Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Via Radley Balko:

Of course, you’re still expected to entrust your property to the people who waste resources staging useless, theatrical water shows for the TV cameras. Forget about taking steps to fight an approaching wildfire yourself. You’ll likely be arrested. Want to hire a private firm to provide extra fire protection? That may soon be illegal too, thanks to the Naomi Kleins of the world, who’ve deemed private fire protection “disaster apartheid.”

How the term "disaster apartheid"came from the mouth of the stunningly ignorant Ms. Klein is worth mentioning. Via Reason:

Then the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News revealed the shocking news that the American International Group (AIG), an insurance company, had been adding a very modest supplement to the firefighting effort—six trucks—on behalf of its clients. For premiums averaging a hefty $19,000 a year, AIG policyholders in the fire-vulnerable “wildland-urban interface” have their homes assessed for vulnerability, kitted with sprinkler systems, and doused with fire retardant. When wildfires rage within three miles of a covered house, AIG-contracted teams come out to lay down a fresh perimeter of retardant and check the roof and nearby brush for stray embers (the cause of most housing tract losses during an inferno). According to Bloomberg, AIG firefighters saved at least six houses, including one lucky enough to be next door to an AIG client.

In other words, an owner of private property who wants to protect his property from a disaster demands a service that can be provided by someone to provide additional fire protection via a private entity whose interests are far more aligned with the customer then the local public entity. Both sides are incentivized. The homeowner is interested in protecting his or her home and for AIG, the use of a service, assumably, lowers the probability of a payout of a loss claim.

Two parties to a mutually beneficial transaction? Check. No violation of the rights of either party? Check. It sure sounds simple enough to me.

Klein's histrionics do not surprise me. The fact that the possibility of a private service provider donig better than our supposedly dependable and infallible government, be it fire protection services, security services or education, greatly offends the Left, especially those of Naomi Klein's or Rick Pearlstein's ilk.

Nor am I surprised at Pearlstein's complete ignorance toward the concept of privatization. Then again, I do not have faith the egalitarians of Klein's or Pearlstein's sort will ever get their arms around the concept. It's far better to invoke strawmen to whip up the masses.

Reminder for Hayek Fans

Prof. Steven Horwitz will be doing a chat tonight at 7PM at Art of the Possible regarding the ways in which Hayek's vision supports a libertarian worldview more than a conservative one and the ways in which Hayek supported particular roles for the state that other libertarians and conservatives do not. My initial post on this is here.

"A Tale...Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing"

With President Bush's signature today, the mortgage "bailout" has become law. I don't have time to offer my own complete analysis of the bill right now, but our good friend Kip, Esq. has the best and most useful take on it that I've seen so far in terms of describing it more or less layperson's terms. Kip looks at each of the bill's provisions, and finds that - not surprisingly - the bill achieves approximately nothing in the way of solving the alleged mortgage crisis. To the extent it does anything, it actually incentivizes more of the very behavior that created the problems in the first place (i.e., it encourages home-buying from the riskiest borrowers).

Of course, it does raise the debt ceiling ever-higher (inflation is awesome!) and contains its share of non-germane rent-seeking.

Ultimately, I'd say the bill is proof that the ugliest word in the English language is "bi-partisan." If libertarians can't be an important part of the political establishment of either party, the best we can hope for is that Republicans be good where they're supposed to be good (taxes and spending) and Democrats be good where they're supposed to be good (civil liberties and personal freedoms). But when the two of them get together to do something that is overwhelmingly "bi-partisan," especially the last 8 years or so, the result is just about always really, really bad (think PATRIOT Act). The question regarding why things like this pass is a question I don't have time to answer right now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Politics of Whining

Jackson at AOTP pointed me to this post from "The Great" Tyler Cowen regarding Cowen's theory of political coalitions. Cowen notes the ways in which certain elements of each "side" (most obviously, politicians) changes its arguments tend to result in extremely inconsistent arguments even within the same issue (a critical element of what I would call "pu-pu platter partisanship."). He suggests that this indicates that the two "sides" are less concerned with specific principles than they are about preventing certain (non-coalition member) groups from rising in relative status:

Take the so-called "right wing." I believe that some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners." They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status. That means they must argue against the whining and also they must argue against the presuppositions behind the whining.

Take the so-called "left wing." Some of these people favor a kind of meritocracy. They feel it is unfair that money so determines access in capitalist society and they do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people. It is important to fight for the principle that the desires of this monied class have a relatively low priority in the social ranking. Egalitarianism is the rhetoric of the day, and readjusting the status of other Americans to the status of this monied class often receives more attention than elevating the very poorest in the world to a higher absolute level.

This excerpt doesn't really do the whole post justice, but I don't want to quote the entire thing. I think to a large extent Cowen is on to something here. Certainly, his theory goes a long way to explaining "pu-pu platter partisanship" (i.e., the holding of beliefs that apparently lack any discernible philosophical principle).

Where I think he goes (slightly) wrong is in articulating the ultimate goal of these group members as being to prevent certain groups from rising in status. Instead, I think the crux of the matter is simply that there is nothing that can hold a coalition together more than a perception of an imminent threat. An atmosphere in which the values or way of life of particular coalition members are "under attack" is an atmosphere in which those coalition members have great cause to fight back against those threats, especially by voting against the coalition that contains the source of those threats.

Importantly, if you have a perception that your way of life is under threat from the members of one coalition ("Party A"), then suddenly your primary goal in political life is to prevent "Party A" from gaining or holding on to power. The result of this, importantly, is that the voter/coalition member will become a dedicated voter of "Party B," as long as "Party B" is the coalition most capable of stopping "Party A." What matters, then, is not so much whether you agree with "Party B," but rather whether "Party B" is big enough to stop "Party A." It is a magnificent deterrent to voting for third parties; it is also a magnificent way of insulating the leadership of "Party B" from criticism by coalition members - it ceases to be particularly important that the leadership of "Party B" agree with its constituents, but is instead only important that the leadership of "Party B" is not "Party A."

In other words, if you feel threatened by "Group X" within "Party A," then you will support "Party B" so long as "Party B" claims to be against "Group X" and to want to restrict "Group X." You suddenly care less about keeping "Party B" honest and holding them to the fire when they deviate from principle than you care about supporting "Party B" because of your fear of what will happen if "Party A" maintains or obtains power. So you don't recognize or, at least, care enough to leave "Party B" when "Party B" does something that either actively hurts you or at least actively prevents you from achieving your policy goals.

The theory Cowen advances strikes me as being one in which politics for certain people is primarily a function of disdain for particular groups or a belief in which those groups are essentially beneath the coalition members of "Party B." I would instead characterize the issue as being one in which politics for these individuals is primarily a function of fear of, rather than disdain for, particular groups. This may only be a difference in semantics, as the effects of both characterizations are similar. But I think it's a noteworthy difference nonetheless.

Monday, July 28, 2008

All your stomachs are belong to us.

California's legislature banned trans fats in California restaurants. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the bill. I have the libertarian animosity to this rights-violating action. What customers want doesn't matter, apparently. What restaurants want doesn't matter, apparently. That the two parties have managed to voluntarily co-exist until now doesn't matter, apparently.

This is paternalism at its ugliest. Customers are either the victim of malevolent businesses or too stupid to know better. Restaurants are that malevolent business. No other possibility exists there. They know trans fats are awful, AWFUL!, yet force them on customers anyway. Just evil.

That narrative is ridiculous. Customers are free to choose. As a vegan, personally, I'm well aware of how easy it is to not only ask about ingredients at any restaurant, but to also request substitutions. Restaurants, aka businesses, are interested in serving my needs to make money, not invested in shoving evil non-food down my throat whether I like it or not. This is just a lesson that any choice of narrative that relies on malevolent intent should be questioned often and diligently.

For contrast, Erik Marcus has a different opinion:

One parting thought: this was a campaign that no reasonable person could argue against. Thousands and thousands of lives will be saved, and the cost to industry is absolutely trivial. And yet the bastards behind the restaurant industry did everything possible to oppose this initiative.

I generally agree with Mr. Marcus' views, even where I often disagree on political solutions, but this is wrong. I suppose it's not for me to judge whether or not I'm a reasonable person, although I think I am. Mr. Marcus clearly disagrees. But I've explained briefly how a reasonable person can argue against a trans fat ban. And if it's not clear, I am arguing against a ban, not in favor of trans fats. The latter can be unhealthy without justifying the former.

I must also quibble with Mr. Marcus' projections. I do not necessarily disagree that "thousands and thousands" of lives will be saved. I doubt it, but I don't have evidence either way. For such a bold claim that is the basis for a denial of rights, I expect more than an expectation that I take it on faith. Show me the numbers, which will be only estimates. And once the ban is in effect, how long do we have to wait to see the change in life expectancy? How will we measure it? And if (when?) the projected benefits fail to appear, can we undo the ban?

The same applies to the assertion that the cost to industry is "absolutely trivial". I doubt that seriously, especially with all of the corresponding regulations already in place. (i.e. mandatory calorie/nutritional disclosure) There will be costs. What is the threshold for triviality? What about smaller businesses who don't have the buying power and monetary resources that larges businesses have? Is it a new maxim that a business may be large only when it makes it possible for the business to comply with new regulation?

These are reasonable questions that should be easy to answer if they're not based on misinformation and wishful thinking.


From Ban Trans Fats, I found several interesting links. First, the push for voluntary compliance seems to have a few converts:

After we launched the trans fat campaign by filing the Oreo case in 2003, we started reporting on restaurants and other eateries that had switched to trans fat-free oil. Now in 2007 it is impossible to keep with all of the tens or hundreds of thousands of restaurants making the switch. We will continue to report when major chains make the switch.

You will notice lower down this page some small and even single restaurant operations are mentioned. These were "early adopters." We are keeping them on this page because they took the lead before the big companies made their moves.

Second, Bans Trans Fats offers a link called What Not to Eat, where it lists six rules for determining what not to eat.

In sixty seconds with The Google, I found enough information to make responsible choices. But I might not make those responsible choices for myself. Therefore, a ban. Don't worry, though. The original lawsuit was not about adults. It says so right there on the website, with underlining and an acknowledgment that adults can make their own intelligent choices. Think nothing of this text from the Ban Trans Fats site:

Nope, nothing to see there, folks. It's for the children only.

**UPDATE (by Mark)** John Schwenkler points out that trans fat bans aren't the attacks on corporate America that many like to think, but are instead a means for large corporate interests to insulate themselves from competition from smaller businesses that are less capable of adjusting to new regulatory requirements.