Paula Hall

What you WON’T Know Can Kill You

 Posted by on 11 June 2009 at 11:01 pm  Health Care, Psychology
Jun 112009
There’s something I don’t quite understand about the claim in certain studies that much of the healthcare Americans receive “provides little or no real benefit.” What I don’t understand is — what do people expect to observe under a regulatory scheme the aim of which is to encourage more doctor’s visits?

Isn’t true that, since the advent of laws and regulations establishing tax-free health insurance benefits from employers, Medicare, and Medicaid, people have simply made more visits to doctors? Isn’t it one of things being touted in Massachusetts, at least in the early days after its coverage mandate, that people were getting to see doctors more? Isn’t the goal of “universal coverage” to give people money to go see the doctor — so that they’ll go more often?

And isn’t it the case that things that are cheap or free tend to get consumed in higher quantities?

So if policymakers make healthcare cheap or free — or seemingly so — wouldn’t you think that the resulting extra doctors’ visits are made when there really isn’t too much for a doctor to fix? Wouldn’t that tend to make healthcare under such a system less likely provide any real benefit? I mean, if you’re running to the doctor every time you have a runny nose, how much benefit can such visits to the doctor provide?

Plus, how are you supposed to measure the “real benefit” of preventative care visits?

I’m not saying that the studies aren’t valid. I’m not a statistician. I’m saying that these studies are trivial. You don’t need a study to conclude that when something is free, people will tend to consume it even when they can’t get very much “real benefit” out of it. All people have to do is take a brief and honest look at how their spending changes whenever the price of something goes down. But such elementary self-knowledge is apparently evaded en masse.

The real aim of such studies isn’t to learn anything, it’s to score political points. For though the studies may be trivial, they’re being touted to pernicious effect. In response to such studies we observe no critical mass of policymakers making the sensible suggestion, which is to establish a free market in healthcare. In a free-market healthcare system, healthcare professionals would have to compete on price and healthcare consumers would have to do comparison shopping instead of mindlessly consuming healthcare products and services. Policymakers aren’t finally admitting they need to deregulate healthcare. The “lesson” policymakers are taking from this “growing body of research” is: healthcare providers have to be regulated even more. They think we need more laws telling physicians what kinds of care will provide “real benefits,” and that physicians and patients can’t be allowed to decide, based on the facts of a given patient’s case, what the appropriate treatment should be.

In other words, today’s policymakers act as if the solution to low-benefit healthcare products and services is through strangling regulation to make those products and services even less beneficial. They are at once clamoring that people need to be given money to spend on a product — and then taking that product off the market.

When private parties decide to forego a certain treatment, that’s exercising their right to make decisions in their own lives. When the goverment decides someone should forego a certain treatment, even if they want it and someone else is willing to provide it — that’s mandatory rationing.

But you don’t need studies to demonstrate the truth of this, either. Look north to Canada. Look back to the Soviet Union, and the queues of people lining up to buy worthless things because it was either buy those things or paper their walls with useless rubles. When you outlaw buying decisions based on price you end up with government rationing. All the proof needed is right in front of everyone’s eyes, it’s just as impossible to miss as a “church by daylight.” (Thank you, Shakespeare.)

I guess what I’m failing to understand is what I’ve never understood — why people are willing to evade facts even when such evasion is literally life-threatening.

Say What?

 Posted by on 20 May 2009 at 11:01 pm  Health Care
May 202009

Breaking news from the American Medical Association on dealing with the swine flu:

In the event that quarantine and isolation measures are needed, physicians should ensure that the least restrictive measures are employed in a manner that does not discriminate against particular socioeconomic, racial or ethnic groups.

OK, let me try to unpack this.

A physician makes a determination that a patient sick with swine flu (or any other communicable disease) is so dangerous that isolation and quarantine is warranted. The factors which the physician took into account in reaching this determination are scientific: how easily the disease spreads, what stage of illness the patient is in, and so on. The socioeconomic, racial or ethnic status of the patient is immaterial to this determination. The only question is: does the patient’s condition pose a danger to the public?

If the patient is a danger to the public, does he or she become any more or less of a danger depending on his or her socioeconomic, racial or ethnic status? Are rich white people more dangerous when sick with the swine flu than poor black people? If there is no difference in communicability of a disease based on socioeconomic, racial or ethnic status, what possible rationale is there for basing decisions to isolate or quarantine based on socioeconomic, racial or ethnic status?

Clearly, there is none. So the only point of the AMA’s exhortation is to remind physicians: your decision to quarantine a rich white guy will not be subject to second-guessing, but you must be prepared to defend as medically necessary your decision to isolate or quarantine any poor, non-WASP.

If doctors’ decisions to quarantine poor non-whites are vulnerable to attack as discriminatory, don’t you think it’s likely that some doctors will tend to quarantine fewer dangerous patients simply to avoid the charge that they’re prejudiced?

It looks like the AMA is saying: it’s OK to endanger the public if your reason is to avoid hurting the feelings of some hypersensitive tribalists. To which I say — say what?

What’s the Diff?

 Posted by on 8 March 2009 at 11:01 pm  Law, Politics
Mar 082009
Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is challenging part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional, which is good. Any challenge to legal discrimination between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage is a good thing, in my book. No person of any status, married or single, gay or straight, has a right to government social welfare benefits. But government violates rights when it fails to protect any citizen who respects the rights of others. Voluntary marriages between two consenting adults do not involve the initiation of force against anyone, and therefore, do not abridge anyone’s rights. Where there has been no violation of rights, there’s no role for the government. End of story.

Unfortunately, this is probably the only good fight that GLAD is waging.

GLAD recognizes that …

[t]here are many priorities for the LGBT community that likely rank ahead of a DOMA Section 3 repeal, including the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a hate crimes bill, the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

What I find particularly noteworthy is the likelihood that the LGBT community thinks “a hate crimes bill” is more important than challenging DOMA. The only difference between “crime” and “hate crime” is motive. If I graffiti your property, I’ve violated your property rights. If the graffiti is of a swastika, what’s the difference? Only the hurt feelings of the victim. This makes hate crime laws not about punishing objective rights violations, but about punishing some people for hating others. This is wholly improper, and itself a violation of rights. As Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Center said:

According to “hate crime” laws, a murderer deserves a greater punishment if his crime is motivated by an idea such as racism or sexism. If the government assumes the power to punish on the basis of “unacceptable” ideas, it has assumed the power to exonerate and offer leniency to favored ideas. If anti-abortion religionists hold sway in government, on the premise of “hate crime” laws, a zealous Christian who guns down an abortion doctor could receive a lighter sentence or be exonerated–on the grounds that such an act is evidence of noble “idealism.”

Once the government starts punishing criminals for acting on “unacceptable ideas,” it has assumed the role of arbiter for which ideas are acceptable or not. If whoever wields power can shape the law to advance an ideological agenda, then it cannot be long before merely holding unorthodox or unconventional ideas becomes a crime that the government punishes.

The government has no business punishing people for their ideas, no matter how repugnant. By demanding the government do precisely that, “hate crime” laws threaten our freedom of thought–and undermine the system of objective law that protects it. Such laws should be abolished.

So here’s the problem. On the one hand, GLAD is challenging the fact that DOMA discriminates between heterosexual and homosexual marriage, discrimination that is clearly religiously motivated. On the other hand, GLAD wants to make it a crime for people to hate homosexuals. Religion is a feeling that there’s a God. Hate is feeling that someone is vicious. Religion is a feeling. Hate is a feeling. Are we seeing a similarity, here?

In other words, GLAD thinks it is permissible to legislate feelings about homosexuality. Godbangers on the religious right think it is permissible to legislate feelings about marriage. What’s the diff?

Ayn Rand wrote that “[w]hen men share the same basic premise, it is the most consistent ones who win.” One can argue whether GLAD or the godbangers are more consistent in their calls for thought control. But that’s just the problem — it’s arguable. GLAD is, putting it mildly, inconsistent on the issue of thought control. And unfortunately, same sex marriage advocacy happens largely through groups like GLAD.

Equal marriage rights is a legitimate issue, but so long as GLAD is hypocritical about thought control, the drive to eliminate discrimination in marriage is vulnerable to defeat by opponents — like the godbangers — who are more consistent in their drive to become the nation’s thought police.

The solution, naturally, is for all proponents of same-sex marriage to make a consistent, principled argument on the basis of individual rights for everyone, in all circumstances, no exceptions. In fact, that’s the solution in a number of analogous cases involving attempts to shove religion down our throats, like the attempts to teach creationism in schools, or to outlaw abortion.

When freedom-lovers fight on the basis of principles, the difference between the religious right and the defenders of individual rights is clear for all to see.

Homecoming "Queen"

 Posted by on 27 February 2009 at 12:01 am  Culture
Feb 272009

The Washington Post ran a story the other day on the controversy over the recent George Mason University homecoming queen contest, the “Ms. Mason” pageant.

A gay student and drag queen performer entered “as a joke,” competing as his drag alter ego “Reann Ballslee.” He competed by wearing “a silver bra and zebra-print pants and . . . lip-syncing to Britney Spears’s ‘Womanizer.’” The other contestants included

a government and politics major from Chesapeake and a Chi Omega sorority member who told the school newspaper she should win because “I have pride in Mason to the point where my towels are green and gold.”

“Reann” won the pageant.

“It was just for fun,” Allen, 22, said over coffee at the Johnson Center, where he was congratulated by classmates with hugs and squeals. “In the larger scheme of things, winning says so much about the university. We’re one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and . . . we celebrate that.”

Apparently, the pageant had been held for five years previously with little engagement by the student body. Few students were interested in an event regarded as “the province of pretty blondes and fraternity boys.” This year, however, with Ryan Allen as a contestant, students were interested.

“I’ve never been into homecoming over here. This is the first time I’ve actually wanted to support someone,” said Melissa Benjjani, 21, from Lebanon. “He deserves to be queen. He’s already a queen for everybody.”

All was not joy in Mudville, however, when Reann won. GMU is in a years-long campaign “to revamp its image from commuter school to distinguished institution of higher learning.” Although GMU’s official statement is that the university is “very comfortable with it,” a sophomore who helps with recruiting thinks

“It’s really annoying,” said Bollinger, who works as an ambassador for the admissions office. “The game was on TV. Everyone was there. All eyes were on us. And we do something like this? It’s just stupid.”

When I read this story I did not know what to think. On the one hand, this is clearly a no-skin-off-my nose situation; who cares who the homecoming queen of George Mason University is? Why should there be any controversy? And besides, we live in a country where people are trying to keep gay men and women from getting married to the person they love, so it’s refreshing to see what looks like very public acceptance of one gay man’s lifestyle.

On the other hand, I felt bad that a benign tradition was being subverted in some sense. Wikipedia describes homecoming as a tradition that is “celebrated” by bringing together alumni and others for banquets, a football game, and a ceremony where two students who have “gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute to their school” are crowned Homecoming King and Queen. Crowning a man homecoming queen as a “joke” seems to thwart what many people expect and enjoy about homecoming celebrations. When Ryan Allen entered the competition, he did not intend to be judged by the same standards as the other two contestants. That is, he was not trying to show school spirit, or to demonstrate that he was a good student, or even that he was the prettiest contestant. He hoped to win despite those standards; he wanted those standards to be disregarded. Put another way — there may not have been any official rule barring a drag queen from participating in George Mason University’s homecoming pageant, but it does seem that when Ryan Allen entered the pageant, he broke the spirit, if not the letter, of the “law.”

Then I remembered what Ayn Rand said about humor:

Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel . . . . What’s funny about it? It’s the contrast of the woman’s pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That’s the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element–which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that’s fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous . . . .

I wonder: if Ryan Allen entered the pageant as a “joke,” what did he hope people would laugh at? Is the Ms. Mason homecoming pageant the proper subject of a joke? Is there something evil about it, such that it is good to deny its “metaphysical importance?” So far as I am aware, it was never any part of the GMU homecoming tradition to disparage homosexuals, such that the pageant should be considered evil for contributing to prejudice against gay men. If I’m invited to ridicule the pageant as a result of this, am I contributing to the destruction of something evil, or of a value?

Perhaps in the end, what people will take away from this episode (to the extent anyone notices) is that the-times-they-are-a-changin’ — in a good way. But that will only be in contradiction of Ryan Allen’s original intent, which was to make the pageant the subject of a joke. Which means — to destroy the pageant.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder. From where I sit this doesn’t look like a harmless joke. It looks like a spiteful prank.

"Rights" of the Obese

 Posted by on 2 January 2009 at 12:22 am  Health, Politics
Jan 022009

Since NoodleFood has been blogging a lot lately on the subject of health, nutrition, and achieving a healthy body weight, I thought I’d weigh in (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) with some updates on laws concerning obesity.

That’s right — laws.

The City Council of Binghamton, New York, has passed a new ordinance called The Binghamton Human Rights Law. It aims to protect two classes of individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodation: the transgendered and the overweight. Recently, Canadian airlines were forced to give obese people two seats for the price of one, on the theory that being overweight is a disability. And in 2004 Medicare removed language from the Medicare Coverage Issues Manual declaring obesity is not an illness, which was widely interpreted as allowing Medicare claims on the basis that obesity is a disease.

“Discrimination” against the overweight is a hot topic. Those who see and decry such discrimination claim that many overweight people aren’t responsible for their condition. They claim that obesity is a disease, the result of environmental factors, genetic factors, and food addiction. You can find discussion of all these claims at the American Obesity Association, which lobbied for the Medicare change and proclaims on its home page that

Obesity is not a simple condition of eating too much. It is now recognized that obesity is a serious, chronic disease. No human condition — not race, religion, gender, ethnicity or disease state — compares to obesity in prevalence and prejudice, mortality and morbidity, sickness and stigma.

The American Obesity Association doesn’t seem to be very active lately, but the Obesity Action Coalition is very active. Their “Advocacy” page declares that “[o]besity is a complex disease” and complains that “some [insurance] payors and employers still do not recognize obesity and morbid obesity as a disease.”

The notion of “rights” concerning employment, housing, education and public accommodation turn the concept of individual rights on its head. Individual rights protect freedom of action and prohibit the initiation of force. A legal claim to anything that must be produced by another human being — like a place to work, a house, tutelage and a seat on an airplane — requires the initiation of force against the producers and violates individual rights.

But all that is Rights 101. What I think is particularly astounding about calls to treat the overweight as involuntarily disabled is that they apparently ignore that Americans have been getting fatter for decades. That is — the further back you look, the thinner Americans appeared to be. There’s little valuable data on nutrition at the Center for Disease control, but they do have a great little graphic which shows how much fatter Americans have become since 1985. Below are some sample images:

I haven’t looked very hard for data on American obesity before 1985, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans were thinner in the decades prior to 1985. But let’s say 1985 is a good baseline. What has changed since 1985? One candidate is the explosion in technology that allows us to feed and entertain ourselves with very little effort — microwave ovens, videos, electronic games, cable television and the like. But the primary problem is how our diet has changed in the last few decades — more grains, sweeteners and vegetable oils. On top of that, many who tried to lose weight followed the advice of the government or of misinformed experts and went on a low-fat, low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet. That is not a long-term solution.

So there’s a lot of bad information out there, but there’s a lot of good information available, too. But do the advocacy groups focus on making getting better information available? No, that would require acknowledging that obese people are responsible for getting themselves into shape. What the advocacy groups concentrate on is getting other people to expend the effort they don’t think their constituents should have to expend.

The U.S. government is on the horns of a dilemma. The CDC website focuses on diet and exercise, taking the position that people can control their weight and in large part because the government is paying for ever-growing medical costs attributable to obesity. On the other hand, advocates of obesity “rights” are having success pushing legislation treating obesity as a disease for which the obese have no responsibility. So where is the government going to come down on this issue?

You’d think that with socialized medicine on the horizon in the U.S. we’d see increasing government emphasis on preventing obesity. But on the other hand, look at the demographics — the percent of the voter base that is obese is increasing. I think we’ll see more legislation like The Binghamton Human Rights Law. In a country dominated by pressure-group warfare, might is right — and might is also “rights.”

(Thanks to Diana for her suggestions on this post!)

Who Is Really Endangered?

 Posted by on 9 December 2008 at 12:02 am  Environmentalism
Dec 092008

A man wants to encourage the growth of a wild turkey population near his farm. He’s a hunter — perhaps he wants some new targets. He may even eat the wild turkeys he kills.

At any rate, he knows there’s a pack of coyotes in the area and fears the coyotes will not give the wild turkey population a chance to increase. So he baits some traps for the coyotes with beef laced with a lethal and illegal poison.

He kills some coyotes.

Some bald eagles feed on the coyote carcasses and die, too.

A passerby sees the dead bald eagles and tells the feds, who set out to discover who is responsible for illegally killing the birds. As reported by the New York Times:

With no prior criminal history, he was sentenced to two years of probation and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

As a convicted felon, Mr. Collier would have to give up his collection of hunting guns, a blow to his lifestyle. “We kind of got a hunting heritage in this family,” he said. “It’s what we do.”

For the sake of two dead birds our government spent thousands of dollars, and used up court and prosecutors’ time, to ruin the life of a human being. The birds have no thoughts, no plans for their life, no chosen obligations or enjoyments — and no rights. Mr. Collier was fined, humiliated, and deprived of one of the chief joys of his life because he accidentally killed some rare birds.

[I]t was not so much the felony conviction for killing two bald eagles that stung the most, and that stung plenty. It was the loss of his hunting rifles that went with it.

For his mother, June S. Collier, it was the pain of seeing her son’s name sullied in their town of roughly 5,000 people in southeastern Missouri, where the family had lived, farmed and hunted for four generations.

To all you casual environmentalists out there who believe that there “oughta be a law” to protect endangered species, is this really what you wanted? If it isn’t what you wanted, have you examined your beliefs lately?

(Cross-posted to ms. think.)

Post Mortem

 Posted by on 13 November 2008 at 12:06 am  Politics, Psychology
Nov 132008

I followed this political season more closely than I’ve followed any other. There’s the narrative that this just wasn’t the Republicans’ year, the brand is too tarnished. There’s the narrative that Obama is a cool customer, and the narrative that McCain squandered his honorable “maverick” brand. There’s the it’s-the-economy-stupid-redux narrative. There’s the Obama’s-shady-associations narrative.

What to make of these narratives? Which one is true?

None, I think. It’s all euphemism. I think that every four years, but perhaps in this presidential election cycle in particular given Obama’s historic candidacy, the American electorate trots out its metaphysical angst for all to see. And there’s a big rush to put the just-so stories out there to cover it up.

The angst to which I refer? It’s your garden variety can-I-cope-with-reality angst. American voters get the opportunity to choose which story they prefer to tell themselves about why the problem isn’t within, but in the world they never made.

Some people tell themselves that someone is trying to take what they have, some “other.” That other might be after their money, or after the spiritual values that they claim make them feel good about themselves. When they seek an answer to why their self-image is threatened, they look down at the threat from “below,” from the people they consider beneath them in moral stature. These people run Right with the Republicans.

Some people tell themselves that others got unfair advantages, that those others have forced inequitable bargains on everyone else. When they seek an answer to why their life seems harder than they feel they deserve, they see the threat as coming from “above,” from people who get to enjoy the high life because of the luck of the draw. These people run Left with the Democrats.

Both today’s Left and Right are really two sides of the same coin. (Yes, I know, depressingly unoriginal observation, there.) They’re both asking for the same thing — they want the government to steal from someone and give to them what they feel themselves incapable of producing on their own. Those on the Right are looking for unearned moral status. Those on the Left are looking for unearned material wealth. Neither those on the Left nor on the Right realize that asking for the unearned is always a single problem, and that there’s no real difference between them.

The Right needs to wash out its soul with soap and water. The Left needs to recognize the crook that looks back at them when they look in the mirror.

I sometimes despair of either side accepting that theirs alone is the responsibility for living and enjoying the good life.

Hey, Did You Know Libertarians Run the Government?

 Posted by on 24 October 2008 at 12:40 pm  Finance, Politics
Oct 242008

Yes! It’s true! Libertarians have been running the country for years. How do I know?

I know because Jacob Weisberg, the Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Slate Group (which publishes the online magazine), has just penned an article describing for us immature Ayn Rand naifs how it is that the financial collapse killed libertarianism.

A source of mild entertainment amid the financial carnage has been watching libertarians scurrying to explain how the global financial crisis is the result of too much government intervention rather than too little…

Utopians of the right, libertarians are… convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history. Like all true ideologues, they find a way to interpret mounting evidence of error as proof that they were right all along.

To which the rest of us can only respond, Haven’t you people done enough harm already? We have narrowly avoided a global depression and are mercifully pointed toward merely the worst recession in a long while. This is thanks to a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas.

[Emphasis in original.]

That’s all by way of introduction. He follows with a bunch of haphazard facts strung together in a string of non sequiturs that I’ve become bored with, they’re so ubiquitously offered as proof the financial crisis was caused by the “free market.” So forgive me if I don’t quote here the “facts” the article supposedly marshals in support of its conclusions (check out the full article if you’re not easily nauseated). Weisberg concludes with slap at, of all people, Ayn Rand:

The worst thing you can say about libertarians is that they are intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview many of them absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school.

This article is yet another gob-smacking exercise in tortured rationalization of the avoidance of uncomfortable facts by someone steeped in the rhetorical method not of thrust-and-parry, but avoid-and-slime. Weisberg first avoids the facts that 1) Libertarians have never run the American government, 2) it’s a non sequitur to declare that financiers and corporate-welfare statists who run to the government for a bailout believe in the free market (!) and 3) Libertarianism has been rejected wholesale, outright, and damn near shrilly by Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism. Weisberg then slimes principled Objectivists as “immature” and “ideologues,” and by playing on the flat ignorance of most of the public of the tenets of Objectivism. (Not to mention trotting out that tired when-are-you-going-to-grow-out-of-it smear.)

I would label this a serious example of the pot calling the kettle black except that there is no “kettle.” There’s definitely a “pot” — Weisberg’s beloved regulatory state has failed. There is no “kettle”; there has never been a free market upon which to blame the current financial crisis or any so-called “market failure,” and I defy Weisberg and his ilk to identify when that state of affairs has subsisted.

I’m not up for reinventing the wheel this morning, so I’ll just send everyone to the new Repeal The Bailout site for an excellent compilation of Objectivist thought leadership on the current economic situation and offer some closing thoughts on Weisberg’s article.

Perhaps the biggest thing Weisberg evades is that we Objectivists who advocate for a truly free market are entirely principled on this: we hold that if you regulate any aspect of the economy, to any degree, it is not free. (I mean, really — you’d think that someone calling Objectivists “ideologues” would jump at the chance to point out how just how “utopian” we are about what we’re saying.) He seems to pay lip service to this fact but then proceeds brazenly to avoid even the most elementary logical implications of the principled consistency of Objectivism.

If she could, I’m sure Ayn Rand would be rolling over in her grave at the willful ignorance of those who persist in equating Libertarianism, which has rightly been repeatedly discredited, with a philosophy so diametrically opposed to it. But let’s accept for a fleeting moment and for the sake of Weisberg’s “argument” his nonsensical conflation of Objectivism and its true free market principles with Libertarianism. Weisberg must nevertheless be charged with his unapologetic evasion of the fact that he’s celebrating the demise of a Libertarian hegemony that has never existed.

The man is deliriously dancing on an empty grave.

On a Mission to Outlaw Thinking

 Posted by on 8 September 2008 at 2:00 am  Culture, Politics, Religion
Sep 082008

If Paul Krugman is right (and it would pretty much be ONLY about this), what we’ve been seeing in the Republican party since the days of Nixon is the politics of resentment.

One of the key insights in “Nixonland,” the new book by the historian Rick Perlstein, is that Nixon’s political strategy throughout his career was inspired by his college experience, in which he got himself elected student body president by exploiting his classmates’ resentment against the Franklins, the school’s elite social club. There’s a direct line from that student election to Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the “nattering nabobs of negativism” as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” and from there to the peculiar cult of personality that not long ago surrounded George W. Bush — a cult that celebrated his anti-intellectualism and made much of the supposed fact that the “misunderestimated” C-average student had proved himself smarter than all the fancy-pants experts.

So there you have it: hatred of the good for being the good elevated to a political strategy. One that works, which is depressing.

If you want to know why I have focused more on the shortcomings of Republicans recently than those of Democrats, this observation by Krugman is part of the reason why. They have explicitly made a virtue of “anti-intellectualism.” Now, I’m not saying that Democrat-style intellectualism is the way to go — it’s not. Democrat-style intellectualism is basically just nihilism — there is no right and wrong, everything’s relative, and if you’re looking for value you ought to stop looking for it in the human race and look for it in polar bears and wilderness. But still, the Left at least pays lip service to the notion that the right course of action is discovered by using your mind, by thought.

The Right sees thought as a threat, and openly so. They don’t denounce the Left primarily for thinking the wrong things, but for thinking as such.

The Right is anti-intellectual and on a mission to outlaw thinking. Witness, the reason they embraced “W”; witness, the push for teaching “intelligent design” in schools; witness, the drive to formally elevate a clump of cells to the level of actual, thinking human beings. Witness, that to accomplish all of these things the Right is turning to the government — which means, to the power of a gun — to shove this crap down our throats.

The Right militantly embraces faith. They don’t embrace faith in the manner of Buddhists up on mountains contemplating their navels, or in the manner of Middle Age ascestics who stop flogging themselves only long enough to eat a piece of moldy bread and take a sip from a mud puddle. They openly embrace their faith just as Ayn Rand said faith ultimately must be embraced: with a steaming side helping of force.

(Cross-posted to ms. think.)

The Ethics of Emergencies, Gotham Style

 Posted by on 25 August 2008 at 11:45 pm  Ethics, Film
Aug 252008


In the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, there is a climactic scene, as follows. Gotham must be evacuated, and part of the evacuation is effected by putting 500 people on each of two ferries. One ferry is filled with civilians, and the other, with convicted felons and their guards. The Joker supplies a dilemma: he has provided each boat with a detonator, and unless one ferry uses its detonator to blow up the other before his deadline, the Joker will blow both ferries up. Hashing out what one would do in that situation became the focus of discussion on at least one blog, which managed to capture the attention of a blog published at the New York Times, “Freakonomics.”

I enjoyed The Dark Knight as a well-made movie with some terrific performances (your mileage may vary). But the ferry dilemma didn’t occupy any mental real estate in my brain once the movie was over, in terms of caring to figure out what I would do. So my reaction upon discovering the fuss about this scene in the movie was first amusement and then bemusement–why did some people still find it such a hot topic for discussion? Then I remembered what Ayn Rand wrote in one of her most famous articles, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (published in her anthology The Virtue of Selfishness).

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?”

Her point was that altruism doesn’t tell you how to live, but only under what conditions you’re supposed to sacrifice your life. Rand explained this approach to ethics as follows:

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance): …

[A] lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality–since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

Altruism is the dominant morality in our culture, meaning there are a lot of people for whom morality is irrelevant, most of the time. Yet no-one wants to think of himself as amoral. So when can an altruist take morality seriously? In a hypothetical life-or-death situation. The ferry dilemma in The Dark Knight provides a perfect outlet for seeming to take seriously the morality of altruism–in a fantasy world where it doesn’t matter if you practice what you preach.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the ferry dilemma–in 20/20 hindsight. When one is forced to make a decision under threat of violence, all bets are off. The world becomes a topsy-turvy, down-is-up, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place, where it’s impossible to know what actions would be in one’s own best interest. Nothing the Joker said could be a guide to action; he might just as well have kept his mouth shut, for all the content to be found in the ravings of an irrational psychopath. Therefore, I think the movie sensibly resolved the dilemma: throw the detonator overboard. There was no way to make any rational decision about what to do with it; it was just as relevant to the situation as a rubber ducky. Strictly speaking, the scene didn’t depict a moral dilemma at all. Where rationality is impossible, morality is impossible, too.

(An aside: just what does it say about the screenwriters that it was a criminal who made the correct choice? Inquiring minds want to know …)

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