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Ideological Turing Test when arguing politics

26 December, 2012 Leave a comment

In a recent podcast from the Cato Institute, Arnold Kling presented a concept useful for those arguing with those of differing political philosophies. He was responding to Jason Brennan, who in his recent book Libertarianism: What everyone needs to know, contrasted libertarianism with the police-state of conservatism and the nanny-state of progressivism. Kling observed that the problem with these characterisations is that no (or at least hardly any) conservative or progressive would describe their worldview or ideal state in this way. For this reason, those debating are not starting with common starting points and terms of debate.

Between these three viewpoints, Kling identifies an axis of concern: for conservatives, it is between civilisation and barbarism; for progressives, it is between oppressors and oppressed; for libertarians, it is between coercion and free choice. The challenge when debating someone from a differing point of view is to admit that there are times when the axis and perspective they are focusing on is appropriate, but move to show why a certain case doesn’t fit so well.

A helpful exercise is to see when describing the other person’s point of view, if you could pass as someone who genuinely holds that perspective, that is, not to reduce it to stereotypes. This is the idea of an ideological Turing test, as adapted by Bryan Caplan from Paul Krugman. We should be more charitable about other people’s point of view, especially if we want to convince others of our own, accepting certain of their premises, before developing our case. This is not selling out or being deceptive, but part of a process of rational and respectful engagement.

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Ron Paul and the racist, homophobic newsletters

21 December, 2011 3 comments

Ron Paul looks set to win the Iowa Caucus on 3 January, ahead in the polls and Nate Silver currently his chances of success at 52%. There are positives that could be gleaned from such an outcome; if an antiwar candidate who has consistently opposes the increasing encroachments on personal freedom particularly since 2001 were to win even a single state among Republican activists, it would give the leadership of both parties cause to reconsider their policy decisions in these areas. Infringements on rights supposedly enshrined in the Fourth Amendment (security of property from search without warrant) and the Fifth Amendment (fair trial) have continued under President Barack Obama, and he should be challenged in a national debate on these issues. You can be damn sure that if John McCain had been elected and was seeking a second term, Democratic-leaning bloggers and posters would have made a big deal about this as a reason not to campaign against him. The same could be said in praise of Paul’s commitment to end the futile war on drugs. Quite generally, I do have libertarian sympathies on issues across the political spectrum.

But Congressman Ron Paul is not a candidate I could endorse for either the presidency or even, as Andrew Sullivan did last week, for the Republican nomination. In that endorsement, Sullivan refers somewhat obliquely to serious mark on Paul’s character with a single line, “He has had associations in the past that are creepy when not downright ugly”. This is something that deserves much more notice than this, and it is to Sullivan’s discredit that he did so little to address it.

In an article in The New Republic earlier this year, ‘A Libertarian’s Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed’, Will Wilkinson recounts how Paul should fail to satisfy a libertarian, such as on issues such as immigration. (My favourite line in the piece is one that refers to Rick Santorum, “In 2006, I tossed a few dollars at the Democrat running for Senate against the loathsome Rick Santorum. It could have been a three-headed goat, for all I cared, but Wikipedia says it was Bob Casey.”) Most importantly in a judgement of character, in my view, is the reference to racist material published under his name in a regular newsletter.

This received coverage during the 2008 campaign, but at a time when Paul’s polling was considerably lower than this year. As he has become a contender, it has rightly reemerged.

It is widely believed that these newsletters were mainly written by Lew Rockwell, chief of staff to Paul from 1978 to 1982, and in 1982 founded of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an organization which has a worrying interest in the Confederacy. The contents of these newsletters, have been scanned online and can be read with controversial elements highlighted. These are rife with attacks on black and gay people, and include tacit support for David Duke, a renowned racist politician.

This was reported by James Kirchick in The New Republic, a liberal, Democratic-leaning magazine in their issue of 8 January, 2008.

Paul issued a statement on this that day, which given my criticism of him, I should quote in full:

The quotations in The New Republic article are not mine and do not represent what I believe or have ever believed. I have never uttered such words and denounce such small-minded thoughts.

In fact, I have always agreed with Martin Luther King, Jr. that we should only be concerned with the content of a person’s character, not the color of their skin. As I stated on the floor of the U.S. House on April 20, 1999: ‘I rise in great respect for the courage and high ideals of Rosa Parks who stood steadfastly for the rights of individuals against unjust laws and oppressive governmental policies.’

This story is old news and has been rehashed for over a decade. It’s once again being resurrected for obvious political reasons on the day of the New Hampshire primary.

When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product. For over a decade, I have publically taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name.

This was followed by articles in Reason, a libertarian magazine, by Matt Welch on 11 January and by Julian Sanchez and David Weigel in their issue of 16 January. This is perhaps most revealing, with the political thinking behind the content of the newsletters,

During the period when the most incendiary items appeared—roughly 1989 to 1994—Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist “paleoconservatives,” producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic.

David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian Cato Insitute, issued a statement explaining their silence to date on the Paul campaign. They were treated by some supporters of Paul as heretics, and accused of libertarian infighting. Julian Sanchez responded to a lot of these fringe criticisms in detail.

In the second round of the controversy, four years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor of The Atlantic has put the case against Paul well and succinctly,

The standard defense has generally been Paul didn’t write the newsletters. I think an honest reckoning with that defense would have someone question the faculties of an adult who would allow a newsletter filled–by Paul’s own admission–with bigotry to be published under one’s name. Had I spent a decade stewarding an eponymous publication steeped in homophobia and anti-Semitism, I would not expect my friends and colleagues to accept an “I didn’t write it”excuse.

I think it is credible, indeed likely, that Ron Paul did not write the offensive material himself. It would not be at all unusual in the political world that the political writing of a representative would be penned by their staff or outsourced further, particularly in the case of a journal which he had given his name to, rather than one coming from his office. But it is inconceivable that for years on end, Paul had no idea what was being published under his name. He was willing to allow ignorant fears of black people and crime and of gay men through the AIDS epidemic to be used to build political support. This is surely grounds for considering him unworthy of support during this primary season.

Great speech on being raised by lesbian parents

Iowa is one of five US states where gay and lesbian couples can marry, since a ruling of the Iowa State Supreme Court in 2009. As in most of these, it is still not firmly settled law, and is for the moment under revision.

Below is a speech by Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student speaking about his family during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives, which seeks to end recognition of marriage. In the words of Tom G. Palmer on Facebook, “A truly remarkable speech. The young man who gives it would have been a success in the Roman Senate, or the British Parliament, or the U.S. Senate. His moms must be very proud.” Those opposed to marriage equality must be able to present an identifiable harm strong enough to counter the benefits it brings to gay couples and their families. It’s not good enough to say that it is good policy to support male/female marriage as if that is diminished by also supporting gay marriage.

As an aside, Tom Palmer, from whom I got this link, and is gay himself, is one of the libertarian scholars I most admire because of how he puts his beliefs into practice. As well being a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, he spends much of his time travelling to developing countries, creating links between those seeking greater freedom. A reminder that what little grievances we grudge in western countries, real liberalism should have an international outlook, where individuals’ daily security and survival are at stake.

His blog and Twitter feed are worth following for those who like links on the free market and cats.

Debate on cannabis and other drugs

14 February, 2011 Leave a comment

Paddy Power are now putting Luke “Ming” Flanagan as one of those likely to get a seat in Roscommon–South Leitrim, behind sitting Fine Gael TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten. When he came to prominence in the 1999 European election, he was regarded as a fringe candidate, but is now a well-liked Mayor, and since the retirement of Michael Finneran, a Fianna Fáil Minister of State, it has become ever more possible that he could be elected. He can no longer be seen as a single-issue candidate, but if he is elected, there could be a worthwhile debate on the issue.

Since his election, President Barack Obama has taken online questions annually. On each of these three occasions, a question on the continuing illegality of cannabis came on top. In 2009, he laughed at the question, asking what it said about the online audience. In 2010, he ignored the question and answered the second most popular topic, on net neutrality. This year, when confronted with a question on the subject from a former police officer, representing Law Enforcers Against Prohibition, he eventually has had to concede that it is a legitimate topic for political debate, though he waffled in his response.

There is a large element of hypocrisy in Western politics on this question. Just as it is commonly known that during the US Prohibition Era (1920–33), public figures as high as Presidents, notably Warren G. Harding (serving 1921–23) felt free to privately drink alcohol, many public figures today will happily consume drugs quite a bit stronger than cannabis in high society. It is now almost customary for those seeking to lead their country to concede having taken drugs of one sort or other during the college days, from Bill Clinton not inhaling (actually because he took cannabis in cookie form), to Barack Obama, David Cameron and Brian Cowen more recently. Though somehow I doubt that Enda Kenny is carefully drafting a response to this question on his student days.

I fail to see how the current policy is either morally justifiable or effective in its aims. Those in favour of retaining the current regime of prohibition are arguing that all consumers of illicit drugs, however infrequently, should have a permanent mark on their criminal record. In a free society, we allow people take risks that do not harm others in the process. We allow people to go mountain-climbing or paragliding, despite the possibly fatal risks. We also allow people to smoke and consume alcohol, which are more harmful in some respects than certain prohibited substances. The effects of smoking a joint, leading a group at a party to mellow out, compare favourably the effects of drink which we see in the street violence in town on Friday night after closing time.

Freedom also has the record of working. I don’t seek to diminish the serious effects of drug addiction, particularly in drugs like heroin, but in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the negative effects of drug use have decreased. They took the decision because the drug problem had got to the stage where it seemed the only sensible way to address the problem, and ten years later there is no movement from any leading political party or group to reverse the change. Glenn Greenwald, in a report for the Cato Institute, outlined the effects of their decision. For all substances, deaths from drug use have diminished, or at most remained steady. For example, deaths from heroin and other opiates stood at 281 in 20001. That number has decreased steadily since decriminalization, to 133 in 2006. Decriminalization hasn’t eliminated these problems, but it has made it easier to address them. This wasn’t just part of a trend, problems from drug use were increasing until they took the decision in 2001. Drug users are no longer stigmatized as criminals, making it more socially acceptable to seek help. Resources that had been devoted to prosecuting addicts could now be devoted to helping them. Drug usage rates continue to be lower in Portugal than under policy regimes with greater degrees of prohibition.

Some emphasize the economic benefits of legalization, that the transactions would be taxed, but I would see the primary benefit as the reduction in the influence of criminals and the potential for improvement in the lives of those who suffer. While a policy that has worked in one jurisdiction cannot necessarily be transplanted to another, at the very least, it should be treated as a respectable subject for debate, and that either decriminalization or legalization should be be on the table.

I’ll close here with a clip on the subject from the free-market economist, Milton Friedman. I would not be in complete agreement with Friedman, but he does present a clear case against prohibition. Among other things, he proposes the hypothesis that crack, possibly the most lethal of drugs, would not have been developed had it not been for the regime of prohibition.

Perry v. Schwarzenegger – Gay marriage rights on trial

Today in California, one of the most significant debate on whether gay and lesbian couples should have equal rights to marriage is coming to a conclusion. This is the federal case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which is at the stage of closing statements from both teams, which is hoping to overturn Proposition 8, which passed an amendment to the Californian constitution banning gays and lesbians from marrying under the Californian Constitution. This was passed on 4 November 2008, the same date Barack Obama was elected president.

When I first heard of the case last summer was being taken at a federal level, I was a little wary. I felt that given this would eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court, and that given the delicate balance of the Supreme Court, it was likely that Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing voter, would ensure at least 5-4 against the plaintiffs, and set back the case of marriage equality for a decade or so. Many of the groups who had campaigned against Prop 8 felt similarly.

Now, after the close of hearings,  I’m more optimistic about the benefits of the case. It made news because it brought to together the conservative Ted Olson and the liberal David Boies, who had been on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore in 2000, jointly representing the plaintiffs, two couples who had failed to get married during the period where it was possible for them in 2008. They were backed by the newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights, which had on its board John Podesta, former Clinton White Chief of Staff and President of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Levy, President of the Cato Institute, one of the leading libertarian think-tanks.

Considering the proceedings of the court to date, I would not be surprised if the case was ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour, given the weak evidence and reliance on research from anti-gay activists like George Rekers who were over-compensating for their own repressed homosexuality. But even if it were to fail, and to fail again on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, good will come from the nature of the evidence presented.

If it does fail, it will probably not be opposition’s case that allowing any couple to marry would undermine the state’s interest in encouraging marriage for the benefit of children, or that the institution of marriage in society would in some way be weakened. If it fails, it will most likely be because of a judgement that as the people believed there was a rational basis for denying marriage rights, the court is not in a position to overrule them.

The benefits of the case, whatever the outcome, is threefold. On the one hand, it has provided the most thorough setting in which the arguments of both sides have been scrutinized, and the fault lines and weaknesses highlighted. Whatever the next forum for this debate, it now must take place at a more informed level. Secondly, the symbolic effect of the legal team and its backers matters. The right of gay couples to marry is being seen less and less as a matter of left against right, of liberals against conservatives. For Levy and Podesta to co-author an op-ed in the “Marriage equality for all couples”, will make more American start to question their preconceptions on the issue. As would Ted Olson article in Newsweek earlier this years, “The conservative case for gay marriage”. Finally, the lives of the four plaintiffs will seem familiar in their ordinariness to many: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier together ten years and raising four boys, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo nine years, all in very conventional careers.

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