Thursday, January 31, 2008

The funny side of the elections

P.J. O'Rourke is one of my favorite political writers. His humor cuts through so much bull and often through the laughter one recognizes the truth.

His "Letter to Our European Friends" explains the US elections in a way that has to make everyone from all political stripes laugh out loud.

Here are some gems.

Explaining our two party system:
Democrats are in favor of higher taxes to pay for greater spending, while Republicans are in favor of greater spending, for which the taxpayers will pay.
On Mitt Romney as a conservative:
But Mitt was governor of Massachusetts. This is like applying to be pope and listing your prior job experience as "Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem."
On the Presidents as the Seven Dwarves:
We've got Dopey right now. We had Sleazy before him. Grumpy lost in '04. Sleepy was great in the 1980s, but he's dead.

On the libertarian side, my friend Patrick has done a thoroughly hilarious analysis of the libertarian candidates. They almost make Ron Paul look normal.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Seize this Honkus!

I'm posting this video excerpt in honor my classes this week. In Ethics, we are discussing punishment and in Business Ethics we are starting on Frankfurt's "On Bullshit". This first part of this clip (about 1 3/4 minutes) has one of my favorite scenes: an exchange between Mel Brooks and Bea Arthur on bullshit. The latter half (About 7 minutes) asks the question: what is the punishment for a slave who strikes a Roman citizen. Now, let's be creative folks!

Monday, January 21, 2008

I think I hit a nerve

My Atlasphere column is getting thoroughly thrashed in the comments section. There have been some positive comments, but most of the comments are fairly useless ad hominem and the like; though some of those are quite humorous in their stupidity. For example, several folks dismiss the article on the basis of my being a professor. Others accused me of being a hired political hit man. The most ridiculous though are the several people accuse me of being a socialist or communist. Apparently, criticizing Ron Paul for not arguing against social security and socialization of health care, and for having a view of federalism that would allow massive violations of individual rights by the states, makes me a socialist. More likely the reasoning here is: against Ron Paul, must be against libertarianism. Therefore, must be a socialist. The fact that I argue against Paul on the basis of being inconsistent with the principles of liberty and freedom is, I guess, irrelevant.

One of the themes coming out of the comments is that I didn't do enough research because I based my critique on Ron Paul's official campaign website. Several respondents pointed to other writings/speeches by Paul to indicate his views on various positions in contradistinction to my interpretation of his views.

I'm glad to revise my evaluation of Paul when presented with new evidence. When I first wrote the blog, I was more critical of Paul on free trade. Several of my blog readers directed me to columns he wrote where he clarified his views, and I changed my evaluation and softened my critique. Additionally, I've hardened my criticism on issues like "states' rights" and social security after reading more about Paul.

Still, this raises more questions than answers for me. I knew very little of Paul when I decided to do write this blog/column. As I said in an earlier post, it was an exercise for me to find out more about him that grew out of a discussion at our local Objectivist salon. The logical place to look is his campaign website; that's where I would expect to find the most definitive statement of Paul's views and his platform. That's what I would do for any candidate. It never occurred to me that the campaign website would be so different than the candidate's actual views. Moreover, I don't see how this helps Paul's case. It shows either he's a poor supervisor or he's intentionally misleading people to get support. The first should disqualify him from executive office and the second undermines the claim to be a principled.

New twist on an old thought experiment

Cow and Boy offer a new twist on the standard trolley thought experiment in moral philosophy.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ron Paul Column at Atlasphere

My expanded analysis of Ron Paul on the issues is up at The Atlasphere.
This is similar to my earlier blog post, but expanded to include new material on Paul's campaign website.

So far the feedback has been mixed: people seem either to like the piece or hate it. The haters fall into two camps: those who recognize the flaws in Paul's candidacy but still see him as the least bad among evils and those who think I'm an idiot. (Though I suppose those are not mutually exclusive).

One question that comes a lot when I criticize Ron Paul is "so who do you support then?" I don't support any of the candidates. That Paul might be closest to my own views about many policy positions is not alone sufficient as a reason to support him. I want to know why he holds those positions. But as I argue in my column, I don't think Paul's positions--as stated on his campaign website--are that similar on many important issues.

I wrote the column/blog, in part, as an exercise of my own to understand more about Paul. Part of it was also as a warning that supporters of liberty and the free society shouldn't get duped by Paul's liberty rhetoric. I don't expect John Galt to run for president, I am not looking for perfection. But I want some one who understands what liberty and a free society means in a principled way. Looking at Paul's campaign website does not lead me to believe that he meets this condition.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My New Canadian Hero

Courage. Integrity. Principled. Passioned defense of freedom.

This video is the opening statement of Ezra Levant's defense of free speech before the Canadian "Human Rights" Commission. It's a remarkable and inspiring demonstration. There are other clips of the hearing--all of which have Levant never wavering from his courageous stand against government censorship and violations of liberty.

(Hat tips to: Megan McArdle and Timothy Sandefur)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pinker on Morality

Steven Pinker has a really interesting essay in the New York Times on morality. He discusses the role of evolution in forming what he calls a moral sense. His main thesis is that understanding of science and human nature do not undermine the importance of moral reasoning, but provide it with a more thorough ground and provides humans with a better understanding of who we are so that we can reason better.

I do not agree with a lot of what Pinker says in the essay--or at least his accounting of different features of morality--but the article is a good and worthwhile read. And I do think the general thesis is correct. Unfortunately, I do not have time to detail where I think Pinker goes wrong. I'll give that to you has homework.

(Hat tip: A&L Daily)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Liberal with healthy helping of the Market

Brink Lindsey has a great post that echoes thoughts I have long had about libertarianism: "Illiberal Libertarians". I've always been uncomfortable with the cozy relationship libertarianism seemed to have with conservatism. I am not a conservative. As Brink writes "I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal."

I like the label "market liberal": it denotes that I am a liberal who views the problems of social and political life as best left to free individuals to resolve. Free markets and limited government are important political goals because they are the means by which individuals can best live free and flourish.

Conservatism, by contrast, seems more to be about limited government as means towards more social control. In order for the family, local community, and/or religious institutions to exert their power over the individual, the government needed to be limited.

One sees this in Paul's views: his misunderstanding of federalism to allow states to violate individual rights; his views on abortion, homosexuality, religious freedom; his vies on immigration and trade. On all these (see my post analyzing these positions), Paul uses, paradoxically, the rhetoric of liberty as a means to less freedom in our lives.

(And this is why Paul is not a libertarian. Check out Timothy Sandefur's tally of libertarian repudiation of Paul.)

I am less hopeful than Brink that those on the left--modern or statist liberals--are coming around to market liberalism. I do agree, nonetheless, with him that "making the case that economic liberalization is of a piece with overall social liberalization" is the best way forward in terms of helping the cause of liberty. This is because social and economic liberalization have their foundation in the same source: the individual's moral right to life and liberty.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Beware the Libertarian Label

Timothy Sandefur has a fantastic post "What will libertarians learn from the Ron Paul fiasco?"

A great point he highlights is that there is deep division in the libertarian movement: "the neo-Confederates at the Mises Institute on one hand, and what James Kirchik calls “the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine” on the other."
Kirchik is the The New Republic author that recently published an article detailing the often racist and anti-semitic content of newsletters that went out under Paul's name in the 80s and 90s. (Yes, there is some dispute about the authorship of these newsletters, but Paul doesn't deny granting permission to publish them under his name.)
Sandefur argues, and I agree, that the neo-confederate/paleo-conservative camp are not really libertarians. Of course, that side would argue that we are the ones who are not libertarians. There are real philosophical differences about the understanding of morality, individuals, the role of the state, and so on. So what to do? Sandefur hopes for a reformation of sorts: "a straightforward confrontation with complicated and challenging issues."

Maybe this whole Ron Paul hoopla will get people to think about these differences and where they stand on them. I began to think about them after 9/11 when I saw so many who claimed the label libertarian saying such foreign things about the causes of 9/11 and what our response should be. I also have met libertarians over the years who do not seem to have a deep understanding of or serious commitment to liberty. They are libertarians primarily on the basis of being anti-authority. I call them the let-me-smoke-my-pot libertarians. Yes they want government out of their lives, but not on a consistent principle and so end up supporting statist plans in other areas of politics.

This doesn't mean that there are not some committed, principled libertarians who do understand the importance of individual liberty and the proper role of the government. Most Objectivists get it -- though there are plenty of division there as well. Most of the folks at Cato get it most of the time. Reason Mag on its best days gets it too -- but since Postrel left Reason it's gone way down hill. (Read Postrel take Reason to task for missing the boat on Paul.)

The moral of the story: Beware the label libertarian. It has come to be a meaningless term that doesn't tell you anything useful about the beliefs of an individual.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

TAS Summer Seminar 2008

After a one summer absence, I will be back at The Atlas Society's Summer Seminar. Last summer, I was in Italy for my 5 year wedding anniversary and so I missed it. I'm excited about this seminar for a number of reasons (in no particular order):

1. I won't have an early morning presentation for the first time in years.
2. It's in Portland and I've always wanted to go to Portland.
3. I am presenting some non-traditional material.

TAS has accepted my proposals for the following:

"Did You Bullshit Today? What Frankfurt can tell us about Toohey."
Harry Frankfurt’s work on human agency and responsibility are staples of academic philosophy. But it is his popular appearances on The Daily Show that have made him one of the best-known living philosophers. In his provocative essay, “On Bullshit,” Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter is indifferent to truth and without concern for reality. Frankfurt’s analysis gives us insight into key Objectivist concepts and themes: the primacy of existence, the virtue of honesty, and the second-hander. Part One will focus on Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit while Part Two will explore what this analysis can tell us about Objectivism.
“Playing Ball with Objectivism: The Ethics of Sports”
Sports have long been a part of human civilization and they play a significant role in the lives of most people. They also raise a wide-range of important ethical issues; and on many of these, Objectivism offers a unique and novel perspective. In this session, Prof. Klein will discuss many of these provocative issues, including good sportsmanship, fair play, and performance-enhancing technologies. He’ll also ask whether being a loyal fan of one's local sports club makes one a tribalist and whether the commercialization of sports is a positive development.

These should be a lot of fun to prepare, present, and discuss. I hope others share my enthusiasm!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Ajami and Ali share their wisdom

I came across two very interesting articles in the New York Times Books section today. Almost all the reviews and essays are related to Islam.

The first is an essay by Fouad Ajami. I've read his essays in Newsweek and usually find him interesting and intelligent. This essay is no different. He writes about his past criticism of Samuel Huntington's well-known (for good reason) article and subsequent book: The Clash of Civilizations. With hindsight, Ajami gives more credit to Huntington's prediction that the end of the cold war would be followed by a much more serious clash between Islam and the West. "Nearly 15 years on, Huntington’s thesis about a civilizational clash seems more compelling to me than the critique I provided at that time."

The second, and much more interesting, is a review by Ayaan Hirsi Ali of Lee Harris' The Suicide of Reason. Ali is the author of Infidel--a book on my to read list. And after this review, her book is bumped to the top of that list.

She praises Harris' book for its treatment of Islamic fanaticism: its utter rejection of reason, its glorification of self-sacrifice, and its “grand mission of conversion.” She takes him to task, however, for his view of the “fanaticism of reason.” This is his view that the West’s reliance on reason blinds the West to the true nature of the Islamic world. Reason leads the West to an assumption of universally shared values, motivations, and goals. But, Harris apparently argues, this is a fatal mistake. The Islamic world does not share the values of the West and assuming they do, leads us to misunderstand their actions and goals and thus fail to respond appropriately.

Ali doesn’t disagree with the essential idea here: that Islam and the West have fundamentally different world-views and values and that we in the West often fail to recognize this. Where she takes issue with Harris is in his view that reliance on reason is the culprit. Harris, she argues, seems to think that reason makes us weak and the reliance on faith and force in the Muslim world makes them strong: “our worship of reason is making us easy prey for a ruthless, unscrupulous and extremely aggressive predator and may be contributing to a slow cultural ‘suicide.’”

Not so, says Ali. Reason is our great strength, not our weakness: “The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little.” Harris fails to see the real problem: the West’s own rejection of reason: religion and romanticism. Both, she claims, are hostile to modernity and the Enlightenment (and thus reason). Romanticism encourages moral relativism and glorifies tribal life over the individual. This undermines reason and individualism in the West and gives succor to our Islamic enemies.

She appears to be drawing a similar distinction to one that David Kelley draws between pre-modern, modern, and post-modern (See his The Party of Modernity). Kelley argues that the pre-modern and post-modern are both opposed to the modern in their rejection (or diminution) of reason. Ali identifies religion as something that the Enlightenment must grow out of and overcome (pre-modern) and that the romanticism is reaction against the Enlightenment and reason (post-modern).

Ali recognizes that what the West needs to defeat Islamic fanaticism is to rediscover and embrace the Enlightenment: it needs reason and individualism.

Whether it’s Rand’s escape from the Soviet Union or Ali’s escape from Muslim tribal life, it is interesting that it takes some one born and raised outside the West to see not just the dangers inherent from where they came but the salvation offered by a culture of reason and individualism.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Hope

It’s that time of year when many consider what New Year’s resolutions to adopt (and soon ignore). I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions, but I do like to reflect on the past year and look to what the future holds.

2007--The Bad:
Without a doubt, the loss of Sylvia (Posts here).
Tempe home sale falling through, not once, but twice.
  • The mortgage crunch cost us big when our original buyer was bumped by his lender and future interested parties had similar problems getting financing.
These two were the worst things that happened to us last year. I just cannot put the loss of the Patriots in the 07 AFC championship game on the same list as Sylvia. The former is a minor annoyance in comparison. I’d give the perfect season back if it meant having Sylvia back.

2007--The Good:
Getting Rockford College position.
  • A nearly ten-year process to get my dream job of teaching philosophy full-time (I started my masters program in Fall 98).
Going to Italy and Paris.
  • Kristen and I celebrate 5 years of marriage by spending 17 wonderful, but hot, days Europe.
Red Sox win second World Series this decade.
Patriots complete perfect regular season.
Patrick and Jamie get married.
  • Watched two friends finally tie the knot and got to spend some great time with old friends.

2008--The Hope:
Finish the dissertation!!!
Sell/rent the Tempe home.
Success in the family expansion project.
Patriots win 4th Super Bowl in 7 years and go 19-0.
Continued health and prosperity of my loved ones.

Just fantasizing:
Serenity 2 announced
Spenser for Hire DVD release
All presidential candidates decided to withdraw from election, leaving a secretly cloned Thomas Jefferson to take over as president.