Monday, August 29, 2016

Libertarianism’s effectiveness is demonstrated by the INeffectiveness of policy

In an online discussion, someone asked me to describe what it meant to be a libertarian in a sentence.  I responded as follows:

“Libertarian means respecting individual liberty as an important value in and of itself, and recognizing the tremendous boons in prosperity, safety and human happiness that can be attained through respecting everyone's personal autonomy and right to choose how to live their own life with as few restrictions as possible.”

They then asked, “How have these principles been demonstrated effectively through policy?”.

It’d be more accurate to say they’ve been demonstrated through the ineffectiveness of policy.  “Policy,” in the context of governance, is just another word for law, which is enforced by law enforcement at implied or literal gunpoint.  Therefore, libertarians see “policy” as nothing more than systematic coercion and violence, whereas we see liberty as the absence thereof.  Asking libertarians to prove liberty works “through policy” is like asking a pacifist to prove how their ideas have ever helped anyone win a war.  In both cases, it hasn’t, but only because our ideas involve quitting the whole business of making war and policy altogether!

In practice, “respecting everyone’s personal autonomy and right to choose how to live their own life” usually means abolishing policies which DON’T respect those things.  That includes things like the war on drugs, alcohol prohibition, laws against sex work, laws against selling your organs, abortion restrictions, all forms of censorship, sin-taxes (and really taxes in general), etc. 

The evidence that libertarianism generally produces better outcomes than authoritarianism lies in the demonstrable ineffectiveness of those policies.  I would be happy to demonstrate how each of these policies have proven horribly counterproductive if you like.

Should American voters feel guilty for dead Syrian children?

A picture of a wounded and shell-shockedSyrian child pulled from the wreckage of an airstrike has recently circulated the internet.  One of my friends posted it with the following caption:

How can you sleep at night, voting for THIS???

Here’s three reasons Americans should sleep just fine at night, no matter for whom (or whether) they have voted for (or plan on voting):

1. This particular child was injured in a Russian/Assad airstrike, not an American one.

2. Even if it were an American strike, nobody "voted for this," because people don’t even have the option to vote for individual policies.  Our system allows them to only vote for packages of party positions, only offers two packages with a chance to win, and gives them no real control over what those packages contain.

3.  CIA drone strikes weren’t even acknowledged as a thing the public could be aware of until the Obama Administration, when they ramped up in use so drastically that the government to no longer maintain plausible deniability.  Since that time, Americans can be divided into two groups: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t.  Those who didn’t cannot possibly be held accountable for the foreign policy Obama has implemented.  And those who did can hardly be held accountable either, because Obama didn't campaign on military intervention in Syria in either election; in fact, he marketed himself as the more dovish of the two major candidates both times.  So even if people could vote on individual policies, the closest approximation of which policy they voted for in this case is the opposite of more drone strikes.

4.  Even single-issue voters, who voted ONLY to support a more aggressive interventionist foreign policy, could well believe that such airstrikes save more children than they kill.  Far more children in the Middle East (and civilians of any age) are killed by car bombs or mass executions at the hands of ISIS than are killed by US strikes.  Eliminating the ISIS threat could easily be seen as a long term humanitarian priority to reduce the outcome depicted in this picture.  Some of them may even wonder how cynics like you and I can sleep at night, voting to allow ISIS to pillage the Middle East unimpeded (from their view).

Practicalities aside, we can sincerely disagree on the best way to reduce tragedies without feeling guilty about the remote possibility that we may be wrong.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Some overdue nuance on police shootings

“Social media's reaction to the Orlando shooting is the most frustrating instance of confirmation bias I can remember. Everyone sees only what they want to see. The entire right wing cannot fathom it resulting from anything besides Islamic extremist terrorism. The entire left wing will not admit it relates to anything besides the need for gun control or mental health research. And whenever these brainwashed culture warriors accidentally meet, neither knows what to do besides demonize the other. We self-select into a comforting echo-chamber of people and pages that reaffirm what we already believe, and on the rare occasion someone breaches that bubble of consensus, we would rather Google "tell me why I'm right" for ammunition in our argument than deal with the cognitive dissonance of considering dissent.

The entire country is allergic to nuance, and this November we will reap what we sow.”

Today, I just want to add that everything I wrote there also applies to how most people react to police shootings.  If you're anything like the people I see discussing them, you're probably wrong about a lot, no matter which side of the cultural divide you're on.

First, white police apologists…get the following things through your skulls:

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system do not solely result from black people committing more crimes.  It is statistically proven, over and over again, that police patrol minority neighborhoods disproportionately, pull minorities over disproportionately, and arrest and charge them disproportionately.  Judges and juries are statistically proven to sentence blacks more harshly and set their bail higher, other things equal.  That this is inconvenient to the worldview you find most reassuring doesn’t make it less true.

Second, even to the extent that such disparities do result from blacks committing more crime, that’s still a problematic consequence of historic marginalization COUPLED with over-criminalization, the war on drugs, and “tough on crime” mandatory minimum laws – which are each bullshit, and which white people voted for and have a responsibility to undo.

Third, white people need to realize that police cannot legally or ethically kill somebody just because they’re a criminal, or resisting/fleeing arrest, or a dirt bag in general.  Lethal force is only justified when the suspect poses an active threat to the life of the cop, or of someone else.  Accordingly, if we are to have any semblance of a civilized society, policemen MUST be held legally accountable when they kill people they had no reason to believe were armed or dangerous – even when that person was a dirt-bag criminal!

Fourth, white people should realize that while policing is dangerous work, it is also voluntary work, and signing up to do a risky job does not give you extra leeway with the laws governing how to perform that job.  They should also realize that it’s not actually as dangerous as many other professions, and that they don’t really need armored vehicles or SWAT teams to serve a warrant.  They should concede that police training in this country is far too militarized and aggressive, which causes many policemen to escalate tensions at the slightest hint of non-compliance instead of de-escalating situations before they become violent.

Perhaps most importantly, white people should recognize that BLM is not a “terrorist organization.”  They are not even causing racial division.  They are merely revealing racial division, which has been here all along, but which many white people were too white to have noticed.  This division exists in part because for most of our country’s history, there have been a shit-ton of police shootings, especially of black people.  For most of our country’s history, white people much gave their unquestioning trust that these shootings were justified and necessary.

Turns out, a lot of them weren’t.

Video evidence is quickly revealing lot of them still aren’t today, so I cannot fathom how bad it must have been in the 60’s, 70’s 80’s and 90’s, while white people were pretending the damn Civil Rights Act had fixed racism.

The enormous upheaval of the Black Lives Matter uprisings is merely white people’s helpful newsflash to this state of affairs.  No matter what your cheery suburban elementary school teacher may have led you to believe, some ineffective, polarizing legislation from the 60’s did not resolve the prejudices of the Jim Crow south in the span of a single generation.  Get over it.  You don’t need to agree with everything they propose, but at the very least, consider BLM as your wakeup call to a situation which many less fortunate than you have known all along.

Now...BLM sympathizers…

You’re not off the hook.  You need to understand the following:

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system do not solely result from bigoted cops treating black people differently than they do whites.  Even if we implement all our desired criminal justice reforms, violent crime will still be more prevalent in impoverished communities than it is in the suburbs for a whole host of socioeconomic reasons.  Consequently, residual racial disparities in the criminal justice system would likely continue even in a perfectly just society.

Second, not everyone killed by police is a victim – in fact, most are not.  There are roughly 1100 police killings every year.  Many of them are filmed, but only the most egregious make it onto social media.  The rest are predominantly justifiable responses to armed and dangerous people (usually white people) who are threatening innocent life.  Police deal with armed robbers, gang shootouts, hostage situations, serial killers, school shootings, and high speed chases on a daily basis in this country.  To be frank, the world is a happier place without such people.  It is both legal and ethical to kill these people while they are in the act of trying or threatening to kill others. 

Accordingly, statistics about the total number of black people killed by police in a given year are completely meaningless absent context, since they clump together the Eric Garners and Philando Castille’s of the world with all the people who actually had it coming.
  None of this means we should be any less vigilant in keeping the police accountable – it just means we should have a filter, and reserve judgment.  Don’t be gullible.  Left-leaning, quasi-media clickbait outlets like Salon, NowThis or have discovered it is extremely profitable to stoke up racial tension as much as possible.  Reporters in search of controversy descend like hounds each time a black person is shot by police, hoping against hope that the circumstances will allow them to make it into the latest viral horror story of police abuse.  Sometimes it is – sometimes it isn’t.  Be able to tell the difference.

Third, BLM should realize that part of the reason police are trained the way they are is because we live in a country with 330 million guns, and a lot more violent criminals than other democracies.  Accordingly, the more laid back European model of policing wouldn’t really work here.  Teaching police to diffuse the situation and be less jumpy is a good idea, but disarming police altogether would enable more crime and result in a whole lot more dead people, including (but not limited to) more dead cops.

Finally, BLM should understand that not everything is explained by race.  In the wake of the Korryn Gaines case I described here, the people at Atlanta Black Star convinced themselves that Gaines was only shot because she was black.  To prove it, they created this really bad video comparing Gaines to a white woman named Ashley Sterling, who were able to arrest without having to shoot her.  The comparison was horrible from the outset – Gaines fired a shotgun at officers, whereas Sterling was unarmed – but the most absurd part of the video comes here:

Let’s read that again: “After police TAZED Sterling, she ENJOYED THE LUXURY OF AIR CONDITIONING en route to the police station.”

That made me snort out laughing the first time I watched it.  I can’t help but wonder: If an unarmed black woman were tazed while she lie pinned to the ground, surrounded by multiple policemen, and then a white police sympathizer had dismissed any criticism of such abuse as giving her "the luxury of air conditioning", would anyone in BLM agree they treated that person luxuriously?

The article continued that “Ashley Sterling lived to have her day in court.  Korryn Gaines did not.”  They conveniently omit that Gaines was in fact offered a day in court – she just declined to show up.

Such a preposterous reaches and half-truths makes the job of resentful white anti-BLM reactionaries way easier than it should be, serving up low-hanging fruit to those eager to classify all of BLM as unreasonable zealots.  Don’t overplay your hand, people.  Don’t make air conditioning arguments.  That’s not evidence of racial disparity, and there isn’t always evidence to be found, because not everything that happens to black people in our country results from racism. Our movement will be stronger and more effective if you stop pretending otherwise.

A debate on the FDA’s role in increasing drug prices

The drug company Mylan has recently come under intense criticism for jacking up the price of EpiPens – a portable, life-saving dose of steroids carried by people with severe allergies in case they go into anaphylactic shock – from about $100 apiece to about $600 for two.  Many on the left attacked their CEO for “price-gouging,” while still more (including Vox) lamented drug companies’ ability to set their own prices at all as a unique flaw of America’s capitalist healthcare system.

I think this is a horrid misdiagnosis of why healthcare prices are so high, and what we should do to fix that.  So does Reason Magazine, who posted a response to the criticism that turned the scrutiny right back at those wishing to expand the government’s role.  I posted that article to Facebook, and a productive debate ensued with three of my friends.  You can read the transcript below.

Friend 1 - Not so simple. Difficult product to manufacture and blindly approving drugs poses public health risk; see Sanofi's Auvi-Q recall last year

Auvi-Q is mentioned in the WSJ article as an example proving our point. There were only 26 cases of incorrect dosage over 3 years of use. They write: "Though the recall was voluntary and the FDA process is not transparent, such extraordinary actions are never done without agency involvement. This suggests a regulatory motive other than patient safety."

The point I'm making is that the entire system is one of strong incumbency advantage. Companies should not have the burden of conclusively proving their product is safe before being allowed to sell it - permission to do something should be the default in a free society. Rather, the FDA should have the burden of conclusively proving not only that it isn't safe, but that consumers are being lied to/misinformed about/have no way of determining how dangerous it is before being allowed to impose restrictions.

The whole article and your argument is predicated on the incorrect notion that the FDA is only here to protect incumbent players. While patents and exclusivity play a vital role in even incentivizing innovation for these companies, first and foremost the FDA is a public health agency. Companies must provide clinical data to prove that not only that their product is safe, but that it provides clinically meaningful benefits. I would argue selling drugs that have failed these tests and in all likelihood do not work is more of a crime. Even Auvi-Q was BX rated by the FDA, meaning that not even EpiPens closest competitor could prove bioequivalence

No, you misunderstand the notion on which my argument is predicated. I agree the FDA is a public health entity. Enforcing monopoly conditions (or worse) is merely an unfortunate side effect of it's mission to promote public health. My argument is that nine times out of ten, that mission itself is illegitimate: not the government's place, and an immoral restriction on the personal liberty of both the producer and the consumer.

Evaluating the safety and effectiveness of drugs is important work, but it's not a proper function of government. The private sector can and does create evaluatory agencies for all sorts of products, and consumers can and do use those services to inform themselves before making purchasing decisions. See Underwriter's Laboratory, for example. There are websites that compile research and provide reviews for practically any product. Even complex subjects beyond the grasp of most people, like guns or stocks or auto-repair, can be navigated by consumers with enough incentive to get the right information. And of course, epi-pen's advertising team would make sure to highlight any defects or shortcomings in their competition's product that people should be aware of. No bureaucratic involvement is required.

If people with allergies are faced with a choice between paying $600 for an epi-pen an $150 for an off brand competitor with a slightly higher chance of malfunction, reasonable people could disagree about which they should buy - but the point is, they should at least have that choice. Unless we're talking about vaccines or second-hand smoke or something where one person's decision can actually worsen the health of others around them, "public health" is merely an amalgamation of individual healths, and nobody is better motivated to protect their health than that individual. From soda limits to fast food bans to the war on drugs, that term has become one giant euphemism for "I know how to live your life better than you do." Even if that's true, neither you nor the FDA have an ethical right to use the force of gunpoint to prevent them from making whatever voluntary transactions they want to make.

Friend 1 – If what you're saying was true then why was EpiPen able to take yearly price increases in the first place? Auvi-Q was not the only BX rated product available yet EpiPen still had price inflation. If what you were proposing were a true solution for bringing prices down then it would have already happened

I don’t think it’s remotely controversial that competition brings prices down.  The vast majority of products on store shelves are reasonably priced, and that’s not because companies are just more ethical in all those other industries.  Markets work.  When prices are vastly higher than total costs, it’s a good indication that the forces of supply and demand are not being allowed to do their thing.

Megan McCardle of Bloomberg has a good piece here on all the many ways regulators are incentivized to stymie competition and protect the incumbent.  She writes:

“What’s easier to regulate -- a few staid old incumbents that you know well or a zillion upstarts who don’t know the rules, don’t have a highly competent and extensive staff of compliance officers to deal with the regulators, keep changing what they do, forcing you to figure out what that means and come up with whole new sets of rules to cover the evolving marketplace and ... I don’t really need to ask this question, do I? Over time, the interests of regulators and the interests of incumbents tend to converge upon keeping things nice and tidy by making sure that experienced players dominate the field.” 

In this particular case, I confess I don’t know what BX/bioequivalence means scientifically.  But, I do know that the Wall Street Jounal article referenced in the link I posted gave extensive detail of multiple would-be competitors who the FDA blocked from entering the market.  These were not unlicensed quacks brewing up a potion of who-knows-what in their basements, and claiming it cured anaphylactic shock.  These were respected pharmaceutical giants like Teva and Adamis, offering the same cheap, abundant drug Mylan offers (much like Aleve and Motrin and off-brand Ibuprofen/Aceteminofen manufacturers jumped in to compete with Advil and Tylenol). Still other companies were doubtlessly deterred from even trying to enter the market by the increased startup cost required to go through the FDA’s process.

There is no intuitive reason Mylan’s version should be inherently and permanently safer or more effective than those of everyone else – and yet, decades after its creation, it remains the only one on the market, despite the efforts of many to cut into that lucrative monopoly.  That is very clearly an artificial restriction of supply, leading to predictably high prices, not the price-gouging market failure the left has portrayed it to be.

Friend 1 - You have a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry and the payer-payee relationship and assume that the drug companies have 100% control over the price of their drugs. I am not against competition WHEN that competition has met the same criterion that approved drugs have passed. There is a reason why third party payers continue to pay for EpiPen despite the availability of these BX rated products. It is not as simple as lower wholesale prices equal higher demand for these products and that is exactly my point. The channel also consists of wholesalers/distributors, PBMs, insurance companies, pharmacies, all before reaching the hands of the hospitals and patients. Which is exactly why EpiPens price continued to increase over the last few years despite the availability of the likes of Auvi-Q and Adrenaclick. You're argument doesn't disprove this fact. Knowing these things is literally my job - you won't beat me here

I’m sure I won’t.  I’m not disputing that you better understand the intricacies of drug markets than I do, which is why I have reserved my commentary to the more generalized economic principles I do understand.

I can grasp that there’s a complicated purchasing chain that doesn’t ordinarily go straight from consumers to drug manufacturers, and that this distorts pricing signals in other ways besides the lack of competition.  In fact, the article I posted said as much: they quoted Bresch complaining that "more than half the amount paid by the health care system for EpiPens goes to pharmacy benefit managers, insurers, wholesalers and pharmacy retailers, not to the company itself."  In other words, the market would be fucked-up even without the FDA.  Accordingly, it may be that enabling more competition ON ITS OWN would not suffice to reduce prices much – maybe I’ll take your word on that.

But even if that’s true, permitting market entry is still an essential component of any healthcare reform effort that hopes to reduce costs.  Competition may not be a sufficient condition for lower prices, but it is a necessary condition for keeping those prices in line with costs over the long term.  In posting this article, I wasn’t attempting a comprehensive healthcare overhaul in one breath.  I was merely identifying one of the many government-created problems contributing to the high prices, which so many on the left are wrongly attributing to capitalism (as if this whole channel of “wholesalers/distributors, PBMs, insurance companies, and pharmacies” arose spontaneously without 80 years of government intervention).  There are probably 10 reforms we could make to reduce the cost of Epi-Pens, but making the FDA to back off a bit is a good first step.

Friend 2 - Doris, the drug-vetting process is extremely important to public health, forgetting anything about private sector companies doing that. Now, if private sector companies *did* do that, who makes sure that those companies aren't just paying lip service to the highest bidders? Infinitely competitive landscapes are rare and at some point, there ceases to be proper incentive to 1) do the right thing and 2) have competitive entry into markets. Trust me.

This is so much more "libertarian" than what is recommended by your own article. You're suggesting the elimination of one of the purest responsibilities of government- ensuring the health and safety of its citizens. If you want evidence that the FDA is arbitrary in its red tape, look no further than the WSJ's article about the cigar market less than two weeks ago. That's a great argument that a lot of people could have gotten on board with.

You’re right that the argument I made goes further than the one made by Reason (in this article) or the WSJ.  But those arguments are neither contradictory nor a package deal.  People don’t need to get on board with removing the FDA’s drug approval function entirely, as I would do, to still recognize that it has a strong anticompetitive bias, with a troubling tendency towards regulatory capture, and that this contributes to the inflated cost of healthcare.  And since most of the people who support an expanded role for government regulation in these matters are from the left – the same group now complaining about Epi-Pen’s price hike – they need to take a look in the mirror and decide which set of perceived problems they’re more willing to live with.  To instead blame it on the excesses of unregulated capitalism, when we haven’t had anything resembling such a system in healthcare for 80 years at least, is to attack a straw man: pointing out flaws in a healthcare system that practically no one actually supports.  That’s the message I was aiming for when I posted this link.

But, since I can’t resist, I’ll take you on about the importance of FDA’s drug-vetting role in general.  You argue that without it, we’d go right back to the conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”….I really doubt that, for reasons I’d be happy to explain at greater length later (in short, because the Jungle does not depict the excesses of the free market so much as it depicts rampant cronyism, and also because the world is very different today than it was in 1906 quite apart from the relative levels of federal regulation).  But to avoid nitpicking and move the conversation along, I’ll concede the possibility that eliminating the FDA outright would have some costs.  In this context, some drug side effects which are identified in our current system may go undetected until after they’re marketed in my system.  We can quibble about the magnitude of these effects, but this would have some adverse consequences for patients, and these outcomes would be highly visible.

All I ask is that you recognize there are also costs in the current system, which go largely unseen because of status quo bias and the difficulty in quantifying them.  Regulatory bodies work with industry incumbents every day, and face ultra-conservative incentives not to rock the boat.  If they approve a new drug and it works great, nobody gives the FDA credit; but if a problem emerges, there’s nothing the media loves more than a good panic.  Every drug recall brings fear-mongering news headlines and class action lawsuits and a whole bunch of bad press.  Inversely, a drug which could have saved lives but fails to get approval costs the FDA little.  They act accordingly, and that creates victims whose names will never make the papers.

When the FDA prevents people from switching to e-cigarettes that aren’t nearly so dangerous as traditional cigarettes, people die.

When a Cleveland doctor invents a medical app that allows physicians to calibrate the ideal radiation dosage for breast cancer patients, but is then forced to abandon it because the FDA demanded such expensive proof of its safety that he cannot afford it, people die.

When the FDA makes software developers wait three years and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to test SIMPLE mobile devices, that merely combine MRI images, PET scans and CAT scans onto the same screen to enable easier analysis, diagnoses were missed that might otherwise have been caught, and people died.

When the FDA imposes six-figure testing requirements on small family businesses who hand-roll their cigars (because they cost less than $10 and thus aren’t classified as “premium”), businesses fold and people are deprived of utility for no reason whatsoever.

Useful HIV drugs were available in Europe for years before the FDA approved them for use here – which again, cost lives.

Millions of dollars and man-hours are wasted on trivia to cover some bureaucrat’s ass, while the victims of such meddlesome caution go forever unnamed.  There’s also a chilling effect on medical innovations even happening in the first place, since major companies know the road to a sellable product is so long and onerous.  All of this prevents innovation and stymies competition, making healthcare both less effective and more expensive than it could otherwise be.  That has real utilitarian consequences whether or not you value individual liberty as much as I do.

Private evaluators, on the other hand, don’t face these same perverse incentives.  You ask: “if private sector companies *did* do that, who makes sure that those companies aren't just paying lip service to the highest bidders?”

Answer: the same competitive pressures that keep private organizations accountable to their customers in any other relatively free market.  Underwriter’s Laboratory is so universally respected precisely because their entire business model/stream of income depends on maintaining their public reputation.  If the public comes to distrust them, their stamp of approval becomes meaningless, and manufacturers won’t pay them to get it.  Similarly, online review sites like CNET or Kelley Blue Book can’t be bribed by Samsung or Chevy to review their products highly, because sooner or later it wouldn’t align with the customers’ actual experience with those products, and they would lose traffic (and thus ad revenue) to better review sites.

It would be more accurate to say the FDA is the one paying lip service to the highest bidder.  There’s a well-documented pipeline from the FDA higher-ups to cushy positions at the companies whose interests they protect.  Andrew von Eschenbach, for example, FDA commissioner from 2006-2009, is now director of a biotechnology company called BioTime.

You ask who is going to take on the behemoth of companies like Pfizer in the immediate cessation of a patent?” In short, LOTS AND LOTS OF PEOPLE!  Look at ibuprofen; Advil had the monopoly for a long time thanks to its patent, but now you can buy dozens of off-brands that have severely decreased the price.  Market entry is not easy, but that’s exactly why we need to remove as many barriers to it as we can.

You write: “I’ve had an EpiPen for about 6 years now and I’ve never even heard of Auvi-Q.  Why is that? Because…doctors need to actually prescribe it.”

Which is another reason prices are so high: the person choosing which drugs to order has no incentive for cost consciousness.  If you had to pay for your EpiPen yourself, you might well have shopped around for it, and an ad for Auvi-Q might well have caught your eye.

You continue: BY THE WAY, a "slightly higher chance of malfunction" to someone undergoing anaphylaxis is literally life or death. Very few people are going to take that chance.

You know what else is life or death?  Having an epi-pen handy vs. not having one handy, because you couldn’t afford the luxury of buying an extra one to keep in your purse or something.  It’s maddeningly paternalistic and privileged to decide for the whole country which miniscule risks are and are not worth an extra $450 to mitigate, but even supposing you’re right – that very few people are going to take the chance – that means there shouldn’t be an issue with allowing Auvi-Q on the market.  If nobody wants it, they’ll go out of business on their own.  And if people do want it, who are you (or the FDA) to tell them they’re making the wrong decision for their own unique health and financial situation?

When people have life-threatening ailments, nobody is better motivated to seek information about their treatment options and conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis than that person.  Neither does anybody have the right to make those decisions for them, including the detached medical experts at the FDA.  People in such situations should be allowed to put whatever the hell they want into their bodies – period.

Friend 3 - Companies absolutely should have the burden of proof in this scenario. In the same way that someone making an affirmative claim in an argument must back up their claim with facts and reason, a company selling a product should have to back up any claims about the relative safety and usefulness of their product.

No, the burden of proof always lies with the person seeking to justify violence and restrict freedom.  Freedom to do as you please – including to create/buy/sell a drug - is the default condition of humankind.  If the FDA’s funding and recommendations were voluntary, I’d have no problem with placing the burden of proof on the company (in fact, it would then be the very sort of private vetting organization I’ve already endorsed).  But they aren’t voluntary – they rule by fiat, with the implicit threat of arrest and imprisonment for any who dare sell medicines they have not approved.

The sum of good policymaking is determining in which situations it is ethically justifiable to prevent people from doing things at gunpoint.  To me, those situations are few and far between, and uncertainty about whether a drug is safe enough is not one of them.  It is totally fine for people to be risk-averse in their own life.  But if my father’s eye-cancer comes back, and the only chance at saving him is an experimental treatment in Europe with a 40% success rate which the FDA hasn’t gotten around to approving yet, they can fuck off preventing him from trying it because it hasn’t passed their arbitrary evidentiary threshold.  I don’t mean to be melodramatic about it, but some version of that story happens every day in this country.  People are needlessly dying while regulators bite their nails over the possibility of unknown side-effects, and you don’t need to be libertarian to see the absurdity in that situation.

Friend 3 – I don't disagree with you, it's just that my priorities for wanting the same or a similar system as you are in a much different order. I think the FDA sucks at its job and that its job is ill-defined in the first place, but I also think it sets a profoundly negative precedent to allow companies to put out untested or insufficiently tested products without, at the very least, regulating the claims they can make (including the requirement for a claim of relative safety). Beyond that, I think people should be able to choose whether or not they want the 40% effective cure or the 20% death rate cure or, dare I say it, homeopathic medicine. If a company doesn't want to or can't afford to test their products, they should be allowed to sell them, but with clear acknowledgement that they don't know if their product is safe/effective.

I think our priorities are more in line than you realize, because I already said as much in a comment below: "the FDA does have a role, from my view, in truth-in-advertising laws to make sure companies aren't outright lying to people." That's also fully consistent with libertarian ideology on property rights. If someone sells me a can labeled "pork and beans", and I go home and open it and find out it doesn't actually contain pork and beans but rather some filler substance that weighs about the same, that's straight-up theft. That violates my right to whatever property I gave them in exchange for the can just as plainly as if they were to steal it from my wallet. Same thing with a pharmaceutical company making false claims about its products. Prohibiting such conduct is not restraining the market so much as laying the property-rights groundwork which any market requires to function, and I'm all about that.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On Korryn Gaines and (very) imperfect victims

For those not following the story, I’ll start with a recap of who Korryn Gaines was, and what happened to her.

Korryn Gaines was a 23 year old black Baltimore mother who appeared to have anti-government views similar to those held by the Sovereign Citizen movement.  In March, she was pulled over when police noticed that in place of a license plate, she had piece of cardboard with the following written on it:

“Any Government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel, will be criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right and freedom.”

(While I cannot condone Gaines’ actions from that point forward, I must confess this rather endears her to me.  She reminds me of Ron Swanson with his permit, which sets my cold libertarian heart aflutter.  To think that all this could have been avoided, if only we had privatized roads!)

Needless to say, the police were not satisfied with Gaines’ sign.  The altercation which followed can be seen here, as can all subsequent Instagram and Facebook videos Gaines posted on the matter.  The clip is 20 minutes long, so here’s a summary: Gaines refuses to hand over any license, registration, or insurance information, instead insisting that policeman show her a so-called “delegation of authority order,” on the (very faulty) legal reasoning that such orders are the only constitutional law enforcement authorization.  The policeman very patiently provides proof he that he is in fact a police officer, and gives her several opportunities to resolve the situation peacefully, each of which she declines.  At one point she crumples up her ticket and throws it out the window.  The bickering continues, and eventually the police are forced to remove her from the car and arrest her, which they thankfully accomplished without inflicting any physical injury besides a scraped finger.

Gaines was charged with a slew of traffic violations and resisting arrest.  The video proves she was clearly guilty of each.  Her court date was set for July 16th. In April, while awaiting trial, she filmed herself entering the police department in search of paperwork pertaining to her case, where she started another confrontation with police.  Erratic social media posts continued in the coming months, including several of her holding a shotgun with captions threatening to use it on policemen.

Gaines did not show up in court on July 16th.  This eventually prompted a warrant for her arrest, which police attempted to serve her on August 1st.  She did not answer the door.  When police opened the door with a key borrowed from the landlord, she greeted them with a raised shotgun.

This prompted a six hour standoff, portions of which Gaines also live-streamed to Facebook and Instagram.  During the standoff, Gaines repeatedly pointed her weapon at officers and threatened to kill them, with her five year old son right next to her.  In response to one such incident, a policeman fired what he later described as a warning shot, after repeatedly instructing her to drop the weapon.  She then let loose a barrage of rounds, sparking a shootout that ultimately resulted in her death.  Her son was wounded in the arm by a police bullet during the exchange.

Incredibly, many in the BLM social media movement are holding this woman up as a martyr for racist police abuse.  GQ calls her death “a feat of violence that stretches the bounds of the imagination,” indicating that the author may have a much narrower imagination than most people.  This person employs such fantastic euphemisms for shooting cops as “making the rare choice to take agency over her life and the life of her son,” while the Crunk Feminist Collective labels men criticizing that choice as “mansplainers…turnt all the way up victim blaming her for ending up dead.”  A predictably absurd Black Girl Dangerous article asserts that "Korryn Gaines and Loreal Tsingine were both executed for refusing to lay their bodies at the feet of slave catchers and Indian Killers.”

Vox tries to justify these reactions in a more politically correct way, questioning whether lethal force would have been deemed necessary were Gaines white.  They should ask this question to the family of LaVoy Finicum, the Oregon Rancher who was killed in the standoff with police in a very similar situation (except that there were hundreds of them, and it lasted 41 days, instead of just one person and one day).  If that analogy doesn’t suit your fancy, just go to YouTube and look up police shootings of armed (or unarmed) white people.  You’ll find plenty.  Start here, here, or here.

The Crunk Feminist Collective continues:“Korryn Gaines was holding and protecting her son from state-based terrorists with guns.  That they thought he was an acceptable casualty in order to apprehend her is a failure of their logic not hers.”

Bullshit.  Whatever she may have fancied herself to be doing, Korryn Gaines was not doing jack-diddly-shit to protect her son.  Like the Oregon Ranchers, Korryn Gaines was making a deliberate political statement of high-profile resistance, broadcasting it to social media, and prioritizing that statement ABOVE the safety of her son (and herself).  Surely not even the most brainwashed BLM advocate can pretend that 5 year old Kodi would have been shot had his mother released him to negotiators, as they asked her to do countless times throughout the six-hour ordeal?  Nor would he had she not clutched him to her chest, while raising a shotgun at people who didn’t want to die?  No - Kodi Gaines was never in any danger that Korryn Gaines did not deliberately choose to place him in.  Her logic most assuredly failed.

Non-compliance is not an unreasonable response to oppression,” the Black Girl Dangerous article argues. “Murder is an unreasonable response to non-compliance.” But vehicle registration laws are not oppression, and neither are arrest warrants for failure to show up in court.  In any case, raising and firing a shotgun at policemen serving that warrant is not the same as “non-compliance,” and returning fire at someone shooting at you is not the same as “murder.”  No amount of euphemisms can change the plain truth that the most direct cause of Korryn Gaines’ death was Korryn Gaines.

The entire chronology of this story, from March through August, is a series of unnecessary fights that Korryn Gaines picked.  Had she registered her vehicle, like she knew she had to, she would never have been pulled over.  Had she accepted the ticket, like she knew she was required to, she never would have been arrested.  Had she showed up in court, nobody would have tried to arrest her again.  And had she not threatened policeman with a lethal firearm for six hours, she would not be dead.  Again and again, she went out of her way to start trouble, knowing full well what the consequences would be on each occasion.  She very clearly wanted a showdown with the Baltimore Police Department, and eventually she got one.

The police, by contrast, wanted no part of this showdown, especially in beleaguered Baltimore County.  From the outset, they did everything in their power to avoid it, bending over backwards to de-escalate the situation during all three of their interactions with her.

Each time, she deliberately forced their hand.

The police were to Korryn Gaines what a grizzly bear is to a hiker.  If a hiker encounters a grizzly bear, that’s not their fault.  One could argue it is the Park Ranger’s responsibility to protect you from bear attacks, so it would be reasonable, after such an encounter, to march down to the Park Ranger’s office and demand they do something about the overpopulation of bears, so that you can enjoy your “pursuit to happiness and right to travel” without ursine molestation.  This is what BLM does, in our analogy.  I mostly agree with them.

But it would not be reasonable, not matter how unjust the continued presence of bears may strike you to be, to walk up to one and poke it with a stick until it ate you.  And if you did do that, people may rightfully say you brought your death upon yourself, because for so long as there are bears in the park, you can’t really blame them for doing what bears do.  Anyone who knows what bears do, and still decides to poke one with a stick, probably deserves some of the blame for their own death.

Just as bears do not meaningfully “choose” whether to protect their cubs, the institution of law enforcement has no agency on the question of whether it’s necessary to enforce the law.  It’s what they do.  That’s their job. The moment government lets people opt out of its laws is the moment it becomes a private organization.  The moment police decline enforcement of those laws is the moment they cease to be police.  For better or for worse (and I think it’s for worse), violence is all government is capable of by definition.  Until laws are done away with, people of all races have to navigate that landscape.

This state of affairs is not Korryn Gaines fault, but it was her decision how to respond to its existence.  And just as hikers know what bears do, Gaines knew how police would respond if she pointed a weapon at them long enough.  She knew they had no option to walk away – that they could not leave until they served this warrant – and she deliberately left them with only one means by which to do that.  She had the full and exclusive power to determine how the incident would resolve, and she used it to make a series of decisions calculated to provoke a certain reaction.  She may not have hoped to die, but she certainly hoped to make some headlines, and at the decisive moment she proved willing to make a martyr of herself to do it.

Gaines had the opportunity to surrender up until the moment she pulled the trigger, but the police lacked that luxury by virtue of their being police.  To give law enforcement a choice between not enforcing the law, and killing you, is to commit suicide by cop, and that’s what Korryn Gaines did.


Why have I spilt so much ink on this three-week-old news story?  In short, because the progress BLM and I jointly seek on criminal justice reform is hindered each time the far-left revs up the outrage machine in cases where it just isn’t warranted.  It waters down our message and arms our opponents with the anecdotes they need to depict ALL our concerns as crazy.  The biggest threat to any good idea is not that it be skillfully attacked, but that it be improperly defended.  There are more than enough examples of unconscionable police violence against blacks and whites to make our case without resorting to incidents that are either super murky, or really, really a stretch.

Not all victims need to be perfect to warrant our indignation.  But not everyone killed by police is a victim – in fact, most are not.  There are roughly 1100 police killings every year.  Many of them are filmed, and only the most egregious make it onto social media.  The rest are predominantly justifiable responses to armed and dangerous people (and usually white people) who are threatening innocent life and frankly had it coming.  Police deal with armed robbers, gang shootouts, hostage situations, serial killers, school shootings, and high speed chases on a daily basis in this country.  The world is a happier place without such people.

None of this means we shouldn’t be vigilant in keeping the police accountable, it just means you should have a filter and reserve judgment.  Don’t be gullible.  Left-leaning, quasi-media clickbait outlets like Salon, NowThis or have discovered it is extremely profitable to stoke up racial tension as much as possible.  Reporters in search of controversy descend like hounds each time a black person is shot by police, hoping against hope that the circumstances will allow them to make it into the latest viral horror story of police abuse.  Sometimes it is – sometimes it isn’t.  Be able to tell the difference.

With that said…

It is possible for police shootings to be both justified on the individual level, and problematic on the systemic level.  On the individual level, Korryn Gaines brought this on herself - and yet, her death is still a tragic consequence of vast and interconnected systemic failures. The CFC got it right for once when they wrote this in their article’s comments section:

“It’s the convergence of many things — disability, poverty, housing discrimination, militarism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, all on the body of a 23yr old Black woman/girl (and her baby). It’s soul crushing. One of my friends said, “the state been killing her since childhood.””

THIS should be our response to stuff like this.  Just as BLM is wrong to blame the individual cops who were forced to take her life, resentful whites are even more wrong to dismiss their concerns or ignore the larger issues that contributed to her death.  Which leads me to my next post…

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A brief and cordial discussion on the merits of banning handgun ownership

I recently discussed gun control with a smart friend of mine from college.  Here’s a transcript:

My Friend: The only area I've become less libertarian on in hand gun ownership.  The use of rifles in mass shootings and terrorism doesn't suggest restriction can be justified, because those events are so rare. On the other hand, handguns are responsible for a lot of dead Americans every year.  There is, I think, a pretty strong case for limiting their ownership to the same class of people that qualify for a concealed carry permit.

Me:  First, I’m glad you look at the numbers, instead of just the shootings that make the news.  It’s refreshing to see data-driven gun control proposals.

You’re right that many Americans die from handguns every year.  The bulk of those deaths are either suicides or gang-related.  I understand that suicides are often impulsive acts, such that having an easy means readily available makes it more likely to happen.  Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to assume that even without handguns, there would be a considerable substitution effect in the particular method chosen.  Suicide deaths would decrease a little in a world without handguns, but not by nearly so much as the current number of handgun suicides.

As for gangsters, most of them don’t even abide by the limited firearm registration laws that are already in place.  What legislation could you possibly craft that would convince the class of people that is both a) least likely to obey the law in general, and b) most in need of a handgun for self-defense, to turn theirs in? 

And if you agree that they likely won’t give them up, how are we justified in taking them from everyone else?  There are hundreds of thousands of “defensive gun uses” in this country every year (the exact figures are disputed, but some estimates reach several million).  Most of these do not even require firing the weapon, as brandishing it is often enough to send the assailant running.  Surely this saves some lives that would otherwise be lost.  It’s impossible to say how many, but whatever we suspect that number is needs to be deducted from whatever number of lives you suspect would be saved.

And of course, the same substitution effect applies for crime too.  In a world without handguns, the number of drive-by’s and nightclub shootings conducted with shotguns and rifles would not remain static.

Ultimately, I don’t think laws trying to take guns off the streets are going to be any more effective at doing so than laws have been at taking drugs off the streets.  Black markets thrive in both cases, and efforts to stamp out those markets will disproportionately target poor racial minorities, without noticeable reductions in the original problem.  The bottom line is that there are already 330 million firearms in the US, which to me means the cat is out of the bag.  Going door to door trying to confiscate them is going to result in more violence, not less. We need to come to terms with the reality that, for better or for worse, anyone who wants one badly enough can probably find a way to get it.

Lastly, I hope you recognize that what you propose requires a constitutional amendment.  The entire purpose of a “right” to something is that you don’t need anybody’s permission to do it, and requiring permits for anything is basically just making it illegal unless you ask for permission.  It’s reasonable to think that not everyone should have the right to bear arms, but if that’s what you believe, it warrants saying plainly.

My Friend: That was quite the wall of text. Your argument about substitution effects is worth further study, but merely pointing out the possibility without a firm prediction on magnitude does not invalidate the proposal.

As far as the existence of 330 million firearms already, what you need to know is the "time to crime." After all, those millions of law abiding owners would not suddenly start selling their firearms to shady people if you decided one day that only those qualifying for a concealed carry permit would be able to buy a handgun.

But even that does not really invalidate the proposal, if handgun limitations were considered worthwhile, reducing deaths years down the road would still be worthwhile.
As far as constitutionality, there are already established limits on firearm ownership (process to buying automatics, the stupid "assault weapons" ban), so the amendment argument does not stand.

I used to be a 100% gun ownership guy, so you probably don't have an argument I haven't used before. I actually did a major paper and oral defense in high school on preserving second amendment rights.

Me:  First, it isn’t me who has to provide a firm prediction of magnitude to invalidate your proposal; it is the proposer who has the burden of providing a firm prediction of magnitude, in order to subsequently argue that such an improvement justifies restricting people’s liberties.  For the reasons I mentioned, pointing out how many currently die from handguns each year doesn’t count as that.

How many deaths would banning handgun ownership among this class of people save, why, and why is that number so morally imperative as to justify the trade-offs?  Why is it more likely to reduce deaths years down the road than it is now?

Second, the existence of some legal firearm ownership limitations does not mean ANY firearm ownership limitations you want to dream up are constitutional.  DC v. Heller pretty clearly stated that handguns count as “arms” for the purposes of the Second Amendment, which makes them distinct from automatics and assault weapons.  There were also handguns around long before the time of the framing, which means that even the dumb “the framers could have never conceived of this type of weapon!” argument doesn’t apply here.  The courts have declared it flatly unconstitutional to prohibit handgun ownership from law-abiding citizens on multiple occasions, and they’re right.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The one good thing about Donald Trump's success

Zach Beauchamp of Vox writes the following:

"Conservative intellectuals, for the most part, are horrified by racism. When they talk about believing in individual rights and equality, they really mean it. Because the Republican Party is the vehicle through which their ideas can be implemented, they need to believe that the party isn’t racist.
So they deny the party’s racist history, that its post-1964 success was a direct result of attracting whites disillusioned by the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights. And they deny that to this day, Republican voters are driven more by white resentment than by a principled commitment to the free market and individual liberty.
'It’s the power of wishful thinking...It’s a common observation on the left, but it’s an observation that a lot of us on the right genuinely believed wasn’t true — which is that conservatism has become, and has been for some time, much more about white identity politics than it has been about conservative political philosophy.' - Avik Roy"
I haven't considered myself conservative for seven years now, but this hit home all the same. Avik Roy is who I used to be. As recently as last year, I'd have quibbled with some of this author's claims. They seem so obvious now...

If anything positive has come from Trump's success, it's that it has made it nearly impossible for his conservative foes to keep lying to themselves. In destroying the Republican Party, he has demolished the dual hiding place of nativists pretending to be intellectuals, and intellectuals pretending half the country agreed with them. His divisiveness has delineated, in plain sight, what's worth keeping in the conservative movement from what is rotten and needs shedding. That process won't happen quickly, but it's the first step to a Pheonix-like, anti-Trump conservative movement rising from the ashes of the past 14 months.

The credibility of our public discourse - and especially the discourse among progressives - hinges on that resurrection.