Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Scene of Social Corrosion

OR An Attempt at an Explicitly Non-Libertarian Argument for Marijuana Legalization

On my bus ride home a few days ago, a young man sitting near me was rolling a sizeable blunt on the back of his skateboard. The bus was crowded, everyone could see and smell that he was rolling weed, but of course no one said anything and most people didn’t even look twice. Despite having a huge captive audience for his crime, the man made no attempt to hide his activities. He didn’t seem furtive or ashamed, and certainly didn’t seem worried that anyone would alert the constabulary.

I think that ignored laws are dangerous things. And that the habit of legal disobedience has a generally corrosive social effect. For one thing, laws that are generally, but not always, ignored foster an air of capriciousness under which any citizen might be arrested for what is commonly accepted to be permissible behavior. This leads to situations in which, e.g., black men are arrested at much higher rates for marijuana use, despite using at roughly the same rate as white men. The laws regarding using marijuana are generally ignored and the police are free enforce the laws on disfavored people or groups or to use the law as a way of crushing dissent.

Ayn Rand was hitting on something true when she said:

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

A government that criminalizes or maintains laws against socially permissible behavior is reserving itself the right to punish people arbitrarily. It can cover itself with the figleaf of “our drug dog alerted”, when the arrest was really a naked abuse of power.

There’s another important aspect to this, though. Aside from handing the government undue power, ignored laws foster mistrust in the people which in turn corrodes the rule of law. This mistrust is due not only to the specter of arrest hanging over citizens for engaging in what they consider quotidian behavior, but also because it signals that the legal system itself cannot be trusted. After all, if The Man is lying to you about weed being evil, what else might He lying to you about.

This leads people break other laws which may have real victims and to try and avoid contact with the legal system which ostensibly exists to protect them. Living without a legal system which reliably protects one’s rights can be pretty hellish. Reliable governance and a lack of corruption, after all, is the single biggest difference between safe, prosperous countries and third-world hellholes.

Aristotle, in his Politics said that “the law has no power to command obedience except that of habit, which can only be given by time.” This habit of legal obedience is one of the many factors of good governance and there’s no surer way to break people of that habit than outlaw that which is generally accepted as being socially permissible. Once this habit breaks down, it serves as both an indicator that the law is debased and corrupt and also as an impediment to fixing the state and returning to some semblance of good governance.

Once the people mistrust the state to provide them with effective protections and sensible laws, they tend to stop trusting that the institutions can be reformed. This leads to cultural cynicism, which further fosters an acceptance and even expectation of corruption and graft (which I think is best evidenced by crony client states like Greece or some of the South American Republics). This begins to describe a negative feedback loop in which legal corruption fosters cynicism which in turn tolerates further corruption.

So what I really saw on the bus this evening was a small sign of social decline. Not because of the marijuana, but because a bus-load of presumably upstanding citizens witnessed a man break the law and didn’t even bat an eyelash. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the observers, but on the law. When the state outlaws that which civil society accepts, it aligns itself against society rather than with it and the resulting conflict can only serve to damage both institutions.

Poverty, Redistribution, and Bad Memes

Peter Risdon has an excellent post from a few years back about poverty, ownership, and self reliance. It’s a great post and it does an excellent job of highlighting a fact that a lot of people miss, which is that modern poverty is primarily caused by bad memes.1 Some of these memes are personal mental traits, some are social or group traits, but ultimately it is these dysfunctional ideas that are at the root of almost all poverty in Western countries. Which memes they are specifically (and I have my personal theory) is an important debate, but outside the scope of this post. It doesn’t matter what the bad memes are exactly, the fact is that poverty as we know it today will not change until those memes get replaced by better ones.

A natural consequence of this fact is that redistribution of wealth is not a solution to poverty. Taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor does not fix poverty any more than ingesting aspirin fixes a cold. It relieves some of the symptoms, and so it may be desirable in the short term, but it’s not going to resolve the underlying problem. In addition, as Risdon points out in his essay, redistributive welfare may actually foster bad memes. Implemented poorly, welfare encourages bad memes to go unresolved, to spread, or to get worse.2

Until we as a society start working to eliminate (through education and welfare reform) the bad ideas that keep people in poverty, we’re never going to appreciably reduce the suffering caused by poverty in America and the rest of the industrialized world. Again, whether you personally believe that the bad memes causing poverty are fundamentally personal (e.g. lack of future orientation or entitlement culture) or social (e.g. endemic greed, lack of charity, or interpersonal alienation) doesn’t really matter. The memes are the issue and wealth transfers won’t change those bad ideas one bit. Per Risdon, though, poorly-implemented welfare may actually worsen them, meaning that redistributive welfare might end up being not the cure for poverty, but the cause of it.


1 Two caveats to this post are that I’m not talking about poverty due to disability or mental illness, which are clearly not caused by bad memes. Also that poverty is relative and that poverty in the modern Western world is a different beast from poverty a century ago or poverty in the Third World.

2 For more evidence of this, see this CFP post showing that the War on Poverty correlated with the end of poverty numbers declining in America.

Meta-Ethical Question

I was thinking earlier about some conversations I had while I was TAing a class in grad school on the Philosophy of Technology. We were talking about ethics of genetic engineering and whether or not it was ethical to, for instance, predispose your unborn child to heightened athleticism or intelligence. So I’m interested in the spectrum of possible uses for genetic engineering and which ones people feel are permissible under their ethical intuition.

So, assume that you’re an expectant parent and the doctor tells you that he can cheaply, safely, and with a 100% success rate tweak your child’s genetics. He explains the benefits to you and asks you to decide which genetic alterations (if any) you feel comfortable having performed on your child.

1.) The doctor can detect and fix a host of life-threatening or debilitating genetic diseases and disorders, guaranteeing that your child will not suffer from e. g., Coeliac disease or Haemophilia.

2.) The doctor can detect and fix non-debilitating genetic defects, guaranteeing that your child won’t, e.g., be color blind.

3.) The doctor can guarantee that your child will be right-handed or left-handed.

4.) The doctor can give your child some modest, but naturally unusual advantage like ambidexterity or tetrachromacy.

5.) The doctor can give your child enhanced athletic predisposition, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in athletic potential.

6.) The doctor can give your child enhanced cognitive ability, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in intellectual abilities.

7.) The doctor can activate some genes that are associated with good looks in their gender, predisposing them to being more attractive.

8.) The doctor can predispose your child to using certain moral foundations, improving the chances that their political and ethical models will be similar to yours.

Which of these (if any) would you be willing to have the doctor perform on your unborn child? Let’s assume perfect safety and efficacy for the sake of this thought experiment.

The Sin of a Good Education

David Thompson points out the staggering response to a Guardian columnist’s choice to enroll her child in private school. I really can’t extract a quote from Thompson’s post, you really should go read the whole thing.

Apparently one of the greatest sins a right-thinking person can commit against their child and society is to send the child to a school run by any body other than the State. Heaven forbid parents should want the best for their kids and heaven forefend they try to act on such sinful thoughts by sending their children to a private school. The act of sending one’s child to a private school is lambasted as being beyond justification and “utterly immoral”.

The ratiocination behind these attacks is entirely opaque to me. I honestly can’t imagine a world view so sick, small, and petty that it would begrudge people their efforts to improve the lives of their children. Providing the best possible life for one’s offspring is one of the most natural and noble of human impulses. Any moral model that would willfully emiserate children and strip them of advantage for some abstract notion of “fairness” is completely alien to me.

And yet there it is on proud display. What’s next, a campaign against advanced placement courses? My parents put me into a series of very good programs for advanced students and I have no doubt that my International Baccalaureate classes in high school helped me get a great start in life, and while they were taught at a public (i.e. state-run) school, they certainly weren’t available to all children. Does that make them inherently immoral?

For my part, good on Janet Murray for working to give her child the best possible start in life. And I hope the jackals who are deriding her some day develop the good sense to be ashamed of themselves.

The Tragedy of William James Sidis

I am fortunate that I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world. In my time at Amazon, I’ve yet to meet a salaried employee that was anything other than above-average in general intelligence and far above average in mathematical/logical reasoning. It’s no secret that such intelligence has costs for many of the people who possess it. I recently came across an excellent overview of those costs by Grady M Towers, written for the journal of the Prometheus Society. The essay, called “The Outsiders” begins with the story of William James Sidis:

His name was William James Sidis, and his IQ was estimated at between 250 and 300 [8, p. 283]. At eighteen months he could read The New York Times, at two he taught himself Latin, at three he learned Greek. By the time he was an adult he could speak more than forty languages and dialects. He gained entrance to Harvard at eleven, and gave a lecture on four-dimensional bodies to the Harvard Mathematical Club his first year. He graduated cum laude at sixteen, and became the youngest professor in history. He deduced the possibility of black holes more than twenty years before Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar published An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure. His life held possibilities for achievement that few people can imagine. Of all the prodigies for which there are records, his was probably the most powerful intellect of all. And yet it all came to nothing. He soon gave up his position as a professor, and for the rest of his life wandered from one menial job to another. His experiences as a child prodigy had proven so painful that he decided for the rest of his life to shun public exposure at all costs. Henceforth, he denied his gifts, refused to think about mathematics, and above all refused to perform as he had been made to do as a child. Instead, he devoted his intellect almost exclusively to the collection of streetcar transfers, and to the study of the history of his native Boston. He worked hard at becoming a normal human being, but never entirely succeeded. He found the concept of beauty, for example, to be completely incomprehensible, and the idea of sex repelled him. At fifteen he took a vow of celibacy, which he apparently kept for the remainder of his life, dying a virgin at the age of 46. He wore a vest summer and winter, and never learned to bathe regularly. A comment that Aldous Huxley once made about Sir Isaac Newton might equally have been said of Sidis.

For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.

If you believe, as I do, that the ultimate resource, the one from which all other resources and all benefits of life and civilization flow, is human energy, then Sidis’ story is a social tragedy. But more than that it is a personal one. Sidis was perhaps the brightest mind mankind had ever produced, but being that bright in modern society was so painful for him that he ended up disavowing his own gifts.

The kind of psychic scars that would cause a person to walk away from their own minds and talents must be exceptionally painful, but “The Outsiders” makes the point that those same kinds of scars are present in many talented human beings, they’re just somewhat shallower. I see this occasionally in the tech industry. I don’t know many bright programmers who had happy, socially-fulfilled childhoods. Many of them have trouble connecting with people to this day. For some, working at Amazon is the first time they’ve had intellectual peers, much less encountered people smarter than themselves. That must be welcome for many, but it definitely has its own challenges. It’s never easy learning the lesson that you’re not the best at what you do, least of all when you learn the lesson for the first time in your early- or mid-twenties.

As far as Amazon programmers go, I suspect I’m at the lower end of the general intelligence scale. But I’m still above-average as far as the general population goes. Attending public schools in modestly-sized community meant that I was the smartest kid in most of my classes for most of my young life. I got respectable (though not stellar) grades without investing much effort in high school. I breezed through, applied to a few colleges, and picked the best that I could afford to attend. I applied for and was accepted to the Gonzaga Honors Program.

In my Freshman year, I ran hard up against the fact that I was no longer the smartest kid in class. Hell, I’m not even sure I was average in that group. And I have to confess, it sparked in me something of an existential crisis. If I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, then what was I?

Fortunately, I weathered that personal storm well. I formed strong friendships, grew as a thinker and as a human being, and I owe a great deal of my identity and my current happiness to the Honors Program. In the end, the reward of finding peers (and intellectual superiors) was well worth the pain of first contact.

And so I wonder about the people who never have that experience. Who never experience the painful, powerful enlightenment that comes from people meeting you on your own level and showing you how much further you have to go. It saddens me that William James Sidis lived his life mostly trapped in his own world, far beyond any that we could understand.

Of course, there are counterpoints to the lone(ly) genius archetype. The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős is widely regarded as a strong contender for the title of the brightest mind in mathematical history. He is the most prolifically published mathematician in history and collaborated widely. Every part of his mathematical life involved one or more collaborators, and by all accounts he was gregarious, well-liked, and had many close friends.

And yet, as with Newton, there was something of the superb monster about Erdős. He never married, never had children, and showed very little interest in many human pursuits. (In his unique vocabulary music was called “noise” and alcohol was “poison”. In counterpoint, though, he was apparently enthusiastic about his amphetamines.)

His life was devoted to his work in a way that William James Sidis himself rejected.

This seems to be the key divergence for many geniuses throughout history. Either they renounce their talents and “die” (as Erdős would say of mathematicians who retired), or they devote themselves whole-heartedly to their work.

But I wonder if that might be changing. One of the fundamental problems faced by genius-level intellects (as highlighted by Towers’ essay) is a lack of peers. Sidis had no peers and so renounced his own mind. Erdős found them and so prospered in his field. Sidis was personally miserable and socially ignored. Erdős lead a happy life and revolutionized mathematics many times over.

The era of truly universal communication (which we’re only a few decades into) stands to help those with genius level IQs find peers and compatriots far more easily and so help them onto the happy path of Erdős, rather than Sidis’ road of pain and personal disavowal.

The ultimate thrust of Towers’ essay is that the real need for high-IQ societies (like the Prometheus Society for which it was written) is not as a self-congratulatory boy’s club, but as a social support group. They serve as a peer group for those whose minds are so far beyond the peak of the bell curve, that they risk isolation and severe mental trauma. In years past, these societies were either non-existent or almost invisible, and finding them would have been a matter of luck, rather than searching. But in the modern age of the Internet and ubiquitous computing, finding peers is only a Google search away.

So here’s hoping that the Internet era brings us many more Paul Erdős and many fewer William James Sidis’.

Deirdre McCloskey Against Hedonomics

One of the most interesting classes I took in grad school was a class on the Philosophy of Happiness. It was taught by a brilliant professor, Dr. Erik Schmidt. In it, we covered both the history of happiness and surveyed much of the modern work being done to quantify happiness. This latter analysis of happiness is referred to as “Hedonics” for the psychological variant and “Hedonomics” if they attach numbers to their theories have their offices in the Economics building.

The results of modern examinations of happiness may yield some pretty interesting results in time, but for the moment, the majority of the work being done in the field is deeply flawed. From the arbitrary and insufficient modes of measurement to the often-biased sampling, there are a huge number of structural impediments that prevent hedonomics from being a rigorous or intellectually useful field.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people like Cass Sunstein from proposing that it should guide regulatory and legislative decisions.

In addition to methodological critiques, there are very compelling criticisms of some of the assumptions and findings of these new hedonic sciences. One of the critiques is hinted at in the structure of the class I mentioned; happiness hasn’t always meant what we understand it to mean today. And so if you study people’s self-assessed “happiness” through a variety of experiences and across demographics, you’re not really learning about Happiness-as-objective-phenomenon, rather you’re learning about what people understand the word “happiness” to mean. You’re learning “what we talk about when we talk about happiness”.

Which is an important thing to know, but it’s definitely not what the hedonomicists claim they’re measuring.

Another, more abstract, but equally damning family of objections are the philosophical and humanistic objections. Measuring and studying “happiness” as such assumes a lot of things about human nature, many of which are profoundly reductionist. If you assert that “happiness”, however defined, is the summum bonum of human existence, then the results of hedonomics studies tell you nothing less than the statistically significant path to the One True Good Life. This is perhaps best seen in the implicit value judgments made by people like Sunstein et. al. when they argue that people should be “nudged” or even forced to undertake certain actions that will make them “happier”.

In other words, many hedonomicists make the staggeringly vain assumption that the thing they are studying is the pure stuff of desirable outcomes. That the “happiness” they are getting people to self report is the marker of the best way to live and the only such marker.

I find this notion equal parts absurd and terrifying.

Another way to see these assumed value judgments is when researchers take as obvious the actionable implications of their findings. The “hedonic treadmill” is a fantastic example. One of the best established results of hedonomics is that beyond a certain level, increased wealth doesn’t cause people to self-report higher levels of “happiness”. Hedonomics responds to this by saying something like: “well clearly, people should stop trying to make more money once they reach that threshold.” What they don’t take into account is that increased income may very well improve people’s lives in other ways not accounted for by self-reported “happiness”. People who have more money can, for instance, devote themselves to higher intellectual and artistic pursuits. They can better secure themselves against personal, social, or economic disaster. They can invest to further or change their careers in order to succeed in personally satisfying ways that may not be appreciably evident in a self-reported assessment of “how happy I feel today.”

By asserting that there’s no reason to increase one’s income above a certain threshold just because it doesn’t increase arbitrary self-reported values is to smuggle the researcher’s value judgments in by the back door.

Hedonomics may some day give us valuable insights into the pursuit of human achievement, satisfaction, and personal accomplishment, but for now it is, with few notable exceptions, mostly bogged down in developing an elaborate, self-reported definition of the term “happiness”.

For a much better and more thorough argument in favor of a philosophic and humanist understanding of human satisfaction, I strongly encourage you to read this National Review essay, by the historian and economist Deirdre McCloskey. It is one of the most cohesive and damning humanist critiques of hedonomics I’ve seen yet and I think you’ll find it well worth your time and attention.

An excerpt:

“Before Bentham and Immanuel Kant, it was taken as obvious that the good life was multiple: involving the Principal Seven Virtues, for example, the primary colors of a virtuous and therefore happy life—prudence, temperance, courage, justice, faith, hope, and love. Humans do after all experience the tragedy of choice, which is the conflict of such virtues. Love for your father conflicts with your hope to go to Smith College, as Jane Addams found in her own life. Antigone’s faithfulness to her king conflicts with her love for her brother. Happinesses are not fungible. Happinesses are multiple, dappled things, and couple-colored. W.C. Fields was asked, off the record, for his views on sex. “On or off the record,” said he, “there may be some things better than sex, and some things worse. But there’s nothing exactly like it.”

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.”

I again strong encourage you to read the whole essay. I also strongly recommend McCloskey’s writings on the bourgeois, especially her books Bourgeois Virtue and Bourgeois Dignity.

Slavoj Zizek on Ecology and the Temptation of Meaning

This is a great ten-minute video of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek critiquing modern ecology. It’s taken from a documentary that’s supposed to be interviews with some the “great thinkers of our day”, but I’ve watched some of the other segments of the documentary, and they’re mostly just sophistic claptrap. Zizek, however, is in top form in this segment.

I quite like his point about the nature/artifice divide being wrong not because there is no artifice, but because nature, as we understand it as a harmonious and balanced system, doesn’t actually exist. So in that sense, “nature” just a world full of messy processes and giant catastrophes that we try to make sense of as best we can using analogy, metaphor, and reduction. We also insulate ourselves from that work of catastrophe with our clever machines and our “artificial” systems.

I also really like his conclusion that the great enemy of progress today (and despite his Marxist tendencies, Zizek is a Hegelian at heart and so probably a big fan of progress) is not the old liberal windmills of religion, corporate interests, etc. but rather of “ecology” broadly understood. We see this regularly these days with Green groups demanding sharp curtailing of economic growth, an end to the modern energy economy (which would result in economic stagnation, widespread suffering, and death), and the closing off of many branches of science that could be a huge benefit for human kind (e.g. GM foods, which have the potential to same billions of lives and bring down food prices all over the globe.) And they oppose this progress all in the name of a “natural world” which doesn’t actually exist, in the sense that nature isn’t a harmonious system the way greens want it to be.

But ultimately, I think it’s his conclusion that’s really killer. I think he goes off the rails a little bit towards the end, but I take his comments about the true ecologist loving trash as well to mean that any attempt at human ecology must first accept the byproducts of human existence. Per his opening comments, when we throw something away, it doesn’t just disappear. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop throwing things away. So a true human ecologist needs to love the human processes that create trash as much as he or she loves the messy, catastrophic world of so-called “nature”.

For my money, Zizek is one of the most interesting philosophers alive today, and I think that much of what he says is true and insightful. I definitely don’t agree with his philosophical or political conclusions (his views of ontology and the Real can be almost unspeakably goofy at times and his love for Marx completely baffles me), but some of his work on human beings in society and the ontology of modern society are pretty good.

I truly cannot tell at times whether Slavoj Zizek is serious or joking, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. He’s a fantastic gadfly who provokes good philosophy, either by his own critiques or by the creativity people employ to refute him. So whether he’s serious or not, I think he’s a good philosopher arguing in good faith, and there are precious few of those around these days.

H. L. Mencken on Morality and Honor

Two Quotes:

“It is a commonplace of moral science that absolute morality is impossible — in other words, that all men sin. What is often overlooked is that the same fallibility shows itself upon the higher level of what is called honor, which is simply the morality of superior men. A man who views himself as honorable usually labors under the delusion that his honor is unsullied, but this is never literally true. Every man, however honorable, occasionally sacrifices honor to mere morality behind the door, just as every man of morals sacrifices morality to self-interest.”

Et.

“Don’t tell me what delusion he entertains regarding God, or what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply tell me how he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known Tests. A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an ignominious way is inevitably an ignominious man.”

Both are from A Mencken Chrestomathy, (Vintage Books, 1982) pp. 111 and 20, respectively.

Thomas Sowell on Sophistry and Empiricism

The greatest triumph of human thought will be the triumph of logic and philosophy over sophistry and mysticism.

The greatest achievement of the Enlightenment will be the triumph of Empiricism over Pure Reason.

But neither of these battles are won. And to be honest, they might never be. The former has already been going for almost 2500 years. The latter for about a tenth as long.

In this video, Thomas Sowell lays out his critique of the role of intellectuals in public life. To my mind, two of the key points of Sowell’s argument are that intellectuals are often wrong (and dangerous when in the public sphere) because a.) they follow theory rather than evidence and b.) they are emotionally and egotistically invested in their theories.

In other words, intellectuals in modern society fail because they are fighting against the two greatest achievements of mankind. They are fighting against a genuine quest for knowledge and they are fighting in favor of Pure Reason rather than empirical understanding.

Even if you disagree with my assessment or with Dr. Sowell’s thesis, the interview above is well worth your time. It’s a great primer on the content of an important book and an often entertaining conversation between two brilliant thinkers.

Malthusianism: Not Just Wrong, but Dangerous

I’ve written before about my views on Malthusianism. But lately I’ve encountered some particularly good arguments to the effect that Malthusianism isn’t just wrong, but actively dangerous. Bryan Caplan, writing at EconLog, raises some good points about the role that Malthusianism played in the rise of Nazism. In short, Malthusianism, and more particularly the belief that there wasn’t enough room and resources on the planet for everyone, was one of the driving forces behind Hitler’s crimes. As Caplan put it, “[Malthusianism] told them that millions had to die; [eugenics] told them who the victims ought to be.”

This, to me, highlights one of the reasons why it’s so important to speak out against gloom and doom and to be a voice of anti-Malthusian optimism. The idea that scarcity of land and resources demands the restriction of human populations isn’t just flawed, but it can and has caused real suffering. At the bare minimum, it can lead to unnecessary worry. It can also lead to prolonged misery through retarding economic growth and the advancement of prosperity. And at its worst it can, and has, lead to forced sterilizations and mass exterminations.1

The wonderful writer Robert Zubrin has a new book out about the dangers of doomsayers. I haven’t had a chance to read it, yet, but it’s high on my list. Zubrin recently did an interview about the book with Reason TV, and I think he makes his case well:

I like the way Zubrin frames his argument by saying that the dangers from “Merchants of Despair” (his words) actually far outstrips the dangers we face from the evils they’re “warning” us about.

One counter-argument is that Caplan’s article and Zubrin’s interview make Malthusians out to be almost cartoonishly villainous in their plans for the human species. As such, I understand skepticism about whether or not anyone actually believes in the brand of anti-humanist Malthusianism that Caplan and Zubrin describe. One proof of the existence of real-life Malthusians comes by way of the Azizonomics blog which posts excerpts from Finnish writer Pentti Linkola who says, among other things, that:

“Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent a dictator that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. The best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and where government would prevent any economical growth.”

If this were the ravings of a lunatic or a Bell Street trustfund hipster they’d be easy to ignore. But this man is an influential writer and a key figure in the Deep Ecology movement. His views aren’t just considered, but embraced by a segment of the population that would rather see the human race eradicated than see it flourish and who unapologetically embrace dictatorial governance in pursuit of that end.

I think anyone who desires a dictatorship with the explicit goal of murdering people and completely curtailing economic growth is, at best, a moral cripple. And yet we live in a world where people like Linkola are given a serious hearing. Indeed, Bryan Caplan’s essay that I linked to above would be easy to dismiss as its own brand of fear mongering, if it weren’t for the fact that there are people out there today who are actually calling for Nazi-style dictatorial governments for the express purposes of satisfying their anti-humanist urges. And those pro-dictatorial types are using explicitly Malthusian arguments, just as the Nazis did almost 80 years ago.

Meanwhile, thankfully, the human species continues to flourish. Global poverty is declining; global health is improving. Our understanding of the world continues to advance and, with it, the power of the tools we use to shape it. Life is good and getting better. And it is doing so in spite of the Merchants of Despair and their despicable anti-humanism.


Disclosure Notice

1And lest you think that things like forced sterilization are a thing of the past, UN economic aid is often contingent on a country having some method of population control in place. This means that taxpayers in the US and Europe are helping to fund and encourage the forced sterilization of Indian women.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.