Catallaxy Files
 

 
polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

email: jasonsoon AT mail.com

 
 
 

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    Saturday, October 26, 2002
     
    Median house price beyond most buyers’ reach

    This was a headline in the SMH today. Yet half the buyers managed to scrape up enough to pay more than the median price.
     
    Intellectual Heroes

    I’ve added my own choices under the ‘Intellectual Heroes’ category, though it is more a case of interesting people who’ve influenced my thinking than intellectual heroes.

    The ARI link is there because I still subscribe to the view that Rand’s philosophical and political thought has a lot to contribute to intellectual debate on freedom and liberty.

    The link to Varian’s ‘Information Economy” site is there because it was one of the major influences on my academic development, along with Posner. (who Jason has already linked to). Varian’s writing on the information economy inspired me from an early stage in my academic development to take an interest in this field. I subsequently wrote my honours thesis in this field, went on to do some teaching of my own in this area, and I am still working on my own PhD in the information and Internet economics area. I’m now getting to apply some of that academic learning in my management role with one of Australia’s major ISP’s.

    Stossel is an interesting and somewhat unique individual. A libertarian leaning journalist that actually gets mainstream media air-time. Stossel’s “Give me a break” is such a fantastic concept I wish someone could run with this idea in Australia.

    The link to McElroy is there to remind me that there are individualist, pro-market, male-friendly forms of feminism.
     
    Capitalising on Tragedy

    According to the National Union of Students (NUS) Victoria, the shootings at Monash are all John Howard’s fault.

    “[WE are] concerned that the increase in violence on university campuses could be very seriously attributed to the policies of the Howard Government. “

    Ah – nothing like capitalising on tragedy to gain some political mileage. But NUS are hardly unique in that respect. As I pointed out in an earlier post, opponents of the war in Iraq where astonishingly quick to exploit the Bali tragedy in their anti-war campaigning. Then there is the berating of Peter Hollingworth by the media because he chose to continue with his plans to pay his respects to the 600 odd Diggers who died at the battle El Alamein, rather than rush straight to Bali.

    But back to the Monash shootings…

    “It is not just their disgusting policies which are destroying lives of university students, lumping them with massive debt and forcing students to work two, sometimes three, part-time jobs but also its current position on foreign policy.”

    Hmm, making people pay for their education is ‘disgusting’. This argument isn’t going to wash as the ability to defer HECS debt means it needn’t impact on your financial position whilst you are a student. As for other fees – the biggest hitter at the start of the University year for me was always the Student Union and Sports Union fees!

    “John Howard promised us a relaxed and comfortable country, yet it is highly unlikely that anyone in this country is relaxed and comfortable. “

    Not being able to safely travel to popular holiday destinations like Bali or Phuket because of the threat of terrorism has probably got a lot of people uncomfortable and stressed. Same goes for news that Islamic terrorist organisations have trained sympathisers in Australia.

    “Howard has played the politics of divide which has left Australians feeling isolated and scared, contributing to [Monday morning's] tragic events. It is indicative of an American style of federal leadership that American values and actions are seen in Australian culture.”

    What the? Can someone explain to me what an “American style of federal leadership” is exactly? Are they seriously suggesting that the Monash shooting is an example of “American values and actions” introduced into Australia because we have what - joined the war on terror and want to see a serious attempt made to disarm Saddam? Because we won’t allow just anyone to try and slip into our country without an appropriate security check? Or is it just that we don’t live in the taxpayer funded workers paradise favoured by NUS?

    As Stossel would say – “Give me a break.”
     
    Just doing some more testing to correct the cut-off text problem and text wrap.
     
    Curriculum follies

    See Richard Glover on post-modernism in the HSC English curriculum.
     
    Gun control – use both hands

    Parish claims I am a gun control opponent because I ‘approvingly’ linked to an argument against it. I actually wrote 'Check out Alex Robson's site for a reply to Jason.' Linking to opposite viewpoints in a debate – a sure sign of heresy.

    Actually, I am ambivalent about gun control. I have always been fairly anti-gun and was probably a supporter of the gun controls introduced after Port Arthur. The facts and personal observations of our criminal ‘justice’ system, however, have made me sceptical about the case for more gun control. Although Jason may label me a ‘knee jerk’ libertarian – knee jerk perfectly describes the response of the gun control lobby to the shootings of two people (although it is tragic – so are all the deaths from heroin overdoses and all the other deaths that involve complex policy issues with distasteful trade-offs).

    Parish concludes his postings on gun control with

    The point to which all this leads is that gun laws have only a marginal effect on crime rates. Advocates of tough gun laws don't generally claim major crime rate reduction as one of the benefits. It's the gun lobby who make the absurd argument that the reverse is the case! Commonsense and research tell us that crime is impacted by a large range of social, cultural and demographic factors. What you CAN say without question about tough gun laws is that they correlate with lower homicide rates and, to a lesser extent, suicide rates. Of course, they also correlate strongly with the rate of gun-related accidental death and injury.

    However, in an earlier post he states that the Australian evidence is

    The rate of firearm-related death, whether by accident, suicide or homicide, does not appear to have gone either up or down to any significant extent in the last few years

    Ultimately he supports gun control because the US has a higher murder rate than Australia which he puts down to its laxer gun control laws.

    Crime rates for most offences (e.g. property offences; rape; robbery etc) go up and down for a complex range of reasons having little or nothing to do with guns. However, international and Australian evidence suggests that homicide rates are strongly influenced by the presence or absence of guns. The vast majority of homicides are domestic (i.e. committed by a spouse or immediate family member), and almost all are crimes of violent passion. That is true in the US as in Australia. The presence of a gun in the household will too often convert a situation of unpleasant domestic violence or disharmony into a fatal event. That is the predominant reason why US homicide rates are 300% higher than Australia. Thus the real argument, as John Quiggin implicitly suggests, is whether you think a "right" of gun ownership is worth the huge cost in human lives lost through homicide, suicide and accident.

    Yet murder rates also vary for a complex range of reasons. Certainly if I was explaining differences in murder rates, I would worry about expected penalties and many other relevant social factors. For non-economists the expected penalty is not the penalty you would receive if convicted (which is high in the US) but the penalty you would receive if convicted times the probability of being convicted – which is quite low in the US (and fell dramatically in the 1960s with the stricter procedural rules in criminal trials imposed on the States by the Supreme Court and expansion of the insanity defence which made it easier for criminals to evade or delay punishment – which reversed a long secular decline in the murder rate, doubling it in 13 years).

    At least I would conduct multiple regression analysis. That is what John Lott does. Further, there are countries with law gun laws, high gun ownership and low murder rates (Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland) and countries with strict gun control laws and high murder rates (Russia, Brazil). Murder rates are influenced by more than gun control laws and the evidence is not clear cut that “homicide rates are strongly influenced by the presence or absence of guns”.

    We currently have stricter gun control laws and a lower murder rate than the US. It is not clear to me how we go from that fact to the policy conclusion that we need even stricter gun control laws in Australia. Jason seems to agree as he adopts the line that he supports more gun control in Australia but would not support it in the US. What is relevant is the costs and benefits of further gun controls in Australia.

    What are the effects of extra gun controls. Law abiding citizens lose their guns. Criminals keep theirs. Some people with legal guns who may have used them to commit a crime no longer have them. Criminals with the right connections can get a gun fairly easily, but other criminals will find it more difficult.

    When the last gun controls were introduced, my pro-gun friends predicted that gun deaths would fall and there would be a substitution into murder by knives and other weapons. The overall murder rate may go up or down relative to its long term trend. For example, I may be more likely to resist when someone is robbing me with a knife than if he had a gun. As a result a may be killed. They predicted other crimes – especially home invasions – would increase because criminals now know they have less chance of being confronted by a gun wielding home owner. That seems to be exactly what happened.

    Also the British experience of the effect of strict gun control laws is relevant. It is certainly a country with a similar culture and criminal justice system. The same happened there.

    Parish states that Alex Robson

    makes no attempt to isolate gun homicide, which is after all what we're talking about.

    No, it is not. The relevant issue is the effect on the total number of deaths. It is an empirical matter, and the evidence is not conclusive at all. The relative benefits of being knifed rather than shot are not clear to me.

    The sole evidence of benefit from the previous gun control laws in Australia that he points to is:

    firearm-related crimes have fallen, both in absolute and proportionate terms

    But the argument against gun control is that crime will rise even if gun related crime falls.

    However, gun lobby apologists then make a leap of logic which simply can't be sustained. They claim that the rise in violent crime was actually caused by tighter gun control laws, and that looser gun laws (like the United States) would have a "deterrent" effect and produce lower crime rates

    It is an empirical matter. The data you cite supports it. You don’t cite any evidence against it.

    Perhaps there is a case for stricter gun control laws. Gun control laws might reduce children killed in accidents. That would have to be weighed against the lives saved when widespread gun ownership reduces violent crime. But none of the evidence and arguments presented by Parish convince me. Quite the opposite.

    As for personal experience, I had a vicious criminal living down the street for a few years (Canberra has the enlightened policy of spreading public housing throughout its suburbs so that no one is safe from having their community battered, lives wrecked and property values destroyed). Crimes that his neighbours observed include burglary, drug dealing, car stealing, fencing stolen property, wife and child beating, etc. Not to mention screaming up and down the road in stolen cars and motorcycles constantly (and holding revving contests at 4 am).

    His neighbours’ lives were wrecked (e.g they all had their houses burgled, steady stream of druggies at all hours of the night, unloading trucks of stolen good at 3 am, alcohol fuelled fights, etc).

    Anyway after a 12 hour siege in our street he was arrested for taking his illegal shotgun out and firing it at someone he was trying to intimidate. This was in 2000 – after Port Arthur. The sentence: good behaviour bond and 12 weeks of periodic detention (a sentencing option in the ACT: you go into a minimum security facility on the weekends). According to the neighbours he only went once and then was told not to bother turning up because it was full.

    In one of the regular street meetings we had with the police, we were told (by a guy who is now an inspector) that the criminal could get a new gun in 15 minutes.

    Typical lefty pattern A crusade against law-abiding gun owners and little concern over particular criminals who actually commit crimes with guns.

    One poor single mother who lived next door had to endure intimidation, having her property destroyed and death threats (police response: ‘what do you want us to do –wave a magic wand’) until her lease ran out and she moved. If she wanted to get a gun to protect herself against the violent armed criminal that our magistrates seem happy to allow to walk the streets, that is fine by me. And if she shot him during a home invasion, it wouldn’t worry me too much although measured gun deaths would rise.
     
    Still experimenting with some changes to the blog. Please be patient.Testing under-way. Testing.
     
    Crunch time
    The end of October is fast approaching, time to get out my TaxPack (groan).

    Incidentally it has been my admittedly short experience that economists tend to be lax on their own personal financial matters. I certainly fall into that category with any matters pertaining to finance or accounting leaving me bored to tears unless it can be related in some way to some inherently interesting theoretical esoterica.

    Thursday, October 24, 2002
     
    The Yartz
    Reading:
    1) A house for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
    2) The gentle art of philosophical polemics by Joseph Agassi (a Popper student)

    Listening incessantly this week to:
    1) The Hot Fives, Volume 1, Louis Armstrong
    2) Bird's best bop on verve, Charlie Parker
    3) Beethoven's ninth, Wilhelm Furtwangler
    4) Beethoven's Eroica symphony, Otto Klemperer
     
    Go Johnny, go

    Prime Minister John Howard today proposed a ban on all handguns except those used in sports and law enforcement.

    Mr Howard made the announcement after meeting with state and territory leaders.

    "The challenge of handgun control is one I believe should be met by all the governments of Australia," Mr Howard told reporters.

    "The public demands that more be done to control the proliferation of handguns.

    "Essentially what I am proposing is that we make allowance for Commonwealth and Olympic Games and similar events, and weapons destined for police, security and military use, and apart from that all other classes of handguns should be banned nationwide."


    I guess our Prime Minister will no longer be flavour of the month over at National Review
     
    Zem responds
    Zem has emailed me to say that he has responded to Ken Parish's 'hard yards' debunking of the gun rights case here (it near the bottom of the post). However I don't think Zem addresses the fundamental irrelevance of the guns as self-defence argument in Australia which I have made in a previous post.
     
    Not another online test!
    Here's some light relief from guns - this test might raise the ire of some of the PC crowd but I found it entertaining and interesting. It purports to test how well you can tell Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people apart (link courtesy of Bargarz). I got 11 out of 18 correct which is above the (then) average of 7 but I suppose you could say I have a natural advantage.

    Just about the strangest comment about my racial origins I received was from an Indian national who said I could pass for someone from the north of his country. Wasn't quite sure whether he meant I look Nepalese or Afghan Hazara or perhaps like a Bengali with unusually fair skin (for the curious, this is what I look like).
     
    A question for the gun rights crowd
    Alex Robson weighs into the gun control debate again, arguing that crime rates have increased since the 1996 gun bans. Now here's a question. I may be wrong and woefully ignorant on this but last time I checked, Australia pre-1996 did not allow its citizens to carry concealed handguns anyway. So where exactly is the cause-effect nexus between banning guns and increases in crime (a la the Lott argument about deterrence) such as assault, sexual assault, robbery and so on unless all or most of these crimes occured by the criminal breaking into the victim's house? Surely a more rigorous consideration of the cause-effect would have to look at those proportion of crimes that occured in the victim's home? If most of the increases in crime occured outside the victim's home where he or she could not have carried a handgun anyway then it obviously proves nothing, even using the generous assumption of ceterus paribus.

    Thus theoretically the deterrence effect of a more armed population is precisely that - theoretical. The arguments run by Robson and others prove that gun control is no panacea for crime. Well, duh, I don't need a PhD to tell me that. I think gun control laws are primarily about reducing the magnitude of likely harm when crimes are committed as well as reducing opportunities for crimes such as 'going postal' which I suspect people tend to suffer a greater utility loss from than having their homes buglarised (just an assumption).There are other important factors such as demographic factors (the proportion of young adult males in the population), possibly sentencing regimes, economic factors and so on. Have these been accounted for? How do the gun control sceptics know that crime rates might not be even higher than what they are now in the absence of gun controls anyway if as is rightly assumed, crime will always be with us and some of these other factors responsible for increased crime may have risen in importance since 1996?
     
    American and Australian attitudes to gun control
    I have been following the American bloggers' response to the Monash shootings and calls for greater gun control here in Australia with interest. It is interesting that some US right of centre bloggers whom I normally agree with and whom I even consider to be more moderate in their political tendencies than me in other issues (e.g. economics) are almost invariably anti-gun control and take a position that in Australia would be regarded as extremist. A few American readers have also written in expressing disagreements with my position on this though they say they usually agree with my blog and read it regularly.

    As my previous post explained I would take a more nuanced position on this if I were an American because of differing circumstances. Firstly there is a conservative and gradualist side of me that agrees that laws that are too far set against the prevailing mores are unlikely to be successfully enforced and thus may not be worth implementing without a more extended period of persuasion on the part of their advocates. The long entrenched tradition of gun ownership in the US is one example of such a custom that differentiates Americans from Australians. Secondly there is the issue that perhaps once some critical mass of gun ownership in the US has been reached, proposals like a total ban are simply too utopian and would lead to perverse consequences of simply rendering defenceless the bulk of balanced and sane citizens while not successfully dealing with proliferation elsewhere. As I argue I do not think these conditions apply to Australia.

    However, there is simply little or no support for gun ownership in this country even among the mainstream Right. The one exception which is acknowledged and based on genuine need is with respect to farmers. The national gun control laws already in place were passed by a conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, who belongs to a party which is the equivalent of the Republicans in the US - and he regarded it, justly as one of his most substantive achievements in office. If Prime Minister Howard is remembered for nothing else, he will be remembered for this. I know of many other friends who hold libertarian positions on many other issues (my occasional blogger Andrew Norton is one of them) who think gun rights are a load of tosh. You won't find many other Australian 'neo-liberal' economists who are against gun control either (perhaps with the exception of Alex Robson). I do not think that principled economic liberals like Wolfgang Kasper, Helen Hughes, Peter Dawkins, John Hewson or my boss Henry Ergas would be particularly enthused by John Lott type arguments which lead invariably to a conclusion that we all should go around carrying concealed handguns. This is really the gist of it - you could argue there are two possibly 'first best' scenarios - one where we are all allowed to carry concealed handguns and optimal deterrence of crime is facilitated, and the other where no one owns handguns and optimal deterrence of crime is also facilitated but with a different distribution of the types of crimes committed. Both are arguably equally utopian but one probably no more so than the other. As for which world you prefer that may well be a matter of taste determined by cultural conditioning.

    I acknowledge that Americans have their own long engrained views on this but gun control is seen by most Australians, including most classical liberals and conservatives here, as simply forming part of the legitimate role of government in securing the rule of law, along with the establishment of criminal law and provision of police more generally. At worst it is probably seen as a form of legitimate prior restraint along with, say, laws against drunk driving.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2002
     
    10 cents well spent today
    Kudos to ABC for an outstanding episode of Foreign Correspondent tonight. They had one hard hitting interview with Indonesian Deputy PM Hamzah Haz on his coddling of Islamic extremists and one nuanced piece on the growth of Islamism in France and the social conditions underlying it.
     
    Classical liberalism, gun control and knee-jerk libertarianism
    Knee-jerk libertarian Alex Robson responds to my short posting on gun control with a link to this article in Reason. The article purports to examine the experience in England under gun control.

    A couple of points - the article claims that rates of 'gun related crime' are higher in the UK which has stricter gun control than the US. Also, that crime rates are higher in the UK than in the US. Accepting these at face value, even if it is true that there is some deterrence effect as argued by the likes of John Lott (i.e. that there may well be less crime overall because robbers are less inclined to rob in a society where people have a higher probability of being armed) the issue is whether this particular crime deterrent benefit is worth the cost in terms of more gun-related deaths. As John Quiggin notes, the price to be paid for a chance to defend yourself using a gun is a higher murder rate. Intuitively it is impossible to believe that the US's higher murder rates and gun-related deaths have nothing to do with their widespread gun ownership. I don't know about Alex but I'd rather risk being robbed more often than risk being gunned down randomly by a psycho.

    That is, I think the rational individual cares as much (if not more) about the distribution of types of crimes in society as the total level of crimes. Add to this the consideration that in addition to moving the distribution of types of crimes away from gun-related ones (which have a higher probability of consequences for one's mortality) by gun control, one might also make policing easier in the long run (by reducing the circulation of firearms among people inclined to crimes whether for economic or psychological reasons) and eventually bring down the total level as well. Personally the arguments that there are overwhelming benefits from having a more armed society in reducing crime are about as appealing as the argument that arms races with the potential for mutually assured destruction (MAD) are a better means of ensuring world peace than disarming countries with weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps, but is the lower probability of 'use' of weapons in either case really worth the magnitude of harm in those perhaps rarers occasions when there is use?

    Secondly the article cited by Alex is not averse to a little spin - the author rightly condemns a string of cases in the UK which seem to involve people acting in self-defence and under very difficult circumstances being themselves penalised by the law. What this has to do with gun control per se is beyond me. Yes the point of gun control is that you would be penalised for owning a gun in the first place. But no one denies the right to use 'reasonable force' to defend onself when the help of the State is impossible in some situation and use of such reasonable force is absolutely necessary.Support for gun control does not imply support for the whole string of apparently stupidly decided cases cited in the article. The idea that the State should have a 'monopoly on the use of force' which Alex takes issue is one would think a no-brainer - the obvious import of the idea is that preferably crimes should be dealt with not by vigilantism and lynch mob but by regularised processes subject to checks and balances. If Alex wants to read into that the idea that being against vigilantism means being against use of reasonable force in self defence then he is perfectly welcome to for that is essentially the gist of his argument when he commits the fallacy of 'argument from authority' by using the article's citation of Dicey and Blackstone against me:


    Gun regulations have been part of a more general disarmament based on the proposition that people don’t need to protect themselves because society will protect them. It also will protect their neighbors: Police advise those who witness a crime to "walk on by" and let the professionals handle it.

    This is a reversal of centuries of common law that not only permitted but expected individuals to defend themselves, their families, and their neighbors when other help was not available. It was a legal tradition passed on to Americans. Personal security was ranked first among an individual’s rights by William Blackstone, the great 18th-century exponent of the common law. It was a right, he argued, that no government could take away, since no government could protect the individual in his moment of need. A century later Blackstone’s illustrious successor, A.V. Dicey, cautioned, "discourage self-help and loyal subjects become the slaves of ruffians."


    Now, correct me if I'm wrong but I would have thought that what Dicey and Blackstone were arguing for is a right to self-defence when it becomes absolutely necessary (which I have already argued is a separate issue from being for gun control) and morever empirically the number of occasions in which one absolutely needs to use a gun in self defence is itself determined in part by policies regarding private weapons ownership. The operative word I've highlighted in the quote above is when other help was not available and it is an empirical issue whether a ban on guns can be a policy that is proportionate to a government policy of reducing crime and protecting property rights overall. It may well be that in a society with fairly limited gun ownership to date a successful gun ban can significantly reduce the number of occasions in which one would need to have to use a gun to defend onself and therefore one's right to self-defence is not significantly infringed. And in case you then proceed to quibble with whether one can tolerate any slight infringement and therefore whether talk of 'significantly infringed' makes any sense then I would suggest once again that sort of logic (which is strangely against the economic way of thinking) would leave one in a position of also opposing bans on private ownership of AK-47s, bazooka missiles and nuclear weapons. After all, there is always a remote possibility that in banning private ownership of these, goverment may be depriving you of a chance to defend yourself. A priori appeals to the right to self defence don't cut it as an argument for gun rights.

    Update Mr 'Do the hard yards instead of just speculating' Ken Parish has an incisive debunking of gun lobby claims here
     
    Gun control debate

    Check out Alex Robson's site for a reply to Jason.
     
    Doonesbury on blogging

    Doonesbury is currently running some amusing strips on blogging - especially yesterday's
     
    Curriculum matters: Dewey eyed education

    Here is an attack on and defence of the new HSC English curriculum in NSW that appeared in the op ed pages of the Sydney Yawning Herald these past few days. You can decide which author you would rather have teach your children.

    Across Australia the curriculum has been dumbed down and politicised, external inspection abolished and assessment shifted away from curriculum-based, norm-referenced external examination and towards outcomes-based, criterion-referenced internal school assessment.

    These changes have proceeded with little scrutiny – apart from an occasional op ed from a disgruntled teacher and from Kevin Donnelly. They result from a combination of self-interest (they reduce accountability) and ideology within the education sector. ‘Progressive’ ideology thrives in the public system insulated from parental demands and accountability for results.

    The new curriculum embodies a set of 'progressive' opinions on the best way to conduct an education system. Highly contentious assumptions about knowledge and learning are made, but no grounds for their adoption are given. For example, the new curricular adopt a 'postmodern' view of the curriculum, a 'constructivist' view of learning, 'subjectivism' in values and a 'child-centred' approach to pedagogy with an emphasis on self-esteem. Subject-and discipline-based learning are downplayed.

    The postmodern approach is sceptical of objectivity or external truth: notions of scholarly rigour, intellectual standards and literary excellence simply express the opinions of the powerful. This downgrading of the importance of knowledge pervades the new curricula and what is taught in the teacher training institutions. Teacher educators downplay the importance of a teacher having substantive knowledge of the subjects they are to teach. In the English curriculum, politically correct 'balance' between ethnic, geographical and gender origin is used to select literature for study, rather than literary merit. Phonics and grammar have been downgraded.

    The curricula emphasise attitudes, feelings and values thought to be important rather than basic skills and the transmission of knowledge and our rich Western heritage and culture.

    In New Zealand, the Education Forum has been fighting a losing battle against the same trends. Their excellent web page is here. It is a real resource for those interested in education reform. It has lots of good stuff on assessment and curriculum changes – including a recent report by Australia’s Kevin Donnelly and some superb reports by Michael Irwin. Also education news and a collection of interesting op eds, speeches and submissions.

    I can’t understand why the Liberals let this sort of thing slide. Not only is rolling this stuff back the right thing to do, it is a vote winner. Disgust at the changes being made cuts across political boundaries. There are many ‘old-fashioned’ lefties out there who realise these changes are disastrous for the poor and the importance of access to good education as a way to rise out of poverty.

    Even some in the Labor Party agree and are pushing for a Blair approach to education – more resources only if you accept changes to improve productivity and make you more accountable. They are hamstrung by the teacher unions influence within the Labor Party. For example, Bob Carr said (and wrote) a lot of good stuff on education while in opposition – but adverse changes have continued while he has been in government.

    Update
    The NZ pundit blogs on the same issue. He too likes the Education Forum web site and makes some solid recommendations for reading and education reform.

    Tuesday, October 22, 2002
     
    Ban all guns
    In light of the recent Monash university shootings it is no surprise that the talk of national gun control has re-emerged. I really have very little to add to John Quiggin's excellent post on this topic:


    If the danger of terrorist attack had not already settled the issue of gun prohibition in Australia, this ought to do it. No one in an Australian city (or country town, for that matter) ought to be allowed to own a gun. Security guards and police should be able to take guns from an armoury for work and return them at the end of the shift, and I suppose some similar arrangement could be made for the 'sport' of pistol shooting. Farmers (and professional shooters) need rifles and obviously have to keep them on-farm. But possession of a firearm (or gun parts, or bullets) outside these limited exemptions ought to be treated as evidence of intention to murder, in the same way as possession of a 'traffickable quantity' of drugs is sufficient to convict someone of being a drug dealer, and similarly with housebreaking implements for burglary. There is, after all, no real use for a gun but killing, and no real use for a handgun but killing people.


    I suspect this is an issue that will garner much consensus in the Australian blogosphere among left and right. As for how this squares with my professed libertarianism, well, the private ownership of handguns is no more an issue of fundamental individual rights than the private ownership of bazooka missiles. The essence of the rule of law is that the State have a monopoly on the use of force through authorised procedures and subject to checks and balances.

    If I were an American I would take a more nuanced position on gun control than the one I am taking here in agreeing with John (i.e. a ban on all private ownership of handguns) but because the circumstances there differ in two respects -
    i) there is already a tradition of widespread gun ownership that has to be taken into account because it would mean a greater circulation of guns among criminals, which might have the sorts of consequences discussed in the Lott and Mustard study if a ban were enforced. Which is not to say that an effective ban which significantly diminished the circulation of firearms would be impossible with sufficient political commitment. Fortunately we need not worry about these matters - the genie has not yet been let out of the bottle in Australia. I have never seen a real gun in my life and would like to keep it that way;
    ii) there is obviously a constitutional issue that all good liberals must take account of. Again, there is fortunately no such complication in the Australian system. And we are not any less freer than Americans because of it, though we are undoubtedly more secure in body and property.

    Update
    Ken Parish also has his two cents on the topic.
     
    Ayn Rand and art
    James Russell also says that he doesn't like Rand's works because they are too didactic. I certainly agree that Rand is an acquired taste. And I also agree (and in fact paid out a columnist many posts ago using this argument) with the proposition that over-didactic art isn't very, well .. artful. However I'd qualify this by saying that didacticism is slightly more tolerable in a novel than, say, poetry or song which really does rely more on a formalistic criterion of beauty, a turn of phrase. I think one can be a clunky writer and didactic but still be a great novelist. Rand's didacticism isn't very artful because it's too 'in your face' and preachy, unless you're one of the converted but she comes from a fairly respectable tradition I think.

    Russian literature has always been quite didactic - think Dostoevesky and Tolstoy. One important difference between John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged and the ponderous essay in the epilogue of War and Peace is that Tolstoy had the good sense to shuck his didactic bits towards the end rather than in the middle of the narrative. However, despite the central importance of the didactic purpose in Rand's novels they are not wholly lacking in aesthetics either. The musical equivalent of Rand is Wagner - strip away the dross and garishness, pretension and self-conciousness and there is something of beauty there. The central failing of her art was that she lacked a sense of humour, but then so did many other novelists. She clearly saw the creation of heroic figures as a central aesthetic aspect of her work. However in general the aesthetic quality of her novels can be best summarised in one word - 'camp'. If you don't believe me, go watch the film version of The Fountainhead starring Gary Cooper and Patricial Neal and the unintentionally sado-masochistic and homoerotic undertones there.
     
    Ayn Rand and racism
    James Russell sort of retracts his accusation of racism in Ayn Rand's thought after I and someone else sent him a link to this essay by Rand. However he also provides some examples of why he still thinks there is a 'whiff of racism' in Rand's thinking:


    "...and that our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven't." (Now that's putting about half of the human race in its place.)

    "But when this happens in philosophy—when we are offered Zen Buddhism and its equivalents as the latest word in human thought—nobody, so far, has chosen to step into the intellectual vacuum to carry on the work of man's mind." (i.e. Zen Buddhism is evidently not an acceptable option for the West.)

    "There are no professional intellectuals in primitive, savage societies, there are only witch doctors."

    Now the last is kind of the key one, since the rest of the essay is filled with references to this Witch Doctor, one of her archetypes of the anti-rational force in human history; and probably why I'm irked by this is because of the connotations of the term, especially in regard to the bit about "primitive, savage societies". If you wanted to stretch the point you could argue that her other archetype, Attila, has similar connotations, since Attila was a Hun, and the Huns entered onto the world stage by sweeping down from the area that would later become Russia


    Now perhaps I have a thick skin but I recall reading those same passages from For The New Intellectual but never myself regarded it as racist. Rand was never one to mince words and she called a spade a spade. She may have been anthropologically wrong about some of the societies she described (personally for instance my view of China is that it was a civilisation frozen in senility from about the 15th century onwards because it decided to cut itself off from the rest of the world but was of course far advanced of many other societies before, and the same can be said about Islamic civilisations) but I don't see any racism there - she saw societies that had since fallen behind by her standards of rationalism, and individualism and were therefore by definition 'savage'. Rand was a highly judgemental person and despite her capacity for original thought and her obviously high intelligence her narrow mindedness and unwillingness to learn from anyone but those she regarded as her equals (the number of such people can be counted on the fingers of one hand) caused her to be less than guarded and rigorous in expressing her opinions - thus the whiff of 'autodidact' is the most obvious whiff throughout her works.. However there is no imputation in any of her writings that she believed people in those societies which she regarded as savage as being inherently savage, as opposed to simply having the wrong values. In her mind, if they had 'Randian' values they would no longer be savages. Note that she minced no words in her essay on racism when describing Appalachian peoples either (incidentally I think her insights about the psychology of racism are quite acute):


    To ascribe one's virtues to one's racial origin, is to confess that one has no knowledge of the process by which virtues are acquired and, most often, that one has failed to acquire them. The overwhelming majority of racists are men who have earned no sense of personal identity, who can claim no individual achievement or distinction, and who seek the illusion who a "tribal self-esteem" by alleging the inferiority of some other tribe. Observe the hysterical intensity of the Southern racists; observe also that racism is much more prevalent among the poor white trash than among their intellectual betters.

     

     
       
       

     

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