Sunday, January 30, 2011

Notes on Notes From Underground

Fyodor Dostoevsky has never disappointed me in his ability to write an entertaining and thought provoking story. Notes From Underground, one of his shorter stories, is certainly no exception. I picked this book up largely because I have enjoyed reading his previous works (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, The Idiot) and because Russian literature (at least that prior to the Revolution) tends to be amazing. These people knew a thing or two about human suffering, both from poverty and from an identity crisis. To continue being Russia, to Westernize, or some sort of mix was a problem that vexed the Russian intelligentsia during the 19th Century.

It was with a bit of surprise to learn that this particular book was largely a critical response towards another Russian book I have read and enjoyed, Nikolia Chernishevsky's What Is to Be Done?, a book I had the pleasure of reading for a Russian history college class oh so long ago. Having read Dostoevsky's book, I cannot be surprised that the Soviets who would later rule Russia would be naming their books after Chernishevsky's title rather than Dostoevsky, as the latter annihilates the basic assumptions of all Utopian philosophies.

The Underground Man is a disgusting creature. He is vain, confused, prone to hating people for their success or for his failures. Nobody should read Notes From Underground and believe the narrator is in any way of creature to be emulated or maybe even really understood; the point is, he exists. This man exists all too often. His traits exist in all of us at some point.

Dostoevsky challenges those who seek to marshal men into a "better" society: this is your building material. Good luck creating your socialism, your rational egoism, your communism with such men.

"One's own free and voluntary wanting, one's own caprice, however wild, one's own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness - all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.

"You shout at me (if you do still honor me with your shouts) that no one is taking my will from me here; that all they're doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will, coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic.

Eh, gentlemen, what sort of will of one's own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if that were any will of one's own!"

This is the point people who desire to "fix" society miss. We live to be happy, to fulfill our own needs, however we may define them. Those needs and wants are different from person to person and even within the same person from time to time. The will of mankind will never fit into an equation. All attempts to force them into such neat equations will fail or lead to the mass deaths of those who do not fit. The result is never, ever, a paradise on Earth or even an improved society.

Ironically enough, this point has been made fairly recently in the worst of the Matrix Trilogy. The Architect, one of the most annoying characters ever written, gives a bombastic speech explaining why the Matrix exists. He had attempted to create a perfect society so as to preserve their own power source, but all attempts that denied mankind a measure of choice in determining their own futures failed miserably. The needs of mankind are, frankly, beyond the ability of mankind to truly understand.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Grad Student

(This is a short story I wrote in February of 2007, mostly as an attempt to deal with my own graduate school experience. I was stuck in a program that really emphasized the "scientific" aspect of social science, in particular quantitative (read: statistical) studies. I had a hard time then and now believing such studies are of any value. This was my way of venting. I'm putting it up because I'm currently reading Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and there's a similar chord in both stories. Fiction writing can be escapist, but I've always felt the best works have a strong foundation in philosophy, whatever that philosophy may be. The philosophy need not be political, though most fields of philosophy intersect; that is a discussion for another day. This story was written at about the time I took my first real hard look at epistemology, which would down the road influence my political beliefs towards libertarianism.

Anyway, I like this story. Hopefully someone else will, too. I may take up writing fiction again, but only if I can avoid sounding like an angst ridden teenager.)

He slowly closed the door behind him, shutting out the cold, wintry night, and flicked on the light to reveal the familiar apartment that Paul had called home since he began graduate school two years earlier. It was hard for him to comprehend the enthusiasm he had possessed for the study of physics back then. Paul was exhausted of a world described in numbers and would quit his studies if he had any prospect of a decent career, but in this economy he knew that wasn't in the cards. He was too far along to quit; that advanced degree would be worth the suffering. Well, financially it would be, anyway.

After taking care of his winter gear, Paul plopped down at his dining room table with a notebook he had bought that afternoon. He stared at the notebook. It was a red one subject notebook, indistinguishable from a dozen other notebooks around the apartment except that it was still blank. Paul flipped through the pages, picturing what it would look like in a month. He could see numbers and signs, hundreds of them, and the occasional illegible shorthand that would hopefully translate these hieroglyphs into something intelligible when comps came around in another year.

Paul burped, loudly. There was nobody around, so an apology wasn't forthcoming. He looked back at the notebook. Given enough time and thought, somebody could probably translate that burp into a mathematical formula. Paul chuckled as he thought of some frantic student writing that paper. It wouldn't be all that less pointless than describing the trajectory of some far off (and maybe nonexistent) planet. Which is what Paul bought the notebook for.

The thought made Paul a little sick to his stomach. Physics is a way of studying the world around us. He thought about his other notebooks, full of numbers and Greek letters. Did those equations explain why his classmates had said "God bless you" when he sneezed? Could they explain his parents divorce? They might explain why he was still single, though.

Those equations didn't seem to explain much to Paul. They could explain movement, combustion, and the mysteries of the atom. Hell, those formulas could explain anything that didn't have a touch of humanity to them. It would be remarkably hard to come up with an equation for love and hate and poverty and war, but Paul knew that there were poor bastards in the social sciences trying to do just that.

Academics, apparently, was the conversion of life into a regression model. A world of cold logic and predictability, without a hint of mystery or morality. A world where beauty would be labeled Y, and every characteristic of beauty would be beta coefficients X1, X2...Xn, and Poof!, instant Shakespeare! Instant da Vinci. Instant Vivaldi. Every erroneous idea would not only be corrected but would be predicted. The academic would become the perfect prophet.

Except that he would be a prophet without a message to deliver. When love can be scientifically explained, will it still have value to us? When life is explained in its totality, will it still be worth living?

Paul opened his notebook, picked up a pen, and wrote "In the beginning, there was mystery, and God saw that it was good."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Conundrum

I'm about halfway through reading Ludwig von Mises' Human Action. So far, I am highly impressed. He does an excellent job showing how physical reality combined with human desires is the only way to understand economics (Mises takes a very wide view of what constitutes economic action, which I believe is appropriate). His book has also done a magnificent job of destroying falsehoods concerning the nature of value (it is subjective and transient, not objective and measurable contra Marx) and the nature of the free market, in particular that state intervention on behalf of businesses is still a form of statism incompatible with the free market.

There is a problem, however, with the free market. Mises points this out but does not spend a great deal of time on it. Here's the situation:

The free market is predicated on the idea that the use of force, whether by individuals or the government, will not be used. People are free to buy from the best sellers to their individual needs and to sell likewise.

This means that some businesses will fail. Those that, for whatever reason, cannot compete to meet consumer demand best will not survive, which is a good thing seeing that resources are scarce and need to be employed to fit consumer's values. Those not doing so are wasting those goods. Even for those winning, they have to sell their goods at a lower price than they would if competition did not exist.

Here is the problem: those businessmen do not want to compete with others. It lowers their profits. If at all possible, they will wish to use force either to improve their own resources, increase their own clientele, or to damage competitors. The best means to achieve this power is via the government, which has a tendency to be seen as legitimate.

In democracies, the government is elected by the people. Like anyone else, they wish for more power, or at the very least to maintain their current level of power.

The anti competition businessman and the company see an opportunity for mutual cooperation. The government can claim powers to regulate businesses (introducing the use of force to compel people to act contrary to their own desires) in order to help either consumers or weaker businesses. These people, in turn, come out to support those politicians.

The more powerful the protected business, the more influence they can have in bribing politicians with votes and public support; the more power the politicians get, the more they can offer to protect those businesses, which in turn empowers those businesses further. It becomes a nasty cycle of increasing use of force and power for the government at the expense of competition and a free market.

Consumers are screwed in this deal, as more competitive businesses that could provide goods for lower prices are forced out via regulation (if not outlawed outright). However, most consumers do not understand what is going on in terms of economics and will not trace back the problem to government interference into the free market in the first place. Many will naively believe that more regulation will somehow be helpful, further limiting the ability of businesses to compete. If the best businesses at a particular time are protected, potentially better newcomers are kept out; if a bad business is protected, good businesses are damaged. In both situations, the consumer losses. Those who gain (the only ones who gain) are the protected business and the government which gains more power.

Very simply:

1. Competition is good for consumers, bad for businesses.
2. Businesses will seek protection from government officials in return for electoral support.
3. Competition is reduced; consumers pay more, protected businesses make more, government can grab more power to protect more privileged businesses or "protect the consumers."
4. Cycle continues.

This is not an optimal situation for anyone but the protected business and the government; the more it occurs, the more we get screwed. How do we stop it from occurring, though?

One proposed solution is to quit on the free market and establish a full blown socialist system. This idea is ridiculous on multiple fronts. For starters, resources are still limited and have to be distributed somehow. As von Mises points out, giving all power and resources to the government is to create the mother of all monopolies; the bureaucrats running the show will have no incentive to do anything efficiently save use those resources as a bribe for their own individual good. This isn't a solution to the above problem; it is that problem in its absolute worst form. The other problems need not even be stated, as this solution fails completely to mitigate to problem at hand.

The other proposed solution is...non existent.

I'm concerned that the drift towards more powerful governments and hence less efficient economies is a likely (if not inevitable) result of the very conditions that make the free market work. Politicians will always want more power; in a democracy, that usually means bribing people, in particular voters, to support those particular politicians. Those politicians, in order to pay off those bribes, have to take the resources from otherwise innocent people; productive taxpayers are screwed, productive businesses are "regulated" and made less productive.

But so long as voters think they gain, they will continue to allow such abuses of power. The situation will get worse (competition is ruined, goods are not sold at optimum prices for consumers), the government claims that yet more regulation will help, and the mess is repeated.

An educated, virtuous citizenry would be able to stop this madness by understanding how the free market works. But such a citizenry does not, and probably never will, exist. It is on par with hoping for socialist denizens that love shoveling horse manure for the collective good; such people do not exist.

It is like finding a solution to the prisoner's dilemma.

I do not believe in a sentient being willing us towards this conclusion (Marx, his historical materialism, and his entire critique of capitalism and crisis theory are hogwash). None the less, as technology makes more power available for people to use over one another, this centralization of power into the hands of a few and away from personal liberty seems likely. It is a horrifying thought for anyone dedicated towards human happiness.

Machiavelli may have been on to something with his idea of virtu. Rather than being a willingness to fight and increase the power of one's country, though, we should view it as the willingness to uphold the rights of others. How this particular trait is created is beyond my understanding. I do know that it is easier to destroy than to create; it is our nature to want more, even if at the expense of others, and reversing this trend is extremely difficult. Places like Russia did not make a nice transition to the protection of rights.

I wonder if stable democracies with free markets are like Plato's philosopher king, a fluke that just kind of happens by accident? If so, and if they are destroyed more easily than created, our future will not be nearly as bright as it could have been.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Are People Angry?

I've already pointed out that current political rhetoric had nothing to do with the Tucson shooting. I've pointed out that the Left is just as responsible as the Right, if not more.

But in terms of actual political anger (let us move beyond Tucson), why are people actually angry?

Is it because Glenn Beck says taxes are too high, politicians are irresponsible and public employees have it easy?

Or is it because their taxes went up 67% last night, raised by politicians who just lost an election in order to pay for public employee expenses?

Who would you be angry at: the guy saying you are being robbed or the one actually robbing you?

If the government acts irresponsibly, it is not the fault of dissenters that people become discontent.

Monday, January 10, 2011


I'm in a state of shock concerning the outrage coming from the Left over the Tuscon shooting. In a million years, I could not have imagined the outrage pouring out upon conservatives over a tragedy no conservative was involved with.

I cannot help but wonder how many of these people wanted a Democrat to be assassinated by the Tea Party. Once news was out that Giffords was shot, so many people went into knee jerk reaction that they immediately pinned this on Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, etc.

Once it became known Loughner was not a conservative, these people had the option of eating crow or doubling down.

In defiance of all logic, common sense, and human decency, they opted to double down.

I'm actually stuttering as I type this. Do these people realize they are accusing innocent people of terrorism? By liberals own admission, the blamed parties had nothing to do with this incident!

What do you honestly hope to gain politically from the death of 6 people, including a 9 year old girl?

This is hate for the sake of hate.

As for those who claim "the political climate" is in any way relevant, I have these questions for you to answer:

1. Is there any evidence Loughner was influenced by the state of political dialogue?

2. Isn't the history of the United States full of such dialogue?

3. Hasn't the Left contributed mightily to this atmosphere, in particular during the Bush years?

4. Do you think you are helping the atmosphere by blaming conservatives for deaths they were in no way, shape, or form involved in?

Here is how I see this. Those blaming conservatives for an event liberals by their own admission admit was the act of a lone nutcase (who had no discernible ideology) are seeking to shut down debate on policy issues by demonizing the Right as the root cause of all evil, from nasty political discourse to random deaths.

Let me tell you now: we will not be silenced.

I also see the Left as trying to white wash their own despicable behavior by blaming the entire nature of political discourse on the Republicans. Paul Krugman straight out says that. This is the same man who was ok with hanging Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy. Krugman says Keith Olbermann is proof that liberals are more restrained. This would be the same Olbermann that labeled George W. Bush a fascist. Google the words "kill bush" and look at the images sometime. Then try to tell yourself that it is conservatives who created a climate of fear. While you are at it, look up the phrase "nazi bush." Of course, don't miss out on "nazi cheney."

I could go on for a very, very long time (some more examples here, again only a very small sampling compared to what is out there). To say almost all of the invective is coming out of the Right is an untenable position to hold for any thinking human being with any working memory of the last ten years. And yet that claim is being made to convince the public that the Left cannot be held accountable for harsh political debate.

If the Left shares as much responsibility for the political atmosphere as the Right does, than they are equally culpable to whatever extent that the atmosphere influenced Louchner.

Which, I might add, nobody has any solid evidence of.

To the moderates of this nation: the result of this insanity lies in your hands. If you do not stand up against those demonizing entire groups for the actions of a person not even belonging to that group, it will be seen as an effective political strategy. This incident will set precedent for future episodes.

The only person responsible for this tragedy is Jared Lee Loughner. Every conservative in this country gets that.

Why the anger at us? What is this really about?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Concerning the Reaction to an Attempted Murder

The attempted murder of Congresswoman Giffords is deeply disturbing on two levels. The first level is fairly obvious: a lunatic attempted to kill the congresswoman and succeeded in killing a number of others, including a 9 year old girl. Like any murder, we understand the grief but cannot truly fathom its depth for friends and family of the slain and injured.

The second level, while less devastating to individuals, is more disconcerting for the nation as a whole. After news had broken that the congresswoman had been shot, information was very sketchy (NPR reported fairly quickly that Giffords had passed away, which we now know is not true). Despite this lack of information, the country turned immediately to looking for motive, usually along their ideological preferences. As Giffords is a Democrat, most on the Right either looked at a Mexican drug war connection or prepared themselves to explain why the act of a lone person does not represent the Right as a whole. The Left who partook in this insanity (fortunately, there were those on both sides that were wise enough to refrain) immediately found their answer: Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

As it turned out, the murderer seems to lack anything resembling an ideology or even a real connection to reality. Yesterday I posted Loughner's "manifesto." I'm pretty well versed in political theory, but I could find nothing resembling a coherent message in his videos. Loughner's favorite activity was "conscience dreaming." I'm fairly certain neither the Left nor the Right even knows what this means, much less promotes it. He rambles (in an non sequitur syllogism) that "the people" apparently approve of some "new currency" which will somehow distribute "new knowledge." Nobody on either side of the spectrum is pushing this lunacy as far as I know.

His next beef is with, of all things, English grammar. Again, not a hot button political topic, last I checked. Not to mention I'm fairly certain most people in AZ-8 can read. Loughner's next point is to say that if you do not know the "new currency", you are ignorant of mind control. Somehow having his civil rights would have stopped this, but which rights and how are never explained. Again, neither side in our current politics talks about how new currency can protect us from mind control.

His stated goal: "my ambition---is for informing literate dreamers about a new currency; in a few days, you will know I'm conscience dreaming!" Which side of the spectrum was pushing this theory, again? Oh, that's right: neither.

There are two other videos up, one of which is basically an expanded rambling on what I just described (there is apparently a "new alphabet") and the other is about "mind control." If you want to use them as a partisan attack, let me recommend you go through it line by line rather than cherry picking. This person lacked any coherent thought, much less a political ideology in line with any mainstream thought in this nation. He stumbles upon talking about the Constitution and federalism for a slide, but the next slide he accuses property owners for being in cahoots with the government against the revolutionaries.

I have referred to the attack on Congresswoman Giffords as an attempted murder rather than as an attempted assassination, only because the later implies a political motivation. As far as I can tell, this lunatic was not in touch with reality enough to actually have what we could understand as a political motivation.

The second level that I find so disturbing is that so many people want to use this attack as a political cudgel. Go to Twitter right now and search for Sarah Palin. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are holding her personally responsible for this attack. This is long after it has become known that Loughner's a nutcase with no connection to the Tea Party or to Palin, yet the attacks continue.

Many saw this shooting as an opportunity rather than as a tragedy. If the shooter could be tied to Sarah Palin or the Tea Party, it could be used to destroy a powerful political force without resorting to intellectual arguments and open debate (as of recent, the Tea Party has clearly been winning on this front in terms of influence over the people). These people had their Reichstag Fire and were merely in search of a patsy to blame it on.

As it turned out, the actual shooter was a lunatic with no connection to Palin. This means the entire shooting is politically useless. For many, this has proven too much to accept. One of their own politicians has been gunned down, but no political hay can be made of it? Since there is no clear connection, these despicable partisans are trying to create some sort of indirect connection not too far removed from Loughner's "mind control" theories. The tone of political debate has been too rough, they say! Surely this played a role!

Never mind the fact that there is no evidence Loughner ever was influenced by Palin or the Tea Party. He could just as easily have been influenced by this. Or this. Or this. Or perhaps even this. That last one is particularly important, since so much is being made of Giffords district being targeted. The only thing Palin can be accused of is plagiarizing a Democratic idea.

I'm not a particular fan of Palin (I hope she doesn't run for President, personally) but I am deeply disturbed by the number of people in this country willing to accuse her of crimes without even the smallest shred of evidence. Political assassinations have no business in American politics or culture and neither side condones them. Those seeking to pin innocent citizens for acts of terrorism should be ashamed of themselves.

Such attacks are rare for a reason: they quickly undermine the argument the assassin supports. We all know that. When such attacks do occur, we recognize them for what they are, the actions of lone lunatics that are roundly denounced by all sides. If an assassination does occur based on a clear political affiliation, that side will need to condemn all such actions unequivocally. But when the attacker lacks any real political ideology, both sides need to leave the issue alone and recognize the attack is nothing more than a personal tragedy for those who have lost loved ones. To make desperate political attacks out of such tragedies is to assassinate the human value we attach to politicians representing their people. A person that truly cares about Congresswoman Gifford, or any attacked politician, would not use their condition to politically attack people who had nothing to do with it.

In the future, I hope partisans on all sides remember this.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Speculating on the Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords

As I write this, the breaking news story is that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) has been shot at a town hall meeting in Tuscon, Arizona. She may or may not be alive; earlier reports said she passed away, but now there seems to be hope that she is in fact alive. A dozen others appear to have been hit and in various conditions medically. At least one appears to be a child around the age of 10.

The shooter is said to be around 20 years old and white. He is in custody.

That is the end of what we know.

Speculation is rampant right now, as are calls for vengeance, arrests, etc. As it stands, we know nothing about the motive of the shooter. Given that the target was a politician, is does seem likely that the motive was political, but even that is not an established fact as of right now. For all we know, the shooter could have been stoned out of his gourd and had no political motivations at all.

This drives me nuts more than anything. Yes, if there are political motives of any sort, there will be huge implications of this, which everyone may and should discuss once those motives are confirmed. I assure you, I will be one of those doing so.

But we cannot do that until we know the motive. All attempts to use this to attack the opposing political ideology are completely unfounded at this time. They do little but increase hysteria that, frankly, we do not need.

The time will come to discuss the implications. This is not the time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Constitution is Important, People

This bit from is utterly painful to read.

For starters, the whole point of the Constitution (never once mentioned by Mr. Altman) is to set up rules by which the government must follow. That's right, there are things the government may not do. In fact, there are a great many things the Federal Government may not do, and the assumption should be that the government does not have the power to act until it is pointed out where in the Constitution they were delegated such authority to act.

Given the last four years, it has become evident that Congress has forgotten the Constitution limits their power.

That is what this reading was all about. Every Congressman needs to take these limitations seriously.

Altman's criticism about portions of the Constitution no longer operative not being read is pretty ridiculous; the whole point of the reading is to remind Congressmen what the rules of the game are. Seeing as those aspects struck out are no longer rules of the game, they do not belong in a reminder of what the rules of the game are.

Altman has also completely failed to understand conservative or libertarian thought. We do not pretend the Framers were perfect; the Framers themselves had no such pretensions and were quick to point out in Federalist 51 that men are imperfect creatures. We hold the Constitution dear because it limits the power of the government. Rarely in the history of mankind have those instituting government made a point of checking their own power. While not gods, the Founding Fathers certainly deserve deep respect for this achievement.

No person holding the Constitution as dear in the originalist meaning believes government should not evolve as necessary. What they believe is that the Constitution allows such changes via the Amendment process. Oddly enough, those omissions Altman starts off by complaining about are proof that the Constitution does indeed allow changes. What it requires is a broad consensus to create the change; small, transient majorities cannot be trusted with changing the agreement in regards to their own power because they will always demand more power. If a broad consensus see fit to delegate more power, then more power will be delegated; mere elections do not secure enough consent and are never focused enough on a particular power to assume such powers as the government may wish to claim are delegated.

Quoting Jefferson to argue for a more expansive government that need not really heed constitutional checks is hilarious to those who have read Jefferson's papers.

I believe this entire argument boils down to the (never particularly well expressed) notion of social justice. In order to achieve this, those on the Left believe they need the power to reorganize society, powers far beyond those actually delegated to the government. If the checks placed on the government via the Constitution are followed, social justice schemes are dead upon arrival.