Friday, August 31, 2007


If fucking Belgium can't manage to resolve its ethnic tensions, how in the world can anybody expect it to happen in Iraq, where they don't have a long tradition of chocolate, waffles, and weird paintings to stabilize the place?

See also: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Spain (Basques), Canada, Rwanda...

There's been absolutely no mention of this in the US press as far as I can tell, but here's some reportage.

The danger of overabstraction

Robin Hanson is not a libertarian, clearly. And there's nothing explicitly market-based in the current torture proposal we are kicking around. But I classify him as a marketeer because he's supported a variety of market-based solutions (futures markets, health care, etc) in the past. There's nothing at all wrong with that! An undogmatic support for market-based systems is OK with me. Some libertarians make a fetish of the market, and those are the ones I classify as stupid, but Robin is not one of those. He's worked on and promoted some great ideas, and I have enormous respect for that (in fact, I implemented one of the things he has promoted). So it pains me to see him go in a direction that seems so obviously wrong, and doing it by means of frankly stupid arguments.

Nonetheless, I see a link between market-based thinking and the torture proposal. It's this: the idea that human suffering is some kind of tradeable commodity, that one kind can be exchanged for another based on some mythical calculus of pain. The most plausible version of the torture proposal is that we give, for example, a convicted burglar the choice of five years in jail or five weeks of torture. One of the brave writers at Overcoming Bias, who values his time, say of course they'd pick the five weeks "as long as it didn't do permanent physical or psychological damage". There are so many things wrong with this it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, until you have actually been tortured you have no way of knowing how much disutility it's worth to you. For another of course torture leaves permanent damage! The underlying assumption is that torture is like some kind of scary rollercoaster ride at Great America -- disturbing for a while, but then it's over. Try reading about actual torture victims sometime. For another, the the damage caused by torture is not limited to the victim, but includes a pervasive corruption of the entire social order.

So this proposal is entirely disconnected from reality and doesn't even work well on the abstract level. What's going wrong with people's thinking? I believe that the underlying bug is a tendency towards overabstraction. The essence of markets, and market-based thinking, is abstraction. From the overwhelming complexity of the world, we distill everything into a commodity that can be bought, sold, or exchanged for something else. This works just fine for some things -- soybeans, electronic components, etc. It doesn't work so well for other things. Market-based thinking (and maybe utilitarianism) rests on the assumption that anything of any value, positive or negative, can be quantified and equivalently replaced by something else of the same value. It should be obvious that this isn't the case, since there are many things (honor, bodily integrity) that are by definition not for sale. But it's not obvious to some, and it leads them down ridiculous and dangerous pathways. When random net flamers do it, it's just amusing. But when important thinkers with tenure do it, it's positively alarming.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Another economics professor for state-sponsored torture

Robin Hanson may not be a libertarian, but he is a marketeer, which is the name I just invented for the broader category of people who generally favor market-based solutions wherever possible. He's definitely one of the smart ones, and generally non-dogmatic, so it pains me to see that he is making incredibly idiotic arguments in favor of torture. He actually tries to imply that the difference between torture and the ordinary kind of judicial punishment is no different than the difference between the left and right hand. It's rare to see an analogy that maladroit.

What the hell is wrong with these people?

This blog has been around for about two years now (I started it as a horrified reaction to the effects of Katrina), and hasn't yet found a coherent theme other than "stuff that happens to interest me". But it may be converging on "libertarians (ok, marketeers) are wack". Too bad the niche is taken.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Red Networks

I'm getting into it with economics professor James Miller, torture advocate, at Overcoming Bias. But poking around I found this delightful piece from four years ago:
Digital Communism
Cyberspace goes red.

By James D. Miller

By legalizing Internet file-trading tools, a California court handed a major victory to communism. The Internet allows the well-wired to take copyrighted material freely. Left unchecked, rampant copyright theft may soon destroy the for-profit production of movies, music and books and may usher in an age of digital communism....

The best hope to stop copyright piracy lies in stopping the distribution of peer-to-peer networks that facilitate such theft. By holding that these networks have no liability for inappropriate use of their tools the California court has reduced the value of digital property rights...Is it necessarily bad if piracy destroys intellectual property rights? After all, when everything is free we can live out Karl Marx's dream and have everyone take according to his needs.
Well, we all know what happened, don't we? The peer-to-peer networks won, capitalism collapsed, and we're all saluting giant pictures of Shawn Fanning while standing in line waiting for our weekly ration of bandwidth.

Wonder what he thinks of Open Source?

Freedom is Slavery

For awhile, I was dividing libertarians into two kinds. The first class were those that seemed basically much stupider than me, as evidenced by their reliance on rote recitation of stale arguments, an unwillingness to question their assumptions, and (in the extreme case) devotion to the cult of Ayn Rand. Most of the random libertarian flamers on the net fell into this categeory. Then there were the others, who actually seemed pretty smart, and certainly smarter than me at least in the area of economics. This category included a number of actual professors, cryptoanarchists, visionaries, and crackpot geniuses.

Sometimes these categories blurred a bit. For instance, I'm sure Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame is smarter than I am, and has the credentials to prove it. On the other hand, on the rare occasions I read the Freakonomics blog I find the exact sort of simpleminded market reductionism I used to hear from the cheeto-stained fingers of dorky computer geek libertarians. So. Also, this classification doesn't seem very useful to other people, who may rank above or below me in the smartness scale.

So I have a new dichotomization: there are the libertarians who actually seem interested in liberty, and those who seem more interested in something else. I'm not sure what that something else is, but it seems to lead them directly from libertarianism to being a Bush cheerleader, despite the manifest unlibertarianism of the current regime, or to something altogether more surprising, namely a fondness for unabashed authoritarianism in its theoretical form.

In blogland, the first category is represented by people like Jim Henley of Unqualifed Offerings and Radley Balko. These gentlemen are concerned with fighting for freedom in the current political reality, which means generally in opposition to the Bush regime. They might well be card-carrying ACLU members despite that organization's leftist tint.

On the other hand, we have people like the odious Glenn Reynolds, most prominent political blogger around, a self-described libertarian and in actuality a cheerleader for whatever moronic, dangerous, or illegal act the Bushies are up to. We also have Mencius Moldbug, who has thoughtso far beyond the usual libertarian platitudes that he's arrived at some mix of monarchism, colonialism, and the sort of quasi-capitalist authoritarianism practiced in Singapore and China, two nations which win his approval. We've also got a free-marketeer economics prof (not sure if he's actually a libertarian, but close enough) who blandly advocates for torture as a cost-effective means of punishment. The dean of loud-mouthed stupid libertarians has been an equally loud-mouthed supporter of the criminal and criminally stupid invasion of Iraq. Apparently libertarianism is perfectly compatible with imperialism:
Witness the fact that I, a radical libertarian anarchist for more than twenty years, find myself arguing for a position not all that easy to distinguish from reactionary military expansionism.
Uh-huh. Raymond blusters over his contradictions, whereas Moldbug at least seizes the bull by the horns and honestly embraces authoritarianism.

I am, or used to be, interested in the psychology of libertarianism. It seemed to be a deeply geeky ideology, fueled by a desire to replace the complex and scary real world with a simple distributed algorithm. From that perspective, a slide from libertarianism to authoritarianism makes sense, because a strong authority is another way of making the complex conflicts of the real world go away.

[Update: oddly enough, this posting has been linked to by one of its victims, resulting in an influx of readers far past the usual single digits. If I knew that would happen, I probably would have written it more carefully. In particular, a lot of people I label "libertarians" wouldn't call themselves that. But they are market-oriented thinkers, which puts them in roughly the same basket as far as I'm concerned.]

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Great. On a day in which the Bush administration succeeds in convicting a man they've held incommunicado and tortured for years, on a day in which government restrictions on domestic satellite surveillance are being lifted, on a day when a group linked to the Bush administration has been found to have been promoting the idea that Bush should be named president-for-life -- what better task does a leading libertarian intellectual (Nick Szabo) have to do than to suggest that Hillary Clinton's I-care-for-you-deeply routine makes her the equivalent of Kim Jong Il?

I am continually amazed by the way in which so many libertarians combine a generally high intelligence with political acumen that would disgrace a retarded chimp. What the hell is wrong with these people?

I'm no fan of Hillary's, but every time I see one of these lame-brained attacks from the right (and in this case the libertarians are just mining the same psycho paranoia as the mainstream right) her stock goes up a notch.

[BTW, this was originally a comment on the blog post. But, in a true proprietarian libertarian fashion, Szabo hasn't seen fit to let my comment get past moderation, I am interpreting censorship as damage and routing around it.]

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Moldbug Variations

My recent fascination with the work of Mencius Moldbug has drawn me into the world of right-wing intellectuals. Not the shameless neoconservative Bush shills, but people with actual ideas, albeit scary ones. Dark thinkers, who are not afraid to dig up and poke at the weak foundations of the Enlightenment. Where they want to go with this, I'm not sure. They seem to have a fondness for The Old Days, including colonialism (much more well-ordered than the current third-world mess), monarchy, and empire. They verge close to racism and the dark proto-facism of de Maistre.

Still, it's a fascinating world. I've learned about interesting people like Australian philosopher David Stove, who wrote a great piece demolishing most of philosophy but doesn't believe in evolution. I suppose he exemplifies, in a somewhat different way, the mixture of deep insight and utter wrongheadedness of this new world. Then the right-wing blogs of course have a way of finding and publicizing the worst of the "left", including the wonderful Stalin Society.

I'm in heaven, because at my age I don't find anything new to interest me very often.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

And I thought I had a bad reaction to libertarians

Here's Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
When I recently had drinks and cheese with Stephen Dubner (I ate 100% of the cheese), he asked me why economics bothers me so much as a discipline, to the point of causing allergic reactions when I encounter some academic economists. Indeed, my allergy can be physical: recently, on a British Airways flight place between London and Zurich, I found myself seated across the aisle from an Ivy League international economist dressed in a blue blazer and reading the Financial Times. I asked to be moved and preferred a downgrade, just to breathe the unpolluted air of economy class. My destination was a retreat in the Swiss mountains, in a setting similar to that of Mann’s Magic Mountain, and I wanted nothing to offend my sensibility.
I'll have to read the guy's book now...sounds like my kind of elitist snob.

Note: for my purposes, libertarian == "computer geek who fancies himself an amateur economist who spends his time playing World of Warcraft and posting to newsgroups". Somewhat more honorable than the blue-blazered first-class flying type, actually.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


From the World's Stupidest Editorial Page comes this argument that we should all just shut up and line up behind Dear Leader:
But as someone who escaped from communist Romania--with two death sentences on his head--in order to become a citizen of this great country, I have a hard time understanding why some of our top political leaders can dare in a time of war to call our commander in chief a "liar," a "deceiver" and a "fraud."

They can because this isn't communist Romania, you pompous twit.

Unfortunately, partisans today have taken a page from the old Soviet playbook...Sowing the seeds of anti-Americanism by discrediting the American president was one of the main tasks of the Soviet-bloc intelligence community ... This same strategy is at work today, but it is regarded as bad manners to point out the Soviet parallels.

No, it's regarded as fucking moronic.
For once, the communists got it right. It is America's leader that counts. Let's return to the traditions of presidents who accepted nothing short of unconditional surrender from our deadly enemies.
So -- in time of war, we aren't allowed to criticize the president who is the veritable incarnation of America's strength. To do so is tantamount to treason. We are at war against "terror", that is, we're in a war that can never end, so basically we aren't allowed any criticism of the president ever.

Pacepa should have stayed in Romania, he's obviously learned his lessons well there. "The communists got it right", indeed.

This is related, loosely, to the dynamics of conflict, forcing side-choosing, hardending of the boundaries. There is not a good term for this, which is a pity, since it seems to be at the root of war and many other social dynamics.

I recently had a long chat with Mencius Moldbug, an interestingly crazy libertarian whose goal is (roughly), to eliminate politics (because it leads to violence and war) and replace it with contracts, ownership, and law. I think this is largely misguided, but I'm partly sympathetic. Politics is unpleasant, it kills the mind, it forces people to conform to group norms so is hostile to the individual, it leads to violence. But I don't think you can get rid of it.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Scenes from Modernity

Trying to explain to an eight-year-old that his aunt is going to have twin babies, but despite the fact that she's near 45 the eggs were only 22 years old, because the doctor takes eggs from a donor mommy and puts them and the daddy's sperm in a glass dish, then puts the embryos into the mommy a few days later, so the babies will have two different mommies as well as a daddy.

Come to think of it, IVF does bypass the traditional embarrassing moment of explaining this stuff to children. Yet another benefit of advanced technology.