Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly…

When Mubarak jammed Egyptian citizens’ phones to prevent them from protesting, Western commentators condemned it. When the Chinese government does the same to silence its critics in Xinjiang or elsewhere, Western commentators condemn it as well. And condemn it they should, despite the pathetic excuses of the powerful that such human rights violations are necessary for public safety.

So, what shall we make of this? The ACLU, fortunately, is on the right side here; it’s not as if this act has attracted much support.

The real problem is that this happened at all. Will someone be prosecuted? This act is illegal under the first amendment, is it not? Or will someone at least be fired?

There’s no feeling quite so pleasurable as the smugness of moral superiority (especially that of one’s home nation relative to the uncouth barbarians’), but when its undeservedness becomes conspicuous, it’s a real wet blanket.

And it’s getting increasingly conspicuous.

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On the road

I apologize for the long absence. I’m abroad, see, and don’t have much time for the Web. I’ll try to be back at the end of the month.

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The limits to libertarianism

Libertarians come in many stripes. You’ve got your Objectivists, gun-toters, hippies, Nozickians, anarcho-capitalists, and so many more.

The above tend to base their libertarianism on some foundational principle, such as natural rights. But consider two other strains: Constitutionalists and economist-types. Constitutionalists take themselves to be law professors, and their interpretations of the Constitution don’t always square with those of actual law professors. Economist libertarians may not actually be economists, but they love to quote Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

 What Constitutionalists and econ-types have in common is this: They don’t base their libertarianism on, respectively, the Constitution and economics. They can’t, for the Constitution and economics have wills of their own; they are not libertarian ideas, after all.

The Constitution is not a libertarian’s dream document. If the federal government were strictly limited to Constitutional limits, it would in many ways be more libertarian than it is now (mainly because the federal government would have less power relative to state governments), but it would still regulate interstate commerce and immigration.

Mainstream economics also limits liberty. A purely “economic” government would do nothing but solve true market failures. For example, it might penalize pollution (because the harm from pollution is a negative externality), subsidize education (because the benefits from education include positive externalities), and run the military. It wouldn’t try to solve all market failures, though; public choice tells us that governments fail, and failures have costs, so the government would only try to intervene if the expected value were positive. Neither would it restrict immigration, trade, or entrepreneurship. Even with a government so constrained, however, a society could hardly be considered Libertopia. Forced vaccinations and taxation would probably exist.

Thus, while a tyranny of ideal law professors and a tyranny of ideal economists would each advance liberty in important ways, neither is really what libertarians want. They just happen to lie in the same direction from here as Libertopia.

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Stoicism today

Of what relevance is Stoicism to people today? To answer that we answer the question with at least a modicum of coherence, let’s first define our key terms.

Stoicism: The ethical paradigm propounded by Zeno and his successors. (There’s a lot to be said about the scope of Stoicism; it wasn’t just about ethics. Nevertheless, I’m only considering the ethical part.) This ethical paradigm says that

  1. The sole good is virtue, meaning excellence of moral character. Other apparent goods, such as wealth, health, family, and social status, are still valuable, but not on the same order as virtue.
  2. You are in control of your beliefs.

From these points (and with a little help from some other assumptions about the mind, physics, and language) the Stoics concluded that people can and should control their feelings to a significant degree. They had truly bizarre beliefs, too–like that one’s physical circumstances are irrelevant to one’s well-being, and that everyone except the perfect sage is in equally miserable shape.

Relevant: I mean to ask whether, given the knowledge humans have accumulated over the last two millennia, Stoic theories still make any sense. I do not mean to ask whether belief in Stoic theories has any benefits; it obviously does, as does belief in any broadly consistent set of beliefs.

I think the answer is that Stoicism is quite relevant. Clearly, a lot of Stoicism is crap. (If you don’t believe me, read up on it; this book is amazing.) However, while we don’t have perfect control over our feelings, we have more than we often assume we do. And just as the Stoics pointed out, this is largely because our feelings stem from our thoughts, and we can habituate ourselves into thinking in particular ways.

This insight is the basic insight behind cognitive therapies, such as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). The founder of REBT, Albert Ellis, noted that he was inspired as an undergraduate by reading Epictetus, one of the most famous Stoics. (I’ve forgotten where I read this; if you know a source, let me know.)

REBT and its cousins (e.g. Cognitive Behavior Therapy) have an impressive track record as far as psychotherapies go; this is evidence that their basic assumptions are correct; and this is evidence that at least part of what the old Stoics believed was true.


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Lottery losers, raffle winners

Do you like money? Then don’t buy a lottery ticket. The total winnings will fall short of the total revenue from ticket sales (they must–otherwise, how could the government make money from the lottery?), which means buyers as a group lose money. Since there’s no way to tell if you’re the lucky buyer, the odds are that you will lose money, too.

This is the concept of expected gain. The expected gain of doing something is the average gain. It’s what you’d gain on average if you could repeat the action a million times.

With simple examples, it’s easy to calculate. You just:

  1. Take each possible outcome and give it a numerical value. With the lottery, that’s really easy because the outcomes already have numerical values. The first possibility is that you win; let’s say the value is $10,000,000. The second possibility is that you don’t win; the value is -$1 (we’re assuming the ticket costs a dollar).
  2. Multiply that numerical value buy the probability that you’ll actually get it.  Let’s say the odds of winning the lottery are 1 in 10 million, and that the odds of losing are thus 9,999,999 in 10 million. $10,000,000 times 1/10,000,000 is $1, and -$1 times 9,999,999/10,000,000 is really, really close to -$1.
  3. Add together all the results. Our answer here is just about zero, though slightly on the positive side.

So the expected gain is positive! If the real lottery were like this, you should buy a ticket. (In fact, you should buy a bunch.) But obviously it’s not; the expected value to you must be negative, since the government isn’t dumb enough to set up a lottery in which it stands to lose money.

Buy the way, this doesn’t apply to raffles, or at least it doesn’t apply in a straightforward fashion. With a raffle, you win prizes, not money. Different people value the prizes differently. You might be willing to pay $1,000 for a Caribbean cruise, while your friend might be willing to pay only $50. Thus your expected gain from buying a raffle ticket with such a prize will differ from hers. We don’t know how much the organization running the lottery values the prizes, either; they might have gotten them at a discount that would be unavailable to you.

So a raffle might really be worth it, but the lottery isn’t.





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Rain in Minneapolis

You think it’ll rain tomorrow in Minneapolis, and I don’t. We thus have a disagreement. Moreover, this is a special kind of disagreement–it’s quite easy to find the answer conclusively: All we have to do is wait a day, and then check the weather report.

Once you reveal your opinion to me (that it’ll rain tomorrow), I have three choices. I can (1) agree with you, (2) argue with you, and (3) bet you.

I hope you see that (2) is right out. There’s no point arguing, since we’ll both know tomorrow. (1) is actually not a bad idea, especially if you might have better information than I. But let’s say I have no reason to think you do. That leaves (3). It’s time to put up or shut up.

But what about the stakes? Should we bet at 1-1 odds? Even though 1-1 is how most people prefer to make informal bets, it’s not usually the fairest way. After all, it fails to account for our different degrees of confidence in our beliefs.

So, how confident am I that it won’t rain? I’d say I’m 75% confident. That means I’d put the odds of its raining tomorrow at 1-3 in favor. You, on the other hand, think it’ll rain with 2-1 confidence (66.67%). Now that we’ve established our beliefs more precisely, we’re in a position to make a fair bet.

But first, what’s a fair bet? A fair bet is one in which each party expects to gain the same amount. To make sure the terms of a bet are fair, we should check our expected winnings to see whether they’re equal.

If we bet at 1-1 odds, what is my expected gain from the bet? Let’s think about it in terms of frequencies: I think it’ll rain once for every three times it doesn’t rain. That means I expect to pay up once, and get paid thrice, for every four trials, on average. Since we’re assuming that the terms are 1-1, the amount I pay and the amount I get are the same (call it $1). Thus I expect to gain $3 and lose $1. My expected gain is $2.

You think it’ll rain twice for every one time it doesn’t rain. You thus expect to gain $2 and lose $1, hence gaining $1. I expect to gain twice as much as you do.

You, being a shrewd bettor, are inclined to refuse this offer of a bet. You want one for which our expected gains will be equal. Well, what terms would you like?

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Frank and Wanda, sunk costs and punishment

Consider my friends Frank and Wanda. Frank’s a frugal fellow. Wanda, on the other hand, is wasteful. Understandably, Frank and Wanda do not get along well. As their mutual friend, I decided to take them both to dinner to see if they could settle their differences amicably. Here is a modified transcript of their conversation as we neared the end of dinner.

Frank: Wow, I’m full. That was a fantastic meal.

Wanda: Sure was. I’m stuffed.

Frank: What? You’re already finished? Look at your plate! You’ve still got a long way to go!

Wanda: Man, I’m full. Let’s go.

Frank: At least get a doggie bag.

W: And reheat this? Ewwww…

F: But…you’ll waste the food!

(Editor’s note: At this point, I mentally slapped my forehead. Frank never says “waste” unless he’s spoiling for an argument. Was my dinner such a failure?)

 W: In a sense, it was already wasted when I ordered it. The remaining food is of no value to me, so eating it is just as useless as tossing it. My decision to toss it does not confer less value to me, relative to eating it. So how is it a waste?

F: It’s not of no value. We’ve established that you can’t doggie-bag it, but if you gorge yourself now, you’ll eat less later. That means you’ll spend less money later. Isn’t that a benefit?

W: It would be, but I doubt gorging myself now will reduce my hunger for breakfast tomorrow. I’ll be just as hungry then as now. So what’s the point of eating ’til I burst?

F: Hmmm… I concede that there’s no short-term value in stuffing yourself. But as you said earlier, the food was wasted the moment you ordered it. You shouldn’t order as much food next time. Forcing yourself to overeat is a punishment! If you credibly commit to punishing yourself every time you overorder, you’ll be less likely to overorder.

W: A punishment? Why do I need that? I’ll just remember not to order too much food in the future.

F: Sure, that’s what everyone says when they’re about to get punished! But if you think about it, forced overeating is the perfect punishment for your particular vice. It’s unpleasant precisely to the degree that you sinned.

W: But what if I get used to overeating? Then I’ll continue to order tons of food. I’ll eat it, but I won’t need it. It’ll still be wasted.

F: Hmmm… Right again. Well, how about this: You have to pay a penalty for your wasted food. From now on, when we go out you have to pay a fee for every bit of food left on your plate.

W: But then my incentive will be to clean my plate. Like I just said, I might just get used to eating more. What we want is an incentive to order less food in the first place.

F: Ah, then let’s raise the price of food. You pay double.

W: Deal.

That’s how the dinner ended–amicably, just as I’d hoped.

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