Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The unlimited possibilities of nannyism

There’s a great post by Julian Sanchez at his site, taking Ben Adler to task for saying this:

This clearly expresses a fundamental tenet of conservative/libertarian thinking: that engaging in risky behavior with serious social costs is an entitlement. People who are injured by metal bats, or fall ill from smoking or fatty food, cost the rest of us money. We pay their emergency room bill, their Medicare bills or their Social Security disablity insurance.

Which leads Sanchez to remark:

You start with a paradigm case of a self regarding act—choosing to engage in risk behaviors with your own body—which traditional liberal principles would place outside the sphere of state regulation as a core component of personal autonomy. But throw some public funds into the mix and—Abracadabra!—what had been the exercise of an individual right is transformed into the "imposition" of a cost on society. No behavior is so private that you can't regulate or ban it, so long as you're willing to subsidize it first!

This is, of course, exactly how it works. There are limits to how far the average “liberal” wants to take it (though that seems to change every year as they grow ever-bolder), but the idea that the state can regulate whatever it chooses to subsidize is implicitly totalitarian.

Now, there are probably plenty of liberals who consider this potential for unlimited statism to be a feature, not a bug. But liberals never seem to imagine the possibility of someone other than them using the wonderful machine they’ve built. Consider just one possibility.

Is there any principled argument a liberal nanny statist could make against conservatives who want to regulate consensual sex between adults, if such regulation could be dressed up (as it sometimes is) in public health language? The liberal might claim that controlling sex is fundamentally different than controlling smoking or eating, but I don’t see why; both involve state control over what an adult peacefully does with his or her own body. If there is a difference at all, it is one of degree rather than kind. (If anything, I would say that state control of food is more intrusive, since it means losing the right of choice over something virtually everyone does everyday.) The principle that justifies one justifies the other.

The taxpayers often end up paying a financial cost because of sex- medical expenses for sexually transmitted diseases, and of course the cost of caring for the children of people who can’t support their own families. Clearly, a great deal of sex is “risky behavior with serious social costs.” If we don’t have an “entitlement” to do such things, and if one accepts the view that the state should force us to refrain from peaceful but potentially risky activities that might impose a cost on the government, I see no principled reason why the state shouldn’t step in. (This line of argument could be especially lucrative for antigay types who want to bring back sodomy laws.)

What can the liberal nanny statist say? He can make pragmatic arguments against regulating- he can say that the enforcement costs of policing bedrooms will be too high, or maybe driving illicit sex underground would have other bad social consequences- but if he’s consistent he can’t simply say, “It’s just not the government’s business.” If he does say that (as liberals, not the most consistent of people, often do), the conservative can point to the long line of arguments and precedents provided by liberals. Because if you take the underlying premises of the nanny state seriously, everything is the government’s business.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

War and the need for meaning

Here's an interesting bit of psychological data I just learned at Marginal Revolution:

The public's opinion of past wars improves as a new war approaches. Thus, after Vietnam most people thought the war was a mistake and this held true for decades until the beginning of the Iraq war when the opinion of war in Vietnam suddenly improved! Even more dramatically, a majority of people thought that World War I was a mistake until World War II approached when the percentage thinking it was a good war doubled.

Irrational as this is, it makes a certain sense. Here's my theory: In the face of something as awful as war, it's comforting to think it will actually mean something worthwhile. But people judge by past performance, and if America has fought wars it shouldn't have in the past, that raises an unpleasant possibility- maybe this war isn't worth fighting, either. Maybe the suffering and death won't mean anything worthwhile, after all.

That's an unpleasant thought. Thus, a good way to maintain the consoling belief that a current or upcoming war and its attendant horror is worthwhile and meaningful is to convince yourself that America's past track record in picking wars is a good one, even if you didn't believe that previously. People are pretty good at believing what they want to believe.

This desire to get meaning out of senseless tragedy has consequences beyond bad historical interpretation. In my own experiences, I've heard a number of people argue for staying in Iraq on grounds that boil down to (and are often explicitly expressed as), "If we quit now, the Americans who died there will have died in vain. Therefore, we must keep fighting to make their deaths worthwhile." The cost of war thus becomes its own justification: In order to give meaning to the thousands of deaths the war has already brought, even more lives must be fed to the fire.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

New article up

I have a new article up at Feels good to be back at it again.

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Man's Quest for Knowledge, Part IV

For the second time in a few months, Site Meter has informed me that someone has come to this site via a Google search for "John Markley+Murder." Apparently I'm not as lovable as I thought.

First prize, however, goes to the guy who came here while searching for "saddam throwing man in acid video." Unfortunately, I haven't yet had time to transfer my extensive collection of Middle Eastern execution videos from VHS, so I don't have any of that footage available online yet. Sorry, buddy.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

The missed opportunity of free trade

In a great post at Rad Geek People's Daily, Charles Johnson examines the response in The Nation to story about illegal immigrant workers, and offers a nice takedown of those on the left who wave the banner of the "working class" while calling for the state to take away opportunities from poor and working-class people from the wrong country. Best part:

Among the worst of the lot, because they are the most insidious, are those who propose walling off labor at national borders in the name of labor solidarity, and attempted to tie nativist policy in with pseudo-populist economics. But of course international apartheid does nothing to benefit workers as a whole; at the most, it only benefits the most privileged working folks...

Those who consider native-born American workers more important or more deserving of an opportunity to work without being shot or jailed, just for having been born here, would do well to shut the hell up about the working class and just admit that they are not Leftists but rather belligerent nationalists.

Be sure to read all of it.

This puts me in mind of another discrepancy between the professed ideals of many on the left and the actual policies many of them support, in the area of free trade. A common argument against free trade is that it will supposedly cause wealth and jobs to flow from America to other, poorer countries, enriching them at our expense. I don't think that's true, but it's a common idea.

I'm not surprised that hardcore nationalist types who believe this to be true would oppose trade because of it. If you're largely indifferent to the well-being of people outside your own nation-state, the last thing you'll want to do is lower the wages of some Americans to provide jobs to starving peasants on the other side of the planet. Say what you want about this position, it makes internal sense.

Now, a lot of anti-trade leftists have other stated reasons for opposing trade. (Dependency theory and so on.) I think they're mistaken, but they're not included in what follows. However, in my experience, a lot of avowedly internationalist leftists oppose free trade for the same reason right-wing nativists do- because it will supposedly hurt the American economy by sending American jobs and wealth to other, poorer countries. But, based on the avowed beliefs of many of these people, that ought to be precisely what they want.

After all, what do many of them speak in favor of? Internationalism. Redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Using the riches of the West to help those in need around the world. If what these people believe about free trade is true, it should be a slam dunk for left-wing causes.

Now, anti-trade leftists are hardly the only people who don't follow through on their own professed ideals. But it's interesting, and disappointing, to see how readily this segment of the left seems eager to reject (or not even notice) something that could greatly further their values. The reasons for it are probably complex, and I can think of several besides this one, but I'm sure part of it is the same sort of nationalism Johnson talks about in the context of immigrant labor. Talk and talk and talk about helping workers as a class, until faced with the prospect of competition from workers outside America.

There is a bit of hope: in college I convinced a left-leaning fellow student of the value of free trade on essentially leftist, redistributionist grounds. I think Brad DeLong may have taken a position something like this, if memory serves. So, it may be possible to win some left-wing support for free trade by showing how, even if libertarians are wrong about it's mutually beneficial character, it's still better in accord with left-wing values than protectionism. I'm not hugely optimistic about how many people that would win over, but it would be worth trying.

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