Alzheimer’s and Herpes

There’s been a major breakthrough in the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. Every face-to-face friend I’ve told about this has found it fascinating, and one of my regulars has rightly suggested I should blog it. It seems many cases of Alzheimer’s may be due to brain infection by the herpes simplex Type I virus — the one that gives you cold sores. Researchers at the University of Manchester have found herpes-simplex DNA in the abnormal beta-amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The implications are huge.

First, this means that the etiology of Alzheimer’s is probably pretty simple. Herpes simplex type I is dirt-common — most people have asymptomatic infection by it in their peripheral nervous systems. When you get old and your immune system loses some oomph, the virus can cross the blood-brain barrier and start doing damage. The plaques seem to be the result of virus-induced cell death.

Second, this suggests a treatment strategy for people with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms — dose ‘em with antivirals. This might slow or stop the disease progression.

This result continues a trend. In recent years, several chronic diseases once thought to be much more complex and obscure have turned out to very likely be slow infections. Ulcers, congestive heart failure, and arthritis are among them. Control of infectious pathogens has been receding from the medical limelight since the victories over polio and tuberculosis in my childhood; for this, and other reasons (including the disturbing increase in antibiotic-resistent bacteria) it may now be poised for a comeback.

223 thoughts on “Alzheimer’s and Herpes

  1. One thing that strikes me about all this is how much we need a paradigm shift in the way medical and drug research is conducted. Right now, drug discovery takes place basically in this way (when the drug is to counteract a pathogen):

    1. Grow a culture of the pathogen
    2. Add some randomly chosen chemical to it
    3. If this doesn’t kill the pathogen, go to 1.

    Over time, researchers have tried to narrow the types of chemicals they use, and have used knowledge of the pathogen (such as its structure, or what worked on similar pathogens) to be more choosy as to the universe of chemicals chosen. However, it is not atypical to go through hundreds of thousands of chemicals in this process. In fact, often it is done in an automated factory.

    This is an approach based on a weakness of knowledge. It seems to me that what is needed is an engineering approach to drug design. That is to say, using many of the new molecular construction tools we have to design a drug for the pathogen. There have been some attempts in that direction, however, it seems to me that what would be a better approach would be to invest in the basic infrastructure (knowledge infrastructure) to how to design appropriate molecules rather than expending massive energy on solving lots of particular problems. Rather than coding everything in assembler (and millions of monkeys with typewriter assembler) or can we have some higher level “language” and a complier to build the drugs out of a description based on higher level abstractions?

    Of course there is some movement in that direction, but I feel we are at the point technologically where this is feasible.

    One thing I wanted to ask ESR though is this: how could we apply an open source approach to drug design? Many of the tools required are much more accessible, and many of the problems with drug design resemble the problems of big software companies (command an control in an inovative environment, secret silos of information to protect patents and prorietary rights, narrow vision.) Can we have a bazaar of drug design, or does the regulatory environment make it impossible?

  2. i was reading about this a couple of years ago, in an article looking at h. pylori (the ulcer bacteria) and the (then) new discovery of the bacteria that causes congestive heart failure. they were calling it “the new germ theory” then; i suppose the term now would be “germ theory 2.0″.

  3. >Can we have a bazaar of drug design, or does the regulatory environment make it impossible?

    I’m afraid that’s what I think. The reason Big Pharma is so big is that small companies can’t negotiate the legal and regulatory rat-maze. We’re paying a huge cost in preventable deaths for these regulations, but the cost is hidden because most of them look “natural”.

  4. Does anyone here know much about these tiny little germs? I remember reading about them a few years back, like they were a combination of a germ and a virus. Much smaller than conventional germs.

    A lot of things have lately been revealing themselves as infections. They always used to say that ulcers were caused by stress and spicy food. Now we know that it is a bacterial infection, and can be cleared up with antibiotics.

  5. Darrencardinal, might you be referring to prions? Nasty little things, those. A prion is responsible for BSE.

  6. >The reason Big Pharma is so big is that small companies can’t negotiate the legal and regulatory rat-maze.
    Would consumers be able to negotiate the rat-maze that a bazaar of small companies would form? Just look at the popularity of alternative “medicine”, faith healing, or the belief that just because something is natural, it is effective or safe. To put it bluntly, consumers are in the general case too stupid to know what is good for their bodies. Even doctors can be swayed by the pharma sales department.

    >We’re paying a huge cost in preventable deaths for these regulations.
    How do you know that the deaths caused by regulating good drugs exceed the deaths prevented from regulating bad drugs? The reason we regulate drugs is that a pharmaceutical company has the potential to cause far more damage (i.e. deaths) than its power to compensate for that damage (i.e. with relatively limited amounts of money). Since I’m not willing to just let consumers internalize the risks (since in most cases I won’t allow people to preventably die simply for being stupid), this is an externality. Coase’s theorem doesn’t apply, (we cannot enforce rights completely since a company cannot compensate victims more than it is worth) so government must step in.

  7. >Would consumers be able to negotiate the rat-maze that a bazaar of small companies would form?

    They seem to do fine in places where the FDA’s writ doesn’t run. Not all the world is the U.S, you know, nor has U.S.-equivalent regulatory barriers.

    >How do you know that the deaths caused by regulating good drugs exceed the deaths prevented from regulating bad drugs?

    Look up the history of beta blockers sometime. It is, at minimum, pretty suggestive.

    >(since in most cases I won’t allow people to preventably die simply for being stupid),

    So, you think we should have FDA-style regulation of food, too, eh? Thanks, I prefer a world in which bread and eggs don’t cost $500 a meal.

    There is, in any case, no way to prevent people from killing themselves with stupidity. It’s often been tried (think Prohibition) and never succeeded.

  8. How do American and non-American consumers differ?

    We do have regulation of food! But on a smaller scale, because food doesn’t pack the same potential harm punch in the same small package that drugs do.

    Yes, there are some people who will circumvent all regulation, as happened in Prohibition. But regulatory laws have a filtering effect: people who have expended the guilt costs to break the law and seek out experimental treatment are more likely to have done their due diligence. So I think the optimal outcome occurs when the regulations are just strong enough that those who are smart/angry/desperate enough to get the treatments they want reasonably safely, whereas it is too inconvenient for those that are not to do so.

  9. Robert Goldberg of Brandeis University and the Center for Medicine in the public interest claims that between 200,000 and 400,000 people could have been cured by drugs that the FDA had not approved but other major countries had (THA for Alzheimers, AZT for AIDS, beta blockers etc.)

    Cato is definitely a libertarian organ, so I don’t know if this number is correct, but it is certainly a large number whatever it is.

    Another thing that must be considered is that the FDA sends costs through the roof. For example, I was recently in hosptial for a minor ailment. I got talking politics with one of the nurses there. He showed me a 18 inch cathater, and told me it cost the hosptial $300. That is, a sterile, 18 inch rubber tube costing $300.

    Why can’t the hospital go to Home Depot, buy a 30 cent piece of rubber tubing, and boil it in hot water for ten minutes? Because the FDA won’t let them. (And on another topic, the insurance company pays, so nobody really cares about how much it costs.)

    High prices means by the laws of supply and demand, less supply. Less supply means less healthcare, which means more mortality and morbidity.

    For example, in the UK, they have a nationalized healthcare system. Because nobody, except the government pays, they have price controls on healthcare. Price controls means, as it always does, shortages and waiting lists. Waiting lists means extra mortality and morbidity.

    For example, from reports I have heard, in the UK 5% of people with operable colon cancer when they get on the waiting list, have degenerated sufficiently to be inoperable when they are off the list.

    A few people dying of heart attacks because they use certain pain killers is a big red line headline in the newspapers. Thousands dying or having their lives compromised by diseases that can’t be treated because of delayed drug approval, overly expensive medicines or the lost opportunity costs for developing new medicines, are simply a background noise that nobody in politics much cares about.

    God forbid the people who run the Post Office run the healthcare system.

  10. >So I think the optimal outcome occurs when the regulations are just strong enough that those who are smart/angry/desperate enough to get the treatments they want reasonably safely, whereas it is too inconvenient for those that are not to do so.

    In other words, it’s OK to have laws that deprive everyone of choices, because some people will be smart and motivated to break them. If enough of us become criminals the situation will be optimal.

    In related breaking news, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and we have never been at war with Oceania.

    Statists amaze me. Do you ever actually listen to the shit you talk, or is it just generated by political reflex without conscious intervention at any point, like duckspeak?

  11. The drug industry might be over-regulated, but I’m not eager to go back to the days of patent medicines. (The closest analogues are the people who make “supplements”, often of dubious quality and efficacy.) Not printing ingredients and food and medicine packaging can kill people.! In an ideal world, companies would gladly tell us what’s in their products. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be forthcoming with this information without being arm-twisted. How can consumers make informed decisions without product information?

  12. The part I’m uncertain about, as a libertarian, is how these laws and agencies were founded in the first place. It seems unlikely that The Jungle was complete fiction, and I’ve seen many examples of ‘patent medicines’ that were just a mixture of alcohol and opioids, sometimes with the added goodness of poisons. For that matter, homeopathic medicines, ‘herbal supplements’, and so on are ridiculously popular today – the main difference being the FDA requirements for accurate labeling and disallowing the purchase of the truly toxic stuff. I would like to believe that the market is sufficient to sort those out without government intervention, but, well, it hasn’t so far, and the FDA mostly has succeeded. Medicine doesn’t appear to be amenable to market forces for clearing out the junk compared to, say, the household goods market which keeps delivering cheaper, UL (not government) certified safe, longer lasting products that work better.

    I don’t see how the government intervention would be preventing improvement here, either – most of the survival of fads and junk seems to be a result of a combination of how people’s minds work when thinking about medicine, the placebo effect, and the fact that we don’t understand the body well enough for an engineering approach to work.

    It seems clear that the FDA has gone too restrictive lately, but we don’t appear to have the option of utopia either way. I’m not convinced that a world without the FDA would be better than the world with it. There’s clearly room for improvement, but it seems that it would be better to spend effort of FDA reform than to spend it on FDA abolition. No, we don’t see the lives lost by delaying approval of effective drugs, but we also don’t see the lives that would have been lost by Dr. Feelgood’s Patent Infant Remedy.

    Am I missing something? Why would markets work better at eliminating the pseudoscience now than they did back when the FDA was founded, or than they work in the ‘alternative medicine’ field? The closest I can come to a theory is that maybe the pseudoscientific approaches only work in those medical areas where there isn’t a conventional treatment, so the problem will go away once we know what we’re doing in medicine. Which in turn would seem to imply that we still need the FDA until medicine is a mature science, run by engineers, rather than groping in the dark by scientists.

  13. When I was in college one of the professors told us that it cost $100,000,000.00 to bring a drug to market. This was in 1992.

    It probably is closer to $500 million now. If you don’t have it, tough luck.

    How should the FDA regulate this stuff? They should at least have to list the ingredients on the bottle, without being totally heavy handed about it.
    I don’t think we want to go back to the days of a bottle of coke with real cocaine.

  14. OK, I will weaken my statement. I will say instead that just because some people will break a law does not mean that it is a bad law. If nearly everyone breaks a law, and it becomes socially accepted to do so, as in Prohibition, then of course it is a bad law. Some people will always break any law, but this is mitigated in the case of drug regulation by the fact that those people a) know where to look, b) have explored legal avenues, c) have sufficient reason to believe that the illegal experimental remedy is significantly better than those legal avenues, all of which make them more likely to know what they are doing and less likely to be harmed.

  15. In general, you don’t even need to have an illegal/legal distinction; you just need some way of influencing the choices of people who don’t really care either way (just like private advertisers do) and let really really angry people have it their way. It’s a safety valve. Take opt-out organ donation for example.

  16. The herpes simplex virus isn’t the only candidate for infectious causation of Alzheimer’s. As mentioned by others, some studies have implicated Lyme disease. Chlamydia pneumoniae is another suspect; one study of the brains of patients who died from Alzheimer’s found that germ co-located with plaques, and also found huge infectious loads, with about 20% of neurons being infected with it:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17052268

    Other studies have disagreed; but this one was unusually thorough, examining brain samples using a variety of different methods, as a cross-check on their work.

  17. >In general, you don’t even need to have an illegal/legal distinction; you just need some way of influencing the choices of people who don’t really care either way (just like private advertisers do) and let really really angry people have it their way.

    Dude, it’s called “insurance premiums”. The FDA could be replaced tomorrow by an analogue of Underwriter’s Laboratories with a huge net social benefit. I should probably blog about this.

  18. The longer I live the more amazed I am. We know so little and finding out things like this shows that. If this is true something we thought had complicated reasons is cause by something simple and most likely is very treatable. If we do not solve the problem of Alzheimer’s disease the baby boomers could well bankrupt society. This is good news in its way.

  19. The Jungle had nothing to do with this; it was about slaughterhouses. But yes, it was a complete fiction. Sinclair spent about a week “researching” it, and every sensational allegation it made was false. But it caused an outcry and gave the big slaughterhouses an excuse to demand federal regulation of their industry, that drove their smaller competitors out of business. That was a bad thing for the consumer.

  20. re alzheimers’n’virus: yeah, there’s a growing body of research suggesting strong links between various medical issues and external effect.

    in particular:
    autism seems strongly related to external attack. 100% of non-early-onset autistic brains studied in a relatively recent (2yrs) study showed whole-brain auto-immune response. this (a) is freaky for medical research: typically if you can show a 40% factor, you have made a medical breakthrough; (b) tallies scarily with the frequent experiences of kids having multi-strength vaccinations (such as the UK MMR innoculation) and in the next day or two becoming profoundly autistic with no previous symptoms.

  21. (autism is a broad umbrella of only-symptomatically-related outcomes.
    there is very strong evidence suggesting that early-onset autism/aspergers is related to _superior_ realworld ability, in sensory capability if nothing else.

    an intriguing implication, from overlaying this observation and that of the consequences of auto-immune cascades at key early stages of development, even bearing in mind the godawful mishmash of actual syndromes within the existing definition of “autism”, is that much of our social behaviour, presumably evolved-for in a predominantly social environment, is a relatively late evolutionary development overlaid on the preceding capabiliities.
    )

  22. “The reason Big Pharma is so big is that small companies can’t negotiate the legal and regulatory rat-maze.”

    Interesting. A few years ago I’ve read a very interesting article that I cannot find on the Net anymore, and it was kinda a thought experiment that how would software development looked like if it was subjected to the same rules as medicine research. Stuff like you spend 2 years re-licencing the whole thing every time you change the caption of a menu item etc. Does it ring a bell to anyone? If yes, is it accurate?

  23. “Not all the world is the U.S, you know, nor has U.S.-equivalent regulatory barriers. ”

    The rumour is that this is why China, who otherwise have quite a huge dictatorial-bureaucratic state, is getting ahead in medicine research – it seems this particular thing they are taking fairly easily from a regulatory point of view. Rumour is, they can even fix paralysis from a broken spine with stem cells, for about $30K.

  24. “For example, in the UK, they have a nationalized healthcare system. Because nobody, except the government pays, they have price controls on healthcare. Price controls means, as it always does, shortages and waiting lists. Waiting lists means extra mortality and morbidity.”

    Yes, and there are other problems. Quality is one – a friend of mine, a dental technician (who makes false teeth) when moved from Hungary to the UK was shocked to find out that dental technicians here don’t have to study it 3 years at a college but they pretty much train anyone on the job – and size and cost is another. Rumour is that the NHS is the second biggest employer of the world, after the Chinese army. Did not verify it myself though. But it’s a tell-tale sign of waste that I know lady whose job description is Bed Manager i.e. assigning beds to people.

    I know that many Americans are looking into other systems to copy as the current American system has its drawbacks, i.e. too expensive, though I believe cost has little to do with the payer and has much more to do with lawsuits but anyway, the point is DO NOT COPY THE NHS. A much more sensible system to copy would be the lately reformed Dutch one: http://healthcare-economist.com/2007/09/07/wsj-on-the-dutch-health-care-system/

    It sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? Sounds like a good compromise.

    And it’s even more interesting from a strategical point of view. The European welfare states were created as a compromise between Capitalism and Communism. But now, slowly and steadily, reforms are being made everywhere that aim for a new compromise, one between Capitalism and the previous Welfare State. So the new middle way sounds like something just 25% Socialist. I think I can live with that if these reforms persist…

  25. shenpen:
    • “big pharma…Stuff like you spend 2 years re-licencing the whole thing every time you change the caption of a menu item etc. Does it ring a bell to anyone?”
    spot on. you start to develop sympathy for the bigpharma co’s intermittent legal actions vs “generics” once you see just how onerous and how LENGTHY and how EXPENSIVE are the regulatory hoops they jump through to get that “generic” safe for market. they’ve put in all the hard work, and due to hte patent vs regulatory process, parasitic others can now “cherrypick” way before the patent process’s implied earn-back period. medicine deserves to be treated differently from ordinary inventions in the patent system.

    • “nhs”
    yeah. but the BIG problem is the anthropological effect on doctors’/etc’s attitudes. i’ve walked in with a broken nose (exhausted at end of 90min fullcontact session when i was 5yrs out of training, vs arabian who seized his opportunity to fuck me up, after i crippled myself (5yrs unfit!!) pulling a kick so his stupidity vs my attack wouldn’t put him in hospital: full-effort flying axe kick to the face seen at last minute through pain/psychological-disbelief-anyone-would-run-on-to-my-own-potentially-crippling-kick, slipped it but not fully) and had the doctor treat it as more important to WIN his argument with me that it wasn’t REALLY broken because it wasn’t swelling, than to fix it. (ended up having to rebreak/straighten it myself) and under the uk nhs, it’s illegal to see any doctor in the country except ONE. seriously. and he must be within a certain distance of your house, even if you spend your working day and 99% of your discretionary time 100 miles away. seriously: get sick/have a concern: you are UNABLE to see a doctor. unless and until you get lucky enough to get thru to registry nurse in the 15minute window b/w 9:00 and 9:15 in which they take appointments for the 14the day ahead. and then you have to take a full day off work.
    nhs is up one end of hte spectrum, usa is up the other. personally, i think the (origianl) australian version is the best middle way: pay a “reasonable skill and effort” amount for every treatment, individual doctors can choose to charge more (subject to whole-profession-effect monitoring) (previous time i broke my nose was in oz and the doctor did it for free because i was a student), individual patients can choose whichever doctor suits best their current optimum of treatment, cost, and timeliness.

    * dutch system
    the new dutch system as described in your linked article would appear to fail anyone who can not afford private insurance. same as usa. fortunately in holland they have about the most socialist Culture on earth, so very very few people are genuinely poor, and the very poor have access to genuine help-you-up support rather than continue-as-you-are dole — they pay about 50% more taxes than usa citizens but those taxes are not wasted — the result is a very liveable culture. the australian system was started in the same culture but explicitly allowed for it to change: everyone has a minimum level of care by virtue of being a citizen, regardless of whether they choose to pay extra for extra levels of care. and the way that minimum level of care is structured means that doctors are not primarily motivated to take the piss but instead still do provide the notional implied level of care.

  26. * i should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense. said political sense is mostly parasitic, and tends to tout the notional goals even as it destroys them in favour of personal social/status success for the new elite.

    lower-case-s socialism, not Socialism. just as left is not Left, is not faux-left. most Liberals, after all are more conservative than most Conservatives.
    “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”
    – William Buckley

  27. Eric: this is not a breakthrough. It is a possible breakthrough.

    Jessica Boxer: the problem with “engineering drugs” is that unlike other areas of engineering, drugs are intended to operate on systems of beyond-mind-boggling complexity, where most of the relationships are only partially understood and many are completely unknown.

    See In The Pipeline, the pblog of pharma chemist Derek Lowe:

    You’ll have this enzyme, you see, that phosphorylates another enzyme, which increases its activity. But that product of that second enzyme inhibits another enzyme that acts to activate the first one, and each of them also interacts with fourteen (or forty-three) others, some of which are only expressed under certain conditions that we don’t quite understand, or are localized in the cell in patterns that aren’t yet clear, and then someone discovers a completely new enzyme in the middle of the pathway that makes hash out of what we thought we knew about it.

    The environment in which a drug is expected to operate is also extremely complex and and jammed full of other activity which may be affected by the drug. Merely getting a drug into the right places in the target organism is often extremely difficult and many promising drugs have failed for want of that ability. Look up “pharmacokinesis”.

  28. >I should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense.

    Please don’t do that. You provide semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people when you do that.

  29. “It seems unlikely that The Jungle was complete fiction.”

    It seems to me that it’s very telling when people choose to support their version of this history from works of polemical fiction, rather than actual reports. What would you think of libertarians if they were reduced to leaning on _Atlas Shrugged_ as primary source material to support claims about effects of Depression-era economic policies of Western countries?

    For controversies which were substantially about moral standards rather than about facts on the ground, such as the controversies over chattel slavery in the 19th century and over various forms of totalitarianism with forced labor and exit controls in the 20th century, I do think it’s reasonable to treat influential fiction of the time as important primary source material. But even there, fiction is appropriate only to help understand attitudes; it is not an appropriate substitute for nonfiction evidence about facts on the ground. What would you think of libertarians’ criticisms of Communists if libertarians’ preferred factual evidence for facts on the ground was polemical fiction?

    Finally, consider that there was plenty of racist fiction around that time, reflecting and influencing attitudes which became Jim Crow laws, immigration restrictions, and so forth. Should we treat such fiction as usefully reliable evidence for the truth of facts on the ground which were supposed to justify such legislation? If not, why not?

  30. > i was reading about this a couple of years ago, in an article looking at h. pylori (the ulcer bacteria) and the (then) new discovery of the bacteria that causes congestive heart failure. they were calling it “the new germ theory” then; i suppose the term now would be “germ theory 2.0″.

    “A couple of years ago” isn’t long enough for “the new germ theory” to gain acceptance. It won’t be accepted without a few more big wins (congestive heart failure isn’t there yet) and even then won’t happen until after folks trained before said big wins have died off.

    Even under the best conditions, scientists are mostly feces flinging monkeys and medicine isn’t a best case.

  31. >>I should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense.

    > Please don’t do that. You provide semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people when you do that.

    Even the “notional sense of a community caring about others in the community” has been pretty toxic in practice.

    Curiously, the most workable example, 50s US, is pretty much hated by the folks who think that socialist in any sense is a good idea.

  32. > So, you think we should have FDA-style regulation of food, too, eh?

    Um, Food and Drug Administration.

    Thank you and goodnight.

  33. >>I should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense.

    >Please don’t do that. You provide semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people when you do that.

    Historically, “socialism” has meant control over production and distribution of goods and services, and that’s the operational definition I still use. Social safety nets paid for by progressive taxation do not necessarily meet this definition. F.A. Hayek believed that people should have a guaranteed minimum level of income and Milton Friedman advocated a negative income tax. Of course, these thinkers are considered consummate capitalists.

  34. >Um, Food and Drug Administration.

    That was the equivalent of a spelling flame. Only a cretin wouldn’t know what’s intended there.

  35. > That was the equivalent of a spelling flame. Only a cretin wouldn’t know what’s intended there.

    No, there was actually a serious point there, which is that food experiences not only FDA-style regulation but actual regulation by the FDA, and bread and eggs don’t in fact cost $500 a meal. I’m tempted to ask if you libertarians ever actually listen to the shit you talk, or if it’s just generated by political reflex without conscious intervention at any point.

    As to the actual point of your article, I asked a neuroscientist, and her reaction was (and I quote) “*snort* Well, it might not be bullshit, but I’d have to read the paper.” I’ll get back to you once she has. Alzheimer’s research is apparently an extremely big and extremely well-funded field.

  36. Saltation:
    > and under the UK NHS, it’s illegal to see any doctor in the country except ONE. Seriously. and he must be within a certain distance of your house, even if you spend your working day and 99% of your discretionary time 100 miles away. Seriously: get sick/have a concern: you are UNABLE to see a doctor.

    Um, citation? I’ve seen doctors in surgeries other than the one I’m registered to before now. And you can go to an Accident and Emergency department wherever you happen to be. You may have to wait for a few hours, granted. The booking-appointments problem is a great annoyance, you’re right: it appears to be a consequence of the Blair government’s obsession with reducing waiting lists at the expense of everything else. At my surgery, they open the appointment list for the afternoon at 11am, giving you a second chance to book an appointment: it’s probably worth checking if your surgery does something similar.

  37. > Social safety nets paid for by progressive taxation do not necessarily meet this definition [of socialism].

    It’s unclear why social safety nets can only be paid for by progressive taxation.

  38. On the subject of compromise health-care systems, the Singaporean system sounds most interesting to me – not least because it delivers better levels of public health than anything else.

    Saltation: the MMR/autism connection is bunk. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog (strongly recommended) is excellent on this topic, amongst much else.

  39. >It’s unclear why social safety nets can only be paid for by progressive taxation.

    I never said that. Most libertarians and conservatives define socialism as “progressive taxation”, regardless of whether the government gets involved in production or not.

  40. >No, there was actually a serious point there, which is that food experiences not only FDA-style regulation but actual regulation by the FDA, and bread and eggs don’t in fact cost $500 a meal.

    By “FDA-style regulation” I of course meant the regulatory barriers for *drugs*, not food — as should have been completely obvious from the thread history.

    That is: it would be illegal to bring a new food (or even a variation on an old one) to market, until it had been demonstrated “safe and effective” in massive clinical trials which would involve stuffing hamsters and white mice with it in doses nigh large enough to choke them. Oh, and it would have to pass a carcinogenicity test that the inventor of the test himself now says is highly prone to false positives.

    You damn betcha bread and eggs would cost hundreds of dollars a meal if food producers had to put up with that nonsense.

  41. >Most libertarians and conservatives define socialism as “progressive taxation”, regardless of whether the government gets involved in production or not.

    I’ve never made this error myself, and I make a point of correcting other libertarians who do.

    But I try to be gentle about it, because I admit there are rational grounds for the confusion. Underlying most of the rationales for progressive taxation is a hostility to free markets and free enterprise that is not socialism but is arguably continuous with socialism. Libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives have a twitch reaction to that hostility that sometimes causes them to dismiss the distinction as irrelevant. They shouldn’t, yes, but it’s a relatively minor mistake.

    Matters are further complicated by the fact that while progressive taxation doesn’t in itself wander over the boundary into socialism, levels of taxation/regulation/redistribution that are high enough overall arguably do. And advocates of progressive taxation tend to be advocates of these policies as well, which makes calling them “socialists” quasi-legitimate even if progressive taxation itself is not definitionally socialist.

  42. This is somewhat offtopic, but how do you address the rationales for progressive taxation/redistribution? Here’s a couple (the first one is standard and the second one I made up, but it passed the (weak) test of my leftish friends):

    The first welfare theorem in economics states that a system of free, competitive markets leads to an outcome in which everyone is as prosperous as they can be without diminishing the prosperity of others. This is called Pareto efficiency. If everybody is rational, it would take coercion or fraud for anybody to do any better. This is ideal for libertarians, who say that any and all initiations of force are immoral. However, a lot of ugly situations are Pareto efficient, and thus couldn’t be improved by libertarian means, such as if one person held all the wealth. Because I’m a utilitarian, Pareto efficiency isn’t good enough for me. I would sacrifice some productivity (and some productivity lost on bureaucrats) if the reduced production had more utility in different hands. For this to happen, we must use coercion.

    Rationing dollars to people has two functions: A) people get utility from consuming goods, B) incentivizing productivity. Say money is m. For society, each individual has total utility A(m) + B(m) and marginal utility per dollar A’(m) + B’(m). You keep on redistributing until marginal social utility is the same for every individual, at which point you’re at the optimum. The fact that you have two terms means that a mixed economy is best. The bigger individuals’ differences in A’ are, the more we should distribute goods based on need. The bigger the differences in B’ are, the more we should distribute them based on productivity.

  43. Thomas Covello:
    >You keep on redistributing until marginal social utility is the same for every individual

    That sort of economic argument fails to address the moral implications of being on the receiving end of income redistribution. Basically, you get robbed of your dignity; turned into a wastrel and a parasite.

    Or: the marginal utility of consumption is significantly lower if you are consuming loot.

    Pluswise, utilitarianism is inherently nihilistic. If the goal of life is to maximize the ratio of pleasure to pain, then given the way the human brain is wired, your options are heroin addiction or suicide (as far as we know, there is absolutely no pain in being dead).

    Likewise, from a utilitarian perspective, a pregnant woman has not only the right, but a positive moral obligation to seek an abortion. The best thing that could ever happen to the human race would be extinction.

    See the work of David Benatar in his book:
    Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence

  44. > Because I’m a utilitarian, Pareto efficiency isn’t good enough for me. I would sacrifice some productivity (and some productivity lost on bureaucrats) if the reduced production had more utility in different hands. For this to happen, we must use coercion.

    Note the assumption that the reduced production will yield more utility. But, since the point is to justify coercion and coercion is a good, that’s okay.

    > Rationing dollars to people has two functions: A) people get utility from consuming goods, B) incentivizing productivity. Say money is m. For society, each individual has total utility A(m) + B(m) and marginal utility per dollar A’(m) + B’(m). You keep on redistributing until marginal social utility is the same for every individual, at which point you’re at the optimum.

    And we know how how to redistribute to the right people because the scheme fails if we don’t.

  45. > Andy Freeman: because the rich get more from the government, that’s why :-)

    Ah yes, the argument that liberty is worth more to rich people than to poor ones.

    From the citation “Counting tax breaks”. Hint tax breaks are certain rich being treated like the poor.

    > Come election season, Steve Forbes, among other millionaires, will be pushing plans for a flat tax.

    Which happens to be revenue neutral, rendering all of the blather about “services must be cut” talk null and void.

  46. Hoo boy. Herpes Simplex is really quite common. Eric, you may want to stick with writing game fiction, because what you don’t know about cellular biology would fill volumes.

    BTW the prevalence of the APOE variant is around 17%; so about 3% (0.17 x 0.17) are homozygous variant. The Risk Ratio for AD if homozygous APOE4 = 7 for Caucasians (very high). I’ve not seen the calculation that includes APOE4 and HSV1. Heterozygous APOE4 also has a risk factor, but I couldn’t find the number. (geek reference from one of the many awesome DBs at the NIH’s National Library of Medicine’s NCBI: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/dispomim.cgi?id=107741)

    However, this may not be causal – the plaques may just be good “attractors” of the viral material. Wozniak claims evidence for causality by the HSV. Actually, I am very surprised that this has not been seen previously, as
    there has been intense investigation for many years of a viral relationship with Alzheimer’s. I was under the impression that epidemiological studies showed no relationship with the common viruses (borne out by the NCBI page, above). The authors are claiming the combination of the ApoE variant and Herpes Simplex 1 yields the formation of the amyloid plaques – which are considered the proximal cause of the dementia.

    Apparently the APOE is bad (or mis-regulation of cholesterol), as the cholesterol forms “rafts” of molecules that are taken up (rather, NOT taken up in the disease) by certain cells that then proceed down a process ending in formation of these tangled protein/lipid structures (plaques and tangles).

    Vaccinate for Simplex? Doesn’t yet exist, although its being worked on.

    Monogamy? Only if that includes kissing (or use of dental dams!).

    http://www.herpes.com/hsv1-2.html says (this looks like a good reliable article):
    “” On a practical level, this means oral HSV-1 is often the most easily acquired herpes infection. Usually the first herpes simplex virus that people encounter, oral HSV-1, is typically spread simply by the kind of social kiss that a relative gives a child. Because children have no prior infection with any HSV type, they have no immune defense against the virus.

    By the time they’re teenagers or young adults, about 50% of Americans have HSV-1 antibodies in their blood [N.B. have been exposed, and MAY have had an infection]. By the time they are over age 50, some 80-90% of Americans have HSV-1 antibodies.””

    ** See? We knew as kids that all those smoochies from Auntie Tillie were harmful!

  47. > If the goal of life is to maximize the ratio of pleasure to pain
    That’s not mine. Your conclusions are representative of a particular branch of utilitarianism called negative utilitarianism, which is indeed crazy. I am a total, positive utilitarian, which means my utility function is (pleasure – pain) summed over all individuals.

    > Note the assumption that the reduced production will yield more utility. But, since the point is to justify coercion and coercion is a good, that’s okay.
    Yes that is my assumption. Coercion is good if and only if it increases total utility. Prove that that if is never true, for no matter how mild a redistributionist scheme, and I will become a libertarian.

    >And we know how how to redistribute to the right people because the scheme fails if we don’t.
    You know what we do? We guess! You heard that right. Just like private corporations, we do “market research,” we find a pretty good scheme, and then we implement it. Consider the model of the profit-maximizing firm, where peak profits are reached when marginal revenue = marginal cost. There isn’t a single firm in the world that compares marginal revenue with marginal cost to decide whether to produce another unit. But basically their behaviour is pretty darn close to the model, and if our research is good enough, then our utility-maximizing society will be too.

  48. Is Greg Cochran’s new book about hidden diseases causing human evolution? Haven’t read it yet.

    Eric- you may underestimate the role of stereotypes in
    late classical descritption. Anyone dressed pretty was a
    Persian, anyone who looked tough was Spartan, all Greeks were clever and nancy, all Romans (as such were
    chock-full of antique virtue- and anyone on a horse with a spear was Sarmatian. (I liked ‘From Scythia to Camelot’. Tendentious? Sometimes. Most everything is.)

  49. >>I should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense.
    >Please don’t do that. You provide semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people when you do that.

    yeah. i know. it sucks. “embrace & extend” — bill was not an innovator.

    i would be DEEPLY grateful if you (or anyone here) could think of a better way of putting it.

    in my own writings, i clearly and sharply differentiate between “left” and “faux-left”, “socialist” and “faux-socialist”, “right” and “faux-right”.

    but what is needed is a clear and widely-obvious differentiation between the nominal goals and the actual people clustered around them claiming them even as they seek their own personal status needs.

    “faux-X” is what i’ve settled on for now — i would be DEEPLY grateful if you (or anyone) could come up with better.

    particularly with regard to “socialiast/m”, “Left”, “conservative”, and “Right:.

  50. >>>I should point out that i was using “socialist” there in the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community, not in hte political sense.
    >> Please don’t do that. You provide semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people when you do that.
    >Even the “notional sense of a community caring about others in the community” has been pretty toxic in practice.

    you’re there dipping into what i call “faux-socialist” or “faux-left”: peope using the nominal goals to influence other people, in order to achieve their own personal self-status goals.
    and yeah: typically toxic for The Group.

    >Curiously, the most workable example, 50s US,
    eh?! i’ve lived in a lot of countries and this is the first suggestion i’ve ever come across that 50s USA was lowecase-s socialist inspired.

    try: Australia: 1901-mid1970s. only country ever to explicitly embed social conscience in its constitution AND in its whole-country institutions.
    strictly lower-case-s socialism. low-taxes, low-regulation, insertion of government bodies where human culture habitually created imbalances of negotiating power, removal of previous top-down nationalisations where these made no national sense, mandating explicit cross-subsidies where a single infrastructure had nationwide consequences regardless of intermittent revenue bulges, etc etc etc.
    worked spectacularly until the mid70s, when a wholly-fauxsocialist government got in. in the space of 5 years they screwed things up so spectacularly leading to such a spectacular backlash, that we’ve never since recovered the real-world basis our culture was based on. crumbling my mid-80s, accelerating by mid-90s. right now: off in la-la land.

  51. Miles:
    >> That was the equivalent of a spelling flame. Only a cretin wouldn’t know what’s intended there.
    >No, there was actually a serious point there, which is that food experiences not only FDA-style regulation but actual regulation by the FDA, and bread and eggs don’t in fact cost $500 a meal. I’m tempted to ask if you libertarians ever actually listen to the shit you talk, or if it’s just generated by political reflex without conscious intervention at any point.

    you’re just taking the piss, here.

    the UNSUBTLE distinction is that the FDA does not impose near-zero-risk research requirements (and it is the RESEARCH requirements which cost) on existing products. all NEW food products have to meet the same requirements as new drugs, and more.

    put it this way:
    as has been often pointed out before:
    if aspirin was invented today, it could never be sold in america.

    and in your context:
    if potato was invented today, it could never be sold in america (not a bad thing, actually).

    i would have just left that alone, but then i read your further comments.

    >I’m tempted to ask if you libertarians ever actually listen to the shit you talk, or if it’s just generated by political reflex without conscious intervention at any point.

    i’m tempted to ask if you try-hards ever actually interact with the real world, or if it’s just generated by status-needy reflex without conscious intervention at any point.

    >As to the actual point of your article, I asked a neuroscientist, and her reaction was (and I quote) “*snort* Well, it might not be bullshit, but I’d have to read the paper.” I’ll get back to you once she has. Alzheimer’s research is apparently an extremely big and extremely well-funded field.

    you seem to choose your friends to be in close concordance with your own outlook and intelligence. cf my note re uk doctor telling me my nose wasn’t broken. i’m sure he’d get on well with your neuroscientist friend. after all, he insisted on calling in his university lecturers to join in.
    and cf the Royal Society’s head giving an explicit and very public slapdown to the Nobel Committee for not awarding the speaker a Nobel prize already, despite him, among other discoveries, revolutionising a decade before the field of heart/blood problems, and then the speaker recounting himself explaining to the BMA British Medical Association how he’d discovered what the ACTUAL mechanism for high blood pressure was, and being slapped down by the BMA for it not conforming to what they “already KNEW”.

    the evidence for inflammation being associated with long-standing problematic syndromes has been growing and un-contradicted for nearly two decades now.

    sorry mate, but your mate is not a professional. she’s merely a Professional.

    ps: ben goldacre’s bleating parroting of a bandwagon’s fear of being sued is merely an aspect of a larger parasitic syndrome. i know this particular case very well. it arose from a single and appallingly incompetent Sunday Times article. try another tack. with this one, you’re not just embarrassing yourself but underlining the syndrome.

    >Saltation:
    >> and under the UK NHS, it’s illegal to see any doctor in the country except ONE. Seriously. and he must be within a certain distance of your house, even if you spend your working day and 99% of your discretionary time 100 miles away. Seriously: get sick/have a concern: you are UNABLE to see a doctor.
    >Um, citation?

    um, grow up?

    >I’ve seen doctors in surgeries other than the one I’m registered to before now.

    so have i. each has felt obligated to make the point that this is outside the rules, they’re pretending (and recording) that it’s a “life or death emergency” as that is their only loop-hole, and in the event i’m surveyed could i please make that clear.
    possibly the random surveys are no longer current — i gave up a while ago and now mostly treat myself (and friends).

    >And you can go to an Accident and Emergency department wherever you happen to be. You may have to wait for a few hours, granted.

    see: in other countries, you can just see ANY local doctor. local not just to your home, but wherever you happen to be.
    this has been the case since 1948.
    pretending this has something to do with the current Labour government merely underlines your “interesting” perspective. perhaps you should consider focussing more on facts than social memes.

  52. Thomas Caovello & Dean:
    >>If everybody is rational, it would take coercion or fraud for anybody to do any better.
    >…Basically, you get robbed of your dignity; turned into a wastrel and a parasite.

    well, no. you’re both taking corner-point extremes rather than considering the human norm.

    thomas: as has been heavily shown by studies of game theory and agency theory, and can be seen by playing almost any zero-sum boardgame, past a certain competitive point, winners tend to win out of all proportion to their input. progressive taxation can be seen a s clumsy recognition of that fact.
    dean: i think you might be conflating particular bureaucracies’ resultant structures with the idea of cross-subsidies. the old australian system and the still-extant systems in denmark, sweden, norway, germany, italy, and france, all expressly work towards you NOT becoming a wastrel or parasite. (a big (tho subtle) part of that is: providing benefits only in cash, not via vouchers or special sub-allowances.)

    key aspect of progressive taxation: cross-subsidy.
    cross-subsidies do not necessarily need to be between the extraordinarily rich and the extraordinarily poor. a noninjurious tax on over-wealth can fully subsidise a minimum wage, for example. a slight (fraction of percent) increase in charges on urban dwellers can allow equi-priced provision of identical services to rural dwellers, for example, with here the obvious social benefit that people will not be socially excluded by providing food and clothing to the bulk of the country. example rual/urban services: medical, post, telephone, broadband.

    current example: there’s an interesting collapse happening at the moment in the UK. the partial privatisation (similar to the similarly botched partial privatisation of the california electricity market, which resulted in blackouts a few years later) of the uk postal service, has led to private co’s “cherrypicking” the high-profit sections while relying on the unprivatised sub-company to mandatorily provide the underlying service (and thereby create the implicit market-wide expectations = market appetite) in the negative-profit sections (eg: delivery of private mail). the failure to explicitly acknowledge the whole-market costs/revenues and hence implicit cross-subsidies in terms of cash necessary to achieve this larger whole, implies the uk postal service will within a decade be nothing like what most people regard a postal service as being.

    i loathe the concept of “progressive” taxation as a mechanism for dragging down the rich.
    i like the idea of an over-priced subset of a market subsidising an under-priced subset, where there are real human benefits to be gained.

  53. >a noninjurious tax on over-wealth can fully subsidise a minimum wage, for example

    current UK figures: 0.5% vs ~20%: 0.5% of the population losing a very minor fraction of improvement of lifestyle (eg, have to buy a £2m house instead of a £2.5m house), which vastly improves the lifestyle of ~20% of the population.

  54. Saltation, I’m on your side. You’re quoting me out of context; that was part of my argument that, in essence, said that if abandoning all coercion leads to a suboptimal outcome, then some coercion, if it improves the outcome, is good.

  55. I was just being charitable to libertarians, who tend to believe that people are pretty darn close to rational (or that we should only worry about what happens to people to the extent that they are rational).

  56. > >Curiously, the most workable example, 50s US,
    e> h?! i’ve lived in a lot of countries and this is the first suggestion i’ve ever come across that 50s USA was lowecase-s socialist inspired.

    One of the definitions of “socialist” being used was “the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community”.

    50s US meets that definition and managed to be one of the least toxic examples of a society meeting said definition. Yet, folks who like “socialism” (by almost any definition) generally dislike 50s US.

    If you don’t like that definition of “socialist” or don’t like the 50s US being a “socialist success”, feel free to object when people use it.

  57. > You know what we do? We guess! You heard that right. Just like private corporations, we do “market research,” we find a pretty good scheme, and then we implement it.

    Private companies don’t get to coerce based on “market research”.

    > Coercion is good if and only if it increases total utility. Prove that that if is never true, for no matter how mild a redistributionist scheme, and I will become a libertarian.

    I note that it doesn’t bother the above person that coercion typically fails to increase total utility.

    It doesn’t seem all that relevant whether coercion could increase total utility if in practice it reliably doesn’t.

    How about we wait until you figure out how to reliably use coercion to increase total utility before we use it?

  58. > I was just being charitable to libertarians, who tend to believe that people are pretty darn close to rational

    Not so fast. Libertarianism doesn’t require rational people. If the coercers are incompetent, libertarianism is a superior alternative.

    You don’t get to argue that coercion is acceptable because one can imagine a situation in which coercion leads to a greater good. You have to argue that the specific coercion being proposed actually does so and you have to maintain that argument after said coercion is actually being used.

  59. OK. Wars are a great example. Most people, including many libertarians, would say that there are some wars in which at least one party was justified in their actions. A libertarian would say that usually, said parties are using retaliatory force against an aggressor. However, nearly all wars involve killing some innocent people or at the very least trespassing their property. Are you saying that it would be immoral simply to walk across someone’s land to get to a battle site, stop the aggressor, and in doing so save hundreds of net lives?

  60. >Are you saying that it would be immoral simply to walk across someone’s land to get to a battle site, stop the aggressor, and in doing so save hundreds of net lives?

    Many libertarians (including me) would say you would owe compensation for the trespass. If you’re willing to internalize that cost into your do-gooding, go right ahead. “Morality” doesn’t really into it; in fact, for many libertarians whose thinking is consequentialist and utilitarian in favor, “morality” in the sense you seem to mean it doesn’t enter our reasoning much at all. Ethics does, however.

  61. Apparently, if I see a car crash, and the burning wreck comes to rest on ESR’s lawn, I must pay ESR in order to rescue the occupants.

    so glad ESR doesn’t run the world.

  62. >Apparently, if I see a car crash, and the burning wreck comes to rest on ESR’s lawn, I must pay ESR in order to rescue the occupants.

    In principle, yes. In practice, I have a very difficult time imagining a libertarian judicial board actually supporting any award of damages in this situation. What would probably happen instead is the judge would invite the plaintiff to get the hell out of his courtroom after putting him/her on notice that there is a cause of action for malicious prosecution.

  63. ESR:
    > By “FDA-style regulation” I of course meant the regulatory barriers for *drugs*, not food — as should have been completely obvious from the thread history.

    Yes, this was indeed obvious. However, the example of food shows that regulation does not necessarily imply insane prices. I don’t think anyone (and certainly not me) is claiming that the current FDA drug regulatory regime is optimal in any sense, but that doesn’t mean the answer is to throw out all regulation. Apologies if you weren’t actually claiming that.

    Saltation:
    > you’re just taking the piss, here.

    Well spotted :-)

    > Pretending this has something to do with the current Labour government merely underlines your “interesting” perspective.

    Perhaps this wasn’t clear: I was talking about the system whereby the lion’s share of GP appointment slots are held back until the morning of the day concerned, so you have to ring on the dot of 8am and keep re-dialling until you finally get through to a receptionist and get told that they’ve all been taken. That’s only come in within the last ten years, and is a direct result of a Blair policy aimed at meeting some arbitrary target for patients being able to get an appointment within 48 hours.

    > Sorry mate, but your mate is not a professional. she’s merely a Professional.

    And as such, she knows that science is full of startling early results that don’t get replicated, or turn out to be over-stated, and she knows to be suspicious of simple apparent solutions to problems that have already have a lot of time and intellectual energy thrown at them. And she knows to be especially suspicious of results that seem to fit in with your favourite Grand Narrative, because you are the easiest person to fool. Seriously, it would be great if Alzheimer’s turned out to have a simple, treatable (or at least manageable) cause, but it would be extremely foolish to celebrate this early.

  64. >that doesn’t mean the answer is to throw out all regulation.

    The answer is to throw out *government* regulation, where the incentives on the regulators are all political and never cost/benefit (and where regulatory capture is a continuing severe problem), in favor of an Underwriter’s-Laboratories-style certification program (or, better, a couple of competing programs) funded by insurance companies. This works fine for electrical appliances; there’s no reason in principle it shouldn’t work equally well for medical devices and drugs.

    This is one of the easiest cases for abolishing government regulation, because the externality costs involved are low, it’s clear how to internalize them, and there’s already a well-established model for private-sector regulation that we know works quite well.

    More generally, it is a sufficient condition for private-sector regulation to be viable on the same model as UL that insurance companies can make a profit on risk arbitrage. Not a necessary condition; there are
    other models, such as the Wool Mark and kashruth certification, for situations where the underlying economics are different.

  65. But how do you determine appropriate compensation for trespass? We can’t exactly ask the wronged party, because they would cite some wildly jacked-up figure. What about for murder? Any solution to this dilemma would involve others assuming what someone else’s utility function is like, the same sort of “paternalism” that you are trying to avoid by throwing out government.

  66. Also, let’s not forget the transaction costs associated with redistributing resources via lawyers and courts, which are astronomical. Even if a libertarian judicial system were cheaper, people would use some of the money they saved to hire better lawyers to compete in the courtroom.

  67. >But how do you determine appropriate compensation for trespass?

    The same way common law already does. This is not one of the difficult problems; we have centuries of experience with it that would map over to a libertarian system without change.

  68. Interesting that you would respond to my pointed query about your flavor of libertarian points of law, yet make no effort to respond when I pointed out that your theory:

    When you get old and your immune system loses some oomph, the virus can cross the blood-brain barrier and start doing damage. The plaques seem to be the result of virus-induced cell death.

    is very likely dead-nuts wrong.

    Wozniak claims evidence for causality by the HSV, but correlation is not causation. By extension, you claim similar, or at least support the assertion.

  69. >Interesting that you would respond to my pointed query about your flavor of libertarian points of law, yet make no effort to respond when I pointed out that your theory:

    It’s not *my* theory, idiot! I was reporting it from the news coverage.

  70. It’s not *my* theory, idiot! I was reporting it from the news coverage.

    You know how the MSM gets. One would think that a freethinker like yourself would question the news coverage line, instead of parroting it, especially since journalists aren’t known for their understanding of the scientific method.

  71. And Wozniak is incented to skate the edge of truth. “Look at me, I found a lnk to Alzheimer’s!”

    Look, “doing science” (Cell/micri biology, computer science, physics, chemistry, botany), is hard, and there is little/no room for wild-guesses. There seems to be a lot in your posting that isn’t in the linked article. Are these words and ideas yours?

    “research science” isn’t a kid with a new chemistry set, or the vague wish to have been a physicist, or even a greying hacker with a Linux box. Science, real science, requires domain-specific knowledge and careful, patient, exacting method. It requires reproducibility by independent parties.

  72. Quoth Wikipedia:
    UL is one of several companies approved for such testing by the U.S. federal agency OSHA. OSHA maintains a list of approved testing laboratories, known as Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories.

  73. >UL is one of several companies approved for such testing by the U.S. federal agency OSHA.

    Yes. This isn’t a cause of their success, though; it’s a consequence. That is, the alliance between UL and the insurance companies would still accomplish all the positive goals normally associated with government regulation even if they weren’t OSHA-approved.

  74. Saltation,

    “i would be DEEPLY grateful if you (or anyone here) could think of a better way of putting it.”

    Plain simply “social”, without the -ist? Like, when the Hare Krishna folks cook for the poor from their own money, they are social. When someone wants to force others to support a bureaucracy that’s supposed to feed the poor, they are socialist.

    “Social” isn’t an ideology, “socialist” is. I suggest to look up Hannah Arendt’s fascinating explanation about what ideology means. In short: for example, biology means the logos (knowledge) about life. Ideology means knowledge about an idea, and applying the knowledge about and the logic of that idea to history and society as such.

  75. Thomas Covello,

    the problem with the utilitarian approach to redistribution is that every kind of utilitarianism assumes comparable and measurable subjective utilities. And this is where it fails – AFAIK there are NO ways to measure utilitiy, NO ways to define any meaningful unit of measure without which numbers don’t mean anything. “Three” is meaningless, “Three meters” or “three Volts” or “three kilojoules” mean something. AFAIK there is no way to prove whether the following very simple statement is true of false “X liked his dinner three times as much as Y did his”. Which means engaging in utilitarian theorization is the equivalent of talking about electrical engineering without the ability to measure volts and ampers – and entirely futile effort, IMHO.

  76. > only country ever to explicitly embed social conscience in its constitution

    It’s somewhat interesting that “the original notional sense of a community caring about the others in its community” isn’t acceptable to many without coercion, aka some form of govt involvement.

    There is some cultural explanation here – Americans, and “not liberal” Americans in particular, are far more likely to engage in “voluntary caring” than others.

    http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2008/12/24/america-philanthropy-income-oped-cx_ee_1226eaves.html

  77. > it’s very telling when people choose to support their version of this history from works of polemical fiction

    Most of the reason I chose The Jungle as support for my view was that I didn’t think it was ‘polemical fiction’, as you describe – I was taught in high school that it was essentially factual, at least the background. Seeing as the same school taught me all sorts of useful physics, chemistry, writing skills, and so on, I figured the history was pretty much factual too. Wikipedia seems to support your view, however, and certainly I’ve seen enough examples in modern politics of over-hyping a problem that I believe it’s possible that’s how the FDA was formed originally, enough that I’ll look further into the question.

    Mostly my skepticism comes from trying to understand how we got where we are today. I’ve seen explanations for why pro-state voting patterns persist that make sense to me. Certainly I can understand why one might keep voting in pro-Welfare politicians once your Welfare income is high enough; I just have trouble understanding how Welfare formed in the first place (or replace any sort of governmental dependency). Is it really the case that only statists are capable of persuasive propaganda?

    Libertarianism seems both obvious and what the country was like through the 1800′s, and yet it’s clearly not where we are now, so one of my assumptions has to be wrong. Either libertarianism really isn’t correct, or the country really wasn’t free to begin with, or libertarianism really isn’t obvious.

  78. > Wozniak claims evidence for causality by the HSV, but correlation is not causation. By extension, you claim similar, or at least support the assertion.

    Wozniak et al. do refer to their earlier work that claims to show that beta amyloid accumulates in cell cultures infected with HSV1 (I have not read that original paper). Of course, this does not prove causality, but, assuming their results are accurate, it does give pretty strong supporting evidence, since presumably the cell cultures were free of other viruses and the experiments were properly controlled.

    > That is to say, using many of the new molecular construction tools we have to design a drug for the pathogen. There have been some attempts in that direction, however, it seems to me that what would be a better approach would be [ ... ]

    “Some attempts” indeed. I had a good laugh. Thanks. This is telling an army of who knows how many tens of thousands of scientists who are working in the field all day every day: “Nice try. Here’s what I think you should be doing…”

  79. Representative governments have a second order failure mode.

    When the politicians realize they can vote themselves job security by granting their constituents the benefits of the public purse, they do so. When citizens see that they can get ‘something for nothing’, 99 out of 100 will take it, the same way everyone posting here would pick up a stray $20 bill on the sidewalk.

    In command economies and aristocracies, the process is more efficient. The political actors realize they can take the public purse for their own benefit, without having to make obeisances to constituents.

    In games theory, this is why reward direction is such an important concept…and why Winston Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, excepting all the others that have been tried.”

    (There is also the personal-versus-abstract whole issue involved here.)

    This is why I’m a minarchist and not an anarchist, and feel that the damage done to the Constitution by way of interpreting the Commerce Clause is a tragedy brought on by the noblest of intentions.

  80. > Is it really the case that only statists are capable of persuasive propaganda?

    Statism fails for subtle reasons, so it’s easier to mau-mau. Plus, it attracts thugs.

    Also, statism can be pushed by folks who hugely benefit. If I push for reduced biz regulations, lots of other people benefit. If I successfully push for the FDA, I get money.

  81. # Jim Thompson Says @1:57 am “Apparently, if I see a car crash, and the burning wreck comes to rest on ESR’s lawn, I must pay ESR in order to rescue the occupants.”
    True. How much do you think you’re going to have to pay him? Simply because a payment is due, that doesn’t mean that a payment will be demanded. First you start from what is right and wrong, and from there you go to community norms, where sometimes something wrong is accepted by everyone in the spirit of a better community.

    THAT is what Eric is talking about. Unfortunately, you’re so busy trying to find ways to disagree with Eric that you’re not actually listening to what he’s saying.

  82. # Thomas Covello Says at 7:52 pm: “I was just being charitable to libertarians, who tend to believe that people are pretty darn close to rational”.

    We do?? Libertarians believe that collective action should be voluntary. Socialists believe that collective action should be coerced. Conservatives and Liberals believe that some collective actions should be voluntary and some should be coerced. Naturally, they disagree.

    Where does rationality fit in here?

  83. Well, there have been many different ideas swept under the Libertarian rug, so I think a one-senctence definition is an oversimplificaiton.

    There is a “theoretical Libertarianism” based on abstract individual rights, which I cannot accept. On one hand it’s too idealistic and impractical, example: in wartime farmers are very important, therefore in peacetime you have to support them from taxes in order to keep them as farmers. You have to take into account wars, civil wars, crime and so on and thus find the least evil solutions with a realistic-pessimistic approach, and thus such abstract ideas can rarely form the basis the most practical solution. And this is where the rationality argument fits, only to this theoretical-philosophical kind of Libertarianism. And, it’s also philosophically unsound, we aren’t just atoms floating around in space, at least half of what we are is defined by our relationships with others…

    OTOH but there is such a thing as “practical Libertarianism” which makes a lot more sense and I believe every other school of political thought should give it a serious thought as the arguments are valid and important. I mean stuff like Public Choice Theory, that when a small interest group wants to predate on the public purse, they have a lot of incentive to do so but every other votes has very little incentive to prevent them doing so. It’s just too much work to try to democratically struggle against 1000 interest groups that each want just $10 from you. The rational approach is to form your own interest group and do the same. Thus, the state becomes the battleground of private interests. In addition to that there is Mises’s observation that competition on the market in it’s ideal state is always constructive because it’s positive-sum, but political competition for resources via the state is always destructive and aggressive because it’s zero-sum. Ultimately, the state as the battleground of conflicting private interests turns the whole society into something that could be called “cold civil war”, and at the end of the day this weakens the whole (Hobbesian) purpose of having a state: i.e. an entity to keep the peace so that citizen need not fear each other. The state from a peace-keeping entity turns into a tool of conflict and mutual robbery. Competition for resources via the state is by its very nature anti-social.

    These are much better arguments, and half a dozen similarly practical ones could be found, and if such practical arguments were more widespread Libertarianism might be more popular, and this practical kind of it SHOULD be more popular, I think this practical kind of Libertarianism may and should become an important part of both Conservative and Liberal schools of thought.

    But please stop the individualistic-philosophical arguments (f.e. Hayek: a collective can have no more rights than the individuals whom it consists of have, and so on. It’s entirely pointless, as not abstract rights are important but the practical keeping of the peace and stability of a society so that it does not devolve into civil war or gang rule.) as they are impractical and philosophically, well, even if they can be defended, and for many, who don’t have a strongly individualistic mindset, who define themselves by their relationships, who see society as a crystalline structure of atoms instead of freely floating atoms, is repulsive.

    Another point: Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap. In Conservatism the 90% crap is the fundies and romantic nationalists, in Liberalism the bleeding-hearts and the PC-warriors, in Socialism all those who didn’t read or didn’t understand Orwell, and in Libertarianism it’s the teenage Objectivists and Rothbardians on Reddit and other forums – yes, I know more mature Libertarians don’t consider these two “real” Libertarianism, but to some extent you gotta own up to them, just like Conservatives and Liberals have to, to some extent, own up to theirs. Everybody has their 90% of crap… it’s unavoidable. F.e. I spent 5 years on Internet forums trying to defend that 10% of electronic dance music that’s not crappy rave and happy house, and had to accept defeat at the end: everybody who is an outsider focuses on the 90% that’s crap. That’s just the way things work.

  84. > Unfortunately, you’re so busy trying to find ways to disagree with Eric that you’re not actually listening to what > he’s saying.

    eric talks a lot of shite. (for instance, he’s completely wrong on the subject of this thread.)

    I’m not having to work very hard.

    I did like his speculative fiction.

  85. >OTOH but there is such a thing as “practical Libertarianism”

    That would be, among other people, me. Notice how seldom I make any purely moral argument for libertarianism; in fact, you’d have a tough time spotting me ever doing that.

  86. Jim Thompson:
    > Look, “doing science” (Cell/micri biology, computer science, physics, chemistry, botany), is hard, and there is little/no room for wild-guesses.

    I wouldn’t go that far. There’s room for wild guesses in science, as long as that’s what they’re understood to be. It’s perfectly respectable to guess at what’s going on, and then go looking for evidence.

    Eric: what’s to prevent regulatory capture under an anarchy? More precisely, what’s to stop PfizerGlaxoSmithkline from setting up their own, allegedly independent, “drug-testing lab”, and then hyping it to the skies with sophisticated astroturfing campaigns?

    David W:
    > Libertarianism seems both obvious and what the country was like through the 1800’s, and yet it’s clearly not where we are now, so one of my assumptions has to be wrong. Either libertarianism really isn’t correct, or the country really wasn’t free to begin with, or libertarianism really isn’t obvious.

    Well, as a non-libertarian I claim that libertarianism isn’t obvious, but let’s leave that aside for now. Regardless of how free the 19C USA was, it wasn’t a paradise – the food and drug regulations we’re discussing were a direct reaction to the problem of fraudulent patent “medicines” and adulterants in food (those laws about the acceptable chalk content of white bread are there for a reason). The same goes for the anti-trust laws and the race-relations laws and many of the other things that libertarians complain about. You may think that the marginal loss of liberty was worse than the original problems, but your forebears obviously disagreed.

  87. >Eric: what’s to prevent regulatory capture under an anarchy?

    Strictly speaking, nothing. That is, each individual certification authority would exactly as vulnerable to capture as the FDA is. The key difference is that if multiple regulators are competing, maintaining a reputation for probity becomes important — if your UL-equivalent becomes known to be corrupt, the insurance companies will stop paying you.

    In fact, there would probably be a market for certification-authority certification authorities :-). The same market incentives that make it smart for insurance companies to pay UL make it smart for them to pool resources to police their certifiers.

  88. “In fact, there would probably be a market for certification-authority certification authorities :-)”

    Hmmm. Does it mean that governments can only cope with increased complexity via linear expansion (yet another rulebook, yet another team of officers) while markets can cope with it via logarithmic expansion (if that’s the right word for it, maybe O(n) would be a better term, dunno, I’m not good at math), like regulators who regulate other regulators and thus theoretically infinite layers?

  89. >logarithmic expansion (if that’s the right word for it, maybe O(n) would be a better term

    Nope, you want O(log n). That’s an interesting way to look at the difference — except I actually think governments expand superlinearly, somewhere between O(n) and O(n**2), and there are other reasons to suspect that free-market contract networks are probably roughly scale-free with about O(n log n) growth.

  90. > Nope, you want O(log n).

    Well, you want O(1) if you can get it.

    > I actually think governments expand superlinearly

    Any government that expands super-linearlly (except for trivial exponents) will find itself employing all of its citizens/subjects.

  91. Jim Thompson: “Any government that expands super-linearly (except for trivial exponents) will find itself employing all of its citizens/subjects.”

    I agree, in theory. In practice, I agree with ESR: governments today tend to expand superlinearly – that is, they would have to in order to provide the same level of government to its constituents. The reason they don’t actually do that is that as the population grows, the level of government provided per person declines. The government still grows superlinearly in practice, as it strives to provide the same level of service to at least some of its constituents; it simultaneously encounters drag which keeps it from employing everyone, resulting in spots of reduced or even no government. Such spots are in an unstable state (high crime or possibility thereof), and eventually evolve local government of their own. That local government could take the form of organized crime, gangs, or cross the spectrum all the way to peaceful but isolated farms, depending on geography, resource supply, and other local factors.

  92. > I agree, in theory. In practice, I agree with ESR:

    Me thinks you don’t understand the theory (or perhaps the mathematics).

    > Such spots are in an unstable state (high crime or possibility thereof),

    Wait, reducing government increases the crime rate? Did you just say that?

  93. >> Such spots are in an unstable state (high crime or possibility thereof),

    >Wait, reducing government increases the crime rate? Did you just say that?

    I figure this may be one of those many cases when it becomes obvious that describing government with a one-dimensional measure i.e. size is a useful abstraction, but an overly simplified one.

  94. What theory or math do you think I do not understand?

    If you think reducing the level of government does -not- increase the crime rate, then I suspect we’re operating on different definitions. By government, I was referring to the level of organization among a body of constituents, which includes police protection. If there’s not enough patrolmen to walk the beat, then the incessant pressure of a few souls to predate upon others causes their numbers and activity to rise.

    Government, to me, doesn’t have to be some evil authoritarian agency that came from nowhere and imposed itself on the populace. It can also be whatever organization that populace decides it needs to get everyone on the same page socially. If it’s nothing more than a schoolhouse where everyone gathers to talk about what’s bothering them and work out common solutions, then that’s still government.

  95. >By government, I was referring to the level of organization among a body of constituents, which includes police protection.

    Shades of Frederic Bastiat: “What is the law? Nothing more than collective organization of the individual right to self-defense.” In theory, you’re right.

    In practice, using the word “government” as you suggest is a very bad idea for the same reason that using “socialism” for voluntary cooperation is a bad idea — because your language obscures important distinctions, providing semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people.

  96. >In practice, using the word “government” as you suggest is a very bad idea for the same reason that using “socialism” for voluntary cooperation is a bad idea — because your language obscures important distinctions, providing semantic cover for toxic ideas and evil people.

    But on the other hand, cultural and social norms can have the same psychological authority in people’s minds as government. Michel Foucault showed how power is dispersed in the West in his book Discipline and Punish. (I suspect that Foucault would go on Eric’s list of “toxic thinkers”.) Unfortunately, most libertarians handwave this problem away. Understanding how power works means looking at schools, hospitals, prisons, and families as well as governments.

  97. …because I’m obscuring the distinction between voluntary and involuntary cooperation? Am I reading you right?

    If I am, then I agree I obscured it, but I’m not sure it does much damage here, given the apparent alertness of the readership. I certainly believe there’s a great big distinction between fifty people actively making a deal to cede authority over some aspect of life to one of their number, and forty-nine people being born into a system where a fiftieth person already wields that authority.

    But for the purpose of the points I was trying to make, the history of that power distribution should be irrelevant: as the size of a society grows, the size of the required “government” (my sense) grows superlinearly, rather than linearly, because of overhead; resources prohibit that growth, so that government instead simply fails to provide what it is initially supposed to do (whether or not we agree it is ethically entitled to assume that power), and in its absence, the people tend to arrive at their own more localized solutions.

    I do apologize, however, if that isn’t coming across well. If you have a different term you’d prefer to refer to that phenomenon, I’ll happily use that instead.

  98. > Notice how seldom I make any purely moral argument for libertarianism; in fact, you’d have a tough time spotting me ever doing that.
    What about “the draft is slavery?”

  99. BTW I’m not a huge advocate of the draft, except when the country itself is under threat; I was just wondering what you would say.

  100. >But on the other hand, cultural and social norms can have the same psychological authority in people’s minds as government.

    No. A cultural or psychological norm cannot jail or judicially murder you. It takes the combination of such a norm and force to do that.

    >(I suspect that Foucault would go on Eric’s list of “toxic thinkers”.)

    Correct. Foucault was a sadist. His sadism permeated his politics and philosophy.

    >Understanding how power works means looking at schools, hospitals, prisons, and families as well as governments

    And, in all these institutions, what is the final guarantor of the coercion they exert? If you said “government”, you got it right the first time – push back hard enough and the police will ve called. And yes, that’s true for families as well as prisons and hospitals; consider the legal category of “delinquent minor” to understand this.

  101. >Et tu, Eric. (see: “Open Source”)

    Jim Thompson, this is your final warning. One more pointless insult of this kind will get you banned.

    I have been excessively tolerant of your petty, malicious bullshit. That ends now.

  102. >…because I’m obscuring the distinction between voluntary and involuntary cooperation? Am I reading you right?

    Correct. I’m not going to get all huffy at you about it, though, because I agree we’re short on good terminology for what you’re trying to talk about. I’ll simply urge you to remember that keeping that distinction clear is important even in front of an alert audience, because we’re all trained from birth to fall into confusion about this.

  103. > Foucault was a sadist.
    Really? I’d think of him as more of a shock jock, kind of like a left-wing academic Ann Coulter.

  104. >Really? I’d think of him as more of a shock jock, kind of like a left-wing academic Ann Coulter

    No, he was a sadist. Sexually and on every other level. I understand Foucault; I can reason in his categories and do his style of polemic when I feel any need to. I don’t do it often, because his world-view is sick and generative of sickness.

  105. >What about “the draft is slavery?”

    That’s certainly more like a moral argument than I’m normally prone to, but I’ll point out that it’s nowhere near unique to libertarian thinking, either.

    I wouldn’t support a draft even if my country were threatened. Heinlein said it right: a nation that cannot find enough volunteers to defend it does not deserve to survive.

  106. I think a lot of people really misinterpret postmodernism. The point (Communist plots notwithstanding) of “incredulity towards metanarratives” wasn’t that we should reject them, as some assume, more that we should question them.

  107. > a nation that cannot find enough volunteers to defend it does not deserve to survive.

    Umm… isn’t that a huge free-rider problem? Doesn’t this statement imply that the countries with the most aggressive, militant citizens are the ones that deserve the most to exist?

  108. Why should those who would volunteer suffer at the hands of the free-riders? Also, simply because people are willing to fight for their ideals does not mean they have good ideals. With no draft, a country with really bad ideals but high willingness to fight could defeat a country with better ideals but low willingness to fight.

  109. >Umm… isn’t that a huge free-rider problem? Doesn’t this statement imply that the countries with the most aggressive, militant citizens are the ones that deserve the most to exist?

    I said “defend” it, not “attack others on its behalf”. My point is that to be worthy of survival a nation must inspire enough loyalty and mutual feeling in its citizens that they don’t have to be threatened by its own institutions in order to take up arms to see off an invader.

  110. >Why should those who would volunteer suffer at the hands of the free-riders?

    Because they don’t see it as suffering. They see it as a call to serve and transcend themselves. Or to be the defenders, because that is noble. Or to become men in full. Or to walk the path of the warrior-mystic. Or any one of several other not-uncorrelated reasons.

    I am not the kind of person that volunteers for military service, or even should; I’m not readily capable of subordination, I’m outside the IQ range conventional military organizations are designed to use, and for both these reasons there is therefore basically nowhere I would fit except possibly in Special Forces (I’m not purely speculating, that’s the opinion of a friend who was a Special Forces officer).

    And yet, I can understand these urges. There is a significant portion of the population that feels them more strongly than I do, strongly enough to volunteer and serve. If you tried to tell them they were “suffering at the hands of free-riders”, they’d smile politely and dismiss you as someone who doesn’t get it. And, no offense meant, but they’d be right.

  111. > to be worthy of survival a nation must inspire enough loyalty and mutual feeling in its citizens
    Why? Aren’t there other things besides nationalism that, taken together, make a country worth defending just by themselves?

  112. > I’m outside the IQ range conventional military organizations are designed to use

    to be frank, you can’t be stupid and join the US Military forces, either.

    Congress banned the enlistment of anyone scoring below the 10th percentile back in the early 1950s because of documented trouble in training and accident prevention among people with IQs of 80 or less. In 1992, the US military virtually stopped accepting new enlistees below the 30th percentile Since the end of the Cold War, only 1% of new enlistees have scored below the 30th percentile.

  113. > If you think reducing the level of government does -not- increase the crime rate, then I suspect we’re operating on different definitions. By government, I was referring to the level of organization among a body of constituents, which includes police protection.

    That’s a somewhat dishonest definition of government and/or crime. Government is far more than the local police. It is far more than the sum of police and the justice system.

    Government includes the “nice folks” who seize your house so rich folks can have a private park. It includes the folks who tax an ear of corn that you’d otherwise buy from some farmer in another country.

    In a very real sense, increasing govt often increases the crime rate both by increasing the number of things that are considered crimes and by violently suppressing things that shouldn’t be suppressed. The fact that govt uses police to do the suppression doesn’t change the fact that said suppression is a crime in the sense of being horribly wrong.

    Note that even just increasing the fraction of the population that is police does not necessarily reduce the crime rate. Some folks are “emboldened” by the badge. Far more are protected when doing things that wouldn’t be tolerated otherwise.

    Yes, one can have too few police. But, one can also have too many. And, number is not the only relevant factor – who the police are and what they do matters at least as much.

  114. Yes, one can have too few police. But, one can also have too many. And, number is not the only relevant factor – who the police are and what they do matters at least as much.

    Correct, but it feeds back into the importance of size: a larger government is more difficult to monitor and keep in check.

  115. “obscuring the distinction between voluntary and involuntary cooperation”

    One of my problems with the theoretical-philosophical kinds of Libertarianism is the strong focus on the binary, black-or-white distinction between voluntary vs. coercive means – in real life there is rather a scale than strict difference.

    Imagine a bar brawl. It starts with just an argument (1) that slowly gets more and more heated (2), then turns into name-calling and exchange of insults (3), then some shoving and pushing (4) and finally, to blows (5). In the worst case, it may escalate into a lethal knifing (6).

    If I get the theoretical-Libertarian view correctly, in this process they insert a clear theoretical distinction between exchanging insults and shoving and pushing, between 3 and 4, because 3 is just the exercise of the rights to free speech and 4 is violating (touching) the property (the body) of somebody else without his consent. But this distinction is, of course, entirely arbitrary and artificial, because it’s a roughly linear escalation process, one step leading to the text. That’s my problem with it.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that you must put an artificial distinction _somewhere_ because no one in his right mind would outlaw arguments (1) and everybody in his right mind would outlaw knifing (6), so there must be some arbitrary line drawn somewhere, yes. And in fact the Libertarian line between 3 and 4 is a fairly practical one, easy to define, easy to enforce, and is largely compliant with common-sense morality and ethics. So I don’t even say it’s a bad one.

    All I say that it’s still an arbitrary, artificial line based on a philosophy of abstract rights and therefore, like all abstract philosophical ideas, may often conflict with practical reality. And therefore should not be the SOLE basis of legal philosophy. It should be one of the components of it, surely, one of the most important foundations of it, yes, but it’s just too arbitrary and therefore too _brittle_ to use as the SOLE and exclusive foundation of law. I want to be more practical than that, I want to have more than one legs to stand on, so to speak.

  116. “>> I’m outside the IQ range conventional military organizations are designed to use

    >to be frank, you can’t be stupid and join the US Military forces, either.”

    I figure the ideal soldier these days has about a slightly above-average IQ. Smart enough to work with CCCC, but simple enough to follow orders to the letter.

  117. David Delony,

    (Disclaimer: I’m attracted to the the dom side of BDSM since my early teen years therefore my views of power may be warped and unhealthy, I don’t know, so wear your scepticals while you read this comment.)

    My problem with Foucault and in general the Frankfurter School’s attitude to power is that it seems like they are automatically assuming that power is a bad thing, that it’s bad for you if someone else has any amount of power over you, or for you to have power over others.

    Well, in fact they don’t – Foucault is on record saying that power isn’t necessarily bad, it can be creative, exciting etc.

    But just like Marx was smarter than most Marxists or Keynes was smarter than most Keynesians, the fans and followers of the Frankfurters – who are legion – seem to be assuming it.

    I never understood that. Yes, my employer or public opinion or my neighbour’s opinion has some power over me – so what? Why is it necessarily a bad thing and ultimately, would I be happier if they had no such power? Or would just life become more boring?

    Ultimately, how would it be possible not to have power over others at all? As long as people are free to form opinions, forms of power like social peer pressure must remain, we could not avoid that even if we wanted.

  118. Shenpen:

    > One of my problems with the theoretical-philosophical kinds of Libertarianism is the strong focus on the binary, black-or-white distinction between voluntary vs. coercive means

    Great post. While I don’t think I agree with you, this is first time in many years I’ve come across a coherent critique of libertarianism that I haven’t already seen and dismissed a hundred times before.

  119. >t should be one of the components of it, surely, one of the most important foundations of it, yes, but it’s just too arbitrary and therefore too _brittle_ to use as the SOLE and exclusive foundation of law. I want to be more practical than that, I want to have more than one legs to stand on, so to speak.

    I half agree with you, The bar-brawl case is a good example of why; in many brawls the process of escalation to mutual violence is so ritualized that the entire transaction is in some important sense consensual. Most people understand this: we have an intuitive notion of a “fair fight” that incorporrates it. In this case, and some others, libertarians have no trouble recognizing when an over-literal application of the Non-Aggression Principle would be inappropriate.

    However, as we escalate from the behavior of individuals to large groups and entire societies, the case for admitting “foundations of law” other than the NAP gets more problematic, because the risks from legitimizing aggression rise to the point of genocide.

  120. >Why? Aren’t there other things besides nationalism that, taken together, make a country worth defending just by themselves?

    Sure! People might love their country enough to defend it because they think the flowers where they grew up smell nice. My point is that a nation (considered as a society, an expanse of land, or whatever) that can’t find volunteers defenders is, almost by definition, not delivering enough of value to its people to be worthy of survival.

  121. > Why should those who would volunteer suffer at the hands of the free-riders?

    I can’t speak for anyone else; but I spent time in the Navy and can talk about my personal feelings. Rather than begrudge the freedom of those who don’t volunteer to do as they will, their freedom always seemed the whole point to me. There is an element of “suffering” – hard work, long hours and poor pay – but making money or having an easy life aren’t the reasons people volunteer. I personally believe the attitude of Aragorn and the other rangers in the Lord of the Rings is what comes closest to why I (and many others I think) served. What brings them most joy is knowing the Hobbits are able to go about their lives in peace – without having to know anything of the horrors they are protected from.

  122. >What brings [people who choose military service, like Tolkien's Rangers] most joy is knowing the Hobbits are able to go about their lives in peace – without having to know anything of the horrors they are protected from.

    And this is why, despite being a libertarian and deeply opposed to all the things implied by the existence of government-run militaries, I have always respected and supported individuals who choose military service. In my own way, I try to be a Ranger too; that’s part of why I carry weapons and train to fight. But the risks military people run are far greater than mine, and I honor them for it.

  123. >My point is that a nation (considered as a society, an expanse of land, or whatever) that can’t find volunteers defenders is, almost by definition, not delivering enough of value to its people to be worthy of survival.

    But that’s not true because of the free-rider problem. Suppose a country of N people is under attack and requires X units of effort to protect it. Every rational person in that country has an incentive to contribute 0 effort, if they are under the belief that the X units can be drummed up from other people. It’s basically a massive-scale prisoner’s dilemma. I am asserting that on the social level, we can look at the costs and benefits and say, “Is this war worth it, even if we must conscript?” But if we leave the choice up to the individual, you won’t necessarily get enough volunteers even if everyone values winning the war more than X / N, because of the dilemma. You have to rely on altruism, which might not be enough.

  124. >Every rational person in that country has an incentive to contribute 0 effort, if they are under the belief that the X units can be drummed up from other people.

    That’s where your reasoning breaks down. You think it’s rational to free-ride in this situation, and expect that most other people will choose similarly. I, on the other hand, would not choose to free-ride in this situation, and I don’t think most others would either. The idea revolts me, in fact.

    If my country were invaded, I would not leave the risk and the sacrifice to others because that’s not the kind of person I can be. I am a defender; I carry weapons and train to fight because I am, in Dave Grossman’s sheep/wolf/sheepdog classification, a sheepdog. That is my nature.

    It’s interesting that I the anarchist seem to have a stronger and more instinctive sense of my duty to my neighbors and my nation than you do, or at least than you admit to. And no, I’m not pointing that out to insult you; I think it raises interesting questions about what in our beliefs is intellect and what is emotional substratum.

  125. > It’s basically a massive-scale prisoner’s dilemma.

    I don’t believe it is quite the same because in the prisoners’ dilemma they are making decisions based upon an outcome for themselves whereas in this situation more is at stake. I don’t pretend to do anything but speak for myself; but from what I’ve seen I believe that most people would be motivated to help others – particularly the helpless defend themselves. People just do. I don’t hang around in bad parts of town or anything, and so I’m not particularly experienced in violent incidents; but on three occasions that leap to mind when someone has been threatened, bystanders have leapt in and dealt with the attacker. There was no chance of gain for any of them – it was just the right thing to do. In terms of not being personally hurt they would have been much better off to hang back and do nothing; but who would seriously do that? Not many people I know.

    Here in Australia there has been a lot of press recently because of Ron Barassi (he used to be a well known AFL player) stepping in to stop a woman being assaulted. It’s only news because he’s famous; but still I find it a salient point that even at 72 years of age the impulse to help a woman in trouble completely overrides any considerations of personal loss/gain. When it comes to a woman being hurt; blokes just don’t think like that and I think in general that applies to how blokes think about other people when they’re helpless.

  126. Thomas,

    “>Every rational person in that country has an incentive to contribute 0 effort, if they are under the belief that the X units can be drummed up from other people.”

    So you focusing one of the costs of volunteering i.e. risk of getting killed. You are ignoring every other possible (subjective, emotional, psychological, self-esteem, moral, social, career, prestige, mating-related or other) costs and benefits of volunteering and similar costs and benefits of not volunteering. Basically you are constructing an imaginary person whose subjective value scales, preferences contain only the cost of risk of getting killed and he does not care about any other possible costs or benefits. And you are calling this imaginary (and obviously grossly oversimplified) person rational – why? Why would he be more rational than others who have different value scales, preferences, who value these costs and benefits differently?

    Sarcastic-but-true definition of “rational utility maximizer” = someone who has similar subjective preferences to those people who choose to pursue a career in academic economics.

  127. Andy Freeman: “That’s a somewhat dishonest definition of government and/or crime. Government is far more than the local police. It is far more than the sum of police and the justice system.”

    Notice I said “includes” police protection. That in turn was in defense of an earlier point that lack of governance (I’m trying to avoid the poison word now) leads to rise in crime, among other things. You, of course, have addressed this as well, in the course of citing the evils of government. Your points are in fact another reason for me to feel I didn’t convey my point well. I didn’t mean to refer to government in practice with its foibles and corrupt underbelly; rather, I was attempting to refer to that positive element that tries to manage a society in the ways which, I hope, we all agree require it (for example, perhaps contract enforcement, but also including things such as cultural norms).

    In other words, I’m saying that if it were possible to distill that “ideal government” (again, the poison word) and implement it, it would -still- grow superlinearly, and so in practice, it doesn’t. You can mitigate it a bit with technology – computers have no doubt sped up the judiciary, for instance, and reduced its cost – but it’s nevertheless as insoluble a problem as building a program that would tell you if another program will always halt.

    That it also develops the cancerous elements you mention is just added insult to injury. But I think the first point is worth making, because it addresses the argument from idealism (“But what if we built our government really, really carefully?”).

    So I’m certainly not saying that the solution to that phenomenon is to try to pile on more government, let alone police. :-) Rather, I’m saying that a system like that is innately prone to fracturing and localization. (People will inevitably police themselves.)

  128. The same argument that could compel you to avoid volunteering to defend in lieu of others, could also be applied to compel you to avoid producing any good or service. Why grow wheat? Others will. Why build office buildings? Others will. Why clean streets, broker loans, bake cakes, or write songs?

    At some point, I notice that a great many people aren’t even engaging in this game theory; they just follow their productive pursuit of happiness, and the system sort of lugs along. Some feel the need to bake cakes; some feel the need to be sheepdogs. (By the way, the last time I had seen that Dave Grossman piece, it was cited as inspiration for Bill Whittle.) It sounds romantic and sappy, but it seems to be the way most of us are wired.

    The same wiring compels defenses like Ron Barassi’s. As my father once told me, a man’s natural instinct when seeing a woman under assault is utter rage, directed straight at the assaulter, and it’s ingrained in us. I’ve never found myself in so visceral a situation, but I’m inclined to believe it.

  129. > The same argument that could compel you to avoid volunteering to defend in lieu of others, could also be applied to compel you to avoid producing any good or service. Why grow wheat? Others will.

    No, because in the examples you mentioned, you get all or nearly all of the output you produce. Thus you have an incentive to do these things to the optimal extent, whereas if the benefits are widespread, you do not.

    > You think it’s rational to free-ride in this situation, and expect that most other people will choose similarly. I, on the other hand, would not choose to free-ride in this situation

    Just because something is rational doesn’t mean it is moral. I wasn’t saying that free-riding is the right thing to do, simply that a rational, self-interested individual would do it.

    One of the major reasons for capitalism is to align social interest with self-interest. The idea is to structure incentives such that by following their self-interest, individuals automatically better society. In fact, capitalism won’t work well if people are not optimally selfish.

    Why should we value selfish behaviour in some contexts and altruistic behaviour in others? Is it really wise to predict that people will behave altruistically in the latter contexts when society has told them that self-interest is OK in the former ones?

    I think it’s far saner to plan for the worst and assume people will behave selfishly.

  130. > Why should we value selfish behaviour in some contexts and altruistic behaviour in others?

    This sentence was unclear; I’ll say instead:

    Why should we encourage people to behave selfishly in some contexts and altruistically in others? Isn’t it better to structure people’s incentives to remove the conflict between the social interest and self-interest? One reason we came up with government was because people were behaving selfishly in a way that didn’t benefit society.

  131. “However, as we escalate from the behavior of individuals to large groups and entire societies, the case for admitting “foundations of law” other than the NAP gets more problematic, because the risks from legitimizing aggression rise to the point of genocide.”

    Actually, that makes sense. In the last years I’m increasingly calling myself a Conservative but not in the usual sense of the word, but large in honour of Michael Oakeshott. If it was good enough for him, it must be good enough for me. I hope most intelligent people won’t confuse me with Ann Coulter despite accidentally using the same label, and I don’t care that much about the opinion of dumb people.

    A large part of it is simple cautiousness. Risk-taking in private life is fine, but when we are talking about millions of people and about actions that may endanger the livelihood or even the very life of them, I want to be extremely cautious and risk-avoiding. I don’t want to experiment with the life or livelihood of millions, don’t want to be “bold”, or “creative” or “imaginative” with it, I want to be as boring and conventional about it as possible, because rational risk-taking should be inversely proportional to the amount of potential damage multiplied by the probability of failure. When the potential damage is extremely high, we should avoid taking even very improbable risks. I call it the Nuclear Plant Principle.

    Now, NAP sounds like a good general plan to avoid such risks. However if it’s used in the same manner than that of the man who has only a hammer and therefore takes everything for nails i.e. in an ideological manner, it’s impractical. I can imagine situations where for example it’s justified to use force not only to protect from aggression, not only to prevent aggression that looks sure, but even to prevent situations that _might_ lead to aggression on a large scale. Like, committing a small injustice now in order to prevent a large injustice later on. Example: I’m against the legalization of most drugs because I think the general psychological damage done by most of them would radically increase crime and other problems even if legalization would make them cheap. You can’t expect people to be ethical with a fried brain. (However, I do accept that the war on drugs must be stopped. It’s a hugely disproportional overreaction, some better means need to be found.)

    So, yes, the NAP is a good starting point for a general recipe of political cautiousness, but I think you have to think a step beyond: what you really need is means to reduce the total amount of aggression and that can and sometimes must include trade-offs like use a bit of aggression now in order to prevent much _possible_ aggression in the future. Policies that prevent people from degenerating into being totally non-compliant with the NAP even if the policy itself violates the NAP.

  132. I also thought the Edmund Burke quote from the article esr linked to was interesting:

    “There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men.”

  133. Thomas Covello: “…in the examples you mentioned, you get all or nearly all of the output you produce.”

    Hrmph. Very well; I munged that analogy. A better one would be producing some easily reproducible art, like a digital photograph, or (open-source!) software.

    I’ll stand by my motif, though, and say that while it’s hard to see an alignment rational and moral behavior in this case, trying to force it bothers me – I’m fairly sure the result would be very little of these contributions. I can’t see taxing people, for instance, to fund a communal software development project. …Well, actually, I can, but I can’t see it turning out extremely well. Our military has apparently produced very good product from government funding – but I might suggest that a lot of military’s best aren’t exactly there for the dole, and furthermore, we might very possibly have that good military at a much lower price, if it were privatized. (I must say I’m rather startled to see myself suggesting that.)

    Such art for the benefit of all seems best left to souls driven to create and share by forces deeper than economics. What’s more, I think it’s safe to say those forces will always exist. People are more than simply selfish automatons. There’s something else in our mix.

  134. Thomas,

    my question still stands: how can you justify calling one (oversimplified) set of subjective preferences, value scales more rational than other sets of value scales, preferences?

    If – to take another oversimplified preference, oversimplifed because people who volunteer I think have at least 4-5 reasons to do so, not just one – my personal preference or value scale is that it’s worth to risk my life in war in order to be allowed to wear uniforms because chicks really dig it and I can “score” at lot of them on leaves, this subjective costs vs. benefits decision, how can you justify it to be less rational than the opposite decision, that one you seem to consider rational?

    I think you are on very, very fragile philosophical grounds here. Basically to prove me wrong, you’d have to use an argument that also proves that it’s irrational that I dislike tomatoes and like cheesecakes. Because both are about subjective preferences.

    Philosophy 101: all our rational actions are ultimately pointing toward irrational ends. Recommended reading: Richard Sharvy: http://www.luvnpeas.org/rsharvy/whostosay.html

  135. Sharvy’s citation of Aristotle’s sense of Law seems very close, if not downright equal to, what I was referring to as that which “government” attempts to enforce. If I replace “government” with “the maximal single artifact constructed by a population to enforce Law over itself”, then my earlier points seem clearer, at least to me.

  136. I think both you and Sharvy are talking about Natural Law. The existence of such was hinted by Aristotle, later on Cicero explored it more. His problem was: if a Greek and an Iberian merchant have an argument over a contract in Rome, the law of which land should be used to decide who’s right? And he found that there is a common basis of most, if not all, national laws and he called it Ius Naturalis. Later on Puffendorf, Grotius, Locke, Bastiat, and in the XX. century, Murray Rothbard took up the idea.

    It’s a very interesting idea and it’s indeed natural in that sense that it fits well to common-sense morality, that many different cultures had laws similar to it, and that cultures that had a common law system that respects personal liberty evolved something similar to it.

    OK. Fine. But I’d warn against taking it as literally, seriously, ideologically as f.e. Rothbard in the Ethics of Liberty. It is indeed roughly natural, intuitive, but if you apply too many steps of logical deduction to it it can become completely counter-intuitive, and something counter-intuitive is not a good basis for law, because you need laws easily understood and easily accepted by common people who could not care less about philosophy or logical deduction. It should be a guideline, an ideal, not a _rule_.

  137. (BTW when I criticise theoretical Libertarianism while agreeing with many parts of practical Libertarianism I mostly mean Rothbard and his students (Hoppe etc.) Yes I know many “mainstream” Libertarians don’t really consider him a “real” Libertarian but let’s face is, the The Ethics of Liberty cannot be classified as anything else. I’m equally fascinated and repulsed by Rothbard. I’m sure he was a genius of logic and I’m equally sure he was totally crazy. He was a pretty unique and not easily classifyable phenomenon. I think I’ve read way too much mises.org – that subculture sort of functions like a drug, often I agree, often I disagree, but I tend to become addicted to it and trying to kick that addiciton right about now.)

  138. I think Natural Law was being called “universal law” in Who’s to Say, yes.

    Sounds like I need to check out Ethics of Liberty some time. I’d like to see the ways in which this intuition + logic can lead to counter-intuition. Seems interesting.

  139. >If I replace “government” with “the maximal single artifact constructed by a population to enforce Law over itself”, then my earlier points seem clearer, at least to me.

    Zounds! You have stimulated an insight in my brain. I shall blog about it.

  140. >If I replace “government” with “the maximal single artifact constructed by a population to enforce Law over itself”, then >my earlier points seem clearer, at least to me.

    When all else fails, use etymology, that often provides profound insights.

    “Government” comes from Greek “kubernesis”, same root as cybernetics. It mostly means steering a ship. Multiple conclusions could be drawn from it but it’s almost midnight here and I’m tired so it’s “left to the exercise of the reader”.

  141. > Such art for the benefit of all seems best left to souls driven to create and share by forces deeper than economics.

    You mean the same souls fed by government arts councils? Read up on the public goods and externalities problems. Moreover, is such altruism really reliable enough in a military emergency?

    > So you focusing one of the costs of volunteering i.e. risk of getting killed. You are ignoring every other possible (subjective, emotional, psychological, self-esteem, moral, social, career, prestige, mating-related or other) costs and benefits of volunteering and similar costs and benefits of not volunteering.

    You’re mostly right. Where we differ is mostly definitional, though. I didn’t say the only utility I was considering was the risk of getting killed. I had defined rational as self-interested. But if self-interest is partly other-interest, then rational means other-interest too. So let’s forget about rationality. Self-interest is in human nature, with only a few limited exceptions like kin selection. Society expects self-interested behaviour in institutions like a competitive market economy. So if we’re telling people that self-interest is perfectly OK, how can we suddenly expect people to turn around and become altruists? If we could, then we might as well have socialism, because people would choose to work hard for the good of society, ignoring their self-interest. But as we’ve seen from the collapse of socialism, they won’t without enough incentive.

  142. That’s just it, Thomas. I mean precisely those souls who are producing works of art not because of government arts programs, but rather those who would produce them whether those programs exist or not.

    As for relying on altruism in military emergencies, your question is fine… good militaries aren’t built during emergencies, however, but rather trained over long periods. A wise community that was also both fiercely capitalist and sovereign would contract this to a company well ahead of any crisis. The nature of this contract would pose pressures on the economic model that I’m not really feeling up to exploring at this hour.

    In response to your latest paragraph, I still stick to my previous argument, with additions. Some people are just driven to create and share; it’s not altruism. For the rest of the goods and services we require, the classic capitalist model serves nicely – if the good is great enough, the people will advertise willingness to pay higher and higher prices until someone decides it’s worth it to take the job. If no price is high enough to entice a supplier, then the good is unsatisfiable, at least for the moment; if the people balk at the price asked by the cheapest supplier, then the good was not that valuable. (Yes, yes, I know, monopolies. Maybe later.)

  143. > A wise community that was also both fiercely capitalist and sovereign would contract this to a company well ahead of any crisis.

    Of course, the “founding fathers” thought differently.

  144. > In other words, I’m saying that if it were possible to distill that “ideal government” (again, the poison word) and implement it, it would -still- grow superlinearly, and so in practice, it doesn’t.

    Saying it doesn’t make it true. Moreover, even if it were true, superlinear doesn’t follow, and so we don’t get to the supposed contradiction.

    And, since we can’t distill said “ideal govt”, the result of the exercise should be filed next to “angels dancing on head of pin, count of”.

  145. Thomas,

    “Self-interest is in human nature, with only a few limited exceptions like kin selection. Society expects self-interested behaviour in institutions like a competitive market economy. So if we’re telling people that self-interest is perfectly OK, how can we suddenly expect people to turn around and become altruists?”

    First, there can be perfectly valid self-interested benefits for volunteering. Prestige, sex-appeal in uniform, adventure, whatever.

    Second, the separation between altruism and self-interest is pretty arbitrary. All purposive action is aiming at some sort of reward – a psycholgical one, some good feeling, or the avoiding of a bad one. It’s not just an assumption or an empirical observation, but follows from the very definition of “purposive”, it’s logically impossible to act purposively without the hope of some sort of psycholgical reward, because then in what sense would that be purposive?

    What is called self-interest or altruism are just different strategies for gaining psychological rewards (happiness, joy, or the lack of suffering).

    Thus, one may volunteer because of the prestige, fancy uniform or love of adventure and gain psycholgical reward from it and we classify it as “self-interested”.

    At the other end of the scale one may volunteer because he wants to defend the weak, and gain psychological reward from that: the warm, good feeling of a job well done and the self-esteem coming from it etc. and we classify this as “altruistic”.

    And there are many shades of gray between the two. Usually a very typical psychological reward for many human actions can be defined as a well-earned pride. The athlete is happy if he wins a medal. He is not happy if runs but does not win, and he is not happy if he just buys a medal on E-Bay i.e. does not quite earn it. So it must be something worthy to proud of it must be earned in order for it to generate happiness. For a volunteer, the aim for building pride can be seen as self-interested and the way of earning it can be seen as altruistic.

    I.e. self-interested and altruistic are pretty arbitrary classifications of multiple strategies that aim at the same ends.

  146. (P.S. I think those strategies that are usually classified as “altruistic” tend to work way better for gaining psychological reward, suggested reading: Positive Psychology, books from Martin Seligman and Johnathan Haidt. )

  147. “it’s logically impossible to act purposively without the hope of some sort of psycholgical reward, because then in what sense would that be purposive?”

    OK this needs to be elaborated a bit. For an action to be purposive, it follows from the definition of purposive that it requires some sort of feedback. Acting without any hope of getting any feedback about reaching that purpose or not is not purposive by definition, but random fooling around.

    Reward = feedback + gain, I think that’s the usual definition of it. Positive (win) feedback on a purpose that’s not our own is that just, feedback. Positive feedback on a purpose of or own is inherently rewarding, because we wanted to reach that purpose therefore there must be a gain (at least an expected one) on reaching it.

    Maybe my deduction is a bit clumsy but anyway, I consider the statement that purposive action MUST aim at psychological rewards a logical truth, not just an empirical one.

  148. First, there can be perfectly valid self-interested benefits for volunteering. Prestige, sex-appeal in uniform, adventure, whatever.

    Let’s not forget the opportunity to bust some heads. As a teenager I heard this cited by an acquaintance as a reason to enlist.

  149. Shenpen, what you’ve basically done is define self-interest and rationality in ways that logically imply that all behaviour is self-interested and rational, thus guaranteeing that those categories will be useless. My escape from that definitional trap is to say that people only really know what they are feeling right now. People’s feelings about future feelings are frequently inaccurate, and when they act on unreliable meta-feelings, that’s irrationality.

    > I think it raises interesting questions about what in our beliefs is intellect and what is emotional substratum.

    What do you mean by this? I’m curious.

  150. > I wasn’t saying that free-riding is the right thing to do, simply that a rational, self-interested individual would do it.

    I think that that says more about the limitations of our understanding of “rational, self-interested”.

    We see a lot of “research” proving that people aren’t rational, but in almost every case that I’ve looked at, the definition of rational was strained to say the least. The typical problem is that the folks being studied had different goals than the researcher thought that they should have. Since the researcher was doing the labelling, the researcher’s goals were labelled “rational”. Economists and psychologists are particularly bad here. They don’t understand that people have multiple goals and some of those goals aren’t money or {insert be-all by psych field}.

  151. Thomas,

    Yes, I’m quite consciously defining away the difference between self-interest vs. altruism, because plain simply I don’t believe such a difference exists either empirically or logically. The classical moral categories of action are ethical vs. unethical, just vs. unjust and virtuous vs. unvirtuous (i.e. vice), and I pretty much think they are enough. It’s hard enough to prove a give action belongs to any of these categories, except for the very extreme kinds of actions, but at least we have rough heuristics for these. For altruism we have none, pretty much every altruistic action can be proved to be ultimately self-interested. It’s a non-category and an entirely useless term IMHO.

    Setting the logical problems aside, take a look at it empirically. The classical source of so-called altruism is religions. When a Christian saint does a lot to help the poor, he is doing it because he is expecting a huge reward in Heaven, Isn’t it self-interested? Or Buddhism, my favourite. To be a Boddhisattva is to take a vow (I took it) to aspire to help all sentient beings, down to ants, to reach Buddhahood. A very altruistic purpose, given that Buddhahood = complete happiness. But the trick is that without such an aspiration, you cannot reach Buddhahood itself, you can just be an arhat, and even that much slower. And as Buddhahood = complete happiness, such aspiration is ultimately self-interested. It’s the giving up of self-interest in order to win it back on a much higher level. So it’s ultimately not altruistic.

    Nothing is. You can be ethical, just and virtuous. You cannot be altruistic, it’s impossible.

  152. >We see a lot of “research” proving that people aren’t rational, but in almost every case that I’ve looked at, the definition of rational was strained to say the least. The typical problem is that the folks being studied had different goals than the researcher thought that they should have. Since the researcher was doing the labelling, the researcher’s goals were labelled “rational”. Economists and psychologists are particularly bad here. They don’t understand that people have multiple goals and some of those goals aren’t money or {insert be-all by psych field}.

    Well stated. This is my problem with behavioral economics in a nutshell. The results it produces are fascinating and instructive, but the theoretical framework in which they are interpreted is often narrow and reductive.

    It is not impossible for people to be irrational in the same sense it’s impossible for them to be altruistic (Shenpen and the Objectivists have this one right) but it is less common than often supposed.

  153. Okay, but you still haven’t proven your original point that enough people would not free-ride in the given situation. How do you know that this is true?

  154. I’ll rephrase my original point: Society sometimes condones cooperation and sometimes competition. Why do you expect people to behave cooperatively in this situation?

  155. Okay, you’re probably going to say that in this case society condones cooperation. But even in this case, people might condone cooperation without actually cooperating.

  156. > Okay, but you still haven’t proven your original point that enough people would not free-ride in the given situation. How do you know that this is true?

    If it’s truely a “given situation”, can’t we look at what actually happens instead of trying to “prove”?

    > But even in this case, people might condone cooperation without actually cooperating.

    What happened to the “enough” qualifier for “people”?

    I observe that the folks who talk most about free-riders are trying to justify some form of coercion.

  157. > I observe that the folks who talk most about free-riders are trying to justify some form of coercion.

    And that’s a problem why? As a utilitarian, I don’t believe coercion is a priori unethical.

  158. >And that’s a problem why? As a utilitarian, I don’t believe coercion is a priori unethical.

    I suspect that’s because you’re not paying enough attention to second-order effects – or, to put it more pungently, not only don’t ends justify the means, the means have a nasty tendency to become the ends.

  159. > I suspect that’s because you’re not paying enough attention to second-order effects – or, to put it more pungently, not only don’t ends justify the means, the means have a nasty tendency to become the ends.

    All this statement really reduces to is paranoia that soon the Nanny State Will Be Upon Us. But that slippery slope doesn’t exist. Just look at Europe, and then compare it with Somalia, where there is more or less complete anarchy yet no real sanity has organized itself. I would argue that anarchy is more susceptible than government to the effect you describe.

  160. OK, now I’ll attempt to present a coherent alternative to the NPA: Pluralism.

    Further reading: John Kekes: The Morality of Pluralism:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=73tGF0NHTJQC&dq=the+morality+of+pluralism&hl=EN&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0

    1. Living a good life has many conditions. They may be material (health,
    comfort), social (love, friendship), abstract (liberty, justice) – really a
    lot. Insert pretty much everything you value here. Therefore these are
    called substantial values. They provide the substance of a good life.

    2. There are also procedural values: policies that aim to promote access to
    substantial values: free speech, habeas corpus etc. Insert pretty much any
    right or other kind of good policy you agree with here, IF you can show
    that they promote access to some substantial values. These are called
    procedural values.

    3. Substantial and procedural values together are called simply values.

    4. Values tend to very often conflict with each other. Substantial values
    conflict with each other (health is a value, eating stuff you really like
    is a value, the two can conflict if you happen to like fast food too
    much), a procedural value designed or evolved to protect a substantial one
    may conflict with another substantial value, two procedural values may
    conflict, or a procedural value if overdone may conflict with the
    substantial value it should promote, defeating the whole purpose.

    5. When there is a conflict, one must choose to let one value override
    another. This happens both in private life (a lot…) and also in politics.

    6. When should values override each other?

    Definitions.

    Ideology = you believe that one value should always override
    another value. Or almost always. In any case, you have some sort of
    theoretical, abstract justification of always or almost always allowing one
    value to override another one.

    Pluralism = the opposite of ideology. Conflicts need to be resolved by a
    case-by-case basis. No value should always or absolutely override another.
    If you let a value be always overriden you condemn to death. But that we
    shouldn’t do – we need a large plurality of values to live a good life, we
    want freedom and discipline, tasty food and health, property rights and
    solidarity, safety and liberty, all these things. To keep all values on the
    palette thus you must resolve conflicts on a case-by-case basis.

    What should be the grounds of resolution, what principle, if any at all, should we use? I think I sort of understand the answer for that but I am not sure whether I understand it correctly so I’d suggest reading the original book instead, see link above or Amazon.

  161. “We see a lot of “research” proving that people aren’t rational, but in almost every case that I’ve looked at, the definition of rational was strained to say the least.”

    Can’t we all just agree that “rational” is a term meant to describe means, and rational goals or irrational goals don’t exist? This does not mean all goals are created equal – it just means we should use different terms for describing them.

    BTW Michael Oakeshott made a very good case in On Rational Conduct that rational means, conduct, actions don’t exist either, although that obviously really depends on the definition of the term. Summary: rationalist assume that such a thing as an empty mind exists, but it doesn’t.

  162. > What should be the grounds of resolution, what principle, if any at all, should we use?
    Pluralism is utilitarianism in disguise. Any sort of “grounds of resolution” for conflicts between values would basically reduce to a utility function to be maximized.

    > we need a large plurality of values to live a good life, we
    want freedom and discipline, tasty food and health, property rights and
    solidarity, safety and liberty, all these things
    This follows directly from the law of diminishing marginal utility.

  163. > Can’t we all just agree that “rational” is a term meant to describe means, and rational goals or irrational goals don’t exist?
    No, because sometimes people’s goals are self-defeating. Just look at the “games” of transactional analysis. For example, consider “Why Don’t You/Yes, But,” in which one player, “White,” ostensibly seeks help from another, “Black,” only to reject all of Black’s suggestions. On some level White doesn’t want to have his problem, but on another he is getting a psychological reward from Black’s sympathy. This is an irrational combination of goals. It’s how people become depressed. On some level they want to be happy, but on another they are seeking some sort of kick out of being sad.

  164. Thomas,

    Hmmm. Perhaps. Above I wrote about that living a good life requires many conditions which often contradict and we should not say that one condition should always override the other. But we must override them on a case-by-case basis, if we don’t override one but continue to pursue two conflicting goals indefinitely, yes, I think you may be right that’s irrational because then put in a lot of effort but gain nothing. Often the resolution is a compromise, like having half of our meals healthy and half of them tasty. That’s OK. But in cases you pointed out when we neither override nor compromise, that can be irrational. Good point. TA is IMHO good psychology, I read about it a bit about ten years ago, but not too deeply. What is the long-term result of such games – do people finally arrive to an overriding or to a compromise, or just do it forever?

    Something else. I don’t think a clear distinction can be made between competition and cooperation as many kinds of competition, like those on the market between vendors, or that of trying to “pick up” a woman who already has a boyfriend, are all about competing in who can cooperate better.

    I think your original point would be best and simplest stated: is it sure that in any country at any given time there would be enough people who have their personal goals and value scale so that will make them volunteer? And if you state the question in such common-sensical way you can quickly learn for history that no, it’s not sure at all, example is the Late Roman Empire when pretty much nobody did and the legions were manned by “barbarian” mercenaries.

    Of course, that country was not quite worthy anymore to die for. I think I understand why does ESR consider it almost tautological: it’s the citizens who can evaluate the worth of a country best, evaluation can only be objectively judged from actual choices and not just words, if their actions don’t show they value it highly, QED.

    Counter-arguments can be made to that.

    One is that a country = people + state. Yes, they did not value that state highly, as it was quite oppressive. No, it does not mean that they preferred to have themselves killed, their wives and children be enslaved, and their homes sacked. It’s one thing to defend the state and another to defend your folks. So why didn’t they volunteer? I don’t have any good answers to that. Perhaps politics and culture made them too decadent.

    Another is that there is one big country with X population and X/5 conscripted soldiers, and another country, smaller, with X/4 population. Number of volunteers is half of those in conscripting gender and age and health i.e. X/40 which is a good score, it means they value it highly. Why shouldn’ they still conscript the rest to achieve an army of X/20 – they would have more chance that way.

    Ultimately, as explained above about Pluralism I think it must be resolved as a case-by-case basis. USA or UK 2009 has little reasons to conscript. Israel 2009 has better reasons. Georgia?…

  165. Yeah, basically my main point was that I had showed a way that people’s actions might not match their preferences. I wasn’t saying just that people might not consider their country worth defending. People might choose to free-ride, that is, even though they value their country more than the cost to them of defending it, refrain from volunteering in the hopes that someone else would. I’m looking for some empirical evidence to suggest that free-riding behaviour would not be widespread.

  166. Shenpen, above you described the distinction between words and deeds in confrontation as being “arbitrary and artificial, because it’s a roughly linear escalation process, one step leading to the text”. I have 2 issues with this.

    1. Is it really linear? I think it could be better treated as a cubic, but you would need a better numeric mapping than that provided. It’s continuous, but I see no reason to assume a line there. Step 3 seems like an inflection point to me.

    2. The real numbers are easily plotted on a line, but zero is still special, and is neither arbitrary or artificial. Just because something is linear doesn’t mean there are not readily identified special cases.

  167. Sorry Phlinn, I’m not too good in math – the word I was looking for is rather continuous, than linear.

  168. hmm. way late and this thread has gone seriously cross-country since then, but:

    Miles:
    fair enough. and you’ve taken the point away from the discussion and back to the original post’s. but i think “celebrating” is a serious/wild extrapolation of the post. yet-more evidence pointing in a direction, is not “celebrating”

    Shenpen:
    “Social” vs “socialist” — i see where you’re going, and i sympathise. but Social is more widely used to refer to entities adopting behaviour relative to their Social context, rather than to a particular Virtuous ideal. wolves and cats are Social, bees are eusocial; for example. we really do need another word.

  169. > Can’t we all just agree that “rational” is a term meant to describe means, and rational goals or irrational goals don’t exist?

    That doesn’t help. While means and ends are presumably observable, true rationality is at least somewhat related to whether the ends were desired, aka matched the goals. Heck, real rationality wrt means has a lot to do with the goals.

    Here’s an easy case. If I walk down the street dropping $5 bills, am I being rational?

    While there’s a difference between dumb goals and good goals, it’s not a straight-forward difference.

    At its best, the “rational behavior” research suffers from a huge case of “all abstractions leak”.

    Besides, it’s pretty clear that many of the “rational behavior” researchers are actually just trying to produce arguments that result in “the right people” getting power.

  170. Hmm. I just realized something. If my utility function depends on your utility (as it does, you allege, in the case of volunteers), then if I am emotionally outraged at your choice to do act X, which was consensual among those physically affected, then do I have a valid claim of harm against you? This seems ridiculous, but I don’t know how to avoid the conclusion.

  171. “I don’t know how to avoid the conclusion.”

    How about this: theorize less about ethics. At the end of the day, in any stressful situation when you must make a decision, it is your habits that will make the decision, not your theories.

    BTW of course it does happen. Think overprotective fathers and sexually adventurous teenage girls. But whether it’s valid or not does not count much…

  172. BTW. Just to put things into perspective. Every ideologue, from Communists to Libertarians and all those between, would start learning a new programming langue by trying to grok the formal language specification.

    My idea about a commonsensical, practical, Skeptical-Conservative is one who does not give a shit about the formal specification, he just goes through the tutorials, and then justs finds a good idea for a program to write in that language and does it, picking up the rest during doing so, consulting with the formal specs only when it’s necessary.

    These differing attutides are actually expressions of different epistemological positions: either knowledge begets action, or action begets knowledge. I vote for the second.

    At any rate, you, Thomas, as a Utilitarian, and also the Libertarians and pretty much all the rest including the Progressive/Liberals are trying to write formal specs for ethics and politics. I find such efforts useless. Just write a good tutorial and I’ll test it against real life.

  173. >These differing attutides are actually expressions of different epistemological positions: either knowledge begets action, or action begets knowledge. I vote for the second.

    So do I. The a-priorism you describe is not a global characteristic of libertarians. It corresponds to what in libertarian circles are called “natural-law” theorists. I’m not one.

  174. > in any stressful situation when you must make a decision, it is your habits that will make the decision, not your theories

    But doesn’t that reduce to making decisions by instinct? Civilization is all about overcoming instinct to develop saner ways of being and acting. Also, you can’t get ethics from observing the world (“action begets knowledge” as you stated it) because of the is-ought problem.

    I think I see your point, though, in fact that’s what I practice myself. For instance, we’re never going to know exactly the impacts of all our decisions, so I think rights are very useful heuristics for helping us make them. People’s right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness is important because people, unless they are children or incompetent, usually know better than other people what will make them happy. But like you said (“consulting with the formal specs only when it’s necessary”) there are always going to be edge cases where you have to appeal to a higher good (which I think is utility).

  175. >Also, you can’t get ethics from observing the world (”action begets knowledge” as you stated it) because of the is-ought problem.

    Nonsense. You can derive ethical egoism by observing that actions have consequences. You can’t derive morality from observing the world, but morality is different from ethics (and much less interesting).

  176. I’m not clear on the difference between ethics and morality. By ethics you mean what is right/wrong to do, and by morality you mean how we socially construct ethics?

  177. >I’m not clear on the difference between ethics and morality. By ethics you mean what is right/wrong to do, and by morality you mean how we socially construct ethics?

    Any ethical judgment is one by consequences, such as “if I break my contracts with others, they are more likely to break their contracts with me”. Moral premises, like “life begins at conception” are just that; they’re not justified by consequences but proceed from some pre-existing belief system, usually a religious or quasi-religious one.

  178. Interesting… But don’t you need some sort of pre-existing belief system to convert statements like:

    > if I break my contracts with others, they are more likely to break their contracts with me

    to:

    “Therefore, I should not break my contracts with others.”

    ?

  179. I mean, I think you would already have to be of a certain philosophical bent (in this case, ethical egoism) to go from one statement to the other.

  180. >I mean, I think you would already have to be of a certain philosophical bent (in this case, ethical egoism) to go from one statement to the other.

    Why do you think it takes a “philosophical bent” to want reliable behavior from other people?

  181. “Any ethical judgment is one by consequences” – that’s quasi-utilitarian ethics (ethics that aim at happiness and suffering), one of three traditional legs of ethics. The other two are duty (deontological ethics – Kant etc., usually the Protestant stuff) and virtue (areatic) ethics (Aristotelean, Catholic, to some extent, Buddhist). Traditionally, customarily, all three are used, with different weights.

    It’s a terminological question – duty and virtue can and perhaps should be put into the category of morality, not ethics.

    “Moral premises, like “life begins at conception” are just that; they’re not justified by consequences but proceed from some pre-existing belief system, usually a religious or quasi-religious one.”

    Ugh, that’s a strange take on morality. What you say is more like the post facto rationalization of moral instincts, part of which can be evolutionary and part of which are basically customs of a “tribe” (i.e. the result of social evolution), than the moral insticts themselves. Of course then they usuallt get a religious, philosophical or rationalistic justification – because it’s customary and expected to justify our decisions, but that does not mean the justification _caused_ us to decide so.

    Usually, a large part of morality is generally virtue ethics: stuff we consider good or bad not because they harm others, but just because they feel right or wrong, with some instinctive reactions like disgust (Haidt) or admiration, usually with hints at character development.

    Basically, if you accept my hypothesis – at least as a working hypothesis – that morality or at least the interesting parts of it (when does life begin is indeed profoundly uninteresting IMHO) largely and usually equal virtue ethics, they can be broken down to two factors, and this is the stage where it gets really interesting.

    One, low time-preference: willingness to make sacrifices for larger gains in the future. Protestant work ethics, stuff like that. And it tends to overlap with outcome-based ethics: high time preference i.e. low self-control can lead to crime etc.

    Two, aesthethics. This is perhaps the most exciting and interesting part of it because it is something that clearly influences our moral instincts but we know almost nothing about them.

    Haidt is researching into it as the “disgust factor”, but he is IMHO wrong. It’s not just disgust. A stomach surgery is as disgusting as it can get YET we usually respect doctors very much, and one reason of that respect is exactly that they are doing disgusting things we ourselves would find very hard to do. We respect their sacrfice to do disgusting things to help us. Therefore aesthethical morality not just disgust, but a more complicated system of aesthethics.

    Part of this aesthetics is “moral imagination” ( http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/the-moral-imagination/ ) – this term fell out of use, but this is something that to some extent we all instinctively do.

    Part of it is even more complicated than that, which Burke have started to explore at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Philosophical_Inquiry_into_the_Origin_of_Our_Ideas_of_the_Sublime_and_Beautiful

    So there is a lot of philosophical speculations in circulation about these things but I think a good, systematic psychological research could shed some more objective light on it. These two articles are exactly that kinds of philosophy that just screams for psychological investigation.

  182. >“Any ethical judgment is one by consequences” – that’s quasi-utilitarian ethics (ethics that aim at happiness and suffering), one of three traditional legs of ethics.

    Kant is also consequentialist — the categorical imperative says you should do X because you want to live in a world where everyone does X, and this analysis extends to some other kinds of duty ethics as well. I agree that areatic “ethics” are not, but put this down to a linguistic difference between English and Greek.

    Moral instincts are another sort of pre-existing premise – OK, not a belief system, but the key point is that there’s nothing consequentially justified about them.

  183. > Why do you think it takes a “philosophical bent” to want reliable behavior from other people?
    Because you have to assume “Because I want something, it is good and I should work towards it.” If you’re not an ethical egoist, you won’t think “if I break my contracts with others, they are more likely to break their contracts with me” is a good reason for “Therefore, I should not break my contracts with others.” A utilitarian or some other Xian would give a different reason.

  184. >Because you have to assume “Because I want something, it is good and I should work towards it.”

    That’s not philosophy, it’s survival.

  185. Now you’re saying that survival instincts will necessarily guide people to ethical behaviour. How do you know that is true?

  186. Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean that it is good.

  187. Oh, interesting topic. Well, the “do unto others as you want others to do to you” in the literal sense is clearly wrong – it would mean if I want a copy of Quake IV from my mother for Christmas, I should buy her a copy of Quake IV too. So let’s modify this rule to be broader: give people what they want rather what you want. But… if someone wants to commit suicide, and wants a gun, in most cases, would you give one? Er… probably not. So let’s modify it again: give people whatever you think they actually need. Well, in many cases that would turn us into quite big tyrants. So any way I take it, it’s just can’t really be turned into a general rule.

    There is a core of truth in this approach: that ethics should rest on some understanding of reciprocity. But what kind of reciprocity, how is it actually implemented always can only be figured out from the particular circumstances.

  188. >> in any stressful situation when you must make a decision, it is your habits that will make the decision, not your theories

    > But doesn’t that reduce to making decisions by instinct? Civilization is all about overcoming instinct to develop saner ways of being and acting.

    How did we get from habits to instinct? That’s an important difference because habits can be the result of training while instinct isn’t.

    And no, that reduction doesn’t happen because most decisions are not made in stressful situations.

    And, I’m pretty sure that civilization is “all about” something other than overcoming instinct. And instinct isn’t necessarily “not sane”. If someone is trying to kill you, trying to survive isn’t insane.

  189. I also thought of something else – if it is impossible to be altruistic, then according to ethical egoism, anything goes.

  190. You see, in this situation, you’re not actually deriving ethical egoism, you’re assuming it. You’re already convinced of the belief that because something is good for oneself, it is good, period, and thus you can’t use this argument to prove ethical egoism (the very notion that good for self = good, period).

  191. >You see, in this situation, you’re not actually deriving ethical egoism, you’re assuming it.

    I’m not sure how to respond to this, because you seem so deeply confused that I am near certain you will misinterpret what I say. But I’ll try anyway.

    Human beings are not disembodied immortal godlings, but embodied creatures with instincts and survival needs. All human behavior (all human behavior) is founded on that biology, it is goal-seeking within a frame defined by our needs and instincts. As Heidegger put it, we are thrown into the world and must cope. All of our theories, all of our evaluations of “right” and “wrong” are parts of our toolkit, part of our goal-seeking behavior.

    I am not “assuming ethical egoism” when I notice this, it is simply the fact of our situation. It is not even possible to frame a notion of “good” that does not reduce to “good for my genetic line”, which under all but exceptional circumstances reduces to “good for me”. The exceptional circumstances involve kin-selection effects, which in civilized human beings can have forms like patriotism and religious fervor in which emotional responses to kin are reattached to larger and more abstract groups.

    Altruism, in the sense most people think when they mean when say that word, is indeed impossible – the brain can only do what the evolutionary survival game has designed it to do, and altruism is not among the possibilities. But this does not mean “anything goes”, because some forms of selfishness (some propagation strategies for your kin group) are effective than others, especially when investment in the future has a low discount rate. Some such strategies may even involve the sacrifice of your own life.

    Note that the preceding account makes no value claims whatsoever – it simply describes how the machinery operates. Within this account, “ethics” may be regarded as the study of goal-seeking in conditions of low time preference.

  192. You’re right. I had forgotten that I didn’t believe in the traditional notion of “free will,” (I’m a compatibilist) and had failed to reconcile it with my beliefs about our ability to form ethical statements.

    Could you define “altruistic” as “low time preference” and still preserve its intuitive meaning?

  193. >Could you define “altruistic” as “low time preference” and still preserve its intuitive meaning?

    Hm. An interesting maneuver, but not one that I think is likely to succeed. Most people think they are capturing the notion of low time preference when they speak of “prudence” or “foresight”, and believe “altruism” means something else which is much more other-directed.

  194. “Could you define “altruistic” as “low time preference” and still preserve its intuitive meaning?”

    Definitely not. However, it often correlates well with a basic level of ethics: if you cheat a customer he won’t come back, thus in the long run you lose more money etc.

    However, I have issues with ESR’s extreme biological reductionism – it’s something I just guess and cannot really prove, so don’t be too hard on me. Yes, this approach seems to make sense on our current level of scienctific understanding. Yes, phlogiston did make sense on that level of scientfic understanding of that time too. No, we don’t know what will we think about it in 50 years. But we can at least attempt to extrapolate from whatever happened before.

    1) That for thousands of years pretty much every culture beliveved that there is some sort of “higher self” (soul or whatever) which does have some “higher” goals or aims or duties or whatever you prefer to call them.

    2) that there is an interesting trend in science – it’s much less “progressive” now than 100 years ago. 100-120 years ago you saw a rigidly mechanical and intolerably rationalistic scientific worldview that had nothing but ridicule to say for all the ancient beliefs. Then it started to change – today’s scientific worlview with the evolutionary roots of religion and with zero-point energy and dark matter and all that presents a much less rigidly machine-like world and year by year tends to rediscover that much of those ancient beliefs actually made some sense. Recommended read is The Happiness Hypothesis from Jon Haidt.

    The point: the modern trend is pointing towards _reframing_ and rewording those ancient beliefs rather than casting them away as useless superstitions.

    Add 1) and 2) together and there starts to be something smelly about pure evolutionary reductionism.

    There is something waiting to be discovered there – I don’t say one day we’ll find a “soul” under a microscope, I say that we will discover something that will make the word “soul” not sound as a ridiculous idea but as a semi-accurate poetic-symbolic representation for some real phenomenon. My guess would be that we’ll find something when we start examining the brain not just from a biochemical, but also from a quantum physical point of view. I guess the real key to the mystery of consciousness we’ll find kind of inside the atoms, not in the structure of atoms, though I have no clue how.

    Anyway. Be agnostic about the existence of higher self and higher motivations, that’s all right. Put it into the gray zone of “unlikely, but maybe”, OK. But don’t just throw it away as an old-fashioned superstition yet. It may be that in a few decades you’d feel embarrassed about that.

  195. A bit back to the topic of Libertarianism: I find this article to be mind-blowingly ingenious and onto something very important and rarely talked about (BTW just ignore the quasi-religious language in the article, this argument does not depend on that, it’s just merely decorated with that, the really important keyword here is “eros”, not “god” or “sin” ) :

    http://culture11.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2008/09/29/i-found-it-out-in-a-book-and-she-was-such-a-pretty-dictionary/

  196. The investment analogy was interesting — could you say that the propensity to save or consume is in any way indicative of the ethical fabric of a society?

  197. >But don’t just throw it away as an old-fashioned superstition yet.

    I’ll throw anything away as “old-fashioned superstition” if evidence and reason does not support it. Your willingness to handwave an argument on this basis appalls me,

    In any case, I believe the trend is opposite to what you suppose. As we learn more about the way humans behave through doing actual experiments, what you call “evolutionary reductionism” gains more explanatory power and connects more intimately with oyjer kinds of human knowledge.

  198. >The investment analogy was interesting — could you say that the propensity to save or consume is in any way indicative of the ethical fabric of a society?

    Yes. In general, people with a low time preference make better and more civilized neighbors.

  199. > The investment analogy was interesting — could you say that the propensity to save or consume is in any way indicative of the ethical fabric of a society?

    I realized that doesn’t really work, because sometimes (eg when a group is in dire condition) consumption now is more important than investment for long-term survival.

  200. >I realized that doesn’t really work, because sometimes (eg when a group is in dire condition) consumption now is more important than investment for long-term survival.

    Perhaps, but lifeboat cases don’t tend to make for sound ethical analysis the rest of the time.

  201. “The investment analogy was interesting — could you say that the propensity to save or consume is in any way indicative of the ethical fabric of a society?”

    Well, on one hand long-term self-interest correlates much more nicely to ethics as short-term self-interest. I wonder how semi-immortal (non-aging, forever healthy, but killable) people would behave – I think they would be extremely keen to avoid pissing off each other, because a non-zero chance of getting killed multiplied with the cost of losing a theoretically infinite lifespan is, well, infinite.

    But. Average household savings (minus credit) in China is 23% of the yearly income, in the US it’s somewhere around -2%. (Don’t have a source at hand – a fairly reliable investment advisor, Mark Skousen said it.) Still I’d be very reluctant to call Chinese more ethical than Americans. I think it’s rather a typical case of “if all other things are equal”. (such as government type and size, certain cultural norms etc. etc.) It’s probably much more indicative of individuals within a given society.

  202. “I’ll throw anything away as “old-fashioned superstition” if evidence and reason does not support it.”

    Only formal statements (made in unambigous language like math) are fully testable. Highly ambiguous natural language statements can be supported many ways, neither of them bulletproof, but each of them increasing their probability. Something that was believed by almost all of mandkind during almost all of our history AND was one of the most important, most cherished beliefs – it does lend it enough probability to give it the benefit of doubt even if it doesn’t YET correlate with any known, tested and proven formal model.

  203. >Still I’d be very reluctant to call Chinese more ethical than Americans.

    Assuming we had a behavioral measure, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. There’s a standard-deviation difference in average IQ between European whites and pacific-rim Asians that favors the Asians; this is one of the differences I’d half-expect that to imply.

  204. Which means that you don’t believe at all in the popular saying that every people get a government they deserve?

  205. >Which means that you don’t believe at all in the popular saying that every people get a government they deserve?

    No. I hardly think the Cambodians deserved Pol Pot.

  206. > There’s a standard-deviation difference in average IQ between European whites and pacific-rim Asians that favors the Asians; this is one of the differences I’d half-expect that to imply.

    My Chinese-Canadian friends would disagree with you. It is almost certain, however, that Asian immigrants to the West are smarter on average than the locals, because of the artificial selection pressures posed by immigration authorities. The Chinese education system tends to promote a great deal of rote memorization and, of course, mathematics, which would give you a leg up on several subtests of, say, the WAIS.

    I recall you posted about this a while back; while it is true that liberals would be averse to believing in race-IQ correlations if they were true, if is the operative word here. I mean, think about libertarians’ reactions if anthropogenic global warming were proved true. How might a trait as generally useful as intelligence have evolved to be more developed in some populations than others?

  207. >How might a trait as generally useful as intelligence have evolved to be more developed in some populations than others

    There is some theory about this. I’m by no means sure I buy it, mind you, but there’s an academic named Philippe Rushton who thinks average IQ of ancestral populations rises with latitude – or, more precisely, is inversely correlated with average temperature in the environment of adaptation. His model is that cold climates require both increased ingenuity and tighter social cooperation. He makes arguments that seem logically sound, but there has been enough stink around his research methods to make me extra hesitant about the conclusions.

  208. I think it’s bogus. The reason intelligence evolved was not to aid material survival, but to enable humans to deal with the increasing complexities of social interaction. The smarter you are, the higher your Dunbar number is. So if there was any differential evolution in intelligence, it would be due to population density, not climate.

  209. >The reason intelligence evolved was not to aid material survival, but to enable humans to deal with the increasing complexities of social interaction.

    That assertion is not proven. No doubt social-gaming arms-races were a factor, but it would astonish me if they were the only factor. I’m partial to William Calvin’s idea that intelligence and adaptive flexibility were selected for in hominids by a repeated whipsaw of rapid climate variations during the last Ice Age.

  210. Question: how can you accept a fully and exclusively biological explanation of human nature and yet avoid the absurdities that would follow from it?

    Such as in that case we should stop putting any effort or money into stuff that are supposed to make us happier, from movies to massage chairs, and put all our efforts into researching a perfect happiness drug – something that fucks with our dopamine-system in sustainable and healthy way, a better version of MDMA, more or less. And if we find that, then there is no need for art, or wealth, or meaningful work, not even for love or friendship, or anything like that, we could just minimize our efforts, live in barracks and wear cheap uniforms – why not if the drug can make us happier than any of the above?

    But if you find this preposterous and absurd, then that means that you are not fully willing reduce the idea of a good life to frequent and large releases of dopamine or anything like that, which means you aren’t completely free and probably don’t want to be completely free from the culturally inherited assumption that there is some “higher” or “spiritual” part of human nature, whatever those words mean.

  211. Also, to back up my 10:33 comment, I will argue that when viewed from a material perspective, there is significant surplus capacity in human intelligence. I would argue that very few of us are tested to the limit of our intellectual abilities even in this modern age, and even primitive ancient cultures still had time for mystics/philosophers/what-have-you. The surplus capacity could be explained by what you call “social-gaming arms-races.”

    Shenpen, the problem with your argument is that the idea of pharmacological utopia is so far removed from our intuition that intuition really isn’t a reliable ethical guide in this case. Anyway, given the remarkable homeostatic ability of the human brain, I think that what you describe is nearly impossible. I indeed think that if and when all our problems are solved, our society will become trivial, because what is the point of gravity besides solving problems?

  212. More to the point, Shenpen, humans demand such variety in their experiences that a single chemical is unlikely to satisfy. So it’s unrealistic that a cocktail of chemicals alone could provide the richness of experience that people desire. You could argue that LSD approaches this ideal, but the source of inspiration for all hallucinations is indeed real life. So don’t worry, the real world won’t become insignificant any time soon.

  213. A bit off, but – do you want to blog about this? http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_13.html#berreby

    “ow do we understand and protect democracy, now that Jonah Berger has shown that voters are more likely to support education spending just because they happen to cast their ballots in a school? What are we to make of election results, after we’ve accepted that voters have, at best, “incoherent, inconsistent, disorganized positions on issues,” as William Jacoby puts it? How do you see a town hall debate, once you know that people are more tolerant of a new idea if they’re sitting in a tidy room than if they’re in a messy one?”

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