Monday, December 29, 2008


Even before Barak Obama has been inaugurated, there has been some grumbling that he might not be exactly faithful to some of the principles upon which he campaigned. In point of fact, events usually require pragmatism over idealism. Some of the people that yearned for Obama as a "new kind of leader" will discover they are much better off with the old kind of manager.

Every so often an American president is both a great leader and a great manager; Washington, Lincoln, maybe Teddy Rooselvelt. At the same time, men who showed great aptitude for leadership, like U.S. Grant and John Kennedy proved to be not so hot presidents. Jimmy Carter was an awful president because he was a dismal failure as a manager; specifically, he could not ably distinguish between those issues upon which he could prescribe and those which he needed to effectively manage as events took their course. Bill Clinton, despite having an ideology similar to that of Carter was a much better president because he was both a more effective manager and a better politician.

"Leaders" don't seem to fit so well in a liberal democracy. They seem to be much more prevalent in North Korea, where Kim Jong Il carries the title "Dear Leader," Nazi Germany (Der Furher), Iran, where Ali Khamanei holds the title "Supreme Leader," and communist Cuba (El Comandante, El Jefe Maximo). Even second tier despots like Idi Amin polished their leadership credential with titles like "His Excellency, President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor," which presumably looks impressive on a resume under "Positions Held." Napoleon was a great leader, but I doubt his chances in a fair election.

A sober President Obama will realize that his task is to manage events over which he has varying degrees of control, rather than to lead a pluralistic society on some utopian goose-chase. A good president knows enough to stay out of the way of a decent, resourceful and energetic people as they continue a spectacular journey that has gone on for more than two centuries, rather than presuming to lead them to some fantasy land that exists only in rhetoric. Great presidents must tend always to the mundane and the humdrum, even when rising to meet great challenges. A free and self reliant people do not need to be led to political paradise, they need someone to make sure the lights stay on, that the barbarians are kept from the gate, and that the institutions upon with they rely operate fairly.

Many of the things that starry-eyed Obama supporters hoped he would accomplish are simply beyond his power to do so. He is constrained not only by the Constitution, but by the unintended consequences of well intentioned but poorly thought out policies. The laws of economics and the interests of America's rivals will not subside under the force of Mr. Obama's personality.

The first priority for Mr. Obama must be to safeguard individual liberty, and to do so in ways that are likely to be unpopular, such as opposing speech codes and erosion of rights of conscience. He should realize that America's greatness is a result of liberty and equality of opportunity, not the lethargic homage of a cult of personality.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


A big difference between socialism and capitalism is the criterion upon which they judge success. Capitalism aims for being being a little better than everyone else with whom one competes for capital, while socialism shoots for being just good enough in the absence of competition.

Technological and economic progress entail risk, and mismanagement of these risks is largely responsible for the current financial difficulties. "Bailouts" exacerbate the conditions leading to such strife, because they essentially make risks irrelevant. Artificially insulating enterprises from the inherent risks of their activities simply subsidizes foolhardiness.

Socialized enterprises eventually stagnate because such systems seek to distribute risk rather than compensating individuals and organizations for taking the risks associated with progress. Socialized enterprises become risk averse paradoxically because, in order to distribute risks, they forego the incentives for talented people and organizations to run risks for proportionate rewards. Socialization loses the optimizing effects of competition, and socialized enterprises sag inevitably to lethargic mediocrity.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


President Bush today said that he supports free markets. In light of the current economic turmoil, other people think that free, as in unregulated, markets are the problem. Free markets are not really the issue. Free markets are largly unsustainable because part of the the freedom inherent in the name is the freedom to manipulate, or coerce, or rig the outcome of market activity. Eventually, the free market ceases not only to be free, but also ceases to be a market.

The attribute of being free does not imply free from government regulation; indeed government is an appropriate agent to ensure that markets are free from improper influences. The benefits of markets depend on voluntary transactions, but only if the process of those transactions is fair. "Free market" is really an inexact term for "fair market."

A fair market means that the transactions that occur there are not improperly influenced by external factors. It is the process by which the transactions occur that must be kept fair, and government regulation is a legitimate means to achieve this. Government can enforce rules regarding openness of information, anti-competetive or coerced processes. Govenment regulation can help ensure that transactions occur between two willing parties acting in their own interests.

The risk of regulation is that it is not obvious to the agents of government when the legitimate purpose of regulating a fair market transgresses into manipulation of markets in the interests of other policy concerns. A very clear example is the real estate melt-down and credit crisis, in which market dynamics were altered by the external coersion of facially well-intended government policies. Markets are inherently agnostic and non-judgmental. They do not function any better when the policies that contaminate their processes are benevolent than when they are malevolent. Whenever government regulation favors one market participant over others, for whatever reason, the market is no longer free, it is no longer fair, and the benefit of market mechanisms will be lost.

Monday, November 10, 2008


P. J. O'Rourke published some post-election thoughts in the Weekly Standard in which he commented that "the free market is just a measurement." This stimulated further discussion on The Corner blog on National Review Online. I suspect that this will be a continuing discussion as the concept of markets are criticized in the wake of the current economic turmoil and recent election. I will therefore express these preliminary thoughts, in anticipation of more in depth discussion to follow:

1.) Money is simply a representation of collective opinion on the relative values of things that people either need or desire. It serves functions relating to credit, exchange of goods and so forth, but these functions are consequences of this basic fact.

2.) A market is a forum by which exchanges tht determine relative values, i.e. set prices, occurs. Markets are an inherent reality of human interaction and economic activity.

3.) A "free market" is one that is unregulated, and for this reason does not exist anywhere. A fair market is one that functions in such a way as to make markets most useful. A fair market is one that functions free from extraneous influences on good faith transactions between dealing parties. Markets must be regulated to some degree to ensure that the process of the transactions is fair, even if the transactions themselves are not. See the post on "FAIRNESS" below.

4.) Capitalism is a process by which resources are allocated most efficiently. Fair markets provide a mechanism by which capitalism is able to provide resources for the generation of wealth, the management of risk, and the creation of economic growth. Capitalism is inherently competetive.

5.) Competition is simply a method of optimization, the most desriable outcome of which is efficiency, i.e, competition inherently favors more efficient processes over less efficient ones.

6.) Efficiency is the amount of something desirable or needed that is produced per unit of something else that is either desirable or limited.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


One of the pillars of collectivist thought is the observation that many worhtwhile things cannot be accomplished by one person alone. There are may worthwhile things that require collective effort, from building an automobile or a bridge, to performing life-saving surgery, to exploring space. The complexity of many modern endeavors requires cooperative effort, and this in fact is the reason why people self-aggregate into, corporations, clubs, guilds, political parties, and any number of groups whose members share a common purpose.

The collectivist impulse is to organize effort through the forces of government. At first glance, this seems a perfectly logical and efficient practice, since the government can tax, and promulgate rules and laws that facilitate the task at hand. But a moment's contemplation reveals that the only thing that government can uniquely contribute to any effort is coersion.

There is a reason why the liberties enjoyed by the United States political system have resulted in so many types of entrepreneurial accomplishments and progress in science, technology and quality of life. That reason is that inspiration and ingenuity are the fruits of individual volition and talent rather than the coerced products of collective effort. Thirty mediocre composers could not collectively write the works of Mozart, nor could fifty career bureaucrats produce the resolve of Churchill or Ghandi.

Collective effort is necessary to some enterprises and a hindrance to others. It is the liberty to aggregate together to accomplish the former when necessary, and the liberty to pursue one's own genius when necessary to the latter. The power of the state to coerce is a poor substitute for the creative power of a free people.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Emerson was wrong when he said " believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius." To believe that what is true for you is true for all men is fanaticism, and fanaticism generally does not end well.

When fanaticism boards the ship of life, the load is lightened by jettisoning common sense. This being insufficient, the next thing to go is empathy, then reason and finally human decency.

It is quite easy to get angry at moronic public officials who suspend first graders for drawing pictures of guns, or who hug a classmate. Anyone can make fun of them. We can think of them as daffy Quixotic prigs, or officious Barney Fifes. But what is essential is that they be recognized for what they are: dangerous zealots who have long lost sight of reason.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Most everyone likes sprots analogies, but sports gives a non-threatening insight into the way things are accomplished in a free society. So, in that spirit, I offer an analogy to illustrate the proper role of government in the economy.

A football game consists of two teams managed by coaching staffs playing according to agreed upon rules, enforced by neutral officials. The rules are necessary to accomplish the purposes of the game, ensure some level of fairness, and make the game worth playing in the first place. The coaching staffs provide the management, teh skilled expertise to make their teams perform at the highest level. The better the caches perform their duties, the more competetive and therefore the more worthwhile the game. The referees perform teh role of regulators. When they do not perform impartially, the game suffers. Now, if at some point, the officials decide that the coaches are not doing their jobs, and begin to perform the duties of coach in addition that of referee, the rules of the game no longer are important. The officials are no longer impartial and the outcome of the game no longer depends on a fair competition, but on the predilection of the officials.

In our economy, the proper role of government is analogous to the role of football officials. They are regulators, and regulation is important for the proper functioning of competetive enterprise. When government also assumes the role of manager, the inherent benefits of competition, the promotion of efficiency, are lost. Government can set the rules to allow for a healthy, competetive economic activity, but when it assumes to become a player in, or micromanager of that activity, outcomes become divorced from merit, and the entire enterprises degenerates into a bureaucratic mire.

Friday, October 31, 2008


As mentioned below, healthcare is not a right. It has not been recognized as such by the Supreme Court and more importantly it cannot be practically treated as a right. What those who advocate a right to healthcare are proposing is that halthcare be "declared" a right, but this is simply a euphemism. What they really advocate is that healthcare be treated as an entitlement. This is just as impractical however, since the practical limits on recognizing healthcare as a right also apply to viewing it as an entitlement; one that would prove unworkable in practice.

Some people make the false distinction between rights and privileges, concluding that if healthcare is not a right, it must be a privilege. This is not true, as a provider's obligation to provide healthcare services arise from ethical concerns and contractual relationships. They are not privileges bestowed upon a privileged class to be exercised at the pleasure of the favored. The consideration of healthcare in terms of rights and privileges is pointless, because such consideration only seeks to identify a source by which services must be provided, and a rationale by which they may be accessed. These are secondary concerns.

First and foremost, healthcare should be thought of as a limited resource. It is not a social amenity that flows undiminishingly from government altruism, the supply of which is both created by, and is wonderful proof of, community compassion. Healthcare rather is a worthwhile endeavor that is subject to human folly, greed, virtue, and humanity. It is limited by hard choices and the often unacknowledged inadequacies of medical science.

A sound healthcare policy is impossilbe without first recognizing that healthcare is a resource, limited by a finite pool of talented professionals and the practical divide between what is desirable at any cost and what is possible in an economically sustainable system.

One of the great difficulties in managing healthcare as a resource is that conventional methods do not apply. If the government wished to conserve limited resources it would do so by taxing their consumption. If it wanted to encourage development of resources, it would subsidize their production. When the government "provides heathcare" meaning that it acts as the middleman to process payment form the taxpayer, on behalf of the patient to the provider, it in effect subsidizes the consumption of a limited resource. More importantly, it subsidizeds the demand for the resource, leading to inexorably higher costs, as the supply is subject to more practical limitations. This inevitably leads to rationing on the basis of cost.

A more realistic approach is to have any subsidy (if at all) directed toward development of those therapies that are, or will be, cost effective. This obviously also is a form of rationing, but is rationing on the basis of cost efficiency. This has the benefit of favoring those therapies that are not necessarily cheaper, but cheaper for the benefit they provide. This would not deprive patients who are willing to to pay for less cost-effective means of therapy of their choice of care; it would simply use market mechanisms to select out the most cost effective medical practices to make the overall system more efficient..

Thursday, October 30, 2008


As I opine here, the answer is "no." As mentioned, healthcare is not a right, because it is a service that must be provided by others, and no one has a claim of right on the endeavors of another. There is no claim, for example, that one's rights are violated if the police do not prevent a crime.

Furthermore, healthcare is not only a service, it is a limited resource, and the fact that it is limited makes it practically impossible for it to be a right. "Limited" implies that not everyone can have it, and it is absurd to argue that there is a right to something that one cannot have. Consider for example the case of claiming that liver transplants (which are inarguably healthcare) are a right. Obviously there are not enough liver donors to go around, so some people who will die without a transplanted liver will not get one. Any "right" to a new liver in such a case is a rather hollow one.

As a practical matter all heathcare is rationed. This fact is incompatible with healthcare being a right, and it is mere demagoguery to pretend that this is not so. Likewise, healthcare is not a right because there is no firm understanding of what healthcare is. Chiropractic therapy can reasonably be considered healthcare when applied to musculoskeletal ailments, but might be viewed more skeptically when considered a cure for cancer. Aromatherapy may have some health benefits, but it is a strained argument that asserts that it is a right. Some cosmetic procedures might qualify as healthcare while others would not, but drawing the distinction would seem contrary to the spirit of rights.

The range of healthcare services includes a number of interventions of varying degrees of cost, effectiveness and availability. This necessitates the judicious use of some of these modalities, allowing access to some people but not others, again a situation anomalous to the common understanding of rights.

To get around these informities, those who assert that healthcare is a right qualify their claim by saying that "basic" healthcare is a right, a limitation that argues against the premise. That is like saying that the First Amendment guarantees a right to express basic opinions or practice basic religion. Civil libertarians would find little comfort if the Fourth Amendment protected the right of the people to be basically secure in their persons, papers and effects. Rights should rest on firmer foundations than transient interpretations of what is "basic."

Finally, the Supreme Court, through Justice Marshall, understood the importance of healthcare without being gulled into recognizing it as a right (Estelle v. Gamble, 420 U.S. 97):

Similarly, in the medical context, an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care cannot be said to constitute "an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or to be "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."

In fact, the Sumpreme Court was even more explicit:

The Constitution imposes no obligation on the States to pay the pregnancy-related medical expenses of indigent women, or indeed to pay any of the medical expenses of indigents.

Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464 (1977) If the Consititution imposes no obligation to pay for the medical expenses of indigents, it cannot be said to guarantee healthcare as a right.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


"Fairness" has assumed a prominent role in economic and political discussions lately. Pundits and politicians compare varous economic schemes as though fairness were a commodity in itself. I propose here though, that fairness is given too much deference. I submit that an economic plan that leads to the production of wealth, but that is perceived as unfair is better than a fair plan that leads to stagnation.

Fairness is often used as a synonym for justice. This confusion may be deliberate or not, but it is definitely unhelpful. Fairness is an attribute of a process, not an outcome, and is specifically refers to whether such a process is free from bias or improper influence. The outcome of a process may be just or unjust regardless of whether the process was fair. It is seemingly unfair that some basketball teams have players that are taller and more talented than others, yet if the game is played according to the rules free from bias or manipulation, the outcome, even if a foregone conclusion cannot be considered unjust. It may seem unjust that one person takes an entire jackpot for himself, but if the process is the result of a blind lottery or the flip of a fair coin, there seems to be no valid grounds for complaint.

The veneration of fairness as an end rather than as a desirable attribute of a means is the result a common oversight: desirable attributes are desirable first and foremost because they are useful. Fair processes are presumed to produce better results than biased ones, and fair competitions are presumed to produce more worthy winners than those that are rigged. Democracy, for example, accomplishes its purposes more readily when elections are fair than when they are not.

There are many experiences in life that are not fair, simply because there is no benefit of fairness in them. It is not fair that a model citizen develops cancer, while a criminal does not. The purposes and processes of biology are independent of social merit. Likewise, it may seem unfair that the daughter of an industry magnate has certain advantages over the son of a laborer, but this only become true if the latter proves himself more deserving of an outcome that he is then denied.

Fair processes are more likely to lead to just outcomes. Imposing fairness in outcomes is likely to produce only a moribund equilibrium, where no one dares much nor accomplishes much, because results are divorced from merit. And that is not only ultimately unfair, it is unjust.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Fantasy is the seed and root of every progressive movement. This is self-evident to some degree, since progressives strive for a condition that does not exist and has never existed, except in the fantasies of the most devout.

Some of these fantasies are meant to be inspirational, like the virtuous proletariat marching arm in arm toward socialist utopia, or the ummah living in Islamic tranquility. Most of these fantasies tend to be fantasies of abstraction, like "fairness" or "justice" or "equality." The abstraction takes the world of the progressive and dessicates it until there is nothing left but the fantastic and unobtainable ideal. But a world that is so narrowly focused ceases to be a world. All progressive movements and their associated fantasies inevitably degenerate into a unitary vision, a homogenizing monotony that is at odds not only with human history, but with the human spirit.

The problem with adopting a fantasy as a world view, is that fantasist often becomes the fanatic, believing not only that his fantasy is desirable to himself but necessary for others. Then, whether it is the degenerate religious fantasies of al Qaeda, or the political fantasies of the Khmer Rouge, or the racial fantasies of the National Socialists, human catastrophe follows.

Fantasy is part of every healthy human mind, but the ability to make the key distinction between fantasy and real life is a necessary part of leaving childish things behind.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Emotions are notoriously bad counselors. The heat of passion is much more likely to produce regret than glory. It should be remembered that animals have emotions, but this fact does not seem to have contributed much to the collective achievements of the animal kingdom. One typically looks first to the level-headed for direction in a crisis; likewise, chldren are apt to have their conduct directed by emotional wants, a trait that necessitates the involvement of grown-ups in the more crucial decisions.

The pursuit of emotional satisfaction far too often leads to folly and pain, yet a great deal of political discourse targetss emotional chords. This is particularly true in the present campaign, where such airy and vacant themes of change and hope are the center of the debate. It is not cynical to observe that that the vilification of Sarah Palin, the visceral hatred of all things Bush, and the irrational platitudes goading class warfare are appeals to emotion rather than thought. This is not likely to turn out well.

The politics of the moment seek to apply the formidable intellectual, economic and cultural resources of the United States to the ultimate end that persons who share a particular ideology will feel good about themselves. We really aren't being courted by "Change we can believe in" as much as "Change we can feel good about."

Just as the president has very little control over economic cycles (the NASDAQ lost 45% of its value under President Clinton), a president (at least with due respect for the Constitution) can't really deliver on promises of self esteem, or ensure that the emotional tantrums of an ideological fringe will have better uutcomes than the emotional tantrums of preschoolers.

There is a segment of the American Left that wants war-crimes trials, that wants Wall Street executives frog marched on the evening news for the sheer schadenfreud of it. They want to name sewage plants ofter George W. Bush, and "ban" the military from their communities because they think that childish emotions must lead to eternal truths. Of course, those that look to a "progressive" government for progress and emotional satisfaction will be disappointed. The world is too complex and too dangerous to allow serious leaders to accede to the emotional outbursts of angry and unhappy people.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Hospice care definitely has its place in the management of certain diseases. However, somewhere along the line, the notion arose that it is somehow more noble to get sick and die than it is to get sick and recover.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


How about this as an academic argument:

The key phrase of the Second Amendment is found in the preamble, but not the militia part. The key phrase is "necessary to the security of a free state." Why the adjective? The flip answer is that a state that bans the possession and use of arms by the "people" is not as free as one that does not. But there is a more mechanical aspect that supports a right to self defense.

A free state implies necessary restraints on the armed agencies of government that are vested with the authority to use force. This lessens the risk that such entities will become agents of tyranny, but also impedes their ability to defend the life and safety of individual citizens. Unless the people are willing to accommodate an oppressive police presence in the interest of public safety (airline security lines notwithstanding) the citizen of a free state (i.e. one in which government force is restrained in the interest of individual liberties) must be allowed the right and means to provide their own defense.

As an aside, I think that probing whether English common law protects a right of self defense is largely unhelpful. It is my understanding (quite possibly wrong, but...) that people living in England were subjects, and that the King owned some sort of interest in his subjects' lives beyond humanitarian or humanistic ones. Killing one of the King's subjects was almost as bad as killing one of the King's cows. People living under the U.S. Constitution however are not subjects in that sense, and are not afflicted by the disabilities imposed by monarchical abstractions.

To sum up: "Free" implies limitations on the state's ability to provide an arbitrary level of security, this necessarily implies a degree of self reliance on the part of the free citizen to protect his life in the setting of such limitations. If the Constitution prevents the policeman from looking in the trunk of the speeding hit man's car when he is on the way to kill you, the Constitution impliedly allows you to rectify that by dispatching the miscreant when the choice comes down to you or him.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


One of the problems with the progressive notion of redistribution is that it is anti-progressive. Redistribution is an end rather than a means, and it is rather a dead-end. Redistribution is the process by which the loaves are divvied up rather than by which they are created. There is nothing industrious about redistribution. It is a policy that assumes that the distributed goods are the final fruits of effort and merit rather than the seeds of further progress.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


The recently completed United States Supreme Court term has generated a gread deal of internet comment and analysis. Websites such as the Volokh Conspiracy are loaded with critiques and discussions as to what the various opinions mean and argue over the legal principles that are either vindicated or violated by these decisions.

What is interesting about these discussions is that very smart people disagree sharply over the legal principles, interpretations and construction of the law. They also argue over history and legal philosophy, supporting wildly varying conclusions. In reading these discussions, one can make the following observations:
a soc
There are a number of philosphies of law, each of which presupposes the existence of some definite thing, such as a divine law giver, a state of nature, a social compact, or natural order. The position taken in these abstract legal arguments depends largely on what one presupposes as the foundation of law. TO understand the arguments, it might be helpful to fully understand the different theories by reading Aristotle's Rhetoric or Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws or Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, but in understanding how the controversies in law arise, it is helpful to presume, not a particular fundamental principle, such as the social contract, but merely to accept that legal reasoning presumes such a principle, regardless of what that is.

Legal reasoning tends to be fairly consistent: specific observations and historical data are analyzed to try, using inductive reasoning, to identify the underlying principle that will resolve the dispute. Deductive reasoning then applies this principle to the specific facts to the case at issue. This is true whether one is an originalist or legal positivist or utilitarian, or whatever. This process is subject to the limitations and quirks of human cognition. Very smart people reach different conclusions based on the same data becase the cognitive processes that are used are not deterministic.

When a person analyzes facts and data and legal precedent, and uses them to distill an underlying legal principle, he is using the cognitive process of pattern recognition. This process has a sensitivity and specificity associated with it. Someone who is very adept at recognizing recurrent patterns and readily identify the common principle in disparate facts is also likely to find patterns where none exist. This is a natural consequence of pattern recognition in human cognitive processes and is responsible for the phenomenon of apophenia, the experience of seeing patterns in random data. This potential lsource of "false-positive" error affects not only legal reasoning, but all forms of cognitive analysis where pattern recognition is necessary, such as interpreting electrocardiograms. In order to increase the liklihood that a doctor will correctly identify the subtle patterns associated with particular types of cardiac pathology, he will have to accept the risk of identifying that pathology when none is actually there. He trades off false positive interpratations as the price of minimizing false negatives.

In the legal context, this apophenia phenomenon leads legal scholars on jurists to find patterns in factual scenarios, legal precedents and modern culture that appears to fit with a certain principle. Sometimes they derive a useful rule or concept, but they also will occasionally be fooled into thinking that they have identified an underlying truth that really isn't there.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Homosexuality is an expected consequence of nature using sexual reproduction as a method of providing genetic diversity.

There would be little diversity resulting from all males being attracted to the same trait, and all females doing likewise. In the extreme case, not only would all males be attracted to the same type of female, they would be attracted to a single individual. This would frustrate the purpose of genetic diversity, which would negate the benefits of sexual reproduction. Thus, "normal" males (to focus on this portion of the species) are attracted to a variety of different female attributes; some men prefer thin females, other more sturdy shapes, some prefer large breasts, others not, different men are attracted preferentially to different body parts, etc. Nature endows the male inventory with a bell curve of sexual appetites, and as we move from the norm, we encounter all types of paraphilias that are not ultimately character defects, but the statistical and anomalous consequences of nature's quest for genetic diversity within the species. Nature has decided that it is OK to have a small percentage of the population have sexual orientations that incline away from reproduction as price to keep stirring the genetic pot. This may explain why there is no true homosexuality gene. If all sexual appetites were genetically determined, all types of genetic traits would cluster in discrete populations, and once again, the goal of genetic diversity would be frustrated.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The current debate over acquisition of foreign intelligence takes many things for granted, so much so that many key concepts are neglected. Aong these are:

1.) The nature of privacy. The notion of privacy is given great deference in national security debates, so much so that it nears divine reverence. What is lost in this treatment, is the fact that privacy has a purpose. Citizens of a free society need to have some measure of control over their own reputation. It is necessary for the orderly interactions that are necessary to living with one another. This is why English common law allowed actions for libel and slander, and why the common virtue of minding ones own business has survivied as an element of good manners. A reputation is no small matter in any community, and respecting privacy makes it easier for one to defend against scurrilous acusations or other stains upon an individuals honor. Society should therefore respect privacy because it benefits the society to do so, not because it is an absolute virtue. A society is not required to allow plots, even by its own citizens, to advance in darkness, simply because "privacy" is beneficial in other respects.

There is no benefit to American society in allowing non-citizens outside of national borders to transact any business, no mater how innocuous, in secrecy. Respect for the privacy of such transactions is not a matter that affects the orderly business of this society, and there is no infringement on any right by simply slistening on on what there is to hear. The right of privacy inherent in the fourth amendment is a compact between a government and the free people that consent to it, not a capitulation of a universally recognized human right.

2.) "Expectations of privacy." Even in American criminal law, privacy rights are subject to the common sense limitation that there is no privacy where none would be expected. Two non-citizens outside of the United States cannot reasonably expect that a communication that passes through the U.S. would not be scrutinized by a government that is trying to protect its people from nefarious schemes and terrorist atrocities.

3.) The concept of penetration in terror attacks. When terrorists plot an operation, one of the most difficult elements is to determine how to penetrate the vigilance of the target to accomplish the deed. This is an element of all terrorist operations, from the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, to the attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher, to the attack on the USS Cole, to the attacks of 9/11. Penetration is the most tenuous element in a terrorist plot, as can be seen in foiling the Millennium plot. Thus, this is where terror plots are most vulnerable, and where surveillance is most useful. Surveillance is a very efficient way to defeat the ruses and stealth used by terrorists to penetrate their targets.

Friday, June 20, 2008


I believe that the current controversies regarding "intelligent design" are best understood in light of Aristotle's theory of the four causes. He concluded that there are 4 types of cause: formal, material, efficient and final. The formal cause of something is the pattern, design, or archetype that determines the final form of the thing. The architectural plan for a house or blueprint of a machine are examples. The substance that actually makes up the thing, the bricks and mortar of the house or metal of the machine is the material cause. The efficient cause is the factual production of the thing; the building of the house or assembling of the machine, and the final cause is the reason why the enterprise was undertaken in the first place, e.g. somebody needed a house or the machine was thought to be useful.

The contemplation of the biological origin of man also demonstrates each of Aristotle's four causes. Genes are the formal cause of homo sapiens, ribonucleic acids are the material cause, evolution or natural selection is the efficient cause. These observations seem to involve little controversy. The issue arises when people consider the final cause, the "why?"

The final cause (in the Aristotelian sense) creates contention when included in scientific thought because it is not science. It is irrelevant to understanding the other three types of causes, and is not amenable of scientific investigation. Those who wish to introduce an "Intelligent Designer" as the final cause of man conflate philospohical and religious yearning with scientific empiricism, ending up with something that is neither intellectually or spiritually fulfilling.

People search for a final cause of their existence, not because it is scientifically necessary, but because it is emotionally comforting. Piety would be so much easier if the objects of our devotion could be accessed by more familiar forms of reasoning. Faith would be much easier if it didn't require so much faith.

Ultimately, intelligent design will be found irrelevant to both the science of biology and the destination of a true spiritual journey.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


It seems to be common sense that most objections to free speech that someone finds "offensive" are complained of simply because someone's feelings are hurt. The real objection to speech is that it may be potentially pursuasive and contrary to the broader interests of those who take offense.

One of the notable aspects about the rhetoric of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and others who "speak truth to power" is that they seldom speak anything controversial apart from cheering and sympathetic crowds. One suspects that those such as Rev. Wright speak as they do, not because of the change they seek, but because of the reaction they receive. Not all showmen are courageous.

A better example of someone who exercised her right of speech out of conviction is Sacheen Littlefeather, who was booed at the Academy Awards for explaining why Marlon Brando was refusing the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. As to why Brando didn't explain in person...

Friday, June 06, 2008


The present political fixation with the allegedly unique attributes of Barack Obama is merely another instance of the human trait of seeking out supermen, masterminds and saviors. This activity actually happens every year in national sports, and the phenomenon is particularly prevalent in college football. Every year coaches resign and are fired, and fans of the affected team denigrate one candidate or another, thinking that merely accomplished mortals stand in the way of the team finding teh "wizard."

Presently, there are a few coaches that bear the Wizard mantle, with Pete Carroll being the most obvious. Larry Coker, Bob Stoops, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban and Jim Tressel have also ehld the title at one time or another. The fact is though, that there are no wizards. There is no one who has figured out something or who has some intangible gift that delvers success beyond that which can be explained by competence, experience, hard work and a little luck. Agood football coach will lose one out of every five times he takes the field. An exceptional coah will lose one out of every six. And that is not one out of five or six games against top ten opponents; it is against all-comers.

Every coach gets outcoached, has bad days and is beaten by inferior opponents. There are no Wizards in college football, or in world leaders. Great men like Churchill and Lincoln had their blunders, off days and fiascos. Every year some anointed coaching mastermind, who has let expectaions rise to an undefeated national championship, will lose a game that leaves fans wondering if maybe it's not time for a change. We can expect the same thoughts about our political leaders every election as well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


History holds many examples of political philosophies that have been put into practice with varying degrees of success. Many ideologies that sounded benign in concept have left bloody ruins when put into practice. Whether this is the result of a psychological quirk or cynical political expedience, many ideologies of the past several hundred years have led to slaughter.

The unfortunate fantasy of many political visionaries is to be able to eliminate people they find inconvenient. This is not limited to the underlying philosphies of the left or right, but rather seems to grow out conviction that hardens into fanaticism. Apologists often lament the death of innocents while opining that such deaths are somehow necessary to a better future. This "break some eggs to make an omelet" approach to human life afflicts the values of utopians, communists, fascists, socialists, capitalists, religionists, and nearly everyone else who thinks with sufficient conviction that he or she knows how others must live.

The concept that some people are impediments to a better life for others led to the excesses of the French revolution, the Ukranian harvest of shame, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, and places in the world to this day where some people think that a political idea justifies the death of another. The true totalitarian fantasy is to eliminate innocent people with impunity because it is justified by an intellectual abstraction.

The more we are given to tolerate these homicides, the easier it is to accept that sometimes innocent people can be sacrificed, not for some debatable greater good, but simply to satisfy our subjective wants.

Friday, May 16, 2008


In the physical sciences, something is considered abnormal if it varies from the norm. The trend in the social sciences however is to regard something as abnormal if it varies from the ideal, even if the ideal is unobtainable. Further, there is a reliable tendency to ascribe the variation from the ideal to someone’s bad character. In modern thought, to alter nature is an abomination; to alter man, a necessity, as though there is no such thing as human nature.

The cheapest way of appearing virtuous is to accuse others of lacking virtue.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Much has been made of the assertion that race is an element in many votes that will be cast against Barak Obama this year. A fair question may be asked as to whether this is a reflection of a deeply ingrained racism, or if there is at least the possibility that race is an incidental factor in a more general concern.

If some people are moved to vote for anyone but Obama because his father was black, a decent curiosity would prompt one to ask "Why?" It may be, of course, that some people distrust, hate, or fear anyone of African appearance. That this is in fact the case is supposedly illustrated by the hypothetical "If Obama were to choose an African American as a running mate he would be less likey to be elected, and this is because Americans are too racist to vote for an all-black ticket, regardless of the qualities of the individuals." In fact, if Obama were to select a black running mate, he would be less likely to be elected, but not because people simply do not want a black person to be president.

The issue is not one of race, as much as the perception that a candidate will advance a narrow agenda. This is the reason that John F. Kennedy had to clarify the role that his Catholicism would play in executive decisions. The reason that his speech to Baptist ministers was effective was because the issue was not whether he was Catholic or not, it was whether he would pursue Catholic interests as president.

The public does not want an executive whose priorities lie in a narrow, insular agenda. Consider if a ticket composed of Hillary Clinton and Madelein ALbright ran against a ticket of Patricia Ireland and Kate Michelman. Who do you think would win? How about if Tom Tancredo ran with Pat Buchanan? The odd fact is that single issue voters will vote for politicians that agree with them on a given issue, but few people will vote for single issue candidates.

Barak Obama must contend with the suspicion that he harbors a narrow, black-centered agenda. This is part of the fallout from his association with Jeremiah Wright, who has been explicit in advocating for such an agenda. If Obama were to pick an African-American running mate who is associated with the same views, Obama will be viewed with the same suspicions that John Kennedy faced regarding his religion. Unfortunately, Obama probably would not be given the benefit of the doubt, even if he chose a black running mate with less activist background, such a Colin Powell. People who might otherwise vote for Obama might become suspicious that he thinks race is important, and on that basis decide that his motivations are to narrow for President of the United States. It may not be fair, and it may not be old-time bigotry, but it is part of the politics of perception.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


One of the reasons that healthcare in the United States is so expensive is that a significant portion of healthcare expenditures is, in effect, a tax we pay pay to maintain certain illusions. We willingly pay millions of dollars to maintain the illusion that nonagenarians who have suffered massive strokes might somehow completely recover. We pay to sustain the illusion that our healthcare policy is concerned primarily with what is best for the patient. We fund the illusions that self-destructive behaviors are just bad luck, that all people access the system only for health-realted reasons, rather than a small portion who do so for secondary gains. We pay to accommodate the fashions that various forms of quackery are therapeutic, that the natural course of many objectively terminal diseases is cure rather than death, and that a hospital that looks like a hotel is somehow better than one that does not. One of the reasons that the American healthcare system is so expensive is that there is little seriousness about making it otherwise, because we like our illusions and are willing to have "the system" pay for them.

There is a contradiction regarding the quality of the American healthcare system, in that it is sometimes described as the best in the world and othertimes derided as being the most expensive but inferior to most of the developed world. The resolution of this anomaly lies in acknowledging that both views are correct. The fact is that the American healthcare system is designed to achieve different goals than those of other countries. If the goal of the U. S. system is limited to providing universal preventive care, it could probably do that quite efficiently. If its focus is limited to provide a catastrophic safety net it could probably do that as well. But the American healthcare system is intended to fulfill many roles, which have the effect of benefitting the rest of the world. The American system advances the state of the art, and is to a large degree resonsible for much of the progress of the art of medicine worldwide. The American system encourages access to technologies that are not always economically beneficial (there are probably way more CT scans performed here than need to be) but which may make the underlying technologies more economically available in the future. In addition, there is a large sociological component to the delivery of healthcare that would go unnoticed if the goal were simply to queue people up to receive their alloted share of services. Part of this is because American society is more diverse than say, Japan or Cuba. We have expenditures for artificial joints in octogenarians, which would be unlikely to be priorities in a more "efficient" system.

There are many ways that the American healthcare system can be improved, but first we have to realize that not all of the problems are due to greed or the bad character of "them." A lot of it is due to choices that we make, and interests that we protect.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


All healthcare systems involve some form of rationing. This is an inescapable reality that arises from the fact that healthcare is not an abstract right, it is a service that must be provided from a limited supply of resources.

Different system use different criteria upon which to make rationing decisions. Sometimes these are explicit, as in the Oregon Medicaid system, and sometimes they are inherent, such as the Canadian practice of rationing by queues. In the United States, there is a patchwork of rationing, varying by region of the country, medical condition of the patient, and socio-economic factors.

Reform of our healthcare system should start with selecting and designing an appropriate rationing criterion. As a foundational step, it should begin by constraining the definition of "healthcare." It would be next to impossible to design and implement a viable healthcare system if it includes practices of limited application and dubious merit. The first step in overhauling healthcare should thus be to define healthcare as "those practices and interventions that have been shown by rigorous scientific study to have a cost-effective benefit in management of acute and chronic health conditions." For purposes of this definition, "cost effective" would mean the amount of therapeutic benefit per unit of resources expended. Cost-effectiveness would be determined by market mechanisms; i.e. competition among various therapies with those yielding the most benefit per unit cost survivng, and those

This approach would be exactly counter to present practice, which is to take an entitlement and expand the definition of it to ensure that it not so much grows as metastasizes.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


There are many factors that make private enterprise more efficient than government in providing a particular service or accomplishing a particular task. One such factor is that government is constrained by things that need not necesssarily inhibit the private sector. For some reason having to do with the quirks of politics, a major impediment to government efficiency is that it is effectively not allowed to undertake activities in a manner which hurts anyone's feelings. Government must maintain the most ludicrous of facades to appear sensitive, inclusive and "fair." Even when providing services that few would argue should be the province of government, such as law enforcement, malignant sensitivity and pandering to grievance politics not only impairs efficiency, it sometimes defeats the purpose of undertaking those activities at all.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


All successful societies develop traditions, and in fact traditions are a marker of societal achievement. Tradition serves many purposes: it acts as a repository of experience; it serves as a reminder of past achievements and worthy enterprises; it provides a frame of reference for future endeavors; it provides recognition of virtues and other admirable qualities; and it supplies some measure of structure for more intricate and complex organization.

Tradition is necessary to futrure enterprises because, regardless of the form it assumes, or how it formally exists in society, it helps provide one element essential to progress: predictability.

Predicatability is an indispensible element of human progress. The reason why scientists and engineers can use scientific principles for technological advancement is that the principles of science are predictable. It would be impossible to have electric lights if a conductor moving in an electric field produced an electric potential some times, but not others; it would be impossible to travel by air if lift prodiced on a wing occurred randomly, instead of following well-behaved realtionships between air density, velocity and pressure. The same princle applies to social progress. If laws had no predictable application, there would be no point in having laws, and it should be noted that frequently in human history, tradition formed the basis of legal systems. The Anglo-American concept of stare decisis is simply a principle which promotes predictability in a system vulnerable to caprice in individual cases.

A society that eschews tradition, in the name of enlightenment, or fashion, or even progress does not simply discard its past. To a real extent, it corrupts its future as well.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


A few days ago, a psychiatrist friend of mine informed me that he had to arragne his schedule to accommodate an emergency; one of his female patient's car had broken down and she could not cope. This led to a discussion of how many elements of life, some of quite recent vintage began as conveniences and then became necessities (or at least came to be perceived as such). The list grows annually, and it is easy to image some people becoming virtually helpless without a cell phone, microwave oven or internet access. There is an entire segment of society that would be jobless were it not for a functioning fax machine. It is sobering to think that national security can be compromised by some miscreant hacking into a computer and causing a power outage.

This observation is not new, of course. Emerson remarked upon the general principle in his essay Self Reliance:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it advances on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. FOr everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.

Social progress is a journey for which the luggage capacity is limited, and this makes it frightening for some. For each liberty that we wish to assume, it seems there is some virtue that must remain behind. A certain amount of soul must be left behind to make room for each scientific discovery. The real question is whether what we leave behind is more valuable than what we take.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Competition is as necessary an element of progress as is risk. At the most fundamental level the product of competition is efficiency, and consequntly, exploitation. The former is obviously beneficial (though not universally desirable) and the latter is viewed as evil. One of the tasks essential to a functioning society is to manage competition in such a manner that reaps its benefits and avids its pitfalls.

People who decry capitalism as a great evil do so because the competition for capital, left unchecked results in exploitation. A fallacy arises however when one assumes that eliminating competition will eliminate exploitation. This is almost never the case, and goes a long way toward explaining the rise of and failures of totalitarianism.

Not everyone agrees that efficiency is a desirable thing. There is a school of thought that considers the relentless pursuit of effeciency dehumanizing. Efficiency is unavoidable to progress however, and is in fact the underlying principle of evolution in virtually all systems, biological, economic, political, etc. Efficiency is simpy a measure of how much of something that is desirable can be produced per unit of something that is useful. Competition identifies the objectively superior system, as opposed to "planning" which seeks to prescribe it from the outset.

The explicit encouragement of competition is one reason why Anglo-American technological progress has been so impressive, while more theoretically appealing alternatives have been found wanting. Capitalism is not perfect, and can lead to abuses, but it is responsible for far more "progress" than its utopian counterparts (which are responsible for plenty of abuses of their own.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008


There seems to be a paradox at the center of Progressive thought, and that is that Progressives appear to be opposed to progress. They support causes that impede progress and oppose those institutions that promote it. One need only consider the progressive position on the environment, government regulation of industry, education, social welfare programs, affirmative action, etc. to see evidence that this is the case.

The simple explanation of this apparent paradox is that progressives favor progress, not in the technological sense, but rather progress toward socialism as a desirable goal. This explanation does have some empirical appeal, but seems to skirt aorund the crux of the issue, and that is the fundamental aversion that progressives have regarding risk.

Socialism is not so much a method of distributing assets, as it is a method of reducing risk, in the most obvious case, the risk of abject poverty.
Much of the progressive agenda is directed toward things like universal healthcare, which spreads the financial risk of illness over the whole population; increasing minimum wages, which is perceived to reduce the risk of emplyed poverty (although at the unintended risk to job opportunity); and gun control, which seeks to implausibly reduce the risk of violence. Many of the undesirable consequences of socialism arise from the artificial and detrimental effects of eliminating exposure to risks in areas in which such exposure is beneficial. COnsider for example the effect on emplyee performance if substandard effort carries with it no risk of significant consequences.

One of the beneficial attributes of risk is that it provides incentive. Exposure to risk is also essential in the development of good judgment. Risk is a prelude to prudence. Furthermore, risk seems to be hard-wired into the psyche of a substatntial segment of the population. Risk can be addictive, as is evidenced by the conduct of cumpulsive gamblers, and recreational daredevils.

The fact is that risk is essential to progress and this is wherein lies the paradox. A society without risk of failure has no incentive to effort, a society without risk of privation has no incentive for effeciency or conservation. A society not subjected to risk of decay has no incentive to innovate or renew itself. A society that does not appreciate the role of risk in human life is a csociety that will cease to progress.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Now that the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war has passed, it seems logical that now would be a good time to appraise the enterprise. I don't think that this is the case, however. Right now, discussion of the war is too imbued with emotionalism, partisanship, and frank hysteria.

One of the most paralyzing shortcoming of current analysis is the tendency to attribute any undesirable outcomes to someone's bad character. Thus, it is often stated without authority that "Bush lied" or that he was influenced by nefarious "Neocons" harboring malignant motives.

These unhelpful attributes of the current debate are exacerbated by the simultaneous political campaigns. What would otherwise be dismissed as campaign rhetoric gets mixed into more thoughful discussion and clouds, rather than illuminates the issue.

In the coming years, Bush's decision-making process will be scrutinized by more thoughtful and less biased scholars, and I suspect that he will come off considerably better than one would predict solely from today's discourse. It is fortunate for Mr. Obama that he was not a member of the United States Senate, required to make a consequential decision on the type of data presented to President Bush and Hillary Clinton. That data was far from perfect, and less than conclusive, but the decisions demanded at the time were not of a type that could await certainty.

What is most interesting is that the intelligence that was available to decision makers was colored by the recent intelligence failures of 9/11. This understandably led some in the intelligence community to be more aggressive in their analyses. No one was eager to be accused of "failing to connect the dots," particularly with the consequences of the most recent lapse frresh in memory. Likewise, policy makers, from the President, to his cabinet, to congressmen and senators could resonably be excused for interpreting the data in a light favoring a present threat. These were not due to poor judgment, incompetence, or improper motives; they were the understandable actions of persons who did not have the luxury of defering decisions that had potentially grave and immediate consequences.

An enlightening appraisal of the treatment of prewar intelligence can be found int eReport of the Senate Select Committe on intelligence dealing with the same topic, which can be found here .

Of particular interest is the way in which intelligence assessments were made to sound more conclusive by a stylistic edit removing phrases like "we judge," which was intended to eliminate the plural pronouns, but which had the effect of making the intelligence sound more definite. It is contained in Section X, regarding the White Paper on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Standing by your man

Magazines, television talking heads and water cooler chatter concerning the Eliot Spitzer matter keep asking why political wives "stand by their man" in the face of scandalous behavior. Is it quant to hope that somehow, it might have something to do with "for better or for worse?" Really, isn't that what a person who takes her wedding vows seriously is supposed to do?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Here's an example of what I mean when institutions go overboard in pandering to individual sensitivities:

IUPUI stupidity

The most immediate threat to civil liberties in America is the notion the subjective feelings should be protected by government power. There is presently a campaign to purge both public and private discourse of "offensive" speech and images, and to limit expression based solely on the potential emotional response of the audience. This is not merely a question of interpretation regarding freedom of speech; it is fundamentally an issue of the appropriate use of govenrment force in regulating discourse.

There is no right to not be offended. There is no valid governmental authority that would protect an individual from the expression of another. There is, however, and this must be repeated as clearly as possible, a right to engage in offensive expression. This is true even if such expression is for the sole purpose of causing offense.

Refraining from injuring or offending the subjective sensibilities of others is a matter of manners and good character, not a proper invocation of the police power. The government has no legitimate interest in the impossible task of guarding against hurt feelings, regardless of whether one perceives insult based on race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation or any other grounds. Free expression is more important than individual feelings.

The legal actions for libel and slander protect reputation, not feelings. There is no such thing as objectively offensive because offense is subjective. Regulations, such as the odious speech codes that afflict college campuses, that seek to guard subjective sensitivities have an ever-changing object, and thus lose one of the main benefits of having regulations and laws: predictability in application.

Defense of civil rights necessarily entails defending the unpopular and even repugnant, and this is true in the case of offensive speech. Institutions cannot be guarantors of our feelings; they only cause harm and injustice when they try to be. There is something quite insidious and corrosive about an institution forcing someone to defend his thoughts against a charge that someone's feelings were hurt by them.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The first problem to be encountered in healthcare reform is determining just what exactly healthcare is. This seems trivial until one actually undertakes to do it. Is abortion healthcare? In all circumstances? How about chiropractic care? Many people derive benefit from chiropractic treatment, but how about chiropractic care to treat cancer or infertility? Aroma therapy? Faith healing.

Then there is the problem of therapy that is scientifically efficacious but ruinously expensive. Should a reformed healthcare system guarantee access to all for those therapies?

The most logical, and therefore less emotionally appealing approaches is to only allow therapies that have been scientifically demonstrated to be cost effective, with cost effectiveness measured against the cost per year of life saved in hemodialysis patients. This would solve a lot of problems. Quack therpies would not be cost effective because they are not effective at all. The same would apply to demonstrably futile therapies, such a transplants in end stage cancer patients. There would be a competetive pressure to make therapies more efficient, and reach the cost-effectiveness threshhold. Non-cost effective therapies would still be available, but the healthcare system would have no obligation to provide them.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The prominent role that potential Supreme Court nominations play in presidential campaigns suggests that Court itself has becomje too prominent in American government. To remedy this, I propose the following constitutional adjustments:

1.) The term of Supreme Court Justices shall be limited to twenty years, and

2.) The precedential value of all Supreme Court decisions shall expire after twenty years; i.e. lower courts would not be bound to follow High Court decisions after twenty years.