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Complexity, the “Do Something” Instinct, and the Sandy Hook Shooting

December 27, 2012 1 comment

I have as yet avoided writing about the Sandy Hook shooting, partly because I dislike rushing to rash decisions, and partly because I believe the narrative has focused on unimportant ideology as opposed to the important ideas underlying the situation and the reaction to it. Now, however, with the benefit of some distance, I will weigh in.

What happened was horrible. There is simply no way around that. On the other hand, frantic reactions, calls to political action, and statements claiming that what happened was “obvious” do nothing but exacerbate the problem.

In reality, while it is easy to deconstruct the event with the benefit of hindsight, it is simply impossible to claim some sort of valid foresight. It is not enough to say “I knew that something like this would happen,” because that is a statement without verifiability until the proof is at hand. And when the proof is at hand, such a statement is already useless. If you had any real knowledge, you would have stopped it from happening. If you had no ability to stop it, you had had no real knowledge – simply baseless speculation masquerading as knowledge.

One can analogize this “foresight problem” to other occurrences. For example, if someone gets in a car accident, he might say later on “if only I hadn’t slept in and left 20 minutes later than I usually do, I would never have been in this mess.” This is the functional equivalent of claiming foresight about Sandy Hook. If either were valid, the problematic situation would never have obtained.

Nor is it possible to claim that, despite the lack of specific foresight, there was enough knowledge to have stopped the tragedy via preventive action. This kind of claim usually follows the “if only we had this law…” form, and it is the functional equivalent of the above. This also fails to account for the foresight problem, and it suffers from a debilitating case of confirmation bias.

The foresight problem can be extended through thought experiment. Consider a chess game.* The number of possible chess games that can be played is somewhere in the order of 10^120, or many multiples of the number of atoms in the universe. Once the chess game is, say, 50 moves in, and the chesspieces are arrayed just so, it is relatively easy to reconstruct what happened. Before the game began, however, there was an infinitesimal chance of predicting just such an arrangement. And remember, this is chess: as complicated as its game-tree complexity is, it pales in comparison to the complexity of an hour, even a minute, of human action.

We have no useful foresight, but neither does our hindsight yield much when faced with the multitude of competing and interacting causes and effects that a chessboard simplifies but real life makes manifest. After all, if the “obvious” solutions were actually obvious in hindsight, this would not be a recurring problem. We would have corrected it after the last time.

For example, getting rid of guns does not solve the problem, as countries such as Russia continue to see mass violence despite heavy gun control, while Switzerland’s rate of gun violence is comparatively miniscule despite enormous rates of gun ownership. Britain found that gun violence increased 40% after its gun ban in the late 1990s. Unlike poorly-informed pundits, I will not speculate as to why. And indeed, a majority of the mass shootings that have occurred in the United States have occurred in states, localities, and even schools that are “gun-free” or gun-restricted zones. Real life does not cooperate with our strictures. (QED.)

Nor is lack of guns an obvious problem, as the just-as-reactive NRA has suggested. What earthly purpose would stationing the equivalent of TSA agents (who, by the way, are not armed) at schools be, when the TSA has shown nothing but incompetence? Why would one expect an armed policeman to stop a shooter when armed policemen are already commonly at schools and haven’t helped? Why would a national guardsman or combat veteran be effective? Remember that one of the worst mass shootings in history took place on a military installation in Texas. No shortage of guns on a military base.

What are we to do with ourselves, then, if there are no solutions to the problem? (And, emphatically, there are none.) We do the best we can to defend ourselves, but we also accept that the real world is a dangerous, messy place and circumstances beyond our control may end our lives abruptly.

Callous? I call it realistic.

Indeed, the possibility of being the victim of a mass shooting is quite similar to the possibility of being in a fatal car accident, except for the fact that the latter occurs with startling regularity by comparison. We seem to have no problem processing the idea that, while our lives might end on the road at any moment, we have balanced the risk and accepted that, dangerous as driving may be, we will carry on. We seem to completely lack the capacity to accept the idea that, while our lives may end in a mass shooting at any moment, we are capable of balancing the risks here too. Apparently, when guns are present, rationality goes out the window. This despite the fact that cars can be at least as lethal as guns.

And capable we are of balancing the risks inherent in life. After all, we do it literally all the time. Short of locking down the entire citizenry in individual padded cells, there is simply no way to prevent the next mass shooting. That may be hard to hear. But think of the risks you take every day that are greater. Driving is a good example, but also note that you are about as likely to be killed by lightning than be killed by a mass shooter. Shall we live our lives entirely indoors?

Or can we accept the fact that there is no solution?

Once we have accepted that the risk is intractable, we can begin to accept that calls to action, proposed laws, gun controls, the “do something” instinct – all are useless in the face of a tragedy like this. We can avoid the rush to judgment. We can avoid the poison of baseless ideology. We can begin the healing process. We can resume our lives.

While the complexity of the world denies us the ability to see into the future, we can see that the fruits of the “do something” instinct, be they legal or otherwise, are poisonous to liberty. We are faced with a choice. We can keep our liberties and our dignity intact, and live with a future where mass shootings are possible. Or we could pass laws taking away fundamental individual liberties, making the people servile and impotent, and thereafter live with a future where mass shootings are possible anyway.

These are our only two choices. We should choose wisely.

 

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*I have previously used the chess example to illustrate complexity here.

A perhaps accidental description of why the libertarian perspective beats the major parties’

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Amity Shlaes over at Forbes has published an article in the October 22, 2012 issue called “The End of Behaviorism.” (If you’re unfamiliar, Amity Shlaes is the author of the very good “The Forgotten Man,” a realistic history of the Great Depression. She is also the author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge, one of my absolute favorite presidents and a sadly all-too-often-ignored figure.)

In this article, Shlaes lays out the contrast between the economic policies of the two major political parties in simplistic terms:

Get the rat to the cheese.

That’s really what each U.S. political party is promising to do if its candidate is elected President. The rat in this analogy is the enervated American worker. The cheese is his reward. If all rats make their way through the maze and to the cheese faster, the economy will grow faster.

The only way that Democrats and Republicans differ is in the manner in which they animate the rat. Democrats take the Habitrail approach: Give the worker the equivalent of a roomy cage with a deluxe wheel, and he’ll be fit enough to pursue his cheese. Republicans focus on incentives: Double the cheddar, and the rat will navigate his turns more quickly. The rat analogy comes from modern economics, a discipline that classes itself as lab science, precious and pure.

Neither approach works particularly well. The article goes on to probe the deeper depths of the human psyche viz. “getting to the cheese.” What is it that really motivates people? I think Shlaes assertion that freedom in and of itself is the goal of many is right on the dot.

But people aren’t lab rats. They are souls, to use a pre-social-science word. Souls, pious or not, make their choices in complex fashion.

Indeed, freedom itself is what motivates many people who are not currently free. We in this country tend to get so caught up in how much money we have, how many things are available to us, whether our material situation is better now than it was four years ago – that we utterly forget to appreciate the necessary condition to material wealth and comfort.

That is freedom.

And thus, I find Shlaes’s article to be a – perhaps unwitting – explication of the libertarian position, and especially of that position’s superiority over the position of the major political parties in this country.

The cheese is not really what matters, although getting rats to cheese is a nice side benefit. What really, truly matters is whether people are free to live their own lives without coercion.

A note on campaign finance and SuperPACs

March 27, 2012 3 comments

In a letter in the Wall Street Journal today, a Richard Williams of Wenatchee, Washington writes with regards to Harold Clark Simmons’ giving more than $18 million to support Republican candidates:

I find Mr. Simmons’s extreme political views pretty abhorrent. Even if I agreed with them, it would disturb me that the political influence and power of one wealthy individual outweighs that of many thousands of other citizens. This situation is incompatible with our democracy.

I have one question for Mr. Williams of Wenatchee. How could you possibly disagree with someone when their opinions are backed by $18 million? What’s that? You are not swayed by huge amounts of money?

So why the assumption that everyone else is? Perhaps the problem is not that Mr. Simmons has given huge sums to promote his political views, but instead the problem lies in the fact that you assume everyone else is such a blithering idiot that they will be unable to help themselves from following Simmons’ money like zombies.

Your logic is poor, Mr. Williams. So poor that I simply cannot fear for the political process based on huge donations like this. After all, if someone with your limited logic skills can see through $18 million, I think the rest of us can fend for ourselves.

The radical idea that poor people are people

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

My ongoing skepticism of “public service” is well-known, but J.E. Dyer, a writer on Christian social thought, drives the point home very well in a post on Patheos.

After many years, we have learned what happens when we seek to “redistribute” income or wealth. The goal of “redistribution” becomes more important than actually helping the poor. The abstract idea of removing income or wealth from some and transferring it to others trumps everything else. Seeking to “redistribute” income or wealth is not, in fact, a very good method of helping the poor; it is better characterized as a method of wielding power and seeking to control outcomes.

…”Redistribution” is an abstract goal, focused on numbers rather than people, and based on an invidious and theoretical dissatisfaction with material conditions. “Helping the poor,” by contrast, is focused on the people involved, and is a goal that can only be satisfied through personal attention and observation.

Of course, thinking that we can eradicate poverty totally is dangerous utopianism, but it is dangerous precisely because of the institutional structures that such thinking is wont to produce and not because it is wrong to attempt to make a person’s situation better without payment.

It is no secret that poverty has not been ameliorated by government programs before or since Lyndon Johnson’s cynical “War on Poverty.” It is also no secret that, as people become generally better off thanks to the march of market progress, the political definition of poverty is “defined up.”

And while it is certainly true that there will always be people in dire straits, isn’t it much healthier for us as a society of equals under the law to treat those people as people?

If we want to help those who are in need – and we should – the most efficacious and moral way to do so is through free action, not through government coercion. The latter reduces people to numbers and fosters a cynicism, correct in many instances, that the people being helped are not truly needy.

At worst, a system of government coercion removes all moral reasoning from the basic moral agent, i.e. the individual. Rich or poor, people qua people are what really matter. Such a system of coercion is inimical to a free and prosperous society.

The STRIP Act – A Good Start

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Representative Marsha Blackburn has penned a popular piece over at Forbes about her proposed bill, called the STRIP Act, or “Stop TSA’s Reach in Policy” Act.

At a minimum, it would do away with the title Transportation Security “Officer,” and require that TSA agents not wear badges or masquerade as real police officers, which they emphatically are not.

I say this is a good start. TSA has been example one of bureaucratic entrenchment and mission creep over the last decade, and they have made our lives demonstrably worse for it.

While TSA agents’ accomplishments are well-known, like their ability to fail every single audit, and their perfect record of catching zero terrorists, we have to ask – at what cost?

Look, I am all for abolishing the TSA tomorrow, and forgetting about this sorry chapter in American history. (As an aside, can we get rid of the term “post-9/11”? Everything after 9/11 is post-9/11.) But I recognize that getting rid of this wart on society will take measured steps to assuage the fears of the naive and avoid the wrath of the security state and its lobbyists. Rep. Blackburn makes a good point:

Will the STRIP Act solve every problem facing the TSA? Absolutely not. The STRIP Act seeks to expand upon the work of my colleagues by chipping away at an unnoticed yet powerful overreach of our federal government. If Congress cannot swiftly overturn something as simple as this administrative decision there will be little hope that we can take steps to truly rein in the TSA on larger issues of concern.

This is a good start, and I encourage you to write to your Congresscritter to support it.

Don’t know how? Start here: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

Do democracies work by being dysfunctional? Or are they unworkable?

March 8, 2012 2 comments

Leon Watson at the Daily Mail has a though-provoking article about the dysfunctionality of democracies.  It is called “Is this the reason democracy can’t work? Study find humans are too dumb to pick the right person to lead us.”

I find this to be an interesting question, and one that goes far beyond the implications of which useless politician we will pick to be our president this November. In fact, I think it goes straight to the foundations of democracy. We need to ask ourselves questions like, what are the things we universally (not individually) desire from our democracy? And, is anyone at all fit to make decisions for the rest of us?

Ultimately, I think Mr. Watson has an unstated premise here: that if we were in fact able to choose the “right” person to lead us, our democracies would function better, and people would be happier with them.

That is a premise I reject. Although I may not go so far as to say that the inevitable mediocrity of our politicians is a feature, rather than a bug, of our democratic processes, I will absolutely say that I would prefer as a leader a mediocre man who is aware of his limits than the smartest man in the history of the world who is unaware of his.

Is that too much to ask? Perhaps. Being aware of the extent of one’s limits is beneficial, but ultimately it is too nebulous a concept to lead to solid conclusions as a matter of policy. And so, as a tradeoff, I would prefer a government set up to reduce the pernicious impact of the hubristic technocrat, at the expense of possibly limiting the beneficial impact of the hypothetical benevolent dictator.

In other words, I respect what the U.S. Constitution set out to do, and I find discussions of who is the “best” person to lead a democracy to be generally moot.

Of course, that does not mean that choosing a Ron Paul over a Barack Obama would not lead to empirically provable better results, and I don’t accept the premise that choosing the person to be the executive of the polity is unimportant. However, those are questions about the margin, and they ought to be distinguished from questions about the “best.”

Again, however, this is exactly the sort of discussion that is far more fundamentally important to our democracy than is the discussion over who is to lead us for the next four years. So feel free to drop me a note if you have something to add. I welcome your comments.

Are people too stupid to choose their leader, or is our stupidity just another (possibly beneficial) limiting factor on the government? What do you want from your democracy? Do you think there ever has been, or ever will be, a single person to whom control of the state could be surrendered?

TSA’s nude body scanners are worse than useless

March 7, 2012 Leave a comment

…because they give us the idea that we are safe while providing a far less than adequate level of safety. I found this video, courtesy of http://tsaoutofourpants.wordpress.com/, very informative:

How To Get Anything Through TSA Nude Body Scanners

Another factoid I found interesting is that no one has brought explosives on an American-originated flight in 40 years. However, if the TSA “officers” and the traveling public are convinced that these machines will help keep that streak alive, and yet they are demonstrably worse than the old-style metal detectors, then it can reasonably be concluded that the machines are actively making us less safe by lulling us into a false sense of security while failing to catch real threats.

Then again, I simply do not accept the idea that an outfit like the TSA has moved the needle higher in security at all. The reason why most planes don’t blow up is because, out of 7 billion people in this world, all but a handful won’t ever blow up a plane. And the ones who might are marginalized otherwise.

The point of diminishing returns has been reached and exceeded long before TSA existed. At this point, TSA’s annual budget of more than $8 billion is worth about as much in actual security as your own vigilance. Possibly less.

The inevitable question that I get from security-statists upon saying that is, “well won’t that make it easier for terrorists?” Sure. But terrorists have an incredibly difficult time of it anyway (and it bears repeating that TSA has never, ever caught a single terrorist). If we spend $8 billion of federal money and have a terrorist attack every decade or two, would that really be any better than spending $0 of federal money and having a terrorist attack every decade or two?

The idea that we can make the threat completely disappear is false. What is left is a balancing act of economic interests, freedom interests, and security interests.

Let’s stop shoveling money at the TSA on the basis of boogeyman stories and start talking tradeoffs like adults.

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