Monday, February 28, 2005

More on dogma

Something else occured to me recently about the pragmatic/ideological divide discussed here (and elsewhere, in response to Jonathan Chait's column in The New Republic). Let's look at the issue of gay marriage. Conservatives generally take it as self-evident (wrongly, in my opinion) that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage, and in doing so, weaken our society. This isn't really based on any evidence, and I think it's rather rediculous to think that allowing two people who love each other to get married can be a bad thing, but that's not really the argument I'm getting at here. The point is, let's say conservatives are right and society crumbles into disrepair as a result of allowing gay marriage (again, I don't think this will happen, but bear with me). Would liberals then reverse their position on gay marriage because the "ends" are undesireable? Or would they stick to their guns and say that the right to marry whomever you please is a fundamental freedom in our society, and cannot be infringed upon, even if the unintended (and perhaps indirect) consequences are negative? It seems to me that they would (and should) defend gay marriage because it is morally, to their eyes (and mine) the only defensible position. This would be an example of sacrificing pragmatism to dogma. And maybe that's not always such a bad thing.

So many laws to break, so little time

A laugh-out-loud idea that exposes the absurdity of so many of the laws we have on the books in this society. Two English students are planning a crime spree across the western US, trying to break as many laws as they can find:

Starting in the liberal state of California, they hope to evade the attention of local police officers when they ride a bike in a swimming pool and curse on a crazy-golf course. In the far more conservative -- and landlocked -- state of Utah, they will risk the penitentiary when they hire a boat and attempt to go whale-hunting. If they manage to outwit state troopers in Utah, and perhaps federal agents on their trail, they will be able to take a deserved, but nevertheless illegal, rest when they have a nap in a cheese factory in South Dakota.

links from reason and highways west

Health Care, Part 1 of 5,467

Some early-morning pontifications on health care, and more specifically, the differences between the systems found in Canada and the United States.

Now, my own personal philisohpical preferences tend to prefer a market-based system to one run by the state. The fact that I'm subsidizing everyone elses's unhealthy lifestyles and unneccessary trips to the doctor isn't something I particularly like. And as is well-documented, the technology available in the US is far superior to that available in Canada (for example, that there are more MRI machines in greater Atlanta than in the entire country of Canada). See Denys Arcand's movie "The Barbarian Invasions" for a french-language perspective on this side of the issue (the best line of the movie is no doubt when the dying father stubbornly says "I voted for socialized medicare, and I'm going to suffer the consequences"). The sheer access to high-end health services in the US seems to confirm the economic theorists' prediction that government-provided health care underinvests in innovation. And yet.... the life expectancy in Canada remains higher than in the US - I'm not sure what influence factors such as the lower murder rate or perhaps, a more active lifestyle, have on this, but it is something that seems to fly in the face of the theory that American health care is "better" than Canadian health care. Per capita spending is lower in Canada (even without the efficiencies of the market), yet the overall result seems to be that people are healthier (at least they are living longer) - or at a minimum, are not suffering greatly because of socialized medicare.

Now I am ignoring, (for the time being) the role of free-riding in this debate, and that is something I will return to at some other time. How much does Canada (and the rest of the world) benefit in terms of innovation and technological advancement from having a quasi-competitive health care market just south of the border? The osmotic gradient of new innovation (espcially in drugs) means that almost anything invented in the US will flow into Canada anyway, so are Canadian simply letting Americans spend the premium on research while we get to enjoy the benefits for free? (This is similar to the argument that can be mad regarding defence spending - that Canada is free-riding on the US's massive resources to defend North America). So to wrap this up for now, I'll just say that I haven't decided which health care system I prefer - my ideology leans toward the American system, yet the evidence (perhaps) points to the conclusion that Canadian health care gets equal (or better) results at a lower cost. And I can tell you, my personal perspective is that it's lot simpler to live somewhere with state-provided health care...the transaction costs associated with choice are usually worth it - but so far I'm not convinced of this for health care.

Blogged Down?

An interesting piece by Radley Balko on blogs - why they're useful and why they're really no different than any other medium for dispensing information. And just like in any other media, there are good and bad examples, and are subject to any of the same biases (if not more so) than TV and the newspapers.

Some reaction and commentary here.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Who's Dogmatic Now?

To keep up with the blog world, I thought it was time that I commented on Jonathan Chait's article, "Fact Finders", from the New Republic. It's been well-examined already (here by Jane Galt, and deliciously, here by Will Wilkinson), but why not add a little into the fray?

This is one of the most self-congratulatory and self-rightous pieces of "journalism" I've ever read, and pretty much sums up a lot of the lack of comfort I have with the left these days (not that there isn't a lot to be found in the National Review or the Weekly Standard that make me just as uncomfortable with the right). First off, to claim that the most important distinction between liberalism and conservatism is the liberals' focus on pragmatism seems to me to bring the debate down to a level that makes it almost impossible to discuss intellectually. And clearly, the set of standards you are using to measure "success" are going to determine whether or not a policy is successful - if the goal is to reduce the size of government, then a policy that achieves that objective is pragmatically, a suceess. It may not be a success from Chait's, or others, point of view because they are bringing in different objectives.

I'd also take issue with the statement that liberals are more likely to change their position than conservatives. No doubt, there are some extremely stubborn conservatives, but I don't think liberals have a monoply on virtue in this regard. Liberals are just as likely to ignore imperical evidence when it goes against their grain, as seen in their continued commitment to the status quo strategy in the war on poverty, etc... that doesn't seem to be bringing home much in the way of results.

For more on this, check out Julian Sanchez's piece on Chait's article. He can do it much better than I can.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Police Powers

From Reason's Daily Brickbat:

Cop vs. Cop (2/25) David Laing was quite upset when a Texas police officer pulled him over, asked for his identification and asked to search his car. Laing, a Canadian police officer, knew Canadian law didn't allow that type of search. What's that got to do with anything? He was stopped in Canada. The Texas officer was there to show Canadian officers how they catch drug dealers in the Lone Star state. After Laing asserted his rights and left, another Texas officer, this time accompanied by a Canadian police officer, pulled him over again. They told Laing he was under the influence of marijuana and demanded to search his car. This time, Laing agreed, but they also searched his two-year-old son, who was with him. They found no drugs, and despite asserting minutes earlier that Laing was under the influence, they let him go. Laing sued the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who settled out of court with him, but the RCMP defends its actions. The RCMP also says Laing was evasive when asked what his job was. Laing says he simply didn't want any special treatment because he is a cop.

Technology Breeding Diversity

Andrew Sullivan’s piece about the new iPod world touched a nerve in more than one way. First off, I have long felt that personal music devices have served to cut us off socially from each other. Of course, this is some of their appeal (and I admit that I have occasionally fallen into the trap as well), but most of the time my knee-jerk reaction to seeing someone on the bus who’s lost in their music is mild resentment masked as self-righteous moral superiority. “Oh those people with their Discmans plugged in their ears…too good to be bothered with the rest of us!” I never really understood people running with headphones on, either, but that really stems from my own background with an obsessive focus on running technique. At any rate, the iPod has only added to the “problem”, as those white headphones have essentially become ubiquitous symbols of hip-ness on high school and college campuses across the country. What really does get me is when a group of friends are walking together, each listening to their own iPod! Isn't part of the point of music sharing it with others? But really, why should anyone be forced to listen to the world around them? If having the whole collection of music you love at your fingertips is something you enjoy, then by all means, go for it. I’ll try and get over my shallow-minded biases. And hey, its probably helped with eavesdropping in public places.

The piece of his article that I actually take issue with is when he draws this as part in parcel of the larger problem of people cutting themselves off from the world:

"It wouldn't be so worrisome if it weren't part of something even bigger. Americans are beginning to narrowcast their own lives. You get your news from your favorite blogs, the ones that won't challenge your own view of the world. "

Personally, I think he’s off the mark on this one. Technology has, by almost any measure, NOT caused a narrowing of focus in the lives of most people. The opportunity to be exposed to different viewpoints has never been greater. In my own life, I was never really exposed to serious right-wing philosophies until I started exploring the web, a product of coming from a fairly liberal home (and going to grad school in resource and environmental management!). It's only because of the internet that I have really discovered libertarianism, which has proven to be extremely significant in life. And overall, the ease of access to information on the Internet only makes it easier to keep tabs on different ideas. Surfing often takes you places you didn’t expect to go – at least much more so then you’d do reading the newspaper or watch television. When all I did was talk about political issues with my friends, we all were pretty much coming from the same background, and had (within a range) similar views (and assumptions) on the major issues. But now, I can get news from the left and the right of the spectrum every day, and I don’t think (or at least I hope) that I’m the only one who makes an effort to try to broaden their horizons through using the technological tools available today. Maybe some people shut themselves in and only get their information from sources that won’t challenge their world view – but they are probably people that were doing that before blogs became a news source, and they are probably outnumbered by those who have gotten a bigger picture of the world, and the ideas in it, from the interconnected society.

Me (sans beard)