Archive for the 'skepticism' Category

Alex Jones is not our ally and not our friend

April 26, 2009

The old saying goes “you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”

Its a pretty straightforward admonition to be careful with whom you associate, lest you be tarred by their behaviour and judged by your association with them. It is for this reason I want to appeal to those of us in the libertarian movement – left or right, miniarchist or anarchist – to studiously and strictly avoid associating with Alex Jones.

Jones is, to put it bluntly, a paranoid conspiracy theorist whose grasp on reality surely needs to be questioned.  He has in the past attempted to rebuild the Branch Davidian compound, to infiltrate the Bilderberger Group and Bohemian Grove.  Lately he is the loudest purveyor of New World Order idiocy and 9-11 Truth.

His latest pronouncement was that the swine flu outbreak in Mexico “was cooked up in a lab”, created by the government as a weapon. Of course, as Brad Spangler points out, if you know even a minimal amount about virology and how labs search for virii, then the pronouncements are not nefarious at all. They merely tell us matter of factly how a lab determines what strain of influenza we are dealing with. It is the same process that has been used to determine every new flu strain for the last 50 years.

This incident show just how deluded and paranoid Jones is. And clearly how stupid.

And yet, I see that people like Ron Paul, Peter Schiff and Judge Napolitano are regulars on his radio show. These respected libertarians even glad hand with Jones. And when those of us who are trying to use logic and reason to advocate for libertarianism and market anarchy try to present the excellent arguments of these men, we have to try to explain away why they associate with a madman like Jones.

I understand, strategically, that his radio show reaches a large number of people. But is it worth it? Does libertarianism really need the kind of “help” that people who believe Jones’ paranoid delusions would offer? Ask Sheldon Richman how productive his appearance on the Glenn Beck show went (a show only slightly less paranoid than Jones’ but paranoid nonetheless).

Jones, Beck and others like them are not libertarians. They do not have our interests at heart. They wish only to use our anti-government message to further their ends. That could be money-making self-promotion (as is likely the case with Beck) or it could be pure paranoid conspiracy nonsense (as is exactly the case with Jones).

I am an anarchist, a libertarian, an Austrian economics follower and a devout skeptic dedicated to reason and evidence. It was this devotion to reason and evidence that lead me to become a libertarian in the first place. Why then would I condone appealing to conspiracy nuts with no critical thinking faculties in order to promote libertarianism?

I am asking that folks like Peter Schiff, Ron Paul, Judge Napolitano and others avoid giving credibility to people like Alex Jones at the cost of their own.  I am asking that they actually be more critical of these people and to actively call them on their nonsense.

As long as the genral public think we are finge and fanatics like Jones, they will never consider out message in any serious way. And they will think we are fringe so long as we keep associating with them.

Don’t lay down with those dogs.

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The Fallacy of Prevention

March 26, 2009

For a state-supported entity, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has some remarkably good shows on business and economics. Venture did a great job of exposing Canadians to real life examples of successful and unsuccessful businesses, economics and entrepreneurship in a Canadian context. Sadly, the show was canceled in 2007, due to (ironically) government cuts to the CBC budget. Marketplace, still on the air, looks at the market from the consumer’s standpoint, providing information and advocacy. Both shows are examples of the kind of media that, in a free society, would address the much ballyhooed “information” problem and give both consumers and entrepreneurs the information they require to make good decisions in the market.

However, every now and again, the advocacy betrays an underlying issue with the left and liberals that I call The Fallacy of Prevention. That is, every problem must be prevented from occuring, rather than dealt with afterward. Usually this must be done at almost any cost and almost always involved some form of prohibition. Liberals of course, are not alone in using this fallacy – the entire Department of Homeland Security and just about every post-9\11 “security” measure introduced by the Bush Administration and governments around the world are also predicated on this.

Recently, Marketplace demonstrated this kind of thinking in spade with a show entitled The Trouble with Fake Guns. The episode tries to examine the seemingly sudden “explosion” of the use of realistic looking, but “fake” BB-guns and Air guns in crimes, focusing, of course, on those fakes that look like handguns. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers to the above linked video when I say that in the end, the show is calling for more laws and regulation of these “weapons.”

And therein lies the flaw of logic at the heart of the fallacy. If you watch the episode (please do) you’ll notice that the hosts, the police and even the regular people in the street all seem to assign emotional, human qualities to the guns in question  – and indeed to guns in general – that they are “evil” or that the guns themselves are the cause of the crimes in question.  Somehow the idea is that if the guns -fake or real- are not present or available, the crimes themselves will be prevented. Its not the people that are the problem, but the existence or presence of those “evil” guns.

Typically, this illogical line of thinking leads inevitably to cries for “prohibition” – banning real guns, banning fake guns. And as history has taught, prohibition and banning of anything simply does not work.

What these authoritarians and public concern troll busy-bodies do not understand is that an in animate object, even a gun, is morally neutral. It is not good, nor evil, but merely a morally neutral tool. If a gun, for instance, is used to hunt for food or to protect the life of an innocent person, then they are deemed good. If it is used to rob a store or execute a prisoner, then it is deemed evil. Missing in this simplistic analysis is that behind these actions are the choices of people. Even the Marketplace video in questions seems to admit this – the cop says using the “fake” guns to shoot pop cans or targets is great fun and no problem.

Of course behind the very idea of “prevention” is the acceptance that one person has the right to coerce another to stop them from doing something before they do it. It is the idea that because I might do something wrong or have the capacity to do something someone else believes is “wrong”, that another person may use force against me or to take my legitimately acquired property or to use that force to prevent me from even acquiring said property. I hold that, except for personal choices made about oneself, the entire idea of  “prevention” is anti-libertarian and an bald violation of the non-aggression principle.

And, in practice, simply doesn’t work anyway.

Our experience world wide in the “drug war” is a perfect example. Banning drugs to “prevent” people from getting them has not stopped people from getting them. It has merely made criminals our ot people who are otherwise completely peaceful. It has not prevented the abuse of drugs while punishing the legitimate use of them – California’s experience with medical marijuana is a perfect example.

In Canada, the near complete ban on handguns and the heavy regulation and licensing requirements for legal posession and ownership, has not stopped or prevented gun crime. It has created a situation where most criminals can be reasonably sure that law-abiding citizens are very probably unarmed, which allows them the convenience of being able to rob stores with much cheaper “fake” guns without any risk. In short, fake guns are only a problem because the real thing is nearly completely prohibited. And the market in illegal guns, like drugs, thrives because criminals won’t use legit means to obtain weapons anyway and even law abiding citizens will go to the underground market because regulations are to complex and onerous. All of which drive the profits for gun smugglers and dealers.

Even something like cigarettes, when banned or taxed to too high a level, does not prevent it from being used or abused.  Just as with guns or drugs, it merely drives otherwise law abiding people into criminals arms. And the criminals love it because of the profit motive. In 1993, after Prime Minister Jean Chretien was elected in Canada, he almost single-handedly wiped out the Mohawk cigarette smuggling industry when he dropped taxes on the product. When the price went from $7 CAD a pack to $2 nearly over night, the smuggling and illegal activity stopped. And now that the taxes and price have crept back up, the smuggling has started anew.

No amount of coercive attacks on supply can wipe out demand.

The sollution is not prevention or banning of objects and tools, but incentives to human behaviour – reward uses deemed acceptable and punish or admonish behaviours that are not. And accept risk. Part of the attitude underlying the fallacy is that there should be no risk in life. Rather, one should accept risk but be realistic about it. Journalist Dan Gardiner has made a career exposing the facts and common misconceptions about the risks we face. Bruce Schneier is well known for advocating a focus on proper response to and intelligence about security threats like terrorism, rather than the freedom and liberty destroying attempts to “prevent the last attack after its happened” or indulge in security theatre (like bannings and prohibitions)  that do not make us safe anyway.

The best prevention is allowing people the freedom and liberty to make their own choices and to create the incentives to make the right choices. In the Marketplace video, “fake” guns are a problem, because real guns are so heavily regulated and banned. It is not unreasonable to assume that once the “fake” guns are banned and regulated, knives will be used to rob stores. Or baseball bats. Or screw drivers. Or scissors. Will we ban and regulate them too? In short, most of our prohibitions are in response to problems created entirely by our earlier attempts at heavy regulation and prohibitions of things – a vicious, downward spiral, where our liberty is the first and biggest casualty.

No more prevention please.  Let people learn to deal with the consequences of their actions, rather than desparately trying to prevent them from doing things or using things in the first place. Accept the risks, mitigate the consequence but allow people to be free to make choices and mistakes.

Evolution and Economics

January 15, 2008

Dr. Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, has a fascinating article at Scientific American entitled ‘Evonomics‘. He postulates that evolution and economics are both part and parcel of the same phenomenon – complex adaptive systems.

In biological evolution, nature selects from the variation produced by random genetic mutations and the mixing of parental genes. Out of that process of cumulative selection emerges complexity and diversity. In economic evolution, our material economy proceeds through the production and selection of numerous permutations of countless products.

Quoting both Mises (“Socialism”) and Basitat, Shermer shows that top-down government “design” of the economy is a ludicrous as “design” in evolution.

As with living organisms and ecosystems, the economy looks designed—so just as humans naturally deduce the existence of a top-down intelligent designer, humans also (understandably) infer that a top-down government designer is needed in nearly every aspect of the economy. But just as living organisms are shaped from the bottom up by natural selection, the economy is molded from the bottom up by the invisible hand.  [emphasis mine]

He still thinks (sadly) some interference is necessary to ensure “free and fair trade”, but he is, at least headed in the right direction.

But what this really points to is yet another example of hypocrisy that seems to plague both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, both so-called liberals and conservatives. Each has their own cognitive dissonance here. The conservative right, staunchly defends the idea (for the most part) that the economy is molded “from the bottom up by the invisible hand” of the market, while denying the identical process that occurs in biology.  Of course, the liberal left seems to have the opposite problem – while rightly defending the process of evolution and natural selection, they fail to see this exact same process in the field of economics and claim that the government is needed to manage the market.

One cannot support true free market economics and deny evolution nor can one deny the power of the true free market while vehemently supporting evolution.  Interference in the market causes unexpected distortions and unintended consequences just as interfering with evolution does.

Conflating the Problem with a Solution

June 10, 2007

I am at a loss.

I am really at a loss trying to figure out why rational, brilliant and insightful anarchists and libertarians, who use history and reason to eloquently and forcefully argue economics and philosophy in favour of liberty, refuse to accept the science of anthropogenic global warming. Why is it they suddenly jump from rationality to paranoid conspiracy theorizing when global warming or the climate crisis is involved?

Take Lew Rockwell, for instance. He is incredibly insightful when discussing the over bearing power of the state to make war, or the intrusion of the state into our lives. But he happily links to articles such as this one by Alexander Cockburn at Counterpunch, regurgitates the most of the so-called scientific evidence against global warming, every single bit of which has been debunked and refuted before.

It is clear from the preponderance of evidence, from the vast majority of climate scientists (a number that is growing, not shrinking) that global warming is really happening and is caused by human activity. Why, then do libertarians and anarchists refuse to accept it?

It seems to me they are confusing the problem of global warming with the mainstream idea of the solution. They don’t want to believe the science, because, I suspect, they think this means they must accept the so-called solution – state enforced austerity measures, regulations and ‘carbon taxes’. What self-respecting libertarian could accept that? None, but the problem is that is how the debate has been framed – either doom and gloom or near complete economic regulation to prevent it. I also suspect there is a bit of confirmation bias and ideology involved. To accept global warming is to accept that our capitalist system, the free market is the cause. It is quite ironic that Lew Rockwell links to Cockburn then as the Marxist Cockburn seems to think that the climate crisis is a capitalist invention to create demand and forced scarcity to drive profit.

Let me posit an alternative view:

First, let us accept that global warming is real and created by human activity (if only for the sake of argument). That is the problem.

Does that mean that capitalism or private enterprise are to blame?

No. As I stated in an earlier post, it is in fact state interference and regulation, at the behest of mercantilist corporations, that are the one of the reasons. Think of the destruction of public transit systems throughout the US and Canada by city councils in cahoots with GM, so the latter could sell more cars and the former could run parking lots and get money from parking tickets. The result, as anyone who has read Jane Jacobs can attest, is our car-centric, just-in-time urban lifestyles. Cars, trucks and airplanes used for transportation of people and goods are a major source of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. In my city of Ottawa, there hasn’t been a new street built with a sidewalk in over 15 years, except, ironically, if the street was to have a bus route on it.

In Canada, the biggest producers of greenhouse gases are public power generation utilities and not the private sector.

Does that mean that the solution is  more regulation and state imposed austerity?

No. Ever since apple farmers were prevented from suing the factories destroying their crops with pollution, the state has been  interfering in, distorting and creating the externalities in the market that have created not just the problem with greenhouse gases, but with pollution in general. As Rothbard pointed out in “Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution”, only the free market, without state interference coupled with “collapsing crime into tort”, could this kind of pollution be effectively fought, as polluters would have to bear the full costs of their polluting ways, something they can now externalize on the rest of us.

In other words,  the state and regulation is the cause of the problem, not the solution. The solution is less state regulation and less (or no) state interference.

Does that mean that something can or should be done about global warming?

That is a debate that has not taken place. Ron Good’s post seems to be the first to even tangentially consider this. Global warming can be real and can be caused by human activity, but that does not mean that it is possible or even desirable to “do”  anything on the grand scale. It may be that we should use the science to help us prepare for, rather than prevent the future climate changes we have caused. It may not even be possible, at this point, to do anything. Should we spend our resources cutting down on carbon, taxing fossil fuels, or looking at what we should do when the ice caps melt, or when New York  or Los Angeles are underwater. It is hubris to think we can do something in 20 years to stop something we have been contributing to for over a century. It would be like trying to snap someone out of an overdose of Valium by injecting them with speed.

But then, it would be  just as much hubris to do nothing and not even try.  On this, I have not decided where I come down on this.

The bottom line is that it is not inconsistent with being an anarchist or libertarian to accept that global warming is real. The difference is how (and if) to deal with it. The climate crisis is caused by state interference and regulation and this should be the mantra of anarchist and libertarians when the subject comes up, rather than deny the problem even exists. Ironically, it is global warming and its cause that provide the greatest opportunity for libertarian and anarchist solutions to gain mainstream acceptance,  if only we took advantage. Accepting the reality of global warming and what if anything to do about it are two different things.

We must fight the inherent statism of the global warming debate  without abandoning the field of reason and pretending the problem doesn’t exist. That just makes us look stupid and drives people away from us.

George Reisman is an idiot

April 26, 2007

Or maybe a liar. Most likely he is merely a knee-jerk dogmatic conservative who likes to wallow in confirmation bias. He is a self-admitted Randian, after all.

Normally he makes cogent argument on economics. When he ventures beyond that, however, he really shows his shocking lack of critical thought, bordering on herd-following, non-thinking collectivism.

Take this bit of tripe, for instance. In it, Reisman basically ignores the science on Global Warming and stampedes directly into near paranoid fantasy, so unfounded that if you were to say it out loud to someone, they may seriously consider having you committed. His entire argument for conspiracy rests on this quote from Maurice Strong, founder of various UN eco-summits and a fairly heavy hitter in Canadian politics, from 1992:

“Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring [that] about?”

He attributes this quote to The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism (Washington, D. C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2007), p. 6. Yes, quite an unbiased source there.

Admittedly, that looks like a pretty damning quote. When I first read it, I was shocked. Of course, I don’t believe everything I’m told or read, so I did a little digging. Turns out, this is the real quote:

What if a small group of world leaders were to conclude that the principal risk to the Earth comes from the actions of rich countries? And if the world is to survive, those rich countries would have to sign an agreement reducing their impact on the environment. Will they do it? The groups conclusion is “no.” The rich countries won’t do it. They won’t change. So, in order to save the planet, the group decides: Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about? This group of world leaders forms a secret society to bring about an economic collapse. “[emphasis mine]

That makes it a bit different, no? Seems he was talking about hypothetical eco-terrorists. Seems further that Strong was making the remarks about an idea he had for a novel, a novel whose plot (as described above) that seemed to parallel Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. You would think that Reisman, being a Randroid, would have noticed? Ah, the irony.

In other words, the quote is not about the UN’s or any other groups wishes or plans, it is a discussion of a hypothetical, fictional situation. Any attempt to imply from this quote that the UN or any other environmental group’s “real agenda” is to destroy civilization and return humankind to a pre-industrial society is not just false, its a bold faced lie.

So why did Reisamn make it?

Well, it is possible that he didn’t know the full context of the quote. I mean it took me a whole 5 minutes to find it on Google (its the 2nd link in the list of 279 000 hits) . I suppose that while it takes a while to type a blog post and transcribe a quote from a book that is not online, that extra 5 minutes to actually do research to confirm the facts and premises is just too much to ask a University Professor.

Perhaps he couldn’t be bothered because it happened to fit with his ideological world view. I mean he is a Randian and thus anything a private business does is by definition good because private business does it, and every thing the government does is bad by definition because the government does it. So when a pseudo-government official is quoted saying something juicy like that, there is no critical thought needed, since a priori is it bad and therefore must be true. Down on the farm, we call that “confirmation bias.”

Or maybe he knew all along the full context and decided to selectively use the quote to imply Strong, and by extension the environmental movement and the UN, hold a position and have a hidden agenda which they do not, in fact, hold. That would be intellectual dishonesty and propagandizing – lying by any other name. All so he can remain convinced that this whole Global Warming thing isn’t real and is some “socialist plot” to send us into living in caves. That, without evidence to back it up, is delusional.

Don’t for a second think I’m siding with the statist position on this. While I accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence, I don’t accept the solution is more state regulation and interference. As I have stated earlier, the state is actually one of the problems when it comes to global warming and pollution, not the solution. As a market anarchist, it think the market in the total absence of the state is the only good way to deal with the problem (as Rothbard himself pointed out in Law Property Rights and Air Pollution).

That being said, I cannot abide by dogmatism, intellectual dishonesty and lying to “help” our cause, whether it is by a slack-jawed blogger from Horsefly, Texas or one of the icons of the libertarian movement.

If Reisman thinks global warming is baloney, he ought to get some scientific backing and refute the evidence for global warming that has been presented and accepted by the scientific community. If he really thinks there is some vast UN-led conspiracy to cause the collapse of Western civilization and move us all back to pre-industrial society, he is going to need more evidence than a 15-year-old quote taken out of context and purposely spun to mean something it never meant. In other words actual evidence, or he will sound like a mouth-breathing, paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Unless that is what he really is.

Anarchist Dogma

February 21, 2007

From my experience, one of the things that gives the state its power is the pull of dogma. Dogma gives people the comfort that they are right, that everyone else is wrong and excuses them from having to actually think. They merely join the herd and once in the herd, they are easily herded.

My friend Ian Scott warned me about this kind of thing in his post welcoming me to the world of anarchism and libertarianism. At first I thought he was merely giving me friendly advice, but I never thought that was a problem in anarchism.

Until I read this – ‘Kropotkin over Darwin‘ .

Essentially ‘venividicogniti‘ argues that Darwinian evolution was wrong because it seemed to conflict with Kropotkin’s writings on Mutual Aid. I was dumbfounded. I could not have found a better example of dogmatic, one-dimensional thinking if I had been reading a Creationist site.

Firstly, the author clearly does not know what evolution by natural selection is. He or she says:

“If evolution were to be driven by survival of the fittest then we would expect to see fierce rivalry and competition. In Mauritius[3], not surprisingly for adherents of Kropotkins scientific approach to natural history, we see the evolution of the dodo[4]. A docile, three metre high flightless bird.”

Evolution is not “survival of the fitest” but rather survival of those organism and genes best able to adapt to changes in the environment. Thus any trait, skill or strategy that allows an organism to successfully reproduce or pass their genes on to the next generation provides an evolutionary advantage. There has been a great deal of research that indicates that cooperation and altruism are, in fact, better strategies for survival of one’s genes than hard fought competition and “survival of the fittest.”

In a nutshell, it is like this:

If I cooperate with my neighbours and my kin, I am far more likely to have food, shelter safety and opportunities to reproduce than if I wantonly kill and aggressively steal from them. Even if I do not myself reproduce, but even give my own life to protect my kin (or village or close knit social group), I am still ensuring that some of my genes survive to the next generation, where they may survive again through reproduction.

That’s not to say aggressive behaviour does not have its place in evolution. It certainly does. But cooperation and altruism, in the long run, are the better strategy. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that groups with the proper balance between the two is what makes groups successfully able to reproduce and perpetuate their genes into the future.

That is evolutionary advantage.

So, venividicogniti contrived example can actually be used to show Darwinian evolution, which in turn supports Kropotkin’s ideas of Mutual Aid. Further, he uses the dodo, which, in the face of a changed environment (the introduction of humans to the island), did not have the aggressive tendencies needed to defend themselves, and went extinct. Surely using the Dodo is not a good way to prove evolution is ‘wrong’ and Kropokin ‘right’ – there is just too much irony there.

It was the evolutionary basis of cooperation that helped lead me to individualist anarchism and to agree with mutualism and libertarianism. It is the knowledge that most people are good and can live and work together.

That post should serve as a warning to us. Dogma is not just the pervue of authoritarian statists, Nazis and religious fundamentalists. It can affect anyone who refuses to use critical thought and refuses to acknowledge others because they conflict, or only seem to conflict, with our favourite writer, hero or our deeply help beliefs. This kind of dogma leads people to make value judgments on who is wrong and right, who is true and false. As soon as one does that, it is a short step to trying to force them to do right. And thus the state is born again.

In my opinion, part of being an anarchist and libertarian is not just free thinking, but critical thinking. ‘Question even the existence of God,’ said Thomas Jefferson. I say question even Prodhon, Kropotkin, Rothbard, Von Mises, and Goldman. If they are right, their arguments can stand up to questioning easily and indeed the arguments will be the stronger for it.

You are not free if you refuse to think.