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polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, September 20, 2003
     
    Instapundit should grow up
    It's really sad how things develop sometimes. I got drawn into the world of blogs originally because of Instapundit. What Glenn Reynolds did was so new and refreshing at the time and I admired his diligence and dedication. His presence was a fresh one to me on the Internet and I clicked on his site almost obsessively to read his updates on S11-related news after S11 happened. Then he started linking to other people including Tim Blair and I got inspired to start my own blog because of the two of them. I also used to read Andrew Sullivan obsessively. I hardly do nowadays because it's the same old tired tunes being played and the same reflexive lines over (France sux, anyone who doesn't toe the neocon line is a quisling) and over again, and the same semi-hysterical lashing out and apologetics. And now Instapundit has fallen into the same tired old groove. I'll never get as many hits as Instapundit and I don't care when he comes out with idiocies like this:


    French political class is in the grips of something between neurosis and psychosis to think otherwise, as some French intellectuals have been noting. But the French need to think beyond this point. Sooner or later, the United States will decide that "you're for us or against us" applies to France, too. Proxy war can go both ways, and the French have more enemies, and fewer resources, than we do.

    For a start, we should start encouraging pro-democracy movements in Francophone Africa. And arming them. But that's just a start.


    This is the sort of stuff that made me stop reading Sully and Glenn long ago.
     
    Lomborg upsets Hamilton

    I am looking forward to Danish sceptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg visting Australia in a couple of weeks. (Dates and cities here, I will be attending the Sydney lunch.) Lomborg's argument that the environmental movement exaggerates environmental problems has attracted much criticism, not to mention a pie in the face. I'm no expert on the environment (a trip to the Botanical Gardens is as close as I want to get to nature), but anyone who upsets local doom and gloom merchant Clive Hamilton must be on to something.

    Friday, September 19, 2003
     
    Wesley Clark
    Over at Gene Expression, godless capitalist gives his seal of endorsement to Wesley Clark as the next US Prez and provides a nice set of extracts which does seem to suggest that Clark has a far more impressive mind than Shrub:


    Maher: I'm just wondering of all the poeple who have the credentials to say liberal is not a bad word, I'm just wondering if I can get you to say that right now.
    Clark: Well, I'll say it right now. [loud applause]. We live in a liberal democracy that's what we created in this country. Thats the basis of our Constituion. I think we should be very clear on this, you know this country was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment. It was the idea that people could talk, reason, have dialog and discuss the issues. It wasn't founded on the idea that someone would get stuck by a divine inspiration and know everything, right from wrong. People who founded this country had religion; they had strong beliefs but they believed in reason, in dialog, in civil discourse. We can't lose that in this country; We've got to get it back ...

    Terrorism is a multilateral problem. You cannot defeat it in one nation. You need international police work , teamwork, international harmonization of laws against terror, a whole series of things. You act unilaterally; you lose the commitment of your allies to make it work. That's the one thing that will kill you in the war on terrorism."


    Smart, witty, erudite and a war hero (a lot more so than Shrub though admittedly that's not very difficult). A moderate hawkish Democrat with a multilateralist emphasis - exactly what we need to restitch the coalition for the war on terror that was damaged by the perpetually puzzled chimp currently in the White House. If I were American he'd have my vote.

    Thursday, September 18, 2003
     
    Abbott's union obsession
    Ken Parish is a tad cynical about the motives behind Workplace Relations minister Tony Abbott's 200 page bill to introduce a 'building industry watchdog' but he's not the only one. The watchdog will have special powers to and prosecute unions and employers accused of breaching industrial laws. It will be a permanent national commission with the power to poke its nose into every little dispute and bar union officials from visiting sites. The CFMEU thinks that this watchdog has been set up because Abbott has it in for the union - well, I wouldn't be surprised if that were true.

    I'm all for freedom of association and freedom of contract - but this also means freedom to bargain collectively if people so choose. I also think excessive industrial relations restrictions kill employment growth. But there's a right way and a wrong way to reform. One way does permanent damage to the cause of liberal reform by associating it with the manipulation of laws by one group of special interests against another group of special interests. If a unions enjoy legal privileges which shield them from being held as accountable for breach of contract or tortious damage as other economic entities then there is a case for removing these privileges unless they can produce compelling public interest based justifications for exceptions in their case. If powerful unions can wield their market power to their advantage in a way that restricts competition or reduces welfare then sic the ACCC on them. If crimes have been committed in the building industry then by all means prosecute them to the full extent.

    The point is that in a society based on liberal principles, general laws are to be preferred to industry specific laws or laws that look as if they've been written to single out a particular group. But what on earth is all this business about a permanent national commission sticking its nose into and micromanaging a single industry? Granted, the building industry is a tad shonkier in its use of muscle power than most other industries but if this justifies Abbott's creation then what's the threshold of shonkiness that has to exist before any particular industry qualifies to get one of these watchdogs with ATO powers?
     
    Singapore - the only country in the world whose closest Muslim neighbour is a more fun place to live in. (link via Hot Buttered Death)



    Infuriated by growing reports of weddings marred by tardy guests, Singapore's government this week launched a "kindness movement" to encourage punctuality, its latest attempt at social engineering to improve etiquette.
    About 400,000 "punctuality reminders" have been sent to hotels which usually plan weddings in Singapore. These are passed to couples to include with invitations and read simply: "Punctuality is the politeness of kings".


    I mean seriously - even Dr Mahathir doesn't engage in such fine detail of social engineering.
     
    Criminals and 'criminals'
    Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith blog has ignired a mini debate in the blog's comment box about white collar crime. His posting is an apologia of sorts for white collar crime - it argues that there is a reason to treat white collar criminals less harshly because the effects of such crimes are spread out over more individuals and therefore the costs incurred by each are lower, whereas mugging, rape and so on have more devastating impacts on individuals. I'm not sure I'd agree with his prescription though. Firstly for efficiency reasons it may be more worthwhile to jail white collar crims because as one commentator points out, they are more scared to death of jail than your average mugger so the deterrence benefit is greater. Secondly, the argument is too clever by half. What do diffuse costs and concentrated benefits remind you of? That's right - inefficient legislation like tariffs - surely one wouldn't argue that efforts made to remove inefficient legislation are less urgent than efforts to remove legislation with more upfront costs? The aggregate effect on welfare is what matters.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2003
     
    Endlessly recycled critiques

    In last month's Quadrant I reviewed Jerry Muller's book The Mind and the Market, which looks at several centuries of debates about capitalism. It's a good book, showing how the same basic arguments about the capitalism's bad effects on society and social relationships have occurred repeatedly since the 18th century.

    Which brings me to Ross Gittins' plug for Lindsay Tanner's new book, Crowded Lives. Gittins thinks only economists could be silly enough to believe that economic reform has not had adverse effects on our relationships. As usual in these critiques, no evidence is provided. If he tried to, he'd be struggling to get even basic correlations, much less causation. Over the 1990s, the main period of economic reform, the basic family statistics haven't shown consistent negative change (more single households, but marriages last longer though there are fewer of them, divorce rate fluctuates but fewer kids are affected, etc.). American social capital expert Robert Putnam dismisses the idea that markets have caused loss of social capital (though while I doubt markets cause a net loss of social capital, I think Putnam is a bit quick here.)

    Tanner's main point seems to be about technology, also an old anti-capitalist theme. Mobile phones, he says, interrupt face-to-face conversations (has he ever thought of turning his off?). Computer games can be socially isolating (as reading can be - but perhaps authors don't want to point that out).

    I will buy Tanner's book, as he is one of our more thoughtful pollies (and my local member). But it sounds like a cross between an update of very old arguments and a mid-life crisis book, Tanner guilt-tripping on not seeing the kids by his first wife enough, while inspired by his new wife to muse about how good relationships are.

    Update Adam Smith is one of Muller's favourite thinkers, and of course Smith was very big on social approval, as well as self-interest, as a motivator of human behaviour. The laudatory letters Gittins gets for writing articles like his op-ed yesterday help explain why he writes them. However, thankfully Peter Nugent of Bardon (Qld) is a lone voice of sense.

    I'll give a more detailed rebuttal of the Gittins' line in the next issue of Policy, where I review in some detail Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish. But the basic trend figures on happiness (on a 0-10 scale) show no sign that markets (or anything else, for that matter) are making us miserable:

    Happiness Trends - Australia

    1948 7.97
    1975 7.39
    1979 7.59
    1983 7.78
    1984 7.39
    1995 7.88

    Source: World Database of Happiness

     
    Accuracy and polemics

    In an op-ed on the history wars Stuart Macintyre says "the first casualty when war comes is truth". Accuracy, however, is a frequent victim of the polemical style. Macintyre's article says that John Howard's 1988 comments on Asian immigration were rejected by "Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett, Liberal premiers of the two states with the largest immigrant population". Now for someone of Professor Macintyre's political leanings Jeff Kennett's reign must have seemed very long, but it started only in 1992. This is not a substantive error - the basic point that Liberals disagreed with Howard stands- but another lesson for all of us about throwing stones while in a glasshouse.
     
    Shock, horror, Norton agrees with Bluett

    Usually I'd put Victorian Australian Education Union President Mary Bluett somewhere on my list of the 50 most appalling Australians. But I'd go some way to agreeing with her justification for today's teacher's strike, as given on Channel Nine's Today progam this morning, which is that teachers need to be paid more and universities need to produce more teaching graduates.

    Where I disagree completely is over the solution to these problems. She thinks public education is the solution, while I think it is the problem. Any service paid for out of the public purse is inevitably driven not by efficient resource allocation for that service, but by the overall budgetary situation. From a budgetary point of view, the State government's modest pay offer makes perfect sense. But from a teaching point of view, it means that good teachers will continue to take more lucrative options and good potential teachers won't even apply for teaching courses.

    Teaching places at university doubles the mess - it too is a socialist system (and will remain so even after Nelson's reforms), but from a different layer of government with even less political incentive to get it right than the state governments have. The states really have little choice but to return to funding teaching places themselves, as the Kennett government did for a while in the 1990s.

    Kevin Donnelly makes some good points about what else is wrong with school education.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2003
     
    Contradictory critiques?

    A few weeks ago the Howard government was being attacked for deceiving the public over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which it was assumed it knew did not exist. This week it is being attacked for ignoring warnings that the war would increase the risk of those same (non-existent) weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

    Now I don't think the critics can have it both ways. If Howard was wrong to ignore warnings about the weapons he must have sincerely believed they existed, and therefore the main public rationale for the war was not based on a deception, even if it was not correct.

    And if intelligence was faulty on whether the weapons existed or not, was it also faulty on whether the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists?


     
    Straussian crackpottery?
    Steve Sailer skewers Leo Strauss:


    Strauss's claim that from 1750 onward the great philosophers' secret technique of writing was understood by nobody (and "nobody" includes some fairly sharp guys like Schopenhauer, Mill, and Nietzche) is crackpottery of the highest order. So is his insistence that the great philosophical books of the past were written in "perfect speech." C'mon, they were written by human beings. Indeed, some of Aristotle's most important works may not even be written by him, but are merely compilations of his students' notes on his peripatetic lectures. Further, the vast majority don't exist in original form. All we have are transcriptions by monks and Arabs.

    Strauss should have been a character from a Jorge Luis Borges short story. That he was instead a life-changing influence on a group of men as influential as Kristol Jr. and Paul Wolfowitz seems worthy of its own Borges story about a crackpot scholar whose bizarre take on reality takes on a reality its own.

    Monday, September 15, 2003
     
    Mussolini reconsidered
    Robert Corr takes issue with John Ray's defence of Berlusconi's claim that 'Mussolini didn't kill anyone' and does it very well. You don't become a dictator without killing lots of people. However I am sympathetic to John Ray's claim that when you stack up Mussolini against Hitler and Stalin he comes up smelling of roses (but then again, when you stack up almost anyone against Hitler and Stalin ...). From what I've read Mussolini was an amoral and power hungry Machiavellian, but he wasn't a cold blooded killer and he killed reluctantly - admittedly that's not saying much but it's something. Nor was he a sincere racist (incidentally his son is a famous jazz pianist who remembers his father singing along to Fats Waller). [1]

    More importantly, if you read 'All or nothing: The axis and the holocaust 1941-43' by Jonathan Sternberg you'll learn that the his Fascist regime did dither and hold out on deporting Jews for as long as possible - though he himself was not active in trying to save Jews many of his Fascist deputies were and he didn't try to interfere. As Sternberg writes: 'Whilst Jews who fell into the arms of the German army were consigned almost without exception to concentration camps, the Italian army refused to cooperate ... As long as the Fascist regime was an independent ally of Nazi Germany, not one Jew taken by the Italians suffered that fate'.

    It wasn't until Mussolini became totally dependent on the Nazis for protection (when he was freed from a coup attempt and speeded to safety by Nazis )and given his own piece of Italy - the republic of Salo to govern after the coup against him that he went along with the deportations.

    [1] One of the funniest jazz related anecdotes I've read is related in James Gavin's biography of Chet Baker and it involves Chet Baker's first meeting with Romano Mussolini, the jazz pianist and son of Benito. Chet allegedly said to Romano in a deadpan voice, 'Gee, it's a drag about your old man.'

    Update
    I would expect most people to agree with me that Mussolini was less of a monster than Hitler and Stalin but still I'm not satisfied with the rationales I've given above myself. I suppose I'm interested in exploring the underlying moral intuition behind the issue (aside from the obvious one that Mussolini didn't kill as many people). One way of thinking about this is to see Mussolini as basically a scoundrel and common criminal (albeit a very well read and intelligent one with idealistic and intellectual pretensions) who rose to power. His murders and his acquiescence with Nazi anti-semitic laws were basically performed with the aim of consolidating his power and enhancing his position.

    Hitler and Stalin on the other hand were murderous ideologues - they killed people just because they were 'ideological enemies' (i.e. Jews or kulaks). I suppose underlying my own preferences then is the presumption (justified or unjustified) that in a way common criminals are just like you or I - anyone who would in normal circumstances behave decently towards others would, given sufficient temptation, commit great crimes - 'there but for the grace of God go I'. Does it matter why you are killed if you are killed? In a very long term sense I think it does. Criminals and scoundrels are redeemable (as Mussolini was in not standing in the way of attempts to evade orders to deport Jews), criminals can still be decent human beings when not faced with their temptations. Murderous ideologues on the other hand are people who would never under any circumstances behave decently towards certain people (their ideological enemies) regardless. Mussolini belonged to the former category rather than the latter and even seems more human than the friendless and paranoid Hitler and Stalin.
     
    Posner and pragmatism
    Here is a new short profile of one of my intellectual heroes, Richard Posner and a discussion of one of his countless jurisprudence books.

    Posner's targets have nothing positive in common. The link is that they are the antitheses of what he wants to argue for -- legal and democratic pragmatism. True to form, he does not suggest that we should all run out and read the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey (although he himself appears to have done so). He wants to argue for pragmatism in the ordinary sense of the term: paying greater attention to the consequences of what we do than to high principle, making institutions work a bit better on the assumption that perfection is out of reach and is, in any case, a dangerous goal.



    This sounds like a good description of my own philosophical leanings nowadays and coincides with my move away from straitlaced libertarianism (topic for a longer essay). As I grow older I think I am becoming increasingly sympathetic to the sort of almost relativistic and naturalistic pragmatism espoused by the two Richards (Posner and Rorty). I increasingly find ambitious attempts to 'prove' or 'derive' normative arguments about timeless 'rights' a waste of time. 'Rightspeak' has useful polemical force and is a form of poetry that is not without value and our evolved notions of liberal rights work pretty well in enhancing social utility given certain preconditions. As for morality, our sense of morality is mostly instinct and inculcated responses from immersion in a social environment. As for the precepts themselves, further work in biology utilising game theory can probably explain most of what passes for a universal morality and 'moral sense'. That's as much as we can claim and anything more are pretty words.

     

     
       
       

     

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