more particularly, two ytterbium ions – over the distance of a meter. This is an unprecedented development and will be highly useful for the development of quantum computing, which will be much faster than today’s computers in searching databases and doing encryption calculations.
Although I have previously voiced skepticism about the philosophical and metaphysical interpretations of quantum mechanics, I have never had any problem with the mathematics or practical applications of quantum physics. If a particular procedure can bring about fruitful results – and if quantum theory leads to the procedure – then, by all means, the theory should be used as at least the best available model. However, it is wise to heed the advice of Richard Feynman – who knew more about quantum mechanics than those who try to construct metaphysical propositions from it – and who said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Technical breakthroughs – not philosophical ones – are what quantum physics is good for.
February 4, 2009
In a fantastic though still incomplete scientific breakthrough, Spanish scientists briefly resurrected the Pyrenean ibex, which went extinct in 2000. The Telegraph article, “Extinct ibex is resurrected by cloning,” describes how a living Pyrenean ibex, genetically identical to its extinct ancestors, had been created via cloning and survived for seven minutes. While it is quite sad that this specimen did not live longer, the very possibility of bringing forth such creatures opens a world of opportunity both for resurrecting endangered species and conserving existing ones.
Those who value the preservation of certain animal species should not resist human technological progress. Quite the contrary, improved technology – particularly biotechnology – is the key to achieving an unprecedented level of security for many species which animal lovers wish to see preserved.
February 3, 2009
The Turritopsis nutricula, the immortal jellyfish I discussed earlier, is proliferating throughout the world’s oceans. The Telegraph article, “’Immortal’ jellyfish swarming across the world,” describes a “worldwide silent invasion” of these creatures, whose recent increase in numbers has truly been phenomenal.
I think that the ability to expand so readily due to eternal longevity is a strength, not a weakness. Contrary to the fears of those who wish to avert “overpopulation,” I envision a rapidly expanding human habitat. As humans live increasingly longer (and as there are more of them), many of them will find ways to live on the oceans, underwater, in outer space, or even on other planets. The technological, economic, and cultural gains from such expansion and diversification of the human species will be tremendous. For one, the species will be immune from extinction if humans settle even a few other planets or satellites.
We have a lot to learn from our remote hydrozoan relatives. Meanwhile, I wish them – and my readers – long lives.
February 2, 2009
Some people do not know when to stop inserting God and Jesus into every aspect of their lives and conversations. I have to shake my head at those people and hope that they will grow out of such futile and ridiculous nonsense. But a much stronger form of my censure and condemnation is directed at people who spew hate at others who fail to insert God and Jesus into every aspect of their lives, conversations, and work.
My full sympathies and support go to Sir David Attenborough – host of numerous quality nature documentaries – who has been receiving hate mail simply for failing to mention God in his films! This kind of intolerance is barbaric and inexcusable. Moreover, it verges on harassment, as Mr. Attenborough is sometimes told to “burn in Hell” simply for not mentioning God.
As a proud atheist and enemy of all forms of bigotry, fanaticism, and intolerance, I hope that Sir David will persist with his excellent films and that his detractors are seen as the vicious haters that they are.
February 1, 2009
An excellent essay on The1585.com describes yet one more easily preventable death of a child – Kara Neumann – due to the decision of cultishly religious parents to deny her medical treatment that was virtually guaranteed to save her life. About one child dies in the United States every month due to such inexcusable negligence.
This case illustrates a vital principle: freedom of religion does not extend to acts that endanger the lives of others – no matter how old those others might be. Parents have an obligation to ensure the continued life and well-being of their children, and if they through their own decisions prevent that life and well-being from being actualized and perpetuated, then they are guilty of child abuse. Denying a child medical treatment for religious reasons is no different from denying such treatment on a whim or because a pink unicorn in a dream told the parents to do so.
Children have rights, too, and one of these rights is not to die because of their parents’ stupidity, irrationality, and “faith.”
January 31, 2009
I was recently informed by a fellow friend of liberty and admirer of the ideas of Ayn Rand that a large number of adherents to Ayn Rand’s philosophy – Objectivism – are planning to purchase the Plume edition of Atlas Shrugged on February 2, 2009 – the 104th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birthday. The book is currently ranked 92nd on Amazon.com, and the aim of the book bomb participants is to raise the book’s rank to first. Then, the hope is that a large number of people who have previously not been introduced to Ayn Rand’s work will begin to pay attention to it and will refer to it for solid counterarguments against the disastrous political and economic course pursued by the U. S. government during the past several years and decades.
A considerable debate has been taking place among Objectivists regarding the merits of the book bomb as a way to increase exposure to Ayn Rand’s work. You can see many of the discussions on the Objectivism Online forum.
I will personally not be participating in the book bomb, as I already own two different editions of Atlas Shrugged, and I am running out of space to hold my extensive library of books!
However, if you do not yet own a copy of this book, I certainly encourage you to participate and purchase this edition. I own it already, and I find it conveniently portable. You might as well purchase it on February 2 – which is only two days away – and thereby help the book bomb effort as a side effect of your own purchase. Atlas Shrugged is an excellent read, and I believe it to be a necessary prerequisite for being philosophically and economically well-rounded – even if you end up disagreeing with some or all of the ideas in it.
Many Objectivists have argued that the book bomb is not the best way to spend money to advance rational ideas and have also claimed that the book bomb’s intention will fail even if it raises Atlas Shrugged to the first sales rank. This argument states in mild form that if enough people find out that the book bomb was a deliberate effort, then it will simply be seen as a propaganda push by devoted Objectivists and not a genuine spontaneous flowering of interest. Worse yet, Objectivists might be compared by their detractors to advocates of the wildly irrational cult of Scientology – which has used book bombs in the past.
I will not go so far as dissuading book-bomb advocates – because I think that they ought to try their idea and see what happens. It is sometimes possible to predict the outcome of future events through rational deliberation, but it is also useful to have direct empirical evidence in order to see how much weight each causal factor has in determining the outcome of an event. The kind of backlash that book-bomb skeptics foresee may happen, but the question is, to what degree? If 50,000 people are turned away from Objectivism by mistakenly likening it to Scientology but 500,000 are simply convinced to read Atlas Shrugged because they find out about it for the first time, then there would be a net gain of 450,000 people who are now at least aware of Ayn Rand’s ideas. That would be progress. Let the experiment take place and see what happens. I am also strongly inclined to think that the manner in which the book bomb is conducted may have an effect on its outcome. If each Objectivist participant purchases 50 copies of the book, then many will suspect foul play. On the other hand, if each person purchases one or two books, then it is entirely possible that other reasons besides the book bomb are involved – say, giving a copy of the book to a friend, a relative, or a library. This is the de facto equivalent of that friend, relative, or library purchasing the book, and there is nothing dishonest about this. Each book so purchased will genuinely introduce a new person or multiple people to Ayn Rand’s ideas.
January 28, 2009
Some Christians seek to convince non-believers in the divinity of Jesus Christ that either Christ was mad, a liar, or an actual god. This argument then relies the non-believer’s sense of tact – expecting the non-believer to avoid insulting the person of Jesus by calling him mad or a liar in front of someone who worships him – in order to extract an admission that Jesus is divine. This argument was strongly popularized by C. S. Lewis in his still influential collection of non sequiturs, Mere Christianity.
But the “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” argument fails for many reasons.
There is a fourth possibility that the argument discounts. Jesus could have been neither mad nor a liar, but sincerely mistaken about many important issues. Even the wisest and most intelligent of humans make serious intellectual mistakes, and often these mistakes entail such people’s misunderstanding of themselves and their role in the world. Consider that Alexander the Great – who was also not insane – also honestly believed himself to be a god – until, that is, he died of a fever at age 32.
Moreover, a fifth possibility is that Jesus was simply extremely politically savvy about the titles which influential men of his time tended to arrogate to themselves. It was Octavian Augustus who began the tradition of Roman emperors proclaiming themselves to be gods (see the “Deeds of the Divine Augustus,” which were written down during Jesus’s lifetime). By proclaiming himself a god, Jesus could have been trying to establish an alternate nexus of allegiance to that of the Roman emperors. This would understandably have been seen as a serious challenge to Roman authority – as Jesus would quite deliberately have been setting himself as a counterpower to Augustus’s successor Tiberius.
So the “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” argument holds no water. Jesus could have been honestly mistaken about his divinity, or he could have been politically clever in proclaiming himself a god in order to challenge Roman imperial power.
January 27, 2009
A substantial policy criticism of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address entails his inability to identify the genuine causes of this and other economic crises. Obama said,
“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”
I am glad that Obama at least recognizes that markets have greatly positive qualities. This is a mark in his favor. However, the reason that the market “spun out of control” during the housing bubble this decade and the high-technology bubble of the previous decade – as well as every other unsustainable, artificial economic boom of the twentieth century – is not a lack of a “watchful eye,” but rather an excess of regulations, restraints, and incentive distortions on the part of the federal government.
Obama should really familiarize himself with the works of Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who developed the Austrian Business Cycle Theory in the 1930s. Mises and Hayek explain that it is government central banks that cause the boom-bust cycle by artificially lowering interest rates below what they would be on the free market. This is what happened prior to every unsustainable boom in history.
Of course, it did not help that the Community Reinvestment Act in the late 1990s mandated banks to make the variable-rate subprime loans that were the proximate cause of the housing market crisis. It was the federal government that tried to keep housing prices artificially high and growing – a terrible blow to lower-income and middle-class (and even upper-middle-class!) Americans who wanted to buy houses but found them increasingly unaffordable. It was the federal government that created Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the 1930s and kept subsidizing them and encouraging their irresponsible behavior. Moreover, during the time of the housing bubble, there were more financial regulations than at any time in human history! This is not the absence of a “watchful eye.” Rather, the federal government is the factor that introduces chaos and massive upturns and downswings into the markets.
Moreover, it is precisely federal government intervention that favors only the prosperous – particularly by rendering goods such as education, health care, and housing prohibitively expensive through a myriad of regulations, licensing rules, subsidies that raise prices, restrictions on entry into a variety of fields, and protection of special interests. Free markets enable every individual to work for his own support and to spend his money as he pleases. Free markets are wonderful precisely because they can benefit everyone – including the poor – to a much greater extent than central planning can.
January 26, 2009
My major criticism of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address is its incredible, sometimes inscrutable, degree of vagueness. For instance, Obama said,
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”
As I pointed out earlier when I asked who the “we” Obama refers to are, specification is also needed with regard to many of the other terms Obama mentions. For example, what is the nature of “our” (the Obama administration’s?) “ambitions” and “big plans”? Is the ambition simply to achieve economic revitalization of the United States, or more specifically to do so through the federal government? Moreover, who is to be making the big plans – individuals or the federal government?
What is the “common purpose” that Obama is trying to extol? Since when does a vast, spontaneous order like an entire society and economy have a single purpose? Obama is here confusing the two Hayekian types of order – taxis, or the deliberately arranged order, and cosmos, or the emergent order. Societies and economies are emergent orders, while individual lives are to a great extent deliberately arranged orders. Individuals can have big plans for themselves and their own lives – but there are no “common purposes” beyond the purposes that all individuals individually agree to. Obama, it seems, would disagree with this, as he praises people who allegedly “saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.” With these words, Obama seems strongly to suggest that “society” can exist as a reified entity apart from the individuals comprising it. This is gravely mistaken and dangerous rhetoric.
Moreover, who are the “cynics” whom Obama criticizes? Surely, a presidential speech would not be devoted to criticizing those petty cynics who say that individuals cannot attain success in their lives or overcome hardships. Those kinds of cynics are too infrequent for Obama (or most of the rest of us) to pay any attention to. Does Obama mean to call “cynics” the advocates of free markets, limited government, constitutional restraints, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy? If so, then what is so cynical about these positions – and even if they are cynical, what warrant does Obama have to suggest that such cynicism is unjustified?
January 25, 2009
Now I come to the parts of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address which I found somewhat dubious, be it in their content or in their vagueness. Obama said the following:
“The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”
Whether this statement is to be praised or heavily criticized depends on the identity of the “we” to whom Obama continually refers. Are the “we” private individuals who, each in their own capacity, pursue these improvements? Or are the “we” federal government officials who arrogate to themselves the power to speak for us all? If the “we” are the former, then there is nothing to fear; then Obama’s speech becomes a simple encouragement for people to be creative, to innovate, and to develop new technologies and infrastructures to adapt to changing conditions. But if the “we” are the latter – the federal government officials – then Obama’s policies would stifle progress, growth, and innovation in the name of fostering them. Only people can create, build and innovate. The federal government can only regiment, prohibit, and coerce. The best the federal government can do in order to encourage the kinds of positive changes Obama desires is to stay out of the innovators’ way.
This ambiguity regarding the identity of the “we” can also be found in Obama’s much publicized campaign slogan, “Yes, we can.” If the “we” means private individuals, then the slogan is just meant to motivate us all to do our best. I think this is the connotation the Obama team intended most people to have in mind when seeing the slogan. But if “we” refers to the federal government or Obama’s team, then the slogan begins to assume disturbing, even sinister, dimensions. If federal officials say, “Yes, we can,” the question that naturally follows is “Can do what?” If it is taxing, regimenting, restricting, and mandating, then I would prefer it if the federal government could not engage in such activities. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if Obama or at least some of his campaign staff and cabinet really mean the slogan to say, “Yes, we [the federal government] can,” while leading the rest out us to interpret it as “Yes, we [the people] can.”
January 24, 2009
In Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, I found another highly praiseworthy and correct sentiment: “Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.”
The present economic crisis has not destroyed any physical capital or killed any workers; nor has it limited anyone’s physical or intellectual skills. In order for individuals to work at their full potential and produce as much as they did before, two components are necessary: (1) restructuring of ownership and (2) renewed motivation to work and succeed. Obama may be able to provide the second to many people; the first can only be accomplished by the invisible hand of the free market. During a recession, firms must be allowed to go bankrupt, change owners, and be sold out. If prior owners of assets mismanaged and misallocated them, then it is time for the assets to change hands and be managed by other more competent and prudent individuals. Government bailouts and protectionism only hinder this structural readjustment by keeping afloat firms that need to implode because of past imprudent decisions. The physical assets and workers of those firms will still remain available for others to use.
Hopefully, Obama will genuinely attempt to cease “protecting narrow interests.” The way to do this is to end the massive government subsidies, bailouts, and trade barriers that favor a select few politically connected companies at the expense of everyone else. I have no problem with Obama using his rhetoric to motivate and inspire people. However, I hope that he does not turn his silver tongue against the only long-term, stable solution to this economic crisis – the free market: the uninhibited energies of hundreds of millions of motivated, creative, productive Americans.
January 23, 2009
In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama mentioned “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” With this I must partially quibble. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” not that all remain equal after birth. As a strong anti-egalitarian I must point out that differences in individual effort and merit will necessarily result in individual inequalities after birth. These inequalities are both inevitable and desirable. Some individuals exert themselves to a greater extent than others; this leads them to accomplish more and find themselves in better material positions.
There are some undesirable kinds of inequalities – namely, inequalities which result from coercive privileges which chronically elevate persons of inferior merit above those of superior merit. These inequalities are fostered, among other things, by government grants of monopoly privilege, subsidies, barriers to entry into professions, compulsory unionization, minimum wage laws, and “welfare” (i.e., poverty subsidization) programs. It is true that government ought to eliminate these inequalities, which it can easily do by abolishing those government activities which are the source of the inequalities.
I do agree that all humans ought to be free and ought to have “a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” We must remember, however, that the right to pursue happiness is not the same as the right to have happiness – which few people ever attain to a great extent, and which no one ever attains completely. The best way to ensure that every person has the maximum opportunities to pursue happiness is to remove coercive obstacles in that person’s way – including the compulsions of private criminals and the massive interventions and prohibitions of many governments.
January 22, 2009
I have mixed impressions of Barack Obama’s inaugural address, and I will be discussing parts of it in detail subsequently.
What I found highly admirable about Obama’s speech is the following passage affirming that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
I was amazed to hear the President of the United States finally admit so much explicitly – that those of us who are non-religious and do not believe in any kind of deity are just as much Americans as those who do. We have the same constitutional rights and the same opportunities under the law. We, too, are human beings of no less virtue and merit than many of those who believe in some kind of deity.
Some of Obama’s rhetoric and proposals worry me. But I do not think his administration will be problematic as far as religious tolerance is concerned. He will attempt to preserve the peace among individuals of various convictions, and he will not seek to impose quasi-theocratic institutions.
Obama’s words here constitute tremendous progress – especially considering that just 21 years ago, on August 27, 1987, George H. W. Bush uttered the following detestable words: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." One can only hope that such bigotry will never again be acceptable in high office in the United States.
January 21, 2009
If all people took their genuine, long-term interest into account when making each decision, then no person would harm himself or another innocent. Failure to recognize one’s genuine, long-term interest comes from failure to think about it.
Virtually no person considers himself to be evil. Even Adolf Hitler believed that what he did was reasonable, justified, and for the “greater good,” or at least for his own good. What differentiates good people from evil people is that good people’s thinking about reality is more complete, and their efforts are more rigorous when it comes to thinking and genuinely attempting to understand the world, their own lives, and other people as they actually are. One is rightly judged as being good or evil by a preponderance of constructive or destructive actions, not by one’s motivations or self-image. Motivations matter only insofar as they provide reliable indicators to what a person will do in the future. If somebody is kind to me with the sole intention of getting me to give him an unearned inheritance, and I am aware of this, then I can expect this person’s behavior to become considerably less kind in the future.
Thinking and continually recalibrating one’s ideas to reality are not just useful or prudent activities. They are the foundation of moral virtue. Beware of not thinking, for it may lead to evil.
January 20, 2009
In December 2007, Alexander York was sentenced to serve jail time for murdering Rudi Boa in Australia, as this article by Richard Shears describes. York, a creationist, killed Boa in a drunken state as a result of a prior argument about evolution, in which Boa and his girlfriend Gillian Brown defended evolutionary theory. This month, after serving only a little less than three years in prison, York will go free. He had been sentenced to five years in jail in late 2007, but will be released shortly. The murder occurred in February of 2006, and York had been detained in jail since.
Killing an innocent person is unacceptable, period. Killing an innocent person for ideological reasons is vile and detestable. Yet York’s punishment amounts to a mere slap on the face compared to the magnitude of his crime. This incident simply shows that creationists’ cries that they are being oppressed are not at all reflective of reality. The reality is that individuals who believe in evolution and dare express these beliefs openly are frequently intimidated and sometimes even have physical violence exercised against them. The murder of Rudi Boa is the latest atrocity in the creationist campaign of intimidation against evolution proponents. Other milder and more “respectable” creationists prefer to use bogus copyright infringement claims as grounds for censoring their intellectual opponents. They also like to exclude atheistic and pro-evolution students from school activities and pass laws which either prohibit the teaching of evolution (as had been the case in Kansas during the 1990s) or mandate the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. The creationists’ push to promote their ludicrous ideas by force is intolerable, period. If I were the judge at York’s trial, York would get the death penalty for his unambiguous murder of an innocent, good human being. As matters stand now, the court system of Australia seems to be discounting a creationist’s atrocities on account of his creationism. This favoritism toward a blatant murderer cannot be allowed to stand.
January 19, 2009
For an excellent illustration of just how horrific the status quo is with regard to human mortality, I encourage everyone to visit the site Defeating Death. This site is highly concise, powerful, and striking. About 150,000 people die every day. This website’s dynamic counter keeps track of how many people died since the user came to the website and categorizes the deaths. It is amazing how many more people are killed by so-called “natural causes” than are killed by war, violence, and accidents. Since I began writing this post (about two minutes ago), over 500 people have died of all causes. Of these, only about 30 were killed by wars, other violence, and accidents. The vast majority die of some kind of “natural” body disorders. Of course, there is nothing natural about these perils – perils like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and illnesses of the brain.
This is the great evil of our time. This is what we must defeat – or else all is lost for us.
January 18, 2009
In an excellent New York Times editorial, “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?”, Charles Murray makes a series of points that I consider right on target. It is dangerous and highly undesirable to expect every person to get a college education. This cheapens the value of a college education by pushing the quality of what is taught down to the lowest common denominator: the students who do not enjoy learning but simply see college as a necessary bureaucratic procedure to go through. Some people will always prefer partying for four years to going to classes. The solution, of course, is to not admit such people to colleges, but this policy would go counter to the current establishment and egalitarian ideology’s push for everyone to get a college education. I would much rather prefer the chronic partygoers to be expected to get a job right out of high school; this will enable them to make a worthwhile use of an otherwise wasted four years. But for this to happen, employers need to stop seeing a college diploma as a certificate of competency. It is time to return to the days before government subsidization of higher education, when the title of “student” conferred great respect on the bearer, precisely because a student was known to be someone erudite, motivated, and highly familiar with matters intellectual and abstract.
I made the best of my college education (200 credits, three majors, and a 3.993 grade point average). I studied, worked hard, and genuinely pursued the learning opportunities offered to me. This is what other college students should be expected to do. And if some people do not wish to do this, this is absolutely fine. But then it should be made clear that college is not for them.
January 17, 2009
After thirty years of being banned by the Saudi Arabian theocracy, cinema is making a low-key, limited, but historically momentous comeback, as this article by Souhail Karam details. This is excellent news, particularly since the film was created by one of the Saudi elite, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and is being shown over the objections of the religious authorities. Try as they might, the theocrats will be unable to stop the tide of peaceful globalization which will civilize the Middle East in due time.
This matter also sheds light on how terrorism and resentment against the West will eventually be defeated in the Middle East. They will not fall due to costly and bloody wars and occupations. Nor will they be rendered ineffectual by draconian “security” measures in Western countries or the futile attempt at appeasing hard-line Islamists in their ridiculous and frightening demands. Rather, commerce and technology will defeat the forces of militant Islam (but not those of peaceful and humane Islam). The great things the past two hundred years of innovation have produced in the West are too attractive to be resisted by the majority of human beings. Give them an opening, and they will pour through. Prevent them from having an opening, and they will make one for themselves anyway.
Islamic fundamentalists, you have already lost the war of ideas. It will be a matter of time before your oppressive, backward theocracies collapse. Do the rest of us a favor and relinquish control right now. Also, please stop killing people and even blowing yourselves up. I would much rather that you become civilized, productive contributors to progress. (I may, of course, be hoping for too much rationality from these people.) It is futile to resist globalization, technology, and cultural progress.
January 16, 2009
On December 20, 2008, a colossal victory for the rights of ordinary people was won as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it will no longer file lawsuits against individuals who have been caught sharing files. An article by Ryan Nakashima, “Music industry drops effort to sue song swappers,” describes this development. The RIAA lawsuits were abominable under virtually every criterion, as file sharers were often charged millions of dollars for downloading a few tens of songs – clearly a disproportionate penalty even if it were legitimate to penalize them for their individual contribution to the reduction of the record companies’ revenues. Charging double the purchase price of the song might have been understandable if still unjust – but millions of dollars?
The technological reality of the situation, however, made the recent RIAA decision inevitable in the long run. When the ability to costlessly replicate files – without detriment to those who already have such files – exists, then attempting to stop the exercise of such an ability is futile and counterproductive. What is necessary, rather, is to develop new marketing models that take the new technology into account. The RIAA still resists this and promises to cooperate with Internet service providers to cut off access to file sharers. This, too, will be a losing battle, as it is in the interest of the Internet service providers to retain their customers, a sizable fraction of whom are in violation of the RIAA’s draconian standards (by which sometimes making a copy of a file for one’s own use constitutes a criminal offense). Internet service providers who go after their customers too aggressively will rapidly find themselves out of business.
I have an idea for the RIAA. Why not devote those billions of dollars, which it has been spending on attempting to punish file sharers, toward developing new non-coercive ways of making money that cannot be circumvented by Internet technologies? Hopefully, somebody there will eventually come to this realization.
January 15, 2009
If you believe that human lifespans ought to be greatly extended and today’s perilous diseases cured, then you may be thrilled to learn that there is something you can do – no matter what your experience or occupation – to help further this goal. No, I am not referring to donating money. Rather, you can engage in an endeavor that is much more direct in its relevance to research that helps promote life extension and disease cures. Rosetta@home is a distributed computing project which harnesses the power of hundreds of thousands of computers throughout the world in order to predict the manner in which various proteins fold. Being able to predict how proteins fold will be helpful to fighting many major diseases and also designing new proteins that can aid in this task. You can download the Rosetta@home program onto your computer, and it will make these predictions using your computing power when the computer is turned on but you are not working on it. I now have an older computer fully devoted to running Rosetta@home, but it should also be easy to configure your main computer to run it during its “down time.”
December 24, 2008
I do not believe in any god or gods, and, moreover, although I do believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, I do not believe that it can be ascertained exactly when he was born. Nonetheless, I do not have any problem with the holiday of Christmas, its date, or even celebrating it myself. If you wish me a merry Christmas, I will wish you one right back. Yes, I know that my behavior is exactly contrary to what many Christian fundamentalists have tried to convince you about us atheists. But my approach to Christmas is, in my experience, the most common among atheists.
First, there is no problem with arranging a celebration on any occasion – with gathering with friends and families, experiencing good food, and sharing presents. Second, Christmas has already become so extensively secularized and commercialized that even many Christians celebrate it without engaging in religious ceremony. It seems that Santa Claus, rather than Jesus Christ, is the mythical figure around which Christmas is centered in English-speaking countries today.
Third, numerous pre-Christian cultures had celebrations on or near the beginning of winter. Celebrations of the winter solstice emerged naturally in numerous cultures because, if people had enough food with which to celebrate, this meant that they also had enough to last the winter – when gathering new food was problematic for pre-Industrial peoples. The early Christian church understood the significance of Winter solstice celebrations to those whom it converted. Instead of trying to root out the celebrations – an impossible task that would arouse considerable hostility – the early church officials simply co-opted them by convincing people that the birth of Jesus occurred around the time of the winter solstice. But the solstice celebrations came first.
Contemporary Christmas needs not have a religious component at all, and for most people it does not. And for those who wish to celebrate it with a religious component, this is their free choice. So long as no coercion is involved on the religious front, I have no objection to people, including myself, celebrating Christmas in public.
December 19, 2008
In an excellent step forward for mainstream theoretical physics, the model of Loop Quantum Cosmology (LQC) presents a picture of a universe where singularities do not exist. LQC still holds that a Big Bang happened, but the Big Bang was not the beginning of existence itself, unlike conventional contemporary mainstream cosmology asserted. Rather, according to LQC, the Big Bang occurred after a prior “universe” collapsed and all the entities in it came to occupy an extremely small volume – but not an infinitely small one.
The New Scientist article, “Did our cosmos exist before the Big Bang?” by Anil Ananthaswamy, describes LQC in a manner accessible to the layman reader.
LQC, originated by Ashtekar, Singh, Pawlowski, and Bojowald, is a wonderful improvement in clarity and logical consistency over conventional cosmology. It also affirms many of the insights present in my treatise, A Rational Cosmology.
LQC does not treat “the universe” as all of existence; rather, it refers to the “present universe” as all of existence after the Big Bang, and to some “past universe” as all of existence prior to the Big Bang. Thus, LQC holds that there was not necessarily an act that created existence itself. This is a different definition of “universe” from the one I used in A Rational Cosmology (where I defined the “universe” as “everything that exists”). However, it is a definition that is logically consistent with what I have been saying all along: that existence itself could not have been created – although some subset of existence may have had a beginning.
According to Mr. Ananthaswamy’s article, here is a picture of existence that LQC would imply:
”If [LQC’s predictions are] verified, the big bang will give way to a big bounce and we will finally know the quantum structure of space-time. Instead of a universe that emerged from a point of infinite density, we will have one that recycles, possibly through an eternal series of expansions and contractions, with no beginning and no end.”
While I am still somewhat skeptical that every entity in existence can act in this highly coordinated manner with respect to every other entity, this theory is at least logically conceivable, and if a plausible spontaneous-order mechanism for such coordination can be presented, I am willing to accept it. LQC eliminates two fatal flaws from mainstream contemporary cosmology:
(1) The idea that all of existence could have been created, instead of existence always existing. This is fundamentally a religious notion and not a scientific one; it implies creation ex nihilo and has no place in a rational worldview.
(2) The idea that the universe or “our present universe” at one time existed as a single point of infinite density – namely, a singularity. According to the article, “Bojowald's major realisation was that unlike general relativity, the physics of LQC did not break down at the big bang. Cosmologists dread the singularity because at this point gravity becomes infinite, along with the temperature and density of the universe. As its equations cannot cope with such infinities, general relativity fails to describe what happens at the big bang. Bojowald's work showed how to avoid the hated singularity, albeit mathematically… Singh and Pawlowski developed computer simulations of the universe according to LQC, and that's when they saw the universe bounce. When they ran time backwards, instead of becoming infinitely dense at the big bang, the universe stopped collapsing and reversed direction. The big bang singularity had truly disappeared.”
I have been arguing these two points for over three years now, and have often been ridiculed by conventionally minded people for defying the scientific “consensus.” Well, it seems that there is no longer such a consensus and that the thrust of new scientific theory is in fact highly consistent with much, even if not all, of my philosophical writings on cosmology. Here are some excerpts from my treatise, precisely on these subjects. Keep in mind that the impossibility of creation ex nihilo and singularities were my primary objections to conventional Big Bang theory.
From Essay VII:
“Assuming that a singularity was a single entity, which exploded to result in the Big Bang, what caused the explosion? Explosion, like generic creation, is an action, and an action is a relationship of multiple entities that results in the alteration of said entities' qualities.”
“…If the singularity were the only entity that existed, and had no component parts that could interact amongst each other, it could not have exploded, nor could it act in any way whatsoever!”
“…if the entity is some single, monolithic, component-less, indivisible thing, such as the Big Bang theory's definition of a singularity, and it happens to have certain qualities at a given time (such as non-explosivity, for example), and no other entity exists to change these qualities, there is no way that these qualities can be changed! A thing is what it is, and cannot, especially if it lacks volition, spontaneously decide to become something else and assume a different totality of qualities.”
”If such a component-less entity as a singularity were left entirely unto itself, nothing could have influenced a change in its quality of non-explosivity, and it could not have exploded. Without any mechanism to induce an alteration in its qualities, it would have remained just what it was, a singularity.”
From Essay XIV:
“if the quality ‘matter’ exists in an entity, it must have a real manifestation; this manifestation is volume. If the quality ‘matter’ and the quality ‘volume’ did not coexist and were not inextricably connected, we would encounter absurdities.”
From Essay XV:
“A singularity conceived of as a sole point containing mass, but mass without volume, i.e., a point-entity, is a contradiction in terms.”
In the words of Ayn Rand, “an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.” (“Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness) In the true spirit of the individualism that Rand advocates, I held to my own reasoning and my own understanding of cosmology, in spite of what the prevailing consensus among the laymen and scientists of my time was. I did not take any understanding on faith, irrespective of how prestigious or “indisputable” the theory endorsing it was. In this issue at least, future scientists will likely agree that I was right after all.
December 18, 2008
To add to the worthwhile aims of achieving indefinite human life, complete economic and social freedom, and the cessation of all aggression among humans, I would like to propose yet another quite ambitious goal for humans today and in the future to strive toward. I call it the decoupling of human activities from one another. Currently, in many realms of life, in order to achieve aim X – some desirable goal – a person must frequently undertake activity Y, which is not necessary to get to X because of the nature of X itself, but rather is necessary because of the contingent circumstances surrounding the attainment of X.
For instance, if one wishes to make money, one does need to work to get it; working is a constitutive part of making money, and this will never change. However, if one wishes to make money or to work, it is not an indispensably necessary part of work that one needs to put one’s life at risk by driving on congested streets to get to one’s workplace. Innovations such as telecommuting, working online, or cars that drive themselves can decouple the inconveniences of driving from the desirable activity of work.
Likewise, I believe that every organization that owns a set of spatially disjoint yet mutually nearby facilities should eventually build indoor walkways connecting buildings that are currently separate. This will be of great convenience to such organizations’ customers and employees, as it would decouple getting from one building to another (often a desirable undertaking) from necessarily having to walk outside (which is sometimes desirable and sometimes not, depending on the weather). Eventually, when the capital to do so exists, I would like to see humans build for themselves such a network of indoor passageways that going outside will be altogether optional. Of course, I recognize that being outdoors can be of great value to many people – and this would still be fully available. But it will be decoupled from every other possibly worthwhile goal, so that people could choose to do one, both, or neither.
I would like to live in a future world where every person can evaluate every individual undertaking with respect solely to its own merits and demerits, so that circumstances do not force us to choose between sub-optimal “bundles” or “packages” of actions. The decoupling of activities in a tremendous diversity of realms would make all of us far wealthier, happier, and more productive.
December 17, 2008
A brief article in the New Scientist, “Commercial space station finds first customers,” describes a project by SpaceX to build a mini space station, DragonLab, where the first missions will be conducted as early as 2010. This is indeed a wonderful period of transition from government-run space exploration to private space exploration. The Space Shuttle will be retired by NASA in 2012, after a 40% record of catastrophic failures. A wide variety of competitive privately provided space services, from rockets to space stations, is already emerging in its place. And for all its faults, the incoming Obama administration seems to be friendly to private space flight as well, as the appointment of George T. Whitesides, “a senior adviser to Virgin Galactic,” to Obama’s NASA transition team suggests.
I may be overly optimistic here, but it does seem that the federal government is at least somewhat stepping aside and permitting private enterprise to take over operations that have been a growing burden to NASA. It will be wonderful to observe what innovation un-hobbled by bureaucracy can accomplish.
December 16, 2008
A fascinating recent article by Steven Ashley in the Scientific American is entitled, “Crashless Cars: Making Driving Safer.” It describes some of the remarkable safety systems that are currently being experimented with in automobiles and the kinds of improvements that – within the next 5 to 10 years – could greatly reduce the frequency of collisions by enabling cars themselves to take charge of situations where drivers cannot react with sufficient speed or simply have not been paying attention.
What is even more impressive is that the technology to create functional robotic cars already exists. The conclusion of the article states that “In 2007 a tricked-out Chevrolet Tahoe nicknamed ‘Boss’ and several similar driverless vehicles successfully navigated through a realistic city streetscape in Victorville, Calif., one complete with other cars and even traffic jams. The autonomous cars and trucks were competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge, a race designed to demonstrate that robot road vehicles can become practical. Soon afterward General Motors CEO G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., predicted his company will market autonomous vehicles within 10 years. That prognostication may be a bit optimistic, but his statement surely points the way to real robotic cars in the not too distant future.”
Ashley reports that driver
the primary cause of the vast majority of accidents today. The fact
remains that human beings are easily distracted, often tired and
incapable of alertness, and frequently engaged in a futile and
dangerous effort to multi-task while driving. Taking the control of
fast, potentially deadly vehicles out of human hands and into the
power of reliable, always rational, always responsive automated
systems is therefore a moral imperative – as it would save about
39,000 lives per year.
Unfortunately, as Mr. Ashley’s article documents, many American drivers are still wedded to the notion that full human “control” or “mastery” over the vehicle is somehow indispensably desirable and even liberating. To such drivers, I say: “Your car is a means of transportation, not a means of self-expression. Its primary aim should be to get you from one place to another in one piece, not to give you some silly psychological thrill. Express yourself in ways that will hurt neither you nor others, please!” The long-standing cultural assumption that driving one’s own car is somehow a manifestation of autonomy or independence needs to be challenged. I, for one, look forward to the day when robotic cars will be doing all the driving for me. I want to live, and I, as a human being, am keenly aware of the limitations to my responsiveness as well as to the emotional composure that is necessary to drive safely and competently. Therefore, I urge all drivers to embrace automated vehicle safety systems as soon as they become affordable. For most of my readers, this recommendation extends to their next car purchase.
December 15, 2008
Following our extensive discussion regarding the merits and possible effects of road privatization, Mr. Merlin Jetton referred me to the following excellent article by Robert Poole, entitled, “Stimulus Shouldn’t Be an Excuse for Pork.” This article highlights the wastefulness and misdirected priorities of governments when it comes to infrastructure projects and gives plenty of empirical evidence for precisely why governments should not be involved in infrastructure management. Mr. Poole reports that the mayors of cities throughout the United States have requested a “stimulus” package of over $73 billion. Mr. Poole then proceeds to list numerous superfluous and misguided expenditures to which this money would be devoted – at the expense of vital infrastructure maintenance.
According to Mr. Poole, here is how government management of roads and bridges has failed us – miserably:
Poor Maintenance on Roads and Bridges: “We have a backlog of deferred maintenance on both highways and bridges. According to Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report, 24% of U.S. bridges were reported structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in 2006. At the current rate of repair it will take 62 years for those bridges to be brought up to date.”
Overemphasis on “Public Transit” Projects: “Consider how the Los Angeles area is spending its transportation money. A 2006 study by University of North Carolina at Charlotte Prof. David Hartgen found that in Los Angeles less than 5% of the area’s workers use public transit to commute, yet over 50% (nearly $67 billion) of the area’s long-range plan (to the year 2030) money will be spent on transit projects. Planners admit the cash going towards those transit projects won’t significantly increase transit’s share of commuters, which means over half the spending won’t do anything to reduce the region’s infamous traffic jams, which drain the economy and hurt businesses.”
Politicians’ Tendency to Favor Glamor Over Substance: “Too often [politicians] choose ribbon-cutting ceremonies at sports complexes over repairing bridges.”
What is particularly frustrating about government (mis)management of roads and bridges is that many experts on the subject agree that glaring problems – such as urban traffic congestion – can be resolved with much less money than the mayors are asking for. According to Poole, “Hartgen’s study showed we could eliminate severe congestion in all of the nation’s urban areas for $21 billion a year — less than we are spending on transportation today, and $52 billion less than the mayors just asked for. And by investing in the right projects we’d save 7.7 billion hours each year.” Surely, if roads were privatized, we would get at least this benefit of elimination of severe traffic congestion. This alone would be a massive improvement over the current system and would alone be worth the privatization effort. Traffic congestion wastes our precious lives. Moreover, it puts those lives at risk. It is imperative to end it, not just from considerations of economic efficiency, but from considerations of the moral value, dignity, and safety of every individual.
Moreover, I am glad to see Mr. Poole recommending a possibility that I, in my discussion with Mr. Jetton, argued is likely to happen under private roads. Mr. Poole writes that “[t]oday, over 80% of all goods (by value) in this country are shipped by truck. Time is money. A national network of truck-only toll lanes would enable truckers to carry more goods, faster.”
Finally, for those who would argue that there is not enough private capital to fund the kinds of improvements Mr. Poole discusses, the numbers speak to the contrary: “Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters says there is over $400 billion in private capital available for high-priority U.S. infrastructure projects. That sum, if properly spent on the most-needed transportation projects, would transform our roads, transit systems and airports into a 21st century transportation network that would unleash the economy.”
Mr. Poole’s article reinforces much of what I said in my discussion with Mr. Jetton – namely:
(1) that government mismanagement of the roads today is severe and devastating in many respects;
(2) that private enterprise would do a far superior job, even with existing technical knowledge;
(3) that most problems that are ubiquitously associated with roads today would disappear after privatization.
I am also wondering whether this article has had an impact on Mr. Jetton’s thinking on the subject as well. If so, I would be interested to learn what that impact might have been.
December 13, 2008
Indefinite life for humans and other organisms is not a mere fantasy disjoint from the real world. Rather, indefinite life already exists among certain animals in nature. Tortoises, for instance, do not senesce, and neither do many kinds of fish. Many tortoises have been known to live for hundreds of years, and they can possibly live longer if humans take good care of them.
However, Turritopsis nutricula, a tiny jellyfish, has an edge on even the tortoise. Indeed, scientists recognize this organism as virtually immortal. How does it achieve a feat that has eluded humans for millennia (although humans have not genuinely given the goal of immortality their fullest effort yet)? After the Turritopsis nutricula attains sexual maturity, it reverts once again to a sexually immature condition through cell transdifferentiation. It is the hydrozoan equivalent of adults turning into children, then growing up again, turning into children again, and so on indefinitely.
The Turritopsis nutricula is tiny – about 4 to 5 millimeters in diameter, which renders them extremely small to the human eye but still visible. As they grow into adults, these organisms develop additional tentacles – going from 8 to 80-90.
These minuscule jellyfish have mastered the secret of eternal life! Surely, we humans can do just as well. Now that we know that living forever is possible, we should all wholly support efforts to achieve this tremendous blessing for human beings.
Read more about Turritopsis nutricula:
“Turritopsis nutricula” from Wikipedia
“Meet the World’s Only Immortal Animal” by Mihai Andrei
“Cheating Death: The Immortal Life Cycle of Turritopsis” from Swarthmore College
December 11, 2008
I can respect some arguments certain social conservatives make against legalizing gay marriage – even if I disagree with those arguments. There is one argument, in particular, which is not worthy of any kind of respect in my view. The argument runs along these lines: “Restricting gay marriage is not a violation of homosexuals’ freedom to marry, because homosexuals are still perfectly free to marry a person of the opposite gender, just like everyone else.”
Let us say that a cult of Invisible Pink Unicorn worshippers took over the legal system and forced everyone to worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Of course, allegations would arise that the cult violates religious freedom. But then the cult members could respond, “Of course, we are not restricting anyone’s religious freedom! After all, anyone is still free to worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn in exactly the same way that we worship It.” This is precisely the same argument as the claim that homosexuals are perfectly free to marry persons of the opposite gender. Freedom to only engage in one kind of action or one among a list of officially “authorized” actions is not freedom at all. It is at best a grant of privilege, at worst outright compulsion.
December 10, 2008
As much as I disagree with many of Barack Obama’s ideas, I must applaud his sanity and good judgment in one particular instance. As this article from Reuters reports, Obama no longer plans to impose a “windfall profits” tax on oil companies. He, just like all of us, has seen gasoline prices and oil prices decline by more than a factor of two, and so has concluded that a tax would be unnecessary and that even its initial rationale no longer holds. I am glad that Obama is at least willing to look at empirical evidence and consider whether his former policy suggestions might have been rendered absurd or counterproductive based on that evidence.
Lower gasoline prices have been a tremendous boon to consumers during the past several months. I, for one, am extremely pleased that the inflationary boom of 2003-2008 has been stopped. It, and not the present “recession,” was the genuine economic problem, as perpetually rising prices for virtually everything made it difficult for individuals to retain their former standards of living. For the time being, prices are mercifully low and declining – especially on essentials such as housing and fuel. A windfall profits tax on oil companies would have raised the cost of gasoline to consumers once again. Basic economics teaches us that the real incidence of a tax does not depend on its nominal incidence. No matter whether the tax would have been imposed on consumers directly or on oil companies, the consumers’ share of the tax would have been the same. The last thing consumers today need is a revival of the high costs of everything that characterized the last several years. I am glad that, at least in this respect, the federal government will not make our lives any more difficult.
December 9, 2008
An encouraging trend has been documented in the December 3, 2008, New Scientist article by Gaia Vince, entitled, “How to Unplug from the Grid”. This article describes how increasing numbers of people are able to economically supply power to their own homes, without going through public utility companies and government-granted monopolies.
Of course, many environmentalists like this development because it offers incentives for energy conservation – for people to use only the energy that they absolutely need in order to keep the arrangement economical. This is not my primary reason for being pleased with this trend, however.
I believe that any time individuals can afford to no longer to rely on local governments and government-favored businesses for the provision of any of their resources – those individuals thereby become freer. They become less beholden to politicians, who have less of a club to wield against them. For instance, no politician can cut off the power of an individual who has his own generator and/or solar panels. That individual can even comfortably live outside any city limits and thereby enjoy far lower taxes and no requirement to fund wasteful and often intellectually damaging public schools.
Besides, the enormous problem with 20th-century and early 21st-century economies and infrastructure has been a dangerously high level of interdependence, or the “we are all in the same boat” effect, where, if some aspect of the markets or the infrastructure fails, individuals all throughout the system can suffer dramatically for none of their own fault. This, too, may be due to government distortions of various economic sectors, yet reforming the government is a slow and difficult process. It should be done, but in the meantime, an excellent course of action is for as many people as possible to become as independent as possible of the fragile “same boat” (which looks to be capsizing anyway). Hopefully, we will all be able to achieve this degree of independence in the coming decades.
December 8, 2008
I am the last person who would call himself an environmentalist. I am staunchly pro-technology, pro-industry, and pro-human-progress. I do not consider man to be a blight on the Earth. Rather, I believe that everything that is good is good because it benefits man. Even when it comes to treating animals with dignity and respect, I believe that only man can save certain species of animals from the vicious waves of extinctions that have characterized virtually all of our planet’s history.
However, I also practice more resource conservation – with energy, containers, supplies, and money – than even many of my liberal environmentalist contemporaries. Why? The answer is simple. I believe in enlightened, long-term self-interest. If I use only the energy and other resources that I absolutely need, this means that I have more money to spend on other things. I can afford to have a highly positive savings rate, and in this credit-dependent, debt-ridden society, I can afford to pay for all of my everyday purchases with money that I actually have. I can afford to live a truly sustainable life – no risk of impoverishment, no risk of overstretching my resources, and plenty of money just sitting there, to be used in the event of any unforeseen contingencies or big essential purchases.
The environmentalists are not that far off in their more commonsense recommendations for reducing waste, reusing more of one’s property, and finding more efficient ways to accomplish the same goals. However, to do so for the sake of something vague, abstract, and not easily definable, such as “the environment,” is not a particularly strong motive considering that a much closer and more relevant one is staring you in the face. If resource conservation is desirable, this is because it brings about your own improved well-being. In earlier eras, this practice was considered a part of the virtue of frugality. The nature of this virtue has not changed one bit in our time.
December 7, 2008
When freedom and common sense depart one part of the world, they typically settle in another – although the change does not occur instantaneously. Nonetheless, the disastrous government interventionism that has occurred during the unjustified 2008 economic bailout has certainly done untold damage to the future economic climate of the United States. To see just how outrageously wasteful spending on the bailout has been, take a look at this chart from VoltageCreative.com.
Economic leadership in the world is rapidly shifting away from the United States and toward countries where economic policy is more solidly grounded in the production and provision of real goods and services – rather than the collective delusion that prices for existing real and paper assets will continue to rise in perpetuity. China is now in a position to seriously lecture United States policymakers on economic issues – which is precisely what Chinese officials are now doing. “China lectures US on economy,” an article by Geoff Dyer, documents what may be the beginning of a systematic shift in global economic dynamics. Because of reckless federal-government-induced credit expansion, financial bailouts, and increasing socialization of businesses, the United States is fast becoming an economic basket-case. China, on the other hand, is moving in precisely the opposite direction. Since Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1976, China has gradually transitioned away from Maoist communism toward a system of state capitalism, where the state is playing an increasingly weaker role over time. China is still not as economically free as the United States, but China is moving in the direction of more economic freedom, while U. S. politicians are foolishly throwing away the freedoms that have turned America into a global economic powerhouse.
December 6, 2008
It is always unfortunate when advocates of liberty reject or alienate any possible friends and allies by making sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people. I fear that Muslims have been unjustly smeared as a group for the actions of a few self-proclaimed Muslims who actually do not follow many of the teachings of Islam.
I took exception to a statement made earlier by Mr. Kyrel Zantonavitch that “There's virtually no Muslim anywhere in the world that can honestly say he opposes normal-type Muslim propagation (jihad) and normal-type Muslim law (sharia). There's virtually no Muslim anywhere in the world that can honestly be called a Western liberal. For those who don't believe this - name one." In my response, I named numerous Muslims and Muslim organizations who strongly condemned terrorist attacks and expressed support for liberty and nonviolence.
Now, here is another courageous Muslim individual who has condemned terrorism – unequivocally, completely, and without reservation. I hereby congratulate YouTube user americanmuslimgirl, who succinctly does exactly what critics of all Muslims have dared any Muslim to do. Now the critics must be intellectually honest and concede this point. At least some Muslims have in fact condemned precisely what they needed to condemn.
Please watch this video; please observe the clearest possible evidence that not all Muslims are bigoted, intolerant, or supportive of violence, oppression, and terrorism.
Individualism is truly a wonderful concept. It implies treating each person primarily as an individual human being, not as a member of any circumstantial or ideological group. Collective guilt and guilt by association do not exist for an individualist.
let all the individualists of the world do Muslim individuals the
courtesy which is owed to every human being. Treat them and
judge them as
individuals. If they blow up things and people, condemn them. If they
condemn those who blow up things and people, respect them and cease
unjustly attacking them.
December 5, 2008
A recent article in The New Scientist, “Has universal ageing mechanism been found?” by Linda Geddes, reports some hopeful news for those of us who desire indefinite life in this world. The work of Dr. David Sinclair at the Harvard Medical School has discovered that malfunctions in a protein called Sir2 in yeast cells are responsible for those cells’ senescence. The protein performs a dual function; it repairs DNA and suppresses the inappropriate expression of certain genes. As yeast cells senesce, Sir2 protein molecules become overworked and are unable to fulfill the function of gene suppressors – and hence certain genes begin to be expressed in the wrong parts of the organism, leading to nasty side effects for the yeast cells’ health.
Dr. Sinclair has further studied the protein SIRT1, which performs similar functions in mammals to those of Sir2 in yeast cells. He has discovered numerous similarities between these two proteins, which suggests that a possible way to rejuvenate senescing mammals (and, in particular, human beings!) might be to somehow facilitate the creation of many more SIRT1 proteins than are naturally available to mammal organisms. In that way, each individual protein molecule would be less likely to become overworked. The article quotes Sinclair as saying that this discovery "opens up the possibility of restoring youth in the elderly by re-establishing a useful pattern of gene expression.” As I am not anywhere close to being elderly yet, this bolsters my hope that by the time I am in my sixties, this technology will already be mainstream and affordable.
The next step in Dr. Sinclair’s research is to find out how to actually increase SIRT1 production in mammals. I hope that he succeeds in discovering a way and that he succeeds as quickly as possible. Colossal numbers of people die of senescence every day; the faster a way to delay this killer is discovered, the more of these immeasurably precious lives can be saved.
December 4, 2008
A massive update has been made to Antideath, my model city of the future. Fifteen new model skyscrapers have been added, along with two-dimensional digital images of each. Remember that you can download a three-dimensional model of each skyscraper for viewing and use in Google Sketchup. I would highly encourage you to see the buildings in Antideath from all sides and at various levels of magnification, as this is one of the principal advantages of three-dimensional art.
Moreover, a structural improvement to the Antideath page has been made, so that links to all the individual buildings are provided close to the top of the page, enabling you to efficiently navigate to any building that you wish to see.
These are the new additions to Antideath:
Adam Smith Tower
Antoine Lavoisier Tower
Carl Menger Tower
Charles Darwin Tower
Friedrich Hayek Building
Geometric Progression Building
Gold Standard Tower
Isaac Newton Compound
Jean Baptiste Say Tower
Pyramid of the Living
Richard Cobden Building
Tower of Endurance
Also remember that you are welcome to create your own three-dimensional skyscraper models and add them to Antideath. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your creation and any information pertaining to it, and I will add it to the collection, with full credit given to you for its authorship.
November 29, 2008
It is always delightful to have good news to write about. One of the most virulent killers of our time is giving way to the advances of technology and healthier living. Cancer death rates have been declining for several decades now, but cancer incidence rates – rates of new cancer cases emerging – have gone down for the first time in history during the current decade. This article from Reuters has some encouraging figures pertaining to the declines in the frequency of new cases for most cancers.
Improved medical technologies and increasing abandonment of unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, as well as the increased frequency of early diagnosis of cancers, are responsible for the drop in cancer rates. We can only hope that this trend will continue, until cancer incidence is reduced to zero, and cancer will go the way of the bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, and other killers of our dark past.
November 28, 2008
I have always been of the opinion that the war of ideas in our time is not a war on Islam as such, but rather a war on intolerance and fanaticism in general – and these can come under the guise of any ideology. Earlier, I elaborated on this subject in “The War on Fanaticism, Savagery, and Murder – Not on Islam.” Thus, I welcome any effort within Islam to foster greater tolerance and appreciation of modernity and individual freedom. This is precisely what is happening in Turkey today. This article from BBC News details a courageous and eminently wise effort by theologians at Ankara University to literally rewrite the Hadith – the sayings of Mohammed – and get rid of much of the historical baggage that has accumulated there. It turns out that it was not Islam or the teachings of Mohammed as such that are responsible for many of the socially restrictive customs of today’s Middle East. Rather, these customs existed on their own, and their adherents tried to twist Islam to justify them.
The empirical evidence exists that societies with predominantly Islamic populations can be just as peaceful and civilized as societies with predominantly Christian populations. Dubai is a marvelous case in point. Turkey is getting there. We can only hope that the entire Middle East will follow, and that we can welcome its inhabitants – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – into the amazing modern world.
November 27, 2008
On November 25, Judge Cindy Lederman of the Miami-Dade Circuit Court in Florida overturned that state’s ban on gay adoptions, which had been on the books since 1977. This is tremendously hopeful news for individual liberty and for the system of checks and balances. You can find out more about the specifics of this case here.
The State of Florida defended the ban by citing (possibly dubious) statistical evidence that in gay couples, substance abuse and mental instability are more prevalent. However, in the particular family in question, that of Frank Gill, it was clear that children who had been abused by their biological parents were in fact thriving. I congratulate Judge Lederman for treating individuals as individuals and not as statistics and for ruling on the facts of the case, rather than on any probabilities with which the facts did not correspond. Even if certain problems were more prevalent in gay couples, this does not give anyone license to treat any gay couple without such problems any worse than heterosexual couples without such problems are treated.
Aside from being a victory for individualism, the recent ruling was also a victory for checks and balances. Here, a courageous judge checked abuses of liberty imposed by Florida’s legislative branch. Often, too many opponents of so-called “judicial activism” want judges to be mere passive enforcers of the law, bowing down to the will of legislature even when the legislature acts in an oppressive and immoral fashion in the judge’s own opinion. But this is a recipe for legislative tyranny – a tyranny that is one step removed from the tyranny of the majority. Where there is an opportunity to bring about genuine individual liberty and to stave off oppressions, every individual – whatever his political position – has a moral right and perhaps an obligation to use his power to de-legitimize coercion and persecution.
November 8, 2008
I am pleased to announce another major triumph – my attainment of the Eugene S. Thorpe prize of $2000, issued by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) as a result of its earlier essay contest on the benefits of globalization and the harms of government interference with it.
I am honored to have been selected as the winner, especially as my essay was chosen as the first among 129 quality papers, each of which was subjected to a blind review process.
You can read more about the Thorpe award at the page issued by FEE on this occasion.
My essay, "Globalization: Extending the Market and Human Well-Being", will be published in the Spring 2009 in FEE’s magazine, The Freeman, which has for over five decades been one of the primary publications for advancing liberty and free-market thought. I hope that my work will be able to inspire creative thoughts and lead to further contributions to the progress of liberty through the promotion of free-market-based globalization.
November 2, 2008
Some may dispute my earlier characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a third-party candidate in the 1860 election by claiming that the Republican Party was already a major party by that time, and had as early as 1858 achieved majority support in most Northern states.
Perhaps to better understand my claim about Lincoln and the Republican Party, it is instructive to look back four years to the election of 1856, where the Republicans still had not controlled majorities in every northern state. This election was also outside the confines of the conventional two-party system.
In 1856, the Democratic Party was the major party and was still largely unified. James Buchanan ran on the Democratic ticket and won. But he ran against two “third parties,” the Republicans and the Know Nothings. The Republicans had been formed two years earlier, and this was the first presidential election involving their party. Their candidate, John C. Fremont, won 33.1 percent of the popular vote and carried 11 states. The nativist, anti-immigration Know Nothing Party was formed at about the same time as the Republican Party (circa 1854) and largely died out after the defeat of its candidate, Millard Fillmore, in the 1856 election. The Know Nothing Party got about 21.6 percent of the popular vote and is universally recognized as a third party – even though its candidate was a former President of the United States.
If the Know Nothings constituted a third party, then the Republican Party in 1856 was most certainly a third party as well. It was just as new, and its candidate was not even a former President (unlike Fillmore), and, moreover, he was the first candidate to openly proclaim anti-slavery views. For a politician to run for the presidency under an anti-slavery platform was surely radical at the time. Admittedly, abolitionist sentiment was growing, and Fremont was able to persuade many people of the correctness of this sentiment – an accomplishment on which Lincoln later capitalized.
The Republicans’ effectiveness in gaining large majorities in the North does not disqualify them from being a third party. Rather, it is testimony to how successful some third parties can be at convincing people to support them within a short period of time. The Republican Party rose at an astounding pace from insignificance to political dominance during the Civil War era.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about third parties as pertains to the 1860 election. (This page also contains a comprehensive list detailing the performance of third-party candidates in American elections since 1832.)
”By 1860 the two-party system had fallen apart. The election featured four candidates, including the breakaway Southern Democratic Party, which nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge as its candidate, and the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell. Republican Abraham Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in any of the 11 states that seceded after the election to form the Confederacy. Breckenridge, the southern pro-slavery candidate, carried most of the slave states, but had little support in the North outside of Pennsylvania. Bell and the Constitutional Union party, neutral on the slavery issue, drew most of their support from the southern former Whigs that had voted for Fillmore four years before. Stephen Douglas, the northern Democratic candidate, had the broadest support geographically but lost most of the Democratic votes in the South