Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, December 07, 2002
    Paradox for the day
    Tex blogs on the Australian Libertarian Society dinner. I'm getting a little wet nowadays and disengaged from libertarian activism but it sure would be fun to attend one of those sometime. What the hell are so many libertarians doing in Canberra? Or is it just that all the Sydney libertarians and libertarian fellow travellers (like myself) are just not sufficiently public-minded to organise these things?

    I have to take issue with Tex on one thing though. He writes:

    So nice to be surrounded for once by people who belive in free trade and don't have wet dreams about Whitlam and Keating

    Personally I think Whitlam and Keating should be cut a lot of slack even though I don't have wet dreams about them. Whitlam started the process of micro reform and internationalisation of the Australian economy with his 25 per cent tariff cuts. For this and freeing the draft dodgers I think the rest of his sins can be forgiven. Keating put the finishing touches to micro reform and deregulation and was arguably Australia's best internationalisation booster. And if he had more influence than the temperamentally conservative Kim Beazley, telco deregulation might have happened faster and better. He's also taken lots of slack for continuing to defend the restructuring of the Australian economy to this day - for instance take his perfectly reasonable but unfavourably received comments that along with job losses come creation of jobs in more viable industries when he was asked about the job losses from globalisation. Keating did all that was politically possible to implement Rogernomics in Australia and the resilience of the economy today owes a lot to his stewardship.
    Evolution and politics
    It's rather worrying to find so many conservatives (including George Gilder whose work on business history I rather like despite its at times 'rah rah' quality) in bed with Creationists as this article demonstrates.

    ID's home base is the Center for Science and Culture at Seattle's conservative Discovery Institute. Meyer directs the center; former Reagan adviser Bruce Chapman heads the larger institute, with input from the Christian supply-sider and former American Spectator owner George Gilder (also a Discovery senior fellow). From this perch, the ID crowd has pushed a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution that closely influenced the Ohio State Board of Education's recently proposed science standards, which would require students to learn how scientists "continue to investigate and critically analyze" aspects of Darwin's theory.

    This language may seem innocuous enough, but it clearly allows teachers room to bring up ID if they choose. Moreover, the proposal is insidious because the standards don't ask for the critical analysis of any other bedrock scientific theories, such as plate tectonics or quantum mechanics. Unless there's a shift in the political winds, however, Ohio will finalize the troubling new standards in December ...

    "Gilder and the Discovery Institute more generally embody the intellectual crisis of a certain strain of contemporary conservatism," explains Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason. Though they have "one foot in the Enlightenment," Gillespie says, they're unwilling to cop to the conclusion that "God is dead, or, same thing, no longer the center of the universe."

    Granted, Meyer would say that it's unfair to discredit ID theorists by citing their religious motives rather than by refuting their arguments. "Darwinian theory has grave evidential problems, and in response to that we're getting a lot of this line of questioning," he complains. But the motives of one of Discovery's other key fellows -- Jonathan Wells, a Unification Church member who says that he decided to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism" at the behest of the Rev. Sun-Myung Moon -- suggest a clear link between at least one religious sect and ID.

    Both the Left and Right have major problems with Darwinian thinking it seems. With the Left the concern is that a Darwinian worldview may lead to policy complacency about current injustices but this would only be true if (1) anyone still believed in the 'naturalistic fallacy' or alternatively if (2) Darwnian thinking encourages the thinking that no improvements can be made because of great constraints on improving outcomes. The latter seems more plausible a worry but even it falls down - at most, Darwinian thinking discourages utopian thinking, not the gradualistic reformism which is to be preferred anyway if one is a fallibilist. It's also disproved by the fact that most of the leading lights of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are leftist - Robert Trivers was a white member of the Black Panther party, Richard Dawkins is a traditional UK leftist, EO Wilson is a left liberal and Greenie. Robert Wright seems to be a moderate US Democrat. I'm still reading Pinker's latest in between other things and he is developing some libertarian tendencies (anyone who's heard of Hayek's work on theoretical psychology/neural networks is alright by me) so he may be an exception along with Matt Ridley. As for the Right, their concerns probably seem more absurd and cynical - they seem to believe that 'if people stop believing we're special, we'll end up killing each other' to which I say only a fundamentally un-decent person needs to believe a load of horseshit in order to continue behaving decently to other people.

    Friday, December 06, 2002
    Top up fees in higher education

    An article in this week’s Economist (may need a subscription to view) has some points relevant for Australian higher education:

    Britain's universities are broke, lecturers are ill-paid and courses are overcrowded. More money has to be found but further recourse to the general taxpayer on the scale needed to rescue the universities is out of the question, given the huge sums already committed to health and schools. That leaves students themselves, who can expect higher earnings because of their university education.

    But raising extra money for universities is not the government's only objective. Maintaining and if possible improving access for poor students is another priority. And Mr Blair and Charles Clarke, the new education secretary, are also keen to allow a greater role for market forces in higher education, so that universities can differentiate themselves to a much greater extent. The fear is that without such reform, Britain's top universities will slide inexorably down the world pecking order.

    There are three main options for reform in the government's review of university finance, due in January. The first is to stick with the current system of tuition fees paid up-front by students but to increase them from their current means-tested level of £1,100 a year. The higher fees could either remain uniform or could vary from university to university. The snag with this proposal is that it would raise only a modest amount of money—even now only 40% of students pay the full amount—but could deter access. Mr Blair appeared to rule out the option this week when he said that reform would not mean parents having to pay thousands of pounds of fees up-front.

    The second option, said to be backed by Mr Brown, is a pure graduate tax, which future graduates would pay for the rest of their working lives. This would certainly raise a lot of money, but it would leave a funding gap for several years until enough graduates were paying it. The open-ended obligation to pay higher tax could deter some people from going to university. And it would not make universities any more responsive to the market.

    That leaves option three, which Mr Blair supports. This would allow universities to vary their fees, up to a cap of £5,000, but students themselves would not have to pay this up-front. Instead they would repay the cost once they graduated and started to earn enough. All students could be charged, so increasing the revenue compared with up-front fees. However, they should not be deterred from university since they would only have to make repayments of a fixed sum, unlike the graduate tax, and the system would offer protection to low earners. Universities would get their money immediately.

    One comment. There are more than three options. Whether universities should be able to charge top up fees is a separate issue from whether there should be an income contingent loan programme (although having a loan programme in place affects the costs and benefits of top up fees). It is possible to have one without the other. In Australia we have regulated fees, uniform across universities, that students can pay through the tax system as an income contingent loan.
    Chomsky, Pilger = “loopy extremism”

    I can’t believe I missed this great article by Greg Sheridan when it was first published. (well I can believe it – I only read The Australian once a week whereas I read the SMH daily). Sheridan’s interesting article examines the “extremist Islamist ideology fuelled by Chomsky-Pilger conspiracies “

    There is a lot of interesting analysis in this article, comparing the current Islamist extremism to other closed ideologies such as fascism and communism.

    “Bin Laden stands in the direct line of Lenin, Hitler and Pol Pot as crafting a radical, utopian and ultra-modern ideological system. Occasionally you hear people mistakenly talk of al-Qa'ida as if it represents medieval Islam. It is nothing of the kind. Like most ideologies it is utterly modern. Like Nazism and communism, it is explicitly and self-consciously a response to modernisation.”

    What I found most interesting was the exploration of the link between extremist Islamicism, conspiracy theories and Western left-intellectuals.

    “Ideology marches hand in hand with conspiracy theories, because conspiracy theories are needed to explain why the world doesn't actually look like the ideologue's description.

    The remarkable feature of the present moment is the way the West's far Left has joined in a kind of de facto intellectual alliance with the al-Qa'ida extremists, which is not to say that most leftists, even extremist leftists, endorse terrorism, approve of mass murder or wish to achieve a purist Islamic state.

    Where the de facto alliance does come into play is the shared view of the Left and al-Qa'ida of the nature of the West, and the role of the US and Australia. Travelling recently in South-East Asia I was struck by how often, in the offices of Islamist activists and fellow travellers, I saw the works of Noam Chomsky, and somewhat less often our own John Pilger, two of the iconic figures of mad Left denunication of their own societies.

    Chomsky and Pilger provide the Islamists with much of their interpretive narrative of the West.
    Many Islamic activists believe the CIA was responsible for the Bali bombing. Why wouldn't they believe this madness if they've been consuming a high-octane diet of Pilgerist Chomskyism with its endless conspiracy theories about the unregenerate evil and secret wickedness of the US? Both Chomsky and Pilger cast Australia as a lieutenant evil-doer of the US.”

    The full article is well worth a look, especially if you want to see Pilger take a bit more of a beating on this issue.
    Grab Your Gun

    Alex Robson and John Whitley will have no doubt set the cat amongst the pigeons again with today’s piece in the SMH on gun control. Robson and Whitley argue:

    “Gun control may indeed make Australians safer by limiting the availability of guns to criminals. But gun control also reduces the number of guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, making it harder for them to defend themselves against criminals, particularly for physically weaker people such as women and the elderly”

    They then go on to highlight the difficulty in proving the net effect on crime and safety of the gun buy-back scheme and thus end up concluding that:

    “The unfortunate truth is that Australian crime data do not provide strong evidence in support or against gun-control measures like the ones being proposed by John Howard. They certainly do not justify another multimillion-dollar expenditure. In international settings where these measures have been implemented and rigorous empirical testing has been employed, it appears that they have generally caused higher crime rates - presumably because the decreased deterrent effect swamped any effect from reduced gun availability.”

    I can’t wait to see the reaction to this one.

    Thursday, December 05, 2002
    Requiem for a dead cat
    Don Arthur, a genuinely nice guy, public intellectual and one of the brightest writers in the blogosphere, has announced his retirement. 'Tis a real pity indeed. In his short life on the blogosphere he by turns stumped, entertained and illuminated his readers in a tangled Socratic web. The blogosphere will be lesser for his absence, but not to worry, he's still alive in RL.
    L'infame 2
    Found this via Andrew Sullivan:

    U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts abruptly canceled an appearance at a religious conference after learning that members of the group sponsoring the gathering support executing gays and abortion providers, and stoning disobedient children.

    “Congressmember Pitts doesn’t believe in stoning anybody,” said spokesperson Gabe Neville, confirming the cancellation.

    Tuesday, December 03, 2002
    Steve Sailer on art subsidies
    Sreve Sailer writes some of the funniest and snappiest opening paras on serious subjects ever. Take these lines on the effects of art subsidies in Mexico (Steve, get yourself a proper blog so we can link to individual posts):

    After the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government put the country's entire left wing artistic and intellectual class on the dole, exempting them from taxes, subsidizing their salaries, and buying most of the ads in their journals. This had the happy result of neutering would-be Marxist revolutionaries. By turning the Left into spoon-fed lapdogs of the state, Mexico avoided the horrendous civil wars seen in Guatemala and Peru, where white Communists led oppressed brown peasants, and the Tupamaro white urban insurrections in Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. (Mexico's Chiapas uprising is a pale reflection of what happened over the border in Guatemala.)

    Monday, December 02, 2002
    Saddam, Baathism and pomo
    This month's AIJAC Review has a fascinating piece on what makes Saddam (ideologically) tick. The founder of Baathism was Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox Christian born in Damascus and apparently he was Saddam's guru to the extent that he can be said to have one:

    "It is Michel Aflaq who created the party and not I," Saddam told an interviewer in 1980. "How can I forget what Michel Aflaq has done for me? Had it not been for him, I would not be in this position." It was Aflaq whom Saddam installed in a top party post once he became dictator. It is Aflaq whom Saddam cites when he insists, as he does frequently, that the Baath party is not like other parties. Instead, he says, it is a believer’s creed, similar in faith and purpose to early Islam, which offers "spiritual ascendance in the process of the nation’s uplift" through "great deeds in conquest, liberation, justice, altruism, and flexibility."

    And what in turn were Aflaq's roots - once again, that mixture of collectivism, revolutionary rhetoric and nationalism that is so characteristic of mystical Fascist thinking:

    Michel Aflaq was born in Damascus in 1910, a Greek Orthodox Christian. He won a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne sometime between 1928 and 1930 (biographies differ), and there he studied Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Mazzini, and a range of German nationalists and proto-Nazis. Aflaq became active in Arab student politics with his countryman Salah Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. Together, they were thrilled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, but they also came to admire the organisational structure Lenin had created within the Russian Communist party.

    Just to throw a spanner in the works and reignite new debates (Don Arthur and John Quiggin, are you reading?), it's worth noting Saddam's own pomo proclivities:

    In 1977 Saddam delivered a speech to a group of history teachers in which he lectured them to put Baathist analysis before the facts:

    "Those researchers and historians who call themselves objective might very well be presenting different viewpoints and possibilities to explain one event, . . . leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. . . . The Baathist must never deal with history and all other intellectual and social questions in this way. . . . The writing of history must take on the same specificity as our Baathist way; in other words the writing of Arab history should be from our point of view with an emphasis on analysis and not realistic story telling."

    In July 2002, Saddam delivered a speech in which he emphasised that all principles, even Baath principles, are relative. "Truth" is determined by the revolution’s immediate needs. Real Baathists refuse to be guided by the principles of their founding, Saddam said, or even by the principles they adhered to six years ago. Rather, they are guided by the needs of the future. "It is ascension, ascension, and ascension" that guides the revolution. "Our decisive criterion," he concluded, "when there are various alternatives and visions in front of us, is not the modest picture, but the highest and purest state." This is what distinguishes the Baath regime from all other regimes.
    The impeccably named Gummow Trotsky blogs on the true 'political correctness' surrounding Santa Claus. Why a known conservative like John Howard would be overly concerned about kids believing in Santa Claus escapes me - don't we always say 'there ain't no such thing as a free lunch'? (TANSTAAFL) I never believed in Santa as a kid (but then my parents didn't really celebrate X'mas in a big way - that was reserved for Chinese New Year where one got lots of red packets) and I always wondered how those Christian and European children could believe in such a ridiculous thing. Anyway by the time I was 6 or 7 I had found a book in the public library which explained the Saint Nicholas myth - so perhaps public libraries should be closed down prior to the X'mas season.

    Note to the humour impaired - this is a tongue in cheek post.
    More bad news from Paul Sheehan.

    Sunday, December 01, 2002
    Honour killings
    Sometimes the ABC does get things right. Kudos to it for screening The lost honour of Sirhan, an episode of Compass devoted to honour killings. I am watching it as as I blog and am so sickened by what it documents so far that I feel compelled to blog on it. That a brother can kill his favourite sister (and be highly respected in the community) over 'honour' because she was raped, or female members including mothers condone the killing of their children over 'honour', that a country's parliament would decide not to punish such people as murderers, is a sign of something dysfunctional that will continue to deservedly hold such societies back. Such practices should not be given the slightest respect in Australia by the judiciary, be damned what 'multiculturalism' makes of it. The programme points out that honour killings are a carry-over from the pre-Islamic era. In this case the clash is between Islam and local tradition and Islam is on the side of the good. Let Burkean conservatives who wax lyrical about 'tradition' recall these sickening, backward and barbaric practices before they write another ridiculous word.
    The blank slate
    John Quiggin has put up some preliminary paras of his review of the Blank Slate, not enough to go on yet but worth a look. It is unclear to me a priori why John argues that only the capacity for language is really hard-wired but not anything else, but best to wait and see how his review progresses. The evidence on hard-wiring extending to areas as 'personal' as an aesthetic sense is well-documented, and apparently there is also hard wiring for the propensity to 'truck and barter'.

    I have bought the book but haven't started reading it yet so not much to say at this stage, but my impression is what Pinker has to say is nothing new or controversial except for the more dogmatic exponents of the 'blank slate' who can be found as much on the left as the religious right. It is rather ironic that the left would end up defending the outmoded and unsupported Judaeo-Christian view of humanity as somehow exempt from the laws of nature and keeping up the myth of the ghost in the machine because of its possible implications. This is an unnecessary concession to the forces of traditionalism because everyone with any sense is well-aware of the naturalistic fallacy i.e. what is 'natural' is not necessarily 'right'. In the normative world we frequently rely on various 'necessary lies' or 'useful fictions' such as the concept of free-will because it is a useful way of ordering social relations. Why confuse matters of truth with what works as 'as-if' rules of social interaction? That's my pragmatist take on this unnecessarily vexed matter anyway.

    For a detailed review of the Blank Slate see this post by Razib of Gene Expression.




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