September 10, 2004 6:30 PM

Anti-Bush sentiments from around the net

Doug Bandow of Cato on Why conservatives must not vote for Bush.
William Saletan in Slate on why the worst defense is a bad offense.
The Financial Times Editorial Board say that it is time to consider withdrawal from Iraq.

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September 10, 2004 12:49 PM

Dreams vs. Reality

Often, people propose that the government "do something" about a particular problem. They describe some sort of plan, and they claim that, properly executed, the plan will produce the results that they want.

What they ignore, however, is that it is rarely the case that a plan can be executed precisely as envisioned.

Chess players and computer security professionals learn a hard lesson early in their careers: you must assume that your adversary will behave intelligently, not that he will behave stupidly. You must judge your plans not against what your wildest dreams, but against what will happen if a smart opponent attempts to thwart your actions.

Similarly, when judging the proposal that the government undertake some action, one must consider what will happen if real-world bureaucrats, not saintly geniuses, execute the plan, and what will happen if an array of real world forces interfere with it.

For example, consider the dream a number of neo-conservatives had when they dreamed up the idea that a strong U.S. should re-shape the Middle East by invading selected countries and imposing democracy by force majeur. (This isn't a conspiracy theory — the idea was written about in public even before the 2000 elections.)

Now, it is all fine and well to daydream about our military might sweeping aside dictatorships without loss of life, and of crowds of cheering people, freed of decades of tyranny, greeting us with bouquets of flowers in the streets, and immediately setting up Western style democracies.

However, in the real world, we have a military that is not run or staffed exclusively by saintly geniuses. Opponents are also unlikely to cooperate with our plans — they will seek the most effective possible means to thwart us, and sometimes, they'll be able to find such strategies.

We must therefore not judge plans against our hopes and dreams, but against what is likely to happen in the real world. Indeed, the prudent planner judges a plan not only against the best case scenario but against a worst case scenario, because sometimes the worst case, not the best case, is what happens.

When examining a proposed government action, we must be especially skeptical, since there is no mechanism that will act as a check on poor performance. In the free market, companies that fail to meet their customer's needs go bankrupt, but governments are funded by taxation and have no such limitation. A CEO can claim in public all he likes that he was not responsible for "unforeseen circumstances" but pleading will not save his company from dissolution. If, however, a military commander's mistakes result in massive deaths, or if a bureaucrat's mistakes result in vast waste and the failure of a program, it is unlikely that they will be punished or that their work will be terminated. Instead, if they argue well, they might even get additional resources committed. In the commercial world, the best run organizations get more resources with time, and the worst run disappear. In government, the most politically astute organizations get more resources with time, and often especially if they have failed at their missions, while the best run organizations have no particular mechanism that rewards them or increases their scope.

This is the reason that you rarely wait for long on line at the supermarket, and it usually has what you want in stock. This is also the reason that you can wait interminably at the DMV or a similar government office, only to be told that you have to come back with additional forms the next day.

The next time someone says to you "wouldn't it be great if the government enacted my pet idea...", ask yourself what would happen in the real world if the government attempted to execute "the perfect plan", and not what would happen in the word of one's fondest dreams. In the end, the government will not do you want; it will instead do what the political process permits.

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September 09, 2004 11:56 PM

Mises Blog Entry on Liberty and War

The Mises Economics Blog has a great post on the subject of war and liberty. It is a series of extended quotations from an essay on the subject by F.A. Harper, the founder of IHS. It is long, but I recommend giving it a read.

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September 09, 2004 5:55 PM

Michael Crichton Talks Sense

I had generally assumed that Michael Crichton was just the author of some sensationalist novels (including a recent one called "Prey" that does for nanotechnology a bit of what "Little Shop of Horrors" did for dentistry). It turns out, though, that he's got some interesting opinions:

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?

I suggest reading the whole speech, which is about the environmental movement. I can't agree with all of it, and I spotted some factual errors, but overall, I found it refreshing.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

September 09, 2004 12:46 PM

Aliens Redux

A while back, I posted an entry called "Statistics and Aliens" where I claimed that the Drake Equation, a famous way of estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, may be wrong because it assumes statistical independence. I also noted that the possibility that we would be able to intercept the internal communications of other civilizations seems remote to me because information theory dictates that the better the technology, the more noise-like a communication will seem.

I've now found an article in New Scientist from a few weeks ago in which Frank Drake himself notes that our own technologies are making us harder and harder for aliens to hear (and thus presumably their technologies might make it hard for us to hear them), though the article doesn't mention the same information theoretic grounds that I do.

Also, so far as I know, I've seen no one else who questions the assumption of statistical independence in the Drake equation, which seems strange. Is anyone aware of another source that mentions that problem?

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September 09, 2004 12:10 PM

N.H. has Highest Income, Lowest Poverty Rate

A newspaper article pointed out to me by my old friend Harry Hawk notes that New Hampshire has the highest median income and lowest poverty rate in the nation.

New Hampshire also has no income tax or state sales tax. This web page shows that it has a lower state tax burden than any other state in the country other than Alaska (and Alaska largely funds its state government by taxing oil production).


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September 09, 2004 11:04 AM

28th Anniversary of Mao's Death

On September 9, 1976, 28 years ago today, one of the most vicious mass murderers in human history, Mao Zedong, died of natural causes. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 65 million of his countrymen — a number that makes Adolf Hitler look like an amateur.

For details on the crimes of Mao and other 20th century Communist leaders, see "The Black Book of Communism", available at Amazon.

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September 08, 2004 11:37 PM

Bruce Sterling on The Singularity

Some years ago, Vernor Vinge came up with an interesting observation.

At some point in the next few decades, we're going to be able to build artificial intelligences that are comparable to human beings in intellectual power. Moore's Law being what it is, soon thereafter, we'll be able to build AIs that are smarter than people, and pretty soon after that, those AIs will be building yet further AIs that are far smarter than people, and so forth.

It is possible that before we learn how to build AIs, we'll first learn how to perform "intelligence amplification" or "IA", augmenting human brains with electronics or other mechanisms to produce intelligences that are better than human. Such amplified humans would be able to work on improving the amplification technologies, which may also lead to massively superhuman intelligences.

It is possible that the first superhuman intelligences will merely be faster versions of human intelligence implemented by simulating the human brain on a very fast hardware platform. Vinge calls this "weak" superhumanity, but it is still potentially quite impressive. K. Eric Drexler in his fantastic (but somewhat dated) book "Engines of Creation" (also available online), presents a mechanism for simulating a human brain, using a conservative nanotechnological design, that would run about a million times faster than a human brain. Such a being could perform a century's worth of engineering work in less than an hour. Presumably such minds might improve their own hardware designs with breathtaking speed. Drexler's design is a pure gedankenexperiment — no one is likely to ever build the precise construct he describes, but since it there is solid evidence that it could be built, it tells us that at least such a construct is possible, even if far better could be made.

Vinge notes that once there are intelligences that are substantially smarter than people, and which rapidly become smarter still, the world will rapidly change beyond all human comprehension. The limits of human intelligence will no longer be limit the speed of technological progress, and humans will no longer be the apex of our civilization.

Vinge wrote a famous essay some years ago on this topic, coining the term "The Singularity" for it. Once superhuman intelligence appears, our models of the future and our ability to predict what lies ahead get irreparably ruptured. No dog, however clever, will ever understand integral calculus, and it is equally unlikely that humans would understand the science and technologies of beings far smarter than we are. (Vinge's essay is very well written — I encourage people to give it a read.)

Vinge notes in his essay (as of 1993) that he would be surprised if such changes happened before 2005 or much later than 2030, but the dates are immaterial in my opinion. Whether such events happen in ten years or in a hundred years, the impact will be the same, and thirty years or a century are both a blink of an eye in the context of the whole of human history.

Do I believe Vinge? Very much so. Human intelligence is the result of physical processes taking place in the brain, and we will thus someday be able to simulate those processes with machines. We will likely also design machines that produce the same effect by different means, much as cars are not like horses but also provide transportation. To claim that we could never gain such abilities is to claim that human intelligence arises from a supernatural "soul" of some sort, and I see such overwhelming evidence against that claim that I cannot give it even passing credence. That which arises from a physical process we can eventually simulate and understand, and that which we can simulate and understand we can improve. Whether we enter the post-human era today, tomorrow or in two centuries is immaterial — it will happen eventually if we don't kill ourselves off first.

This brings us to the topic of Bruce Sterling.

Sterling has recently made vague attacks on Vinge's arguments in two public fora. One such attack was a speech he gave to the Long Now Foundation (available here). Today, I was pointed at an opinion piece in Wired with much the same content.

Here's an excerpt from the Wired essay:

A singularity looks great in special f/x, but is there any substance in the idea? When Vinge first posed the problem, he was concerned that the imminent eruption in artificial intelligence would lead to ubermenschen of unfathomable mental agility. More than a decade later, we still can't say with any precision what intelligence is, much less how to build it. If you fail to define your terms, it is easy to divide by zero and predict infinite exponential evolution. Sure, computers might someday awaken into something resembling human consciousness, but we have no metrics to describe that awakening and thus no objective way to recognize it if it happens. How would you test a claim like that?

Sterling misrepresents Vinge's essay on the singularity completely. Vinge made no claims to understand intelligence, but his argument does not require that we understand it precisely. Vinge never claimed that such breakthroughs would have happened by now, and his argument in no way requires a particular timetable. He made no claims about "infinite exponential evolution", either.

"Consciousness" is also a red herring. Asking "how would you test a claim like that" is clearly the wrong question to ask — Vinge's claim is not about "consciousness" and there is no need to test the "consciousness" of the superhuman intelligences. We will know if they are more intelligent than us by their actions, such as building constructs we cannot understand, and whether they are "conscious" or not is immaterial to the argument.

Sterling's tone throughout is laden with indirection. He doesn't ever come out and say "I think the Singularity is implausible for the following reasons" — much like astrologers or the Oracle of Delphi, he avoids making specific claims and thus can't be found to be obviously wrong.

The comments he does make, though, seem stunningly off the mark:

Even if machines remain inert and dumb, we still might provoke a singularity by giving humans a superboost. This notion is catnip for the techno-intelligentsia: "Wow, if we brainy geeks were even more like we already are, we'd be godlike!" Check out the biographies of real-life geniuses, though - Newton, Goethe, da Vinci, Einstein - and you find vulnerable mortals who have difficulty maintaining focus. If the world were full of da Vincis, we'd all be quarrelsome, gay, left-handed Italians who couldn't finish a painting.

Glib, but I hardly see what it has to do with Vinge's argument at all. Either minds are a physical phenomenon, and gedankenexperiments such as Drexler's point to ways that we might produce faster (and possibly "better") minds than our own, or they aren't physical phenomena and cannot be understood or simulated. Perhaps Sterling claims the mind does not arise from a physical phenomenon, though that would seem to be solidly contradicted by the science of our day. Perhaps he believes artificial intelligence research is forever doomed to fail even if the mind arises from physical phenomena, though I see little reason to assume that either. Perhaps he truly believes that all superhuman intelligences would be crippled by Attention Deficit Disorder, but that is a pretty implausible claim, and he certainly gives no evidence for it. Perhaps he finds the idea of people exploring this avenue of research distasteful or perhaps he hates smart people (the "brainy geeks" comment seemed a bit anti-intellectual), but any such distaste doesn't appear to have any relevance to whether Vinge is right or not.

Unfortunately, Sterling makes no arguments in any of these directions. He merely insinuates. Since he's fairly non-specific about what it is that he's claiming, one can't be completely sure of what it is that he believes.

What Sterling lacks in specificity, however, he makes up for in irrelevant and fairly bizarre side commentary, such as this:

More likely yet, we live in a dull, self-satisfied, squalid eddy in history, blundering around with no concept of progress and no sense of direction. We have no idea what we really want from our own lives or from society. And no Moore's law rising majestically on any 2-D graph is ever going make us magnificent or spiritual when we lack the will, vision, and appetite for spiritual magnificence.

None of this, of course, in any way intersects with Vinge's arguments in the slightest. It is a complete non-sequitur.

In spite of the fact that Sterling's final paragraphs are in no way relevant to his claims about the ides of the Singularity, I still must take issue with them. I don't see our society making "no progress" or being particularly "squalid". Frankly, it is amazing how much we've done even in the last couple of decades to reduce poverty, disease and other human ills. Virtually any objective measure one chooses to pick, from life expectancy among the poorest 20% of the population to the number of people living without indoor plumbing, will show that pretty clearly.

I also have to admit that I have no particular desire in my life for the "spiritual". If by "spiritual" he means religion, I have no belief in the supernatural, and no desire to see society waste more of its time on such flim-flam. If by "spiritual" he means not enough people share his particular tastes for art or architecture, well, a person who truly appreciates human freedom does not deny others the right to their own taste.

Of course, as I've noted, since Sterling is extremely vague, it is hard to know what he means with any precision. What I can say, though, is that he appears to have failed to make a coherent case against the idea of the Singularity.

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September 07, 2004 3:00 PM

Aging and Reliability Theory

Allan Schiffman's blog also has an entry describing a very interesting article in IEEE spectrum about aging. The article analyzes the aging process in terms of the discipline of reliability engineering, which is an interesting new approach. See Allan's blog or the article itself for details. A more detailed paper is available here.

I'm pleased to see that the problem of preventing aging is finally beginning to get serious attention from a variety of researchers, and that it is even being discussed in mainstream technical and scientific publications.

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September 07, 2004 2:27 PM

Is Iraq like Vietnam?

Allan Schiffman asks, in a very short but well written piece, if Iraq isn't Vietnam all over again.

In other news, CNN Reports:

There have been 1,126 coalition deaths, 999 Americans, 65 Britons, six Bulgarians, one Dane, two Dutch, one Estonian, one Hungarian, 19 Italians, one Latvian, 10 Poles, one Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and eight Ukrainians, in the war in Iraq as of September 7, 2004

That means that very soon, some lucky bastard will be the 1,000th U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq. This is likely to happen within the next 24 hours.

Will the media notice?

[NB: The link to CNN above is updated periodically with the casualty count, so it may have higher numbers than the ones mentioned by the time you click on it.]

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September 07, 2004 1:52 PM

Is the Placebo Effect a Myth?

The Gene Expression blog recently reminded me of a study done a few years ago that debunks the placebo effect. I'm pretty surprised that it hasn't gotten more attention, especially since it has a lot of implications for the question of whether the mind can have significant impacts on the health of the body. I similarly note a study announced a couple of months ago that debunks the notion that elderly people can delay their own deaths until after major holidays.

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September 07, 2004 1:22 PM

The Machinery of Freedom

Many years ago, I loaned my copy of "The Machinery of Freedom" by David Friedman to a friend who never returned it. Recently, I re-purchased it, and over this past weekend, while I was vacationing in the countryside, I re-read it for the first time in about 15 years.

I had forgotten how wonderful it is. It is one of the most important texts on libertarianism out there.

"The Machinery of Freedom" is structured as a series of short essays, all discussing a small part of the overall picture. Each is a small jewel. The essays are not academically rigorous — Friedman claims that such a style tends to interfere with coherent presentation of an argument, and I think he's correct. What the essays lack in academic depth, however, they make up for in clear argumentation and grand vision.

As I re-read each essay, I was stunned by how closely the ideas corresponded to my own world view. I kept wondering if I had held these opinions before reading the book, or if I had so thoroughly assimilated them years ago that I could no longer distinguish their origin. I suspect the latter. Although I was a libertarian before reading "The Machinery of Freedom", it is obvious that it profoundly effected my thinking. My belief that the state is likely superfluous certainly originated with Friedman's arguments.

Although David Friedman professes to feel that libertarianism is superior morally as well as pragmatically, he takes a pragmatic/utilitarian approach throughout on the basis that such arguments are more convincing than moral arguments. The result may have been a stronger one than he had intended — many of his disciples, such as myself, have long since ceased to make the argument for libertarianism on any sort of moral terms at all. Perhaps someday Friedman will write a book on moral philosophy and reverse the unintentional effect he has had on so many of us.

I've started reading Friedman's newer book "Law's Order", a text on the economic analysis of law. I may review it here in the next few weeks.

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September 01, 2004 10:28 PM

R.A.W. doings

A couple of my friends have recently re-discovered the brilliantly surreal Illuminatus Trilogy, co-written by Discordian Robert Anton Wilson. One of them even wore a Sacred Chao shirt to last Sunday's anti-Bush march in New York City.

This lead me to poke around on the net a bit after R.A.W.'s latest doings.

He has his own web site these days, which is a bit of a mixed bag. However, it links to the web site for his Guns and Dope Party, which among other things advocates replacement of 1/3rd of the U.S. Congress with ostriches. So far, I agree vigorously with the whole of their platform. I give them a thumbs up.

R.A.W. also has a Cafe Press shop where you can buy such wondrous swag as the "Hannibal Lecter for White House Physician" baseball hat.

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September 01, 2004 7:20 PM

Last Sunday's Protests

This entry is a description of how I spent the August 29 protest, plus a bit of an update on the protests in general. It is pretty boring if I do say so myself. Normally I avoid the "what I ate for lunch" sort of blog entry, but I thought I might want to keep a record of this.

My friends and I started out with breakfast in the East Village at 9am, after which we joined a feeder march going to the main protest at 10am. We joined the main march at about noon, at which point the streets on the West Side were already so clogged that no forward progress was possible. It is unclear how many people were part of the protest — it was certainly in the hundreds of thousands, but no one ever seems to use accurate methods of crowd counting to determine the real numbers. The claims range from 150,000 to 500,000.

The biggest problem of the day was the heat — everyone was baking in the sun, and bottled water was sweating out of people nearly as fast as they could drink it. The fact that the march was barely moving and that the only breezes were stirred by police helicopters did not help. We moved very, very slowly up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden, and then turned right onto 34th street at about 3:30. My group of friends decided that we were not interested in being herded like cattle downtown, so we took the subway up to Central Park and joined the "unauthorized" protest there.

The park was great fun. It was filled with thousands of people peacefully enjoying a Sunday afternoon. The libertarians were out there (as I have noted, I met the LP Presidential candidate briefly and thanked him for running), as were lots of other groups.

The Billionaires for Bush were out in force at the park, looking incredibly well dressed as always. This has been a big week for them, including their Million Billionaires March, their Vigil for Corporate Welfare, and a Coronation Ball. I don't agree with all of their politics beyond disliking Bush — they're fairly standard Democrats — but I wholeheartedly admire their tactics. There are few groups I've seen in some time who get across a message with better humor and verve than they do. The evening wear, the shouts of "four more wars!", and the buttons (which all claim in small print to be produced with sweat shop labor) are terrific street theater. It is a great shame that libertarians rarely achieve the levels of zest and fun that folks like the Bs for B have.

My group finally left the park and got dinner on the Upper West Side around 7pm, and I got home, showered and collapsed well before 9. I was so wiped out that I slept for eleven hours.

Throughout the day's activities, we were shadowed by police helicopters and a police blimp. (Yes, a blimp, equipped with surveillance cameras with high powered lenses.) We were also surrounded by huge numbers of police at every turn. However, for the most part, everything Sunday was about as peaceful as you could imagine. There was one point where a paper Chinese Dragon was lit on fire near us, but other than that, no evidence of anything untoward.

On Friday, though, the police arrested bicycle borne protesters by the hundreds. On Sunday, they arrested a lot of the gays who held kiss-ins in front of theaters where the delegates were seeing shows — reportedly the pretext was "obstructing the sidewalks" but it seemed pretty lame as excuses go. They also arrested a lot of folks on Tuesday. The claim is that they've now well exceeded the numbers detained at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The police have been pretty low on violence as these things go, but they haven't been overly friendly, either. They've apparently been using a considerable amount of trickery as part of their crowd control arsenal. It seems one common tactic has been to "agree" to let people march along certain routes and then to arrest them when, obeying "instructions", they violated the law. Another trick which was apparently used with cyclists on Sunday was to force them the wrong way up a one-way street and then to arrest them for riding against traffic. I suppose this is all yet more evidence for what every citizen should already know — the police can and will lie to you if it suits them.

The police have also apparently been detaining people not in the usual city jail facilities, but in a semi-converted pier on the West side. Reputedly the floor in the holding area is covered in dirt and motor oil and there aren't any places to sit or lie down. Some arrestees have been detained for periods of 24 to 36 hours before being booked and released, which is pretty unusual, especially considering that they're all being held for the most minor offenses. There is speculation that this is part of the police tactics, but of course there is no way to actually know.

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September 01, 2004 6:43 PM

Another reminder of how good things are...

There's a pretty good entry over at Cafe Hayek that points out, quite poignantly, that the division of labor has improved the material conditions we live under beyond all recognition.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

August 29, 2004 9:01 PM

A Day of Protest

I spent today in New York protesting the Bush administration's policies, along with several hundred thousand other people. The big event was a march up 7th Avenue past the convention site, but later we went to an "unauthorized" protest in Central Park, where I got a picture of myself shaking hands with the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate Michael Badnarik.

I took a couple hundred pictures today, some of them moderately interesting, but I'm so worn out I can't stay awake any longer (and it is only 8:45pm), so I'll blog more extensively about these events tomorrow.

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August 28, 2004 10:01 PM

Welcome, Samizdatistas and Friends

A thread has started over at Samizdata about my recent entries on foreign policy and national defense from a libertarian perspective. I welcome the opportunity to explore these issues further.

A few quick notes about some of the responses I received:

First, one gentleman over at Samizdata with the handle "veryretired" referred to my views as "pacifist". This is far from the case. I am not a pacifist. I believe it is fine to stop and punish malefactors with the use of force. He may note that I spoke favorably of the deterrent effects of heavily armed militias and nuclear arsenals — I suspect most pacifists would not be willing to call me one of their own.

However, although I am not a pacifist, I am indeed a libertarian, and as a libertarian, I believe that governments, if they should exist at all, should limit themselves to enforcing contracts and defending the citizenry from violence. Since I see no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was a threat to the United States or United Kingdom, I do not see a case for involvement by the governments of the U.S. or U.K.

Arguably, the situation in Afghanistan was different since the Afghanis were harboring a hostile force that had used violence repeatedly against U.S. targets. (Note I say "arguably" — the Afghani situation is quite complicated.)

Now, "veryretired" might then ask what is to be done about third world dictators if large foreign countries will not overthrow them. I will not spend much time here on noting how often the U.S. and U.K. have created third world dictatorships to suit their agenda in "the great game" — I've already done that in an earlier post, and it could easily be argued that at least a few of the dictatorships in existence in the third world are not the product of Western meddling. One must then answer how the poor inhabitants of the small number of remaining dictatorships could be helped.

As I have said, I do not feel that individuals are in any way constrained the way governments are. In a libertarian society, individuals are free to contribute their own resources to charitable causes even if governments are not. If "veryretired" is strongly concerned about the problem of tin-pot dictators, he may undertake personal actions towards eliminating them. He is, naturally, free to recruit others to join him, and to solicit their funds. What he cannot do, however, is to use the force of the state to compel others to contribute their hard earned money to your good cause.

"veryretired" also refers to my position as "amoral", presumably because I do not wish to use the forcible taxation power of the state to pay for the good cause of his choice. However, if "veryretired" claims to be a libertarian, presumably he does not see anything amoral in the state refusing to fund homes for the poor, public art, space exploration and numerous other "good causes". Why is this cause fundamentally different? Certainly people die because of third world dictatorships, but they also die for lack of medical care, and no libertarian would argue the state should provide for that. (If "veryretired" meant that I was being amoral in some different fashion, I welcome his clarification.)

"veryretired" also asks:

When would Metzger have had the US adopt a Swiss foreign policy? Give us a date, and examine honestly the conditions in the world and the likely consequences. I would very much like to see some specifics instead of all the airy theorizing that usually goes on about this subject.
The date? Well, the U.S. did not exist before July 4, 1776, so presumably thereabouts would have been good if I had a magic wand and a time machine. Sadly I have neither.

The likely consequences of this? I would suspect that we would not, today, be worried terribly much about attacks on the United States, and our rate of economic growth would be substantially higher. Both of these would be in the direct interests of the citizenry of the U.S., which is, after all, the group to which the U.S. government is accountable.

In another comment on Samizdata, Andrew Ian Dodge wrote:

The trouble with the pacifist libertarian response to Saddam is that is ultimately suicidal. Saddam (or at least his secret service) had links with Islamic extremists. After all he paid a bounty to Palestinian "martyrs". I think it would have been a costly mistake to wait until someone supported by Saddam attacked the US.
Again, let me note that I am not a pacifist, but I am thoroughly unconvinced that Saddam Hussein was any sort of immediate threat to the United States. More to the point is that if the U.S. had maintained a policy of armed neutrality in the past rather than one of constant interference in the affairs of other nations, there would be very little incentive for anyone to attack us. One can argue that adopting such a policy now is dangerous, but isn't it more dangerous to keep on going as we have?

An old friend of mine, Tim Starr, wrote to mention to me that the Swiss have not been entirely free of terrorist incidents. For example, Palestinian terrorists attacked an El Al plane in Zurich in 1969, and some Swiss tourists were killed at Luxor in 1997. However, I don't think that the Swiss were, per se, the target of such attacks. In the former case, Switzerland was merely a convenient place to attack Israelis, and in the latter, it appears that the Swiss tourists were not targeted for their nationality but as part of a campaign to frighten away foreigners of all nationalities. There have been several other incidents involving Switzerland, but I can't find any evidence that in any of them Swiss nationals were targeted because of their nationality.

Christian Dreyer, in Switzerland, responded to me in this blog entry. I'm afraid that I don't per se understand his point. He notes that the Swiss adopted neutrality more from necessity than from desire, but that does not impact whether the policy has been a successful one. Similarly, he says it would be bad for the U.S. to "withdraw into its own shell", but he doesn't explain why this would be bad for the citizens of the U.S., and that is, after all, the meat of the question. Lastly he notes that Switzerland is becoming less neutral these days, but again, that does not in any way tell us whether armed neutrality is the superior stance.

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August 28, 2004 12:54 PM

What is the Role of the State?

As it turns out, I am not the sort who believes the State is a necessary institution at all. However, many libertarians do think that a minimal State is useful. (This is sometimes termed a "night watchman" State).

Turn your mind, for the moment, to the "state of nature", a philosophical construct that folks like Hobbes, Locke, and others considered in attempting to understand the proper role and form for governments. The "state of nature" is the world before laws, institutions or agreements of any sort.

Much of human activity is directed at producing and transforming resources for our use. We grow food to feed ourselves, and that takes work. We produce tools so that we can grow the food, and that also takes work. In the state of nature, each of us has to spend a substantial amount of our personal time guarding the resources we have developed. It is not enough to grow corn — one must also hold on to it long enough to eat it. However, spending one's time guarding one's resources means that one is not out producing more resources with that effort. Hobbes refers to this problem as the "war of all against all" — a situation in which no one can has security or can be productive.

Some thinkers argue that, since this situation is highly undesirable to everyone, people seek a way to correct it. We develop, implicitly or explicitly, a minimal social contract with our neighbors. This social contract is a simple truce: I give up on trying to steal the things you make, in exchange for your doing the same. I will not do violence to you so long as you do not do it to me. I will respect my agreements with you so long as you respect them as well. This truce allows us to halt the Hobbesian "war of all against all". Thus assured of personal safety for ourselves and our chattels, we can engage in commerce and the division of labor, resulting in a better life for everyone participating in the armistice. Those that violate the truce by engaging in violence or theft have little reason to complain about our treatment of them, because it is no different from what they have done to others.

The minimal State, then, is an arrangement to enforce this very basic social contract. It enforces agreements among the participants in the State (who we sometimes call citizens), defends them and their property, and does nothing more. (I would argue that it is possible to perform these activities without a State, but that is another discussion entirely.)

You might want to take note of the interconnection between purpose and action in the minimal State. The minimal State does not, for instance, build art museums, because it does not exist to promote art but to enforce agreements and provide mutual defense. In order to build an art museum, the State would need to acquire the resources with which to build it. If people are willing to donate those resources freely, there is no need for the State to build the museum — it could be built privately. If people are not willing to donate the resources freely, then the act of forcibly taking the needed resources turns the purpose of the minimal State on its head &mdash instead of enforcing the decision by the participants to respect each other's lives and property so that their own lives and property will be respected, the State then becomes an agent for some to abscond with the property of others. I may think it is a good idea to build a home for orphans, but if I take your resources against your will to do it, whether I'm an official of the State or a private citizen, I have violated the truce. To obey the truce, I must convince you to voluntarily provide resources for my goals, whether by trading with you or appealing to your charitable instincts.

In short, if the justification of the minimal State is that it exists, at the behest of a collection of sovereign individuals, to enforce a mutually beneficial truce among those who choose to participate in it, and to organize mutual defense against those who choose not to participate by violating the truce, then that justification does not reasonably permit the expropriation of resources for the purpose of projects that are merely laudable.

Note that this view of the minimal State cannot provide a justification for initiating warfare in distant lands which are not a threat its citizens' safety, regardless of how laudable it might be to re-arrange the social structures of those foreign places to suit enlightened tastes. However, by the same token, neither position prevents individuals from engaging in such activities on their own, at their own risk and with their own resources.

The view that I've just described is the so-called "minarchist" libertarian position. Note that it is not, in principle, very different than the anarcho-capitalist position that some libertarians take. The distinction is merely that the minarchists feel that a night watchman State is required to enforce the truce, and the anarcho-capitalists believe that the same function can be provided without a monopoly enforcement mechanism. However, both otherwise have nearly identical positions.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 27, 2004 11:42 AM

New Jaw Grown on Patient's Back

The BBC reports on a man who had lost his jaw bone due to cancer. Doctors have grown him a new one:
After taking a 3D computer tomography (CT) scan of the patient's head, they used computer aided design to recreate the missing portion of the jaw-bone (mandible).

The design was used to construct a teflon model, which was then covered with a titanium cage.

The teflon was then removed, and the cage filled with bone mineral blocks, coated with bone marrow and a protein which accelerates bone growth.

They then implanted the scaffolding they had created under a muscle in the man's back, and waited. Bone grew into the scaffolding, which was then transplanted into the man's jaw. The transplant has "taken", and the patient is eating solid food again for the first time in years.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 26, 2004 6:06 PM

Transhumanism is Dangerous, says Francis Fukuyama

Reason Online reports:

"What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its September/October issue (not yet available online). One of the eight savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea? Transhumanism.

I'm amused to see that Transhumanism is being taken seriously enough to be denounced by the intellectual famous for telling us that we have reached the end of history. (Fukuyama's idea of the end of history is the liberal Western democracy. At least this is a more pleasant thought than that of Fukuyama's inspiration Hegel, who believed history ended with the 19th century Prussian state, or another philosopher inspired by Hegel, Karl Marx, who thought the end of history would be the dictatorship of the proletariat.)

For those not in the know, "Transhumanism" is the idea that it may be desirable for humans to transcend their current biological limitations by technological augmentation or transformation. We are all currently limited in our lifespans, and in our physical and intellectual abilities. The transhumanists ask, why be limited? We nearly have the ability to modify ourselves in wonderful new ways, ranging from biochemical modifications all the way up to uploading our consciousnesses into computers. Why not, they ask, be more than human?

I must confess that I, too, espouse this "dangerous idea". I think it would be very pleasant to have a better memory, more intellectual capacity, the ability to think more clearly, a longer (or unbounded) lifespan, etc., and I see very little wrong with taking steps in that direction.

If it offends some people who don't like the idea of changing themselves, well, they can remain as they are. Live and let live. The libertarian principle says everyone should get to live their lives in peace provided they let others do the same, and if they prefer to die after a mere 80 or 100 years, or to leave their minds at their current capacity, I have no objections — so long as they don't interfere with me peacefully pursuing life, liberty and happiness in my own way.

However, there are those out there who aren't happy about people thinking these kinds of thoughts. Fukuyama is hardly the only person worried about the strange doings in the technosphere. Bill Joy has made a bit of a name for himself spreading his own brand of technological alarmism, and there are numerous others.

Am I worried that these anti-technology maunderings will slow the rate of technological progress? Not really. Even if the majority adopts a radically luddite policy (and, in fact, especially if they do), those that disobey will gain a strong competitive advantage. There is therefore fairly strong economic (and by the same token, evolutionary) pressure towards disobedience of such a stricture. In a world with hundreds of countries, some people somewhere will do the sorts of research that the "civilized" deem inappropriate. If the civilized really forswear the same technologies, they won't have the tools with which to stop the "uncivilized" anyway — they'll be out-gunned. There is therefore a very strong reason to believe that, at best, luddism could only slow down technological progress for a while — it could not stop it.

More to the point, although people often fear change, I think that it would be very difficult for governments to organize to stop it very effectively. They would have to do things like banning scientific research, improvements in computer technology, and such. I don't think that is going to happen. Even with substantial negative attention brought to bear, it only took a few years between Dolly the Sheep and the first successful production of cloned human embryos in South Korea. I doubt other attempts to slow progress will be particularly more successful.

The transhumanist idea that Fukuyama worries about is already out there, and ideas cannot be unthought. The transformation of much of the human race will happen. The question now is only whether to join in, or to stay behind, frightened of the opportunities the future will bring.

[Thanks to Monica White for the pointer that inspired this.]

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology