The first and most obvious tragedy about schools that don’t teach evolution to their students is that the students are missing out on one of the most important scientific explanations of how the world works. This is how life on earth developed. Schools that refuse to teach it are leaving an important tool out of their students’ mental toolkits. Indeed, one of the many facets of being educated in the modern world is to know this idea (even if you reject it).

A second and less visible tragedy that follows from the first is that this not only handicaps students in science but also in economic understanding, which is far more important in its impact on policy. Just as evolution by natural selection does not need a guiding intent*, so too markets function without somebody at the top. In fact, with somebody at the top nothing works.

Understanding how markets work and understanding how natural selection works are two complementary intellectual skills. As students are likely to have a background that makes natural selection comprehensible to them before markets, we ought to support educational schemes that introduce this idea to them as soon as they’re ready for it.

*There’s an entire theological debate out there about fitting both a deity and evolution into the same worldview. As I’m not a theologian I will skip it, but many people consider it possible. It’s beside the point here but almost obligatory to note.


George Orwell on government organization

George Orwell was a well-known socialist of the old school. He honestly valued liberty, but believed that socialism was the best means of providing it. It should be clear that I disagree with this, but I respect his candor and his generally good B.S. filter. (See: Politics and the English Language.) In a journal entry published by The Orwell Diaries project, he unwittingly makes a good point about why his belief in the power of the government to run the economy was misguided. I wish he had followed the logic through to the end.

This is one of the many excellent passages in Tyler Cowen’s book “An Economist Gets Lunch“:

Chinese food in America is not as good as in Sichuan province, but Sichuan province does not offer comparably diverse food options across the board. American food, and much of the trade-oriented, market-oriented Anglo world, is moving toward this “next best” status for many ethnic cuisines. No one of these cuisines is American food, but there is something strongly American about the combination of all those food choices in one locale. In many areas of life, America has been about perfecting diversity and choice, rather than about perfecting any single style. So if immigration restrictions limit the number of food choices, they are striking at the greatest qualities of American food.

Dialects and aggregation

One of the many interesting things I learned in Jesse Byock’s Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power is that in medieval Iceland there were no regional accents. Iceland is about the size of the state of Kentucky, with its population mainly along the coast, and in this era travel was extremely slow. Horses and boats were the fastest means of getting from one place to another. However, the settlers shared a common cultural background, and many of the men would travel to local councils several times a year and the national council once a year. They would settle disputes and determine legal rules, but also share news and generally maintain cultural ties.

Compare this to the United States, a much larger country, where there persist to this day many different regional accents. The important point to consider here, as detailed in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, is that the cultures that made up the US were already distinct in the British Isles before they transplanted themselves here, in terms of accents but also in terms of many other things. Even in the early Anglo-Saxon period there were different branches of the Anglo-Saxon language spoken and written in various parts of England.

Beyond the scope of Byock’s book and of my own knowledge are possible regional accents in Norway, where the bulk of the settlers and the culture of Iceland were from. But regardless, these coalesced in Iceland into one truly national culture. (I don’t know but doubt that they have since fragmented.) The cultures of the United States have been slowly coalescing since the 1600s, but they still retain enough regional identity to be distinguished.

The point here is that this would be a very interesting analytical tool to apply to other countries and nations in the classical sense. Germany, for instance, is a partially artificial amalgamation of different smaller cultures, as we know from history and as the maps here show. China’s linguistic variety is well-documented, and reflects known historical facts. The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere had an astonishing degree of linguistic variation. (About indigenous languages, linguist Edward Sapir famously wrote “We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe.”) I know less about other countries, but clearly the same process is at work worldwide.

All in all this should make us careful in aggregrating people together as “Indians”, “Chinese”, “Germans”, or whoever else. It may be the case that some countries really do represent nations in a 1:1 relationship, such as Iceland. But frequently this is not the case, and thinking otherwise may conceal important information when we analyze the world. We need to be very cautious about data aggregated on “national” levels.

Advancing liberty where it would count the most

I was at a libertarian event recently where the question was posed: “What would you do if you had $10 million?” [To advance the cause of liberty, that is.] There were several good answers, all of which were reasonable ways to disburse the money that could be effective. I had an inkling of an answer, but didn’t chime in. This is my answer: spend it all in a small Latin American country.

The United States of America is more or less the center of the worldwide libertarian movement. Libertarianism has intellectual roots from many places, and there are many smart libertarians active right now across the world, but the USA is undeniably the headquarters. Libertarians in foreign countries tend to side with the USA, as far as I’ve noticed, in international affairs. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are generally regarded as disasters, but I recall that the initial invasions were relatively more popular with libertarians in other countries than they were with the general public there. The default tendency seems to be to favor the USA, although in specific cases this may not hold.

American history is generally regarded as more libertarian than the histories of other countries. Any educated Western person can immediately summon opposing examples—I am not making the claim that American history is unanimously libertarian. But it is relatively more libertarian than the histories of other countries.

However by the modern day, American culture and institutions have had a long time to develop more statist features. The entrenched intelligence-military-industrial complex is overwhelmingly powerful in foreign affairs, and their means and ends can hardly be construed as libertarian. The median voter on most issues expresses a position that makes me sputter, and the major news media outlets very consciously reinforce the left-right level of analysis that excludes consistently pro-freedom people from a group identity. Big business and the banks use the rhetoric of free markets to insure favoritism for them at our expense. The judicial system is not entirely lost, but that may be only a matter of time.

The point is that $10 million or even $100 million or $1 billion would do plenty of good in the United States, but sometimes this feels like draining the ocean with a pail. The Old World attitudes about state control are firmly entrenched here.

A better use of the resources might be to spend them in a small country without such a vast army of opponents. Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Panama, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic are all relatively small countries in which these resources would make a large splash. Feel free to object to any of these countries in particular; I recognize that Cuba may be a difficult starting point, and that others are already much further along. But the influence of a regional think tank or movement dedicated to free minds and free markets would be relatively much larger, and would have positive spillover effects in other Latin American countries.

The primary opponent of such a movement, if it became popular, would ironically be the US Department of State and behind it the US military, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies. The USA has a long history of negative interference in the Western Hemisphere, and I’d hardly expect the government to sit idly by while people starting marching to their own tunes. This would not only help to unite the other Latin American countries around the idea, it would also expose the decay of the dream in the USA to the world. Hopefully this would force us all to reevaluate our own history and institutions, and prevent others from getting too hung up on defending the United States. This could only be good for the libertarian movement. (For a historical analogy, think of the intellectual discomfort when honest socialists and communists had a default attachment to the Soviet Union.)

I often think that if one Latin American country legalizes marijuana, the rest will legalize shortly after. I believe that anti-legalization forces believe this too, which is why several years ago a suggestion by Mexican president Vicente Fox was answered with an immediate visit by George W. Bush, after which the proposal was abandoned. This is but one facet of freeing people, but it is illustrative. Imagine the prosperity if Latin American countries began to trade with each other freely, to recognize the property rights of their indigenous populations and everyone else, to renounce militarism in domestic and foreign affairs, and in general to let people flourish. It would be good for them, good for us, and in the long run good for everyone.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate the financial resources being spent on my behalf right here. While we have the means we still ought to support the scholars, organizers, activists, and others who keep the movement afloat, and in the immediate short term this means spending a lot of the resources in the US. Even if this Latin American think tank were to get started, a large amount of the intellectual material flowing through it would originate here. But it’s worth considering.

My take on negative vs. positive rights

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains a division in rights thus: “The holder of a negative right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service.” Most libertarians are not comfortable with positive rights, because they imply that someone else has to provide or pay for the provision of that good or service for the positive right holder. You respect my right to free speech by simply not silencing me or punishing me for my speech. However, it is not the case that you respect my right to health care by simply not impeding me from getting it; you respect my right to health care by paying for my health care if I am unable to.

There are many sophisticated arguments for each position, and it should be no surprise that I favor the negative rights-only side. One of the things that has always struck me as flawed in the assumptions of positive rights is a question of time, which to my (meager) knowledge has never been fleshed out.

Let us assume that A has a right to, say, health care, meaning a positive right that others must pay to provide A with. We can also (safely) assume that A has a right to free speech, meaning a negative right that other people do not have to actively do anything to respect. Others may not respect his rights, but we are assuming that he indeed still has them.

Further information: A lives in 1000 C.E.

Rights don’t disappear: if Thomas Paine had the right to free speech in 1776, I currently have the right to free speech in 2012. But do they emerge? I’ve always thought that rights were conceived of as timeless. (This leaves aside the difficult question of when humans became persons, but afterwards I think of rights as being set.)

It seems absurd to think that A has a positive right to health care in 1000 C.E. Maybe it is not absurd, and it’s just a sad fact that it was only relatively recently in human history when we could realistically respect certain rights. If that’s the case, what other rights do we have that we haven’t yet discovered?

How exactly would rights emerge? Do they depend on material progress? Will there be genuine positive rights in 2112 that do not exist now? If so, we could easily imagine a Luddite war removing our capacity for respecting some positive rights and thus making the right disappear.

One response to this is to hold that “the right to health care” is really just shorthand for one facet of “the right to [realistically] maximized welfare”. My concern with that is that this broad right is, well, far too broad. It has no end in sight. I accept that as there was no recognizable line separating proto-human non-persons from persons, there may not have been an exact moment we could identify to say that rights began then. But taking a long enough view one could identify two categories, even if the boundaries blur. With this right to maximized welfare, technological capacity is constantly changing, forcing us to estimate a constantly changing boundary that cannot be approximated in hindsight.

And like a lot of discussions of positive rights, it makes economists groan. Intentions aside, many things are not realistic or even possible, but only specialists might know this.

There’s the technical issue that the right to maximized welfare might best be served by respecting only negative rights. Sure, in the short run we could theoretically increase utility by providing everybody under the median income with food stamps, but in the long run this would be counterproductive, in which case we’ve respected the rights of people right now and failed to respect the rights of anybody after right now.

Put differently: what maximizes the short run is not what maximizes the long run. There is a tradeoff to be made, and one end of the spectrum will necessarily not be the preferred side. This is a technical question in the realm of economics and not philosophy, but it bears directly on philosophical investigation and cannot be ignored.