Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A message to my libertarian peers regarding Rand Paul

We just got done with a huge gun control debate in which many of you repeated the mantra that "guns don't kill people - people kill people." You rightly recognized that there is nothing inherently evil about any technology or any weapon - what matters is the purpose for which it is used.

So I'm frustrated when some of you fail to apply that same standard to drones. Those who felt betrayed by Rand Paul's recent repetition of his long-held stance that drone use may be okay in rare situations should re-watch his Senate filibuster; in it, they'll notice he used the exact same example to make the exact same point he did yesterday. The problem he was protesting in that filibuster was not the existence of drone technology, because technology itself is morally neutral. Rather, it was the lack of a transparent legal standard determining when that technology can and cannot be used, leaving the door open to future abuses. He was insisting that these standards be formed through a system of checks and balances in accordance with our constitutional rights, rather than being left to the unchecked discretion of one man. Even if you disagree that drones are ever okay, the point is that he's saying the exact same thing now that he was saying then. Put away the pitchforks.

Furthermore, should Rand or any other prolific libertarian say something else that could be interpreted as contradictory to our message in the future, perhaps it's better we give them a day to clarify before rushing to the conclusion that they're a villainous traitor. With the amount of flip-flopping that goes on in Washington, I understand suspicion about any politician, and appreciate the vigilance with which we try to keep them honest. And as marginalized as we've been for so long, I can even understand the temptation to just oppose everyone all the time - it's always easier to be a critic than it is to be criticized. But if we truly want the larger population to embrace our ideology, we'll need to support (and occasionally defend) the people trying their darnedest to bring it to them. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to clarify their remarks, it's the members of the Paul family. Rand has been taking the Republican party by storm for months, saying everything right, and attracting a massive independent fan base. He is the best hope our party has ever had for actual political improvements. By all means keep him honest - but please treat him fairly too.

Why Rand Paul has NOT flip-flopped on domestic drone use

For those of you who are unaware, Rand Paul is in hot water with libertarians once again. In a recent interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Paul appeared to contradict the stance he famously filibustered for 13 hours this February, saying:
"I've never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on," Paul said. "If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash. I don't care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him."
This prompted outrage on many libertarian websites, as many who pledged to "Stand with Rand" during his filibuster felt betrayed. This is understandable, because Paul's statement was initially unclear and unsettling.

However, once clarified, Paul's statements do not represent a reversal in position. He was never opposed to the existence of drones as a technology in our arsenal, nor to their use in certain rare situations - even domestically. He has always made exceptions to his opposition to drones in cases of an "imminent threat", or, as he said in his comments the other day, "an active crime going on." In these situations, drones are merely a tool, which can be used in the same way other uses of force can be used. He said as much in his filibuster. His armed liquor store robber example was a poorly distinguished attempt to exemplify this, which he later clarified. Conceivably, a policeman  could be in a situation in which he has legal permission to shoot that robber - perhaps he's drawn into a firefight, or a standoff of some sort. What Rand is saying is that if the government is legally permitted to shoot that man with a gun, they're also legally permitted to use other weapons for the same purpose: perhaps a grenade, or a tank, or a drone. This is permissible because police forces generally have very specific legislated conditions which must be met before lethal force is justifiable; if lethal force is used without meeting that legal standard, harsh consequences are (theoretically) levied on the officer responsible.

What Paul was opposed to in his filibuster was the lack of legal standard to determine when drones can and can't be used domestically, such that the executive controlling the military was made into judge, jury, and executioner. What he was opposed to was the idea that the president can target citizens on a kill list by defining imminent threat expansively, such that it includes people who are not engaged in violence at the moment, but have incited the FBI's suspicion due to extremist ideas conducive to violence, or prior crimes, or association with other suspected terrorists. He was and is opposed to the president assuming the authority to make these distinctions without checks from other branches - a power he lacks for the domestic use of other technologies. He was and is opposed to the classification of the USA as a battlefield on which the rules of war, rather than the legal protections of the constitution, justify killing first and asking questions later. Paul filibustered in an attempt to get a legal standard restricting the president's unchecked power to kill ill-defined "domestic enemy combatants" without trial - NOT to remove armed drones as a law enforcement or military tool altogether.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Background Check Gun Control Debate

A few days ago, the Senate failed to pass a watered down background check legislation, which was viewed by many as the last gasp of the post-Sandy-Hook gun control efforts. As expected, many liberals were exhasperated by the news. One of my friends, whom I'll call Sarah (that's not here real name), took to Facebook with her frustration. I commented on her status, and a reasonable, professional, educated debate with her and one of her friends (I'll call him John, although that's also not his name) ensued. I'll post the transcript here. Comments which aren't mine are in italics, while comments which are mine are in standard text.

Original angry status: This is quite sick. The fact that it was even plausible to have a debate about civilians owning assault rifles is sick, because really those are acceptable things to have around the house. The fact that this country is plagued by gun violence everyday and politicians don't even want to expand background checks to online or gun show sales is morally wrong. While the founding fathers put into the Constitution the 2nd amendment, times have changed from US citizens having red coats "threaten our liberty", and it has become an argument that is out dated. So, I guess the NRA has won. Paranoia, fearmongering and a hell of a lot more money have triumphed over reason once again. When will politicians realise that they need to think of what is right for the people rather than their party or their future or themselves? The logic behind this has baffled me. Thanks for nothing Senate.

Me: There are many reasons why your outrage is unfounded. Here are a few.

1. By definition, nothing separates an "assault rifle" from a normal gun except scary looks. They each fire one bullet per trigger pull. Fully automatic machine guns, which fire multiple bullets per trigger pull, have been banned for many years.

2. The country may be plagued by gun violence today, but it is plagued by it less so than it was in prior years with more restrictive gun laws. Violent crime rates have steadily decreased for two decades, corresponding with loosening gun control in many states. There is 0, repeat 0 statistical evidence that expanded background checks do jack diddly squat to reduce gun violence or crime in general in the United States. If anything, there is evidence of an inverse relationship between many of these measures. Using the fact that crime exists as an excuse to ignore those statistics has a term very similar to the one you used: "paranoia and fear mongering triumphing over reason." 

3. Yes, times have changed from the days when foreign governments with red-coated soldiers threatened our liberty. Today, local governments with multi-coated soldiers threaten our liberty. And if you feel the second amendment is outdated and no longer necessary, the solution is to repeal it via a constitutional amendment, not to ignore it because you find it inconvenient. Liberals don't do this because they know the people don't support it be large enough majorities to pass such an amendment, because for the most part they rather like that added layer of protection.

Stricter gun control didn't fail because selfish, greedy people who enjoy bloodshed corrupted politicians and silenced a rational debate. It failed because we had that rational debate, and a majority of Americans came to the rational conclusion that gun control is ineffective, dangerous and unjust.

John: I'm afraid you are mistaken on several fronts.

1. According to The Oxford dictionary an assault rifle is "a rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use."[1] and by Merriam-Webster as a "any of various automatic or semiautomatic rifles with large capacity magazines designed for military use"[2]. By Normal guns I can only assume you mean Bolt action rifles which are defined by Merriam-Webster as “use[ing] a manually operated cylinder to drive the cartridge into the rifle's chamber, are the most common type for hunting.”
2. The trend of falling violent crime rates has been observed across the first world completely independent of the gun laws from the U.S. to Japan. For more on this I would recommend “The Better angels of our Nature” by Steven pinker. Please elaborate which study has shown that universal background checks and similar measures correlate to a rise in gun related deaths. Surly you understand my skepticism because in the United States in 2009 United Nations statistics record 3.0 intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants; for comparison, the figure for the United Kingdom, with where handguns are prohibited was 0.07 per 100,000, about 40 times lower, and for Germany 0.2. [3] Gun Homicides in Switzerland however are similarly low, at 0.52 in 2010 even though they rank third in the world for highest number of guns per citizen. It undermines your argument to accuse other of providing false information without citing your own sources.
3. The second Amendment is outdated only in that if a serious rebellion were to begin, unless we allow civilians to own drones and other such weapons, we would be exterminated by a nation that already restricts the arms you could potential use to fight against it, effectively ensuring it always wins in an arms race against its own citizenry. I’m disinclined to speculate on the motives of “Liberals” or anyone because it’s improper to support such statements by my own anecdotal evidence
4. Gun control actually failed because a minority of the senate was able to filibuster the motion for cloture on the Manchin-Toomey Amendment although a majority of senators voted in favor of the motion. As for most Americans public opinion is far more complex than you illustrated with a majority favoring some measures such as background checks and opposing others such as limiting the number of guns each individual may own.[4]

[1] ( 
[3] ^ United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Homicides by firearm statistics.

Me: Jordan, you seem like an informed, intelligent and respectful adversary. Hopefully the discussion stays this professional.

1. By "rapid fire" and they mean "as rapidly as someone can pull the trigger", because by definition a semiautomatic weapon cannot fire more than one bullet per trigger pull. That's what separates them from a fully automatic weapon, which is already illegal. This gives it a very similar fire rate to other semi-automatic weapons, like hand guns, which is what I was referring to by "normal guns." I don't know why you "could only assume" I meant bolt action rifles, because as you mentioned they're much rarer and primarily used for hunting. Yes, bolt action rifles do indeed have a slower fire rate, but they're also not what comes to mind when people think of your typical self-defense household weapon. Similarly, most handguns and normal guns are also "magazine fed" - all that means is that you can load them with a clip of bullets, rather than one bullet at a time. And some handguns (like the very popular Beretta 92) are also designed "for infantry use". This doesn't mean they're only good for that use. This semantics game is exactly why liberals can't be taken seriously when they accuse the NRA of "fear mongering" - spreading fear by using scary words people don't understand has a huge part of the liberal strategy on gun control since the 1980's.

2. I've read The Better Angels of Our Nature. I also never made any reference to the effectiveness of gun control in other countries, but rather said it "was ineffective to reduce gun violence or crime in general in the United States." There are several reasons comparisons to European countries don't mean much regarding our own policies. One is that violent crime is lower across the board in Europe than it is in the US, regardless of the gun policies implemented by those governments (I give you credit for citing Switzerland as an example of that, even though it doesn't support the argument you seem to advocate). Another is that we already have 300 million guns in the country, whereas those nations never had such widespread ownership; it's much easier to ban something from the outset than it is to confiscate it after 200+ years of legality. As for statistics suggesting gun control hasn't worked in the US/gun rights are beneficial in the US, here you are:

"of the 30,000 gun deaths per year, more than half (18,000) are suicides. The number of accidental deaths is about 1000. Each year there are about 3000 deaths caused by med¬ical error, about 15,000 deaths caused by accidental falls, and over 40,000 accidental deaths caused by automobiles.
In comparison, civilians use firearms to defend themselves from criminals between 800,000 and 2.5 million times per year. About 8% of those (between 64,000 and 200,000) involve stop¬ping a sex¬ual assault.

3. There are many examples throughout history in which armies with inferior technology and training have prevailed. This is especially possible when they have strength in numbers and a morale advantage. Vietnam is one instance. Inversely, there are many examples in which government expansion and the quelling of rebellions has been made easier after disarming the populace. Several 20th century dictatorships fit that bill.

4. I agree with everything you wrote under 4. None of it is contradictory to anything I wrote.

John:  I hope the conversation can continue in such a manner. I am thoroughly enjoying it.

1) I’m afraid you've misunderstood my intention in citing those definitions yes semi-automatic firearms encompasses a huge range I was citing them for the reference to their use for “military” and “infantry”. The argument around what should be banned often falls along what should be used for civilian vs. military use and as such the definition of Semi-automatic rifles would indicate that some weapons which fall into that category are reasonable to consider for bans or registration with appropriate grandfather clauses. I assumed you meant bolt action rifles because the conversation around guns often includes hunting as well as self-defense I thought if you wanted to discuss hand guns you would have used the phrase so I defaulted to the most common hunting rifle. In terms of hunting and self-defense for the home few weapons above a handgun or a bolt action rifle are, in my opinion, needed. In terms of a semantics game I was merely pointing to the definition to establish a working definition, a legalistic idiosyncrasy I can’t ignore. Now of course some members of the Democratic Party use tactics that could rightly be considered fear mongering. That does not erase or forgive the fear mongering that the NRA has engaged in over the last 30 years. Also the fact that people don’t understand the terms “assault rifle” and “high capacity magazine” is the fault of an uneducated and/or lazy populace and should not impede debate on specialized topics.

2) I used the other countries because I thought it served as the best illustration of the contrast of ideologies not to impeach your words on the topic, do not worry. If you prefer we could examine in the United States where the Northeast and West coast have generally lower rates of gun related deaths than the Heartland and the South. [1] In terms of banning these guns no one that I am aware of is suggesting the confiscation of these guns after sales are banned. To do so would violate Article one, Section nine of the U.S. Constitution banning ex post facto legislation. All existing sales would have been grandfathered in to the new system. The problem with statistics is that they are often very counter-intuitive. New York has more gun related deaths yes but as citation one shows clearly less proportional gun related deaths which I did not see mentioned in any of the sources you respectfully provided. Unfortunately the websites listed, Cato most egregiously, claimed that there was no correlational link between legislation and gun violence simply by fiat as well.

3) Yes History is littered with underdog stories the problem is that the gap in technology between the common citizen and his/her government has grown with time in the western world. The crushing defeats of the official armies of Iraq and Afghanistan to me show how deadly that gap can be. Any government so egregious that it must be overthrown is so insidious that it will viciously refuse to be. Such a government could pepper the countryside with missiles and drones, sending in an army with tanks and fully automatic weapons to slaughter civilians en-mass. Perhaps this scenario is opinion based but I would not be confident in semiautomatic and hunting weaponry in the hands of a relatively untrained populace to stand against such an assault.

4) I specified the information in my previous #4 because I thought that your contention about the only “rational” decision being agreed to by legislators and the American populace was too broad and as such slightly misleading.

Me: 1. "In terms of hunting and self defense for the home few weapons above a handgun or a bolt action rifle are, in my opinion, needed."

I don't think it's a question of what people need, so much as a question of what people want and feel more comfortable owning. This is because you are the one proposing a ban. You are the one suggesting the government wield force to restrict the freedom of its citizens. Therefore, the burden of proof lies with you. I don't have to prove why certain types of guns serve a particularly useful purpose in order to justify permitting them. On the contrary, you have to prove why certain types of guns pose a particularly egregious danger to justify banning them.

2. "All existing sales would have been grandfathered in to the new system." - This is one of the many reasons people are highly skeptical gun control can be effective. There are almost as many guns in the country as there are people. Keeping them out of the hands of criminals or "the wrong people" is essentially impossible - about as doable as keeping drugs out of the hands of people who want them.

3. "Any government so egregious that it must be overthrown is so insidious that it will viciously refuse to be." - Resistance of government doesn't just mean bullrushing the capital building and dodging drones. It just means resistance. Guerilla warfare. Hiding ones identity, popping out from behind a bush, firing a few shots, and running off. Being a pest. Making life difficult for the occupying force. Imposing non-casualty costs of energy and money. In other words, exactly what formed our country fighting back against a foe with superior technology and weaponry and manpower. And although technology has indeed advanced, there are recent examples of the same principle. I cited Vietnam as one example. The Mujahideen repelling the Russians was another. One could even argue the war in Iraq demonstrated the vulnerability of seemingly superior military forces to such tactics. Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, by contrast, couldn't offer much of a fight. Guerilla tactics don't work if you're throwing rocks or stabbing from close range.

Besides, self defense from lots of people at once needn't be just from government. The LA Race riots come to mind - many Asian store owners were looted by furious crowds, and some people even attacked and physically injured or shot. But one store owner and held out and protected his property from the hoards by camping out on the roof of his store with what you would call an "assault rifle".

Sarah: You are right that enacting new laws on gun sales won't keep the ones already out there in the country out of the hands of the "wrong" people, but the question is about the reasonable limits to owning a gun and being sure there is more adequate training rather than prohibition. Prohibition in this country has never worked, but being able to have a system that can monitor the types of people who own guns and the types of guns that should be owned is something that would benefit society as a whole.
Now, I think the LA Race Riots is an extreme case to compare advocating for guns since the conditions were quite different and do not really parallel today. In our time, is it someones right to be able to own a military style weapon on a day to day basis? This amendment was not going to take away someones gun, it was not going to even ban owning certain types of guns, it was just going to help as a tool to monitor more the people who are buying weapons.
I don’t think that it is fair to say that more gun control laws in our country will be ineffective. If you look at countries that have stricter gun control laws which limit access to weapons, studies have shown that there is less gun related crime in those countries. Look at Australia. There was a massacre which led to stricter firearm policy which led to less violence from firearms in the country and, “In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since”. Sure, it did not eliminate all types of violence, but the data shows that having gun control policies has an effect on the level of gun related violence there. Of course we must take into account the different cultural implications and values of having guns, but not trying to curb these things from happening is worse than sitting by and waiting for another news story about gun violence. And within our own country studies have found that states with stricter gun laws have less gun related violence (
The reason we have regulations is so that we are protected, not so the government can infringe on our rights. Let’s look at how the government regulates driving. Now, in every drivers ed class the teacher mentions how a car is a weapon and that when we drive one, we are handling a weapon, so in order to own and operate a care, one must register, take a test to show they know how to use it, be licensed by the state, register the vehicle(s) they will be operating and periodically, have their license renewed. At Monsanto, they have all of the employees who have company cars take annual written and field exams in order to operate a vehicle. Yet, we don’t complain since all of this bureaucracy is there in order to protect us and keep others safe. The same type of process should go for operating a gun. And yes, even with driving, there are still the cases with drunk driving where people are abusing their right, but over the past decade, there have been declining incidents from drunk driving as a result of governments and states becoming more proactive by having better policing on highways and other regulations to ensure these do not happen.

Me: I read your post Sarah, but I've already rebuked some of the arguments you made (specifically the comparisons to laws/crime rates in other countries and in certain states, with the idea that association does not equal causation). You can read more about why these comparisons don't say much in the second half of this blog post:

The LA Race riots are an extreme case. It is also a recent case, which combats this idea that self defense was only necessary in the 1700's. And there is no reason to suspect violence (and thus, the need for defense) will go away in the future. Why can't something similar to the LA race riots happen again? And when they do, why must I peck away with an inaccurate short range handgun when superior alternatives are available? There is nothing remotely immoral about the mere ownership of an assault rifle.

Yes, regulations are designed for protection. So are guns. Like guns, regulation doesn't always work for its intended purpose. Like guns, regulation can produce negative side effects, among which is necessarily the infringement of rights. All regulation restricts rights to some extent. The situations in which that's justifiable are more rare than you seem prone to imagine.

A critical difference between weapons and cars is that the government owns all the roads - it can set whatever rules of using them it likes. It does not own us, our our houses or our land, and what we do or own on that land is normally not its concern. But even within the car example, some people do indeed complain about this bureaucracy. I myself have had some negative run-ins with it. Some feel it could function much more smoothly, fairly and efficiently with fewer rules and/or privatization.

John: 1)The law does not care what people what or what makes them comfortable when their desires could pose a distinct danger to those around them, which is why we cannot own fully automatic rifles for self-defense. You do not have to prove that however I feel this is a cop out since I didn’t commit a shift of the burden of proof; you raised the topic and I attacked your position. On a side not It’s a sign of cognitive dissonance to claim gun control laws are both ineffective and to be afraid they are a serious step toward a totalitarian government, either they are effective at removing guns from the populace or they are not.
2) Legislation is a gradual implementation we cannot expect any law to immediately change the entire country. Because we have a constitutional prohibition against ex post facto prosecution does mean we should not take precautions to prevent future criminals and mentally ill individuals from acquiring similar weapons that are dangerously and safely employed today. In a more personal note, speaking as someone with a personality disorder with a family plagued by mental illness believe me when I say a comprehensive background check system would be desirable to keep weapons away even from otherwise responsible citizens like myself.
3) Suffice is to say on this point while I see we have very different views and no impartial evidence to settle it that I am more concerned about the counter insurgency capabilities of the current global superpowers. The Vietcong incidentally had explosives and fully automatic fire arms. As did the Mujahideen which were armed and funded by the United States ironically. Iraq was a situation where we were actually stopping a sectarian civil war, not a concerted Guerilla war.
4) I would call the weapon used in that scenario an assault rifle because it WAS an assault rifle. I’m hardly claiming that we should ban all guns especially since guns legal under the Manchin-Toomey Amendment would have protected him. For every story of someone protecting themselves with a gun there is another similar to when at the Tucson shooting in 2011 a bystander pulled a gun and almost shot another bystander who was holding the shooters gun after disarming him. That’s why anecdotal evidence is so often ineffective. I know of no one who makes the argument we don’t need self-defense since the 1700s by the way. By the same logic that you justify “superior alternatives” you can daisy chain you way back to fully automatic and highly accurate weaponry which I assume you do not support legalizing.
5) On a side note by living under a government you are giving up a series of rights that is the nature of the social contract and subjecting yourself to that government is an integral part of it. If you truly believe the government does not effectively own your property research Eminent domain believe me I may be a socialist but there are plenty of reasons to cut back government authority in that area as well as violations of the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment let along police powers that are of tremendous concern. These violations include massive expansion of police powers that pose an immediate threat to the civil liberties of the populace, at least more so than universal background checks.

Unfortunately this will likely be my last response I’ll be away for several days and will not be able to get online to post but I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.

Me: 1. Yes, you did attack my position, and no, you didn't mention burden of proof explicitly. But the way you attacked my position (and supported banning a certain type of gun) was by saying you didn't feel that type of gun was "needed." But what you feel people need doesn't matter, because that'is not the question. "They don't need it" does not justify banning something - there are lots of legal things nobody really needs. Inversely, I don't need to prove people need that thing to justify keeping it legal. Rather, in order to justify a ban of something, you have to prove mere ownership of it poses what you called a "distinct danger to those around them." This is not a cop out - it's an important and relevant distinction many gun control advocates fail to understand.

"Either [gun control laws] are effective at removing guns fro the populace or they are not." - This is a false choice, because it makes it seem as if the populace must be either entirely armed or entirely unarmed, without acknowledging the possibility of middle-ground situations in which only certain types of people are armed. Banning X type of gun takes X type of gun out of the hands of people who wish to obey the law - but only from those people. From this perspective, it is effective at decreasing the amount of guns in circulation. However, it's ineffective at reducing crime, because those law-abiding people are very rarely the ones who use guns to initiate violence in the first place. Therefore it renders these law abiding people defenseless not just from their government, but from the criminals who ignore gun control legislation and acquire them on the black market.

2. You said that just because we can't take guns from everybody doesn't mean we shouldn't "take precautions to prevent future criminals and mentally ill" people from getting guns. But how would these laws do that? All they would do is make it illegal for people to sell them guns - just like it's illegal to sell people weed. People who want weed can still get it rather easily. Just because something is illegal doesn't make the demand for that thing go away, it just pushes these transactions to the black market where, by definition, the only people who can get it are the people with a demonstrated willingness to break the law. AKA, criminals. If you want to stop them from breaking the law, making another law saying they're not allowed to do it is intuitively unlikely to work. 

As for the mentally ill, the same principle applies - the only mentally ill people we need to worry about are the ones who might commit crimes, and therefore become criminals. But besides, I was unaware mentally ill people had fewer rights than everybody else. If they've done something wrong or illegal or violent in the past, their rights can be restricted as punishment just like everybody else's. But holding them to a different legal standard than others smacks of discrimination. It's the equivalent of saying "you're too stupid and crazy and abnormal to be trusted with the responsibility we give to other people," and that strikes me as belittling.

3. The underlying point here is that the government should not have a monopoly on the capability to use force. You're correct that "we have different views and no impartial evidence to settle it." But if your view is that "well the government already has complete power so we're fucked whether we have guns or not", hopefully you can understand why I find that unsettling and dangerous and something we should change.

4. "By the same logic that you justify “superior alternatives” you can daisy chain you way back to fully automatic and highly accurate weaponry which I assume you do not support legalizing." - You assume too much haha. I'm a libertarian - there is very, very little I do not support legalizing. You are right about the anecdotal evidence though. I wish all gun control advocates would apply this standard for statistical evidence instead of citing individual stories of heartbreak. If they did, each new shooting story on the news wouldn't strike them as more evidence that we need gun control.

5. "On a side note by living under a government you are giving up a series of rights that is the nature of the social contract and subjecting yourself to that government is an integral part of it." Really? That's odd - I don't recall signing that social contract.

Debate with David Friedman, Part III: I’m Neither Evil, Stupid, nor Afraid

Friedman opened another post, titled Frightening Ideas, with the following two paragraphs:

“Discussing with my daughter the flap over Steve Landsburg's recent post, I commented that the people who were angry about it, mostly online, struck me as either stupid or evil. Either they were too stupid to see that he was actually raising an interesting puzzle or they saw that he was doing so but pretended not to, in order to have an excuse to attack someone they disliked or disagreed with.

Her response was that I was wrong, that my mistake was not realizing the degree to which many other people were different from me. To me, ideas are real, important, and sufficiently interesting that my reaction to an argument that appears to prove some frightening or ugly conclusion is to be neither frightened or angry but intrigued. Lots of people don't react that way—and if you see the conclusion of an argument as frightening or ugly, it isn't surprising if you skip over the fact that it raises an interesting puzzle or are too willing to assume that whoever offered the argument must agree with its conclusion.”

I certainly believe his daughter was right in one regard: I’d like to think I’m neither stupid nor evil. Even if were, it was pretty presumptuous of Friedman to accuse so many people he does not know of those traits. It would have been fairer to simply say he found their arguments unintellectual, or that Landsburg’s post was over their head. He may have been right to say that. I concede these debates have been a challenge for me. Articulating the reasons Steven Landsburg’s argument is wrong is not easy, and perhaps many who reacted negatively to his post could not do it. But that doesn’t make them stupid or evil.

Most people are not philosophers, so we shouldn’t give what they say on philosophic debates much weight. But they’re still allowed to have opinions. It is okay to make moral claims you don’t know how to logically prove. In fact, very little in philosophy is provable even for philosophers. Perhaps the majority of Americans couldn’t articulate a philosophical framework proving why murder is immoral. Brilliant people like David Friedman could probably nitpick their answers, getting them confused and tongue-tied. But they’d still be right – murder is wrong. And they’d still be neither evil nor, for the most part, stupid.

Nevertheless, in my own case, I do not feel Friedman’s daughter’s observation explains why Friedman and I reacted differently. Unlike some people, I do not become frightened when confronted with challenging hypotheticals. Like Friedman, I too am intrigued by arguments that appear to contradict common wisdom. I too am willing to engage those arguments, and able to separate their underlying logic from the emotions their conclusions provoke. My first reaction when I read Landsburg’s blog was not “that idea makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to refute it, so let me insult whoever floated the idea to hide from my cognitive dissonance.” Rather, my reaction was to roll my eyes and wince at the press coverage his “libertarian” ideas received.

It is true that Landsburg’s post peeved me a bit, but it was not because somebody dared wonder what he wondered. My qualms were twofold. First, he failed to adequately distinguish between posing a thought experiment and asserting the conclusion of that experiment as true. But that’s forgivable for a philosopher writing to a target audience (at least, assuming he does not actually believe raping unconscious victims is okay). More importantly, what frustrated me was that his conclusion was the opposite from what most libertarians believed, but yet was being associated with libertarianism nonetheless. That’s why I titled my post as I did; not “Steven Landsburg is an Idiot”, but “Steven Landsburg is No Libertarian.”

Perhaps this is a better explanation of why Friedman and I reacted differently. As a politically active libertarian, I understand public perception of our movement is critical to electoral success. Since politics are important to me, I’m irritated by anything which inaccurately defames or mischaracterizes my belief system, especially when it gets lots of press coverage. I’m not sure how much Friedman cares about public opinion, but I do know he wrote he was Landsburg’s personal friend. Surely this is not the only reason he defended him, but I can understand the natural impulse to defend our friends when they’re under attack. Maybe that came into play in the moment Friedman formed his initial reaction to the negative backlash.

If there is a deeper difference between us, it’s probably ideological. Unlike Friedman, I genuinely don’t find Landsburg’s hypothetical to be an interesting puzzle, because I find the utilitarian framework it relies on to be simplistic and wrong. If Landsburg proved anything in his argument, it was not that the mental trauma of rape victims can be disregarded in moral philosophy. It was that any moral philosophy which does disregard it is wrong. So wrong, I would say, that people are justified in getting a little impatient with its proponents.

Debate with David Friedman, Part II: Was Landsburg's Puzzle Interesting?

In his recent post titled Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting, David Friedman attempted to rebuke those who felt solving it was trivially easy. He divided these people into the libertarians (who found it obvious that rape violated natural rights), and the dissenting philosophers (who found utilitarianism uninteresting in general). He rebuked the libertarians by arguing that the natural rights distinction was not important, because lots of things penetrate our bodies without being considered immoral (repeating Landsburg’s example of photons). He rebuked the philosophers by noting that nobody has proven the best theory of moral philosophy, and opining that utilitarianism is among the most interesting and plausible theories out there.

The trouble with this is that in order to find Landsburg’s puzzle interesting, one has to agree with Friedman on those issues. One has to accept that natural rights don’t matter, and assume a version of utilitarianism that ignores all non-physical harm as the de facto system for moral analysis. If you do that, the puzzle appears to prove that there is no difference between an ornery prude getting her panties in a bunch over porn, and a woman being horrified by her own bodily violation – certainly an interesting and counterintuitive conclusion. Perhaps it's fair to say Landsburg's puzzle is interesting to utilitarian libertarians.

But many people, perhaps even most, don’t fit that description. Most people apply other rules besides the maximization of aggregate pleasure when determining the morality of their actions. Some of those people, including a good number of libertarians reading Landsburg’s blog, feel that natural rights also play a role. One of those rights is the ownership of our own bodies, and since rape violates bodily autonomy while porn doesn’t, Landsburg’s comparison is neither valid nor particularly thought provoking for those people. It’s only interesting to people who believe that the violation of natural rights is an irrelevant distinction.

It is true Landsburg later amended his post to argue why it’s an irrelevant distinction by including the photon analogy. But this strikes me as an entirely separate argument, and one philosophers have already been having for many years. If all Landsburg sought to do was to rehash old debates about natural rights by reframing them in a new application, that’s fine, but he wasn’t contributing anything groundbreaking to that discussion. And as it related to his initial conclusion, the analogy simply made one’s interest in his puzzle dependent on two things instead of one: whether one thinks rights violations matter, and whether on thinks rape and photons are analogous examples of a rights violation.

This is what made Landsburg’s argument uninteresting to me and to most people: it implicitly assumed utilitarianism is correct. Anyone who wasn’t already a utilitarian would find no reason to regard Landsburg’s conclusion as intriguing – at least, not any more intriguing than they found utilitarianism itself to be.

Debate with David Friedman: Is Physical Harm All that Matters?

I have recently entered into a bit of a back-and-forth with David Friedman regarding Steven Landsburg’s controversial blog post. This debate has spanned across the comments of both my blog and his blog, so I figured it would be easier to follow if I compiled our remarks onto one page. I have pasted his most recent comment below in italics, with my own comments (directed to Friedman directly) in standard font beneath that.

Me: "You don't need a degree in philosophy to understand, on a fundamental level, why the pleasure obtained by rapists cannot justify rape." (quoted from my earlier post)

Friedman: You don't need a degree in philosophy, but you do need an argument, and you have to be careful not to assume your conclusions in the process. 

Plausible and interesting approaches to moral philosophy include variants of utilitarianism, which raise the question of whether and why some pleasures don't count--and provide arguments for opposing things such as rape or murder that do not depend on claiming that the benefit to the offender doesn't count. 

As far as I can see, there is no approach to moral philosophy that is more than plausible, so the plausible ones are worth thinking about--especially since it turns out that when one does so, quite a lot of our moral intuitions that feel non-utilitarian can be justified on utilitarian grounds.

For details see my Law's Order or Machinery of Freedom, both of which discuss the issues in the context of asking what is wrong with theft.

Going back to your response on photons ... . Quite a lot of things that we object to humans doing to us are also done to us by non-humans--your bear attack is an example. We don't say that assault by a human doesn't count as a violation of our rights just because assault by a bear does.

Similarly, the fact that photons penetrate my eye from natural causes doesn't imply that a human being who turns on a light or starts a fire and so creates photons that penetrate my eye isn't violating my rights. It doesn't feel like a rights violation--but why?

One possible answer is because it does no injury--but that's the answer you and Landsburg's other critics want to reject in his case. 

Note, by the way, that lots of people argue, in effect, that trespassing photons are a rights violation when they cause unhappiness--for instance when other people walk around naked where you can see them, or paint their houses an ugly color, etc.

Me: I spent most of my last post attempting to discredit the photon analogy individually, as it was the only one Landsburg and you cited in your critique of the natural rights objection. To do so, I made a distinction between the sort of bodily penetration that is natural and perpetual (like light or breathing) and the sort which is unnatural (like rape or laser beams) and/or sporadic (like bear attacks and falling tree branches). I admitted that individual instances of both sorts of violation can be externally induced by other human beings. But the simple fact that it’s impossible for anyone to escape from the perpetual violation even momentarily, regardless of whether the source of that violation is human or non-human, suggests to me that the specific source of perpetual violations on a case-to-case basis is not all that important. The actions humans take have no impact on whether someone else’s body will be penetrated by light; it’s just a matter of how much light will penetrate, and from what angle. Since moral philosophy only seeks to govern the morality of human actions, this strikes me as evidence that light penetration can be safely disregarded without missing anything critically important about morality. I still feel you give the science of ongoing atomic-level interactions more significance than it deserves in moral philosophy.

However, I now recognize that my squabbling over the photon analogy missed the point – not because the distinctions I drew were wrong, but because that specific analogy is inessential to the larger point you’re trying to illustrate. Your point is that there are many natural rights people violate harmlessly through common activities, and that these activities are not viewed to be as immoral as the ones which do cause harm. This suggests that the net outcome of harm caused carries some weight in our moral calculations – more weight, you’d argue more, than rights violations. There are many other analogies you could have used that have nothing to do with photons, but still exemplify rights violations we deem acceptable. Therefore, all my talk about natural vs. unnatural, perpetual vs. temporary violation has bogged down and impeded the debate by distracting from those issues, and I’m sorry for that.

To start anew, let’s instead use another analogy of a temporary trespass that is clearly human induced. We can even use the one you provided in your response to another comment:

“I use other people's property without consent by backing into a stranger's driveway in the process of turning around in an urban street. I use it by taking pleasure in admiring someone else's beautiful house. What is it that distinguishes those cases where it is all right from those where it isn't?”

You provided your answer to that in your original post, and reiterated that answer in the response I posted above:

“One possible answer is because it does no injury--but that's the answer you and Landsburg's other critics want to reject in his case.”

But that’s not true; I do not want to reject this answer. In fact, I believe this answer is partially correct – it’s merely incomplete. My objection to your conclusion (and indeed to utilitarianism and consequentialism at large) is not that the net harm or benefit does not matter – the outcomes of our actions do have moral implications. But just because the amount of damage an action causes is oftentimes important to assessing its moral value does not mean it is the only factor to consider. Other factors may include:

1. Intent. Rapists intend to stick a part of their body into another person's another person's body. They know full well what they are doing, and they choose to do it anyway. But many people who turn on lights have no idea what photons even are. Knowingly deciding to violate another person's body is less morally excusable (not to mention legally punishable) than doing it accidentally or ignorantly.

2. Directness of causation. In order for someone to be morally responsible for an outcome, the causal link between the actions they took and the outcome they are blamed for must be fairly direct and exclusive. A pharmacist selling prescription painkillers is not responsible for the deaths of people who overdose. A father who waters his lawn could not have anticipated that the slick grass would cause his son to slip and skin his knee on a rock. And if that man’s boss fires him from work, making him so flustered and distracted that he crashes his car on the ride home, his boss can’t be blamed for that either. Each of those actions may have, in some small and highly indirect way, contributed to an eventual harm brought on somebody else. That harm would not have happened without something those people did; therefore, it is technically as you put it, a “product of human action”. But these actions do not constitute a rights violation, because the link between the action and the effect is so indirect as to be insignificant. By comparison, physically penetrating someone else's body with your own body is the most direct form of causation possible.

3. Potential damage that the action risked inflicting. A drunk driver may not actually crash, and may not wind up causing any casualties or damage to anyone at all. Someone who knows they have AIDS, and decides to have unprotected sex with a stranger anyway without telling them, may not actually pass along their infection. And the bomb set off at the Boston Marathon might, by some stroke of incredible luck, not have injured anybody. Assessing the harm inflicted alone renders each of these decisions morally neutral and permissible. But these decisions are not morally neutral, because each of these decisions very easily could have harmed other people. No rights may have been infringed this time, but rights were jeopardized and threatened. Repeating these actions in the future, it is highly unlikely that no harm would result. Therefore, the decision to do them anyway is immoral.

4. Likelihood of consent. Using and even damaging someone else’s property is fine when you have explicit permission to do so. And although libertarians must be wary of so-called “implied consent” due to how easily it can be abused, the fact remains that there are some uses of private property that the owner is extremely unlikely to object to. If two neighboring families are good friends, and one family’s children accidentally hit a baseball into the adjacent yard, they can probably go retrieve it without needing to call the neighbor for permission – especially if they have been granted permission to do that in previous instances. The fathers may borrow one another’s wheelbarrows without asking, whereas they would not assume consent from total strangers. This is true even in instances in which harm may result – walking across the lawn might damage the grass or leave ugly footprints. But if one is almost certain the owner would not mind, we view it as morally superior to inflicting the same amount of harm against the owners will. Depending on the action, assuming consent for some trespasses may be less immoral than assuming it for others.

When we consider all of these factors in conjunction, it’s much easier to distinguish between situations you posed as analogous. Yes, none of your examples caused any physical harm. But unlike the photons, the rape was intentional. Unlike consent to merely look at someone’s house, consent to stick a finger up someone’s vagina cannot be assumed. And unlike backing into somebody else’s driveway to turn around, rape has a very high likelihood of causing harm to one’s victim (mental or physical).

This brings me to another flaw in Landsburg’s blog entry; as I wrote in my original reaction, “not all psychic harm is interchangeable.” This is where natural rights come into play. Landsburg is correct that the mental distress caused by things like porn or oil drilling does not justify making those things illegal. This is because porn and oil drilling do not violate anyone’s rights. But when mental distress is brought about because one’s rights have been violated – as is the case with rape of any kind – that harm cannot be dismissed as immaterial. In other words, becoming offended or distraught over some things is more justifiable if your rights have been violated than it is if they haven’t.

Coupling psychic harm with a rights violation lends credence to the victim’s right to be offended, and renders the direct and intentional violation of their rights immoral. If person A is mentally distressed simply because person B is doing something they don’t like, perhaps person A is just ornery and intolerant. But if person A is mentally distressed because person B encroached upon their rights, person A is a genuine victim. Rape victims are genuine victims.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Response to David Friedman's Defense of Steven Landsburg

Another libertarian whom I greatly respect, David Friedman, has rushed to the defense of Steven Landsburg, arguing his hypothetical was both interesting and difficult to answer. You can read what Friedman wrote here: I don't have time to respond to his entire argument, but here is my response to a quote from one of those blogs:

"When I look out the window and see the light in a neighbor's window, the fact I can do so shows that photons whose existence he caused have trespassed on both my property and my retina. We don't see that as obviously wrong. Why?" - Friedman

Short answer: because photon penetration isn't truly the doing of human beings, making it beyond the scope of governable and morally calculable activity.

Long answer: The whole point of the term "natural rights" is that we have them naturally from birth. In a state of nature free from outside human interference, each individual inherently has his life, his liberty, and his property. Our primary and initial piece of property is our own bodies, and in this state of nature we enjoy a degree of bodily autonomy.

But even in this world, that bodily autonomy has never been interpreted to mean we're free from things like photon penetration. Light is not a human action so much as a natural and perpetual occurrence. The sun is natural, but it penetrates our body with photons all the time. Similarly, smells are natural, but when we smell something tiny particles enter our body, perhaps against our will. Even breathing involves an arguably involuntary body penetration of certain materials. But to the majority of thinking people, these atomic-level natural interactions are insignificant enough to disregard, because they aren't truly the result of human actions so much as the unavoidable and perpetual physics of human existence.

When we say government is designed to "protect our natural rights", we rarely take the time to specify from whom those rights are being protected. But it's clear what we mean is to protect them FROM OTHER PEOPLE. Whom else do governments govern? Surely they don't govern animals; when we say murder is illegal, we don't both explaining this to a bear that might maul us. When we protect people's right to life, we don't protect it from germs who might infect us, or from lightning that might strike us. The law holds no dominion over these things. And even though humans can sometimes manipulate this natural world in such a way as it becomes an unnatural cause of death (imagine if I injected you with germs with the intent of getting you sick), we draw a line somewhere between what is truly "human" action, vs. what is the natural ebb and flow of nature. I'm not sure exactly where that line is, but I'm fairly certain turning on a light is on one side of it, and rape is on another.

Perhaps the majority of people who were angered by Landsburg's hypothetical couldn't articulate this distinction if you asked them. But I do believe that when serious intellectuals hand-wavingly dismiss the distinction between penetrating your body with a photon, and penetrating it with a penis, the rest of us can't help but roll our eyes. He has his head in the clouds - which is fine (what philosopher doesn't?), so long as he recognizes and acknowledges it. By posing the question "is that any different?" instead of the question "why is that different?", Landsburg crossed the border between thought experiment and ridiculous argument. He insinuated that he didn't know if one was any worse than the other, and that's beneath his intellectual capacity. You don't need a degree in philosophy to understand, on a fundamental level, why the pleasure obtained by rapists cannot justify rape.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Steve Landsburg is no Libertarian

Steve Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester. He is also an author and a self-proclaimed libertarian. He recently got in hot water for a controversial blog post in which he essentially argues that rape is okay so long as the victim was unconscious at the time, does not remember it, and sustains no physical injuries. You can read it here:

This is the spot on satirical reply by the liberal website Slate:

This is the response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians (a great site, btw):

And this is my response:

I share BHL's dismay that this is what libertarianism is being associated with. Professor Landsburg is no libertarian, and as a libertarian it's important for me to explain why, just as a matter of pride.

1. Case B is different from A because Granola is not the only person in the world, and even if she does not go to the wilderness and her life isn't disrupted by it, other peoples' lives are. If the company owns the property on which they drill, and the effects of that drilling are contained solely to that property, those people have no case. But in a large number of cases, this is not true; private or public property is destroyed due to spillover effects, creating an infringement of other people's rights. Psychic distress over other people's rights' being infringed upon is more justifiable than psychic distress over people behaving in a way you don't like.

2. "As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?" - Landsburg. It's understandable how an economist might feel this way; if "happiness" is measured purely in physical pain/pleasure, ignoring personal rights maximizes the pareto efficiency of physical pleasure in this case (the rapists got off by it, while the victim suffered no injuries). But net physical pain/pleasure is not how morality ought to be calculated. By that standard, even if the woman did sustain physical injury, in order to determine if the rape was moral, the extent of that injury would have to be measured against HOW MUCH THE RAPIST ENJOYED HIS RAPE! That absurdity needs no refutation. There are certain moral tenets of which the violation is a societal cost in itself. Libertarians believe there are only very few of these, and that they have to be applied with a consistent and logical identification of who has a right to what. Looking at porn is not one of them, because we do not own other people's computers. Defiling ones own private property is not one of them, because nobody owns that property but you. But violating another person's body without their permission is, because we do indeed own our own bodies.

3. The photon analogy is so preposterous I don't even feel the need to address it; yes, there is something extremely different between penetration with a photon and penetration with a penis.

4. It is possible that somebody could commit rape without harming anyone - this time. Perhaps the woman wakes up in her own bed alone and never even finds out she was raped - imagine she has no physical harm or mental distress whatsoever. But even in this case, if the rapist is found, he should go to jail, for the same reason we lock people up for attempted murder or for reckless endangerment or setting off a firework in a crowded parade: people who engage in these behaviors have decided to endanger the well being of those around them, and the only reason nobody was harmed was because they got lucky. The next time they act in this way, it's highly unlikely no damage will result. When he took the action, he knew it was likely that somebody would be harmed by this, and he did it anyway. Lock him up.

Ultimately, the underlying flaw in Landsburg's utilitarian moral philosophy is that he pretends there is no such thing as individual rights. He asserts that nobody has an unalienable moral claim to ownership of anything, not even their own bodies. This is the antithesis of libertarianism, because it collectivizes rights at the expense of the individual. If the only thing that matters for determining the morality of an action is weighing the expected net benefits vs. the net costs for society at large (however individual agents making the decisions choose to measure those costs and benefits), the majority can trample the individual. Agents can wield as much violence as they like on the cited justification of "greatest good for the greatest number." The result is that every individual is then subject to the whims of other people, and nobody winds up being free or happy. This is an inadequate moral framework (you can read my own proposed framework here).

I admire the willingness to challenge emotionally-driven customs or laws with no basis in reason or logic, but I don't think that's truly what Landsburg is doing here. I think he's looking for free publicity by saying something that deep down, he knows is absurd. I think he's playing semantics (not all "psychic distress" is interchangeable; some is more intense or more warranted than others) just to make people angry and cause a stir. I think he's being a blowhard - which is, of course, his right. But it's also my right to explain why he's full of it.