Archive for the ‘tribalism’ Category

Ad homs R NOT Us: discussions over rent-seeking necessitate painful wrestling with slippery "cui bono" demons

October 7th, 2009 No comments

My recent post, “Bob Murphy on climate change at Antiwar Radio; a puppet for the “King Coal” hand that feeds him?“, attracted a bit of attention, including some hostile comments from some LvMI community members who thought my comments regarding the motivations of Bob Murphy`s funders were over the line.

Since I consider the issue an important one and welcome the comments, I thought I would raise the comment thread to a post here, in the hopes that I might elicit further thoughtful commentary. 

Are cui bono inquiries off-base to Austrians when reviewing policy arguments over government policy? Or, as distasteful as such inquries may be, are they unavoidable?

I note that I have tried to have this discussion with Bob on several occasions over the past four months; for the curious reader, here, in chronological order, are my posts:

Bob Murphy, the Heritage Foundation and “green jobs” – ignore coal! We only pay attention to rent-seeking from greens/the left;

which I try to help Bob Murphy figure out just what the heck I`m
talking about (when I say he`s entangled in a partisan, rent-seeking
; and

Fun with Self-Deception and Rent-Seeking: Bob Murphy`s “Man in the Mirror”.

Here is the comment thread (anonymized to avoid distractions; I am happy to add handles back in if the relevant persons prefer):


# Saturday, October 03, 2009 1:10 AM
by “A”

Challenge his facts and ideas.  Challenging his paycheck is cowardly and dishonest.

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 1:33 AM
by “B”

I agree with “A”. Only because Bob Murphy gets a part of his income due to “Big Coal” doesn’t discredit his ideas.

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 10:34 AM

“A”, if Bob forthrightly informed everyone that he gets paid to
talk about climate change by the group of investors who has benefitted
the greatest from the non-free market status quo, I wouldn`t feel a
need to mention it.

It is absurd to suggest that libertarians – whose biggest peeves
center on the entanglement between the state and business – either
shouldn`t notice, or shouldn`t comment on, the way some of their
erstwhile members make one-sided comments that happen to suit the
agenda of statist corporations that are funding them.

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 10:36 AM


I agree that Bob`s funding doesn`t discredit his ideas per se.  It`s
just that “Bob`s ideas” conspicuously deflect light from the whole

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 11:06 AM
by “A”


Why would Bob admitting he gets paid by so and so change anything?  Do you believe Bob’s opinion is compromised?

If yes, could you substantiate such a claim?

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 3:03 PM

“A”, I believe that the answer to your question is patently obvious:

If Bob were to forthrightly acknowledge what interests are funding
his opinion, readers would be more likely to  notice what the real
PURPOSES of his remarks might be.

It is precisely to mask such purposes that rent-seeking corporations
like to channel their efforts through “think tanks”, pundits and the

Both Bob Murphy and Scott Horton are well aware of this, which is why

– when Bob identified himself the economist for IER, Horton
immediately said, “Ah now, wait a minute. Does that mean that you`re a
front man for Exxon or something?”, and

– Bob chuckled, hemmed and hawed and replied, “Uhh, well, no, but, you can take it with a grain of salt if you want.”

But sadly, Bob did NOT take the opportunity of Horton`s specific
question to explain who funds IER – not Exxon or oil, but coal – even
though most of his later substantive comments were ABOUT how
Waxman-Markey is a fight between interest groups for government favors.

As to whether who funds Bob affects what he says, it think that`s
also fairly evident: if it didn`t, his funders wouldn`t bother to pay
for his services. Of course this doesn`t at all need to imply that Bob
doesn`t mean what he says (he probably does, and I agree with him on
many points), but simply that he omits to say other relevant things.

# Saturday, October 03, 2009 8:57 PM
by “C”

hope Tokyo Tom will tell us who the most noble and self-funded
commentator is on the topic, so that we might all swallow his ideas and
arguments wholesale.

# Sunday, October 04, 2009 4:34 AM
by “A”

that is an evasive way of further undermining Bob’s credibility while
trying to cover your own ass for taking potshots at him.

“This doesn’t need to imply…”

But that is exactly what you are doing.  You have inferred numerous
times in this post and comments, that Bob is compromised by his

Can you answer, clearly, yes or no that he is compromised?

And if not, don’t you find your inferences somewhat irresponsible within the context of sincere and productive debate?

# Sunday, October 04, 2009 4:42 AM

“C”, I don’t think TT will be so forthcoming.

TT is fallaciously claiming a sin [sic] of omission, is proof of a sin of commission.  It is a non-sequitur.

The fact is, anyone can make any claim that Bob has not provided
enough background, about LvMI, about Chaos Theory, about his personal
religious beliefs, about what sort of car he drives.

By making an ad hominem (challenging Bob’s person and not his ideas)
now TT can duck and weave the “we shouldn’t draw anything from this
thing I have decided to make a big deal about” while avoiding
discussing any issues Bob may be incorrect on.

# Sunday, October 04, 2009 3:29 PM

“C”, it`s good that apparently you`re NOT interested in swallowing anyone`s ideas and arguments wholesale.

But if so, why does it bother you that I provide you with additional
information about Bob and the interests that are funding him? Are you
uninterested in Austrian insights about rent-seeking?

Maybe you should take your complaint to Bob, who himself suggested
that listeners might want to take his views with a grain of salt.

# Sunday, October 04, 2009 4:37 PM

“A”, you`re having a tough time reading me.  

1. I think I`ve fairly clearly stated that I think that Bob`s
expressed opinions on climate change are influenced by the fact that
they are supported by a rent-seeking interest. When I said “This
doesn’t need to imply…” I was referring to whether or not he believes
what he SAYS – as opposed to what he omits to say – and expressed the
view that he probably does mean what he says (as well as that I agree
with much of what he says).

2. I don`t think I`m being evasive at all, but rather
straightforward. And I don’t consider my fairly open challenges to Bob
on this matter to be “somewhat irresponsible” within the “context of
sincere and productive debate”. Instead, I reluctantly find them to be
necessary, given the ubiquity of rent-seeking and the ways that it
perverts both legislation and the debate over it.

3. I like Bob and don`t really enjoy making this criticism, but I
think he would probably be the last to say that questioning his
entanglement with rent-seeking interests is off-limits, particularly
when rent-seeking is PRECISELY one of his chief substantive criticisms
of cap-and-trade. Bob`s personal familiarity with Austrian criticisms
of the influence of business and other interest groups on government
policy does not create immunity from criticism on the same grounds.

4. “I don’t think TT will be so forthcoming”. Care to take back your
words? In the future, perhaps you`d be good enough to leave me time to
reply before you speculate on whether I will?

5. “a sin [sic] of omission, is proof of a sin of commission.  It is
a non-sequitur.” You`re using a lot of big words, but I`m not sure I
follow you. I`ve said Bob failed to disclose something that was
relevant to the discussion. Period. (Bob may have some thoughts on if
it was a sin and what kind, but if it was deliberate I`m not sure I see
a distinction between omission and commission.)

6. “anyone can make any claim that Bob has not provided enough background”.

Sure, but there are only certain times when “full disclosure” is
relevant; on most things Bob comments on whether someone funds him is
irrelevant. But when he is talking about legislation that will have a
significant impact on someone who is paying him to speak, that fact
that he is acting as a spokesman is VERY relevant. That`s why Scott
Horton asked the question, and why Bob dodged it.

7. “by making an ad hominem”

Sorry, but if you want to split hairs, a “cui bono” argument is not
ad hominem argument. In any event, Austrian economics tells us that we
need to worry about the perversion of government via rent-seeking. If
the wheels of our worrying about rent-seeking are ever to hit the road,
it means that we have to keep asking “who benefits”.

This of course complicates debate and cuts many ways; sorry that I can`t make life simpler for you.

8. “while avoiding discussing any issues Bob may be incorrect on.”

Are you serious? I`ve had several years of substantive discussions
on climate on the LvMI blog, and argue routinely with Bob on
substantive matters, both on my blog and over at his. All you`re
showing here is an unadmirable ignorance or shortness of attention.

In any case, your attention is welcome, but we can have a more
intelligent and productive discussion if you`d check your inclination
to reflexive negativity.

More on self-deception, mirror positions and libertarian reticence on climate policy

August 28th, 2009 No comments

I copy below (with minor changes for clarity) a further comment I made on the piece by Bob Murphy (“I’m Starting With the Man in the Mirror”) to which I referred in my prior post.  The comment on which I remarking is addressed by one commenter to Silas Barta:

cotterdan: I think the error in his view is that he will simply
dismiss everyone on the other side of the issue as some shill for the
oil companies. He doesn’t see the fact that it is the political elite
pushing for his ideas.

Can you see that you and your friends
have mirror positions and each think the other is wrong, when in fact
it is pretty clear that you are BOTH right – and that there are
rent-seekers behind each position?

Of course the firms and
investors that have been able to use the atmosphere as a free GHG dump
don`t want to start paying for the privilege (to the extent that they
have invested very heavily in protecting their current position), and
of course there are others who think that this poses risks to them and
what they value (and some who want government to make markets for them).

… I don’t mind what ideas you have on saving the planet. I just don’t want to pay for them.

think we all share your reluctance to see government do anything
coercive, and we share your reasons. Most commons problems are actually
much more susceptible to local solutions that would occur if
governments got out of the way and just let resource users come to
terms on them, but given that that the atmosphere is shared globally
AND there are countless other state actors that we just can`t force
from the table, there is simply no possibility of entirely voluntary
approaches arising (even though one could imagine them). Further, even
while each government will act by force of law at home, make no doubt
that any global agreements on climate change policy are in effect
large-scale Coasean bargains.

While libertarians may be entirely
unwilling to accept any state action, unfortunately the rest of the
country (and the world) does not share their compunctions. As a result,
it seems to me that the effect of a libertarian NO! is not simply to
defend the status quo ante (which in my view wrongly allows once group
of powerful rent-seekers to shift costs to the rest of society; YMMV),
but to enable the adoption of overly-costly (and heavy-handed) approaches; viz.,
cap-and-trade w/ vast pork, versus rebated carbon taxes w/immediate
capital write-offs, etc.

August 27, 2009 11:42 PM


Fun with Self-Deception and Rent-Seeking: Bob Murphy's "Man in the Mirror"

August 26th, 2009 No comments

Robert Murphy, Austrian school economist and blogger, is in my book a remarkably thoughtful and insightful commentator on current economic issues, even as I find some of his arguments on climate policy and energy to be shallow.

Bob`s balance and relatively rare introspection are on display in his recent blog post, I’m Starting With the Man in the Mirror, in which he directly addresses the way that people with differing views on health care and climate change policy tend to see their own views and actions as virtuous, while seeing “the other side” as having evil motives and acting unfairly.  Bob had started a blog post in such a vein, but then checked himself and realized that questioning the motives of all of the other side was probably unfair. 

My own thoughts are that Bob`s post is as fine as far as it goes, but that it remains partisan and fails to discuss the way that rent-seekers deliberately seek to exploit our partisan predilections. This failure is not particularly surprising, given not only Bob`s evident self-identification as a partisan, but the fact that he works for the Institute for Energy Research, a Rob Bradley-founded think tank that, along with its partner, the American Energy Alliance is a front for a particular set of rent-seekers – the fossil fuel interests.

Bob`s entire piece is worth reading, but here is the introduction:

“OK I must confess that this Wonk Room hit piece on my compatriots really ticked me off. I had originally wanted to blog it with the title, “Definition” and the comment, “If you want to know what ‘ad hominem’ means, just check out this Wonk Room piece on the AEA bus tour.”

“But then I calmed down a bit, realizing that the Wonk Room piece is really just the mirror image of what Glenn Beck did with Goldman Sachs, which I praised.”

The piece concludes in a similar vein:

“I’m just saying that, as ridiculous as Krugman’s paranoia over old people is, that’s how ridiculous some of our side’s rants against Obama fans must seem to people who know that they are really just trying to stem abuses they perceive in the health care system and so forth. They know they’re not socialists, just like we know “our guys” aren’t Nazis.”

Bob adds a brief meta-insight that I wish he had explored further:

“Don’t get me wrong, it is still perfectly consistent to think the elites in Washington are power-hungry liars. “

I left my own observations in a comment on Bob`s post, which I copy below:

Bob, on Goldman Sachs, you might enjoy this piece by Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone.

Bob, I appreciate your attempt at even-handedness, and your implicit acknowledgment of how we are all plagued by problems of self-deception and confirmation bias, particularly with the context of battle with ideological enemies.

I hope you will continue the effort, even though it may come at a cost to effectiveness – sometimes there`s nothing like a broader understanding of the truth to get in the way of a good rant about the Truth.

The problems of self-deception, tribal division/conflict and their roles in rent-seeking are deep indeed, and you`ve barely scratched the surface.

I note, for example, that even though you try to be even-handed, you ironically identify those listed in the Wonk Room piece as your “compatriots”; if by implication the Wonk Room writers and others who support climate change action are NOT your compatriots, what country then are they citizens of?

I also note that those you call compatriots are officers of the Rob Bradley-founded American Energy Alliance, which is clearly an energy industry pressure group (and Republican-linked). You work at the free-market IER that Rob also founded, but apparently self-identify yourself with a group of fairly naked rent-seekers.

While it`s in our human nature to fall into partisanship, what`s more disturbing is the ways that rent-seekers deliberately try to take advantage of this penchant by fanning the flames of partisanship as a means of masking their own agendas while attacking others with competing preferences. This has been very clearly at work in battles over energy and environmental issues, where influence over government is the battleground.

I have made the point a number of times previously that such rent-seeking deserves much more attentions, but you have always professed puzzlement: what, ME, Bob Murphy, involved in a rent-seekers game?

To refresh your recollection, here are links to our previous discussions:

Bob Murphy, the Heritage Foundation and “green jobs” – ignore coal! We only pay attention to rent-seeking from greens/the left; and

In which I try to help Bob Murphy figure out just what the heck I`m talking about (when I say he`s entangled in a partisan, rent-seeking game).

I’m just saying that, as ridiculous as Krugman’s paranoia over old people is, that’s how ridiculous some of our side’s rants against Obama fans must seem to people who know that they are really just trying to stem abuses they perceive in the health care system and so forth. They know they’re not socialists, just like we know “our guys” aren’t Nazis.

Well said. Now how about acknowledging how the rent-seekers are busy at work trying to manipulate our partisan impulses to take everyone for a ride?

I of course am aware that rent-seeking is ubiquitous in our current political debates, and on climate and energy issues, there are many rent-seekers in addition to fossil fuel interests. My point is that it behooves us to pay attention to the manipulations of rent-seekers generally.

Luboš Motl 3: This lover of freedom and hater of irrationality can’t stand discourse and fantasizes about elimination

July 9th, 2008 No comments

I’m disappointed that my attempts at discourse with Lubos Motl have blown up.  Lubos, a Czech physicist/climate science blogger who responded to my post on Bret Stephens’ exegesis in the WSJ of the psychology of the cult-like “belief” by the rest of the world in the “nonfalsifiable hypothesis” of human-influenced climate change, disengaged, while of course dissing me..

Some of the fruits of my attempt were noted in my previous post, where Lubos felt it appropriate to repay my efforts by calling me a “freedom-hating” “hypercommunist” “Nazi” who “should be put in jail or executed before it’s too late”.

I’ve had several conversations with Lubos before, and so I actually tried to continue our email discussion by objecting that his language was hardly constructive and that we share common areas of concern:

With your clear and rational vision, it doesn’t matter that I also worry about the wisdom of letting governments get their hands on more revenues and resources to bureaucratically mismanage.  Nope, because I have the view that unowned resources (such as ocean fisheries:;; are often ruinously exploited and am aware that severe pollution is often a problem where victims have no access to courts to protect their rights, or where there is no regulation or industry is too powerful (or owned by the state), then I must be a hypercommunist and Nazi and should be promptly jailed or executed for the good of mankind.

But this proved to be the last straw for Lubos, for the reason that – because my response included a link to liberal George Monbiot (who happens to have an excellent article decrying how state subsidies to fishermen are helping to strip out ocean fisheries ) – my mind must be polluted .  I’ll spare readers the language that Lubos used, but he insisted that not only he was he not interested in reading “Moonbot” whom he despises (despite the fact that they agree on this particular issue), but disdained the fact that I could bother to read (all right, I can’t resist – “eat sh*t” was Lubos’ phrasing) those with whom he disagrees, and that was the end of our “discussion”.

While everyone is entitled to determine with whom and on what terms they will converse, I find the contrast between those who profess to love freeom and reason and their own distemper while they call everyone else an irrational man-hater is both startling and dismaying.

After Lubos hung up on me, I paid a brief visit to his blog (having been alerted by a commenter), and what did I see?  His July 9 post he notes that he feels compelled to call for the “euthanasia” or urgent “quarantine” of reporters and others who have recently written on climate change!

Says Motl:

I am normally against euthanasia but it simply seems to me that there is no other help for the people who are writing most of the stuff above. It’s literally pandemics. The society should urgently put these people into quarantine, hoping that it is not too late

In response, I left the following comment on his blog:

Lubos, all of your talk of euthanasia and quarantine are enough to warm the cockles of a good Nazi’s heart! You are far ahead of Jim Hansen, who only spoke of “trials” for what he sees as deception by fossil fuel execs.

But let me play along with your light-hearted fun and games, even as it makes it difficult to criticize Hansen: how, exactly, should we identify all of the “freedom-hating” “hypercommunist” “Nazis” who should be “jailed or executed” as you have noted elsewhere?

This Tom, after all, is not a Jerry. But since I disagree with YOU (and your hatred), I suppose that means I must also [hate] MANKIND, and deserve death, with you as prosecutor, judge and jury?


But, not surprisingly, this champion of reason would have no discourse about it, so he removed my

Why is it that those who call most loudly for reason have so little ability or willingness to use it themselves?  And why do those who purport to love freedom and reason feel compelled to call for the elimination of those who disagree with them?

Is self-awareness so painful and self-control and discourse so difficult?

Fighting over the President’s Council on Bioethics (and human "dignity") – is Steven Pinker wrong?

May 26th, 2008 5 comments

[Update below.]

When government is involved in making decisions about the use of tax dollars or regulatory power to favor or hinder particular activities, it is not surprising that political struggles often ensue between groups that wish to obtain a policy outcome that maximizes their particular interests.  It is also not surprising that one side or the other (or both) side may be so caught up in the righteousness of its position that it fails not merely to recognize the legitimacy of other views competing for a piece of the governmentally-dispensed pie, but also fails even to perceive the underlying dynamics of competition to steer government in the direction one favors.

This unfortunate dynamic can now be seen in an spat between Steven Pinker (Harvard psychologist and author of best-selling books on language, cognition and evolutionary biology) and defenders of the President’s Council on Bioethics with respect to a series of essays recently published by the Council on Human Dignity and Bioethics

Pinker takes issue with the President’s Council via an essay entitled “The Stupidity of Dignity” in The New Republic, while a former executive director of the President’s Council, Yuval Levin (a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine) has published a rejoinder entitled “Indignity and Bioethics; Steven Pinker discovers the human-dignity cabal” in the National Review Online (Levin’s essay being admirably packed with links to a number of relevant references).  What I find most interesting – and sad – about the spat is the degree to which Pinker and Levin (as a proxy for the members of the Council), manage to talk past each other.

While the Council’s report, and both Pinker’s and Levin’s essays make interesting points about the concept of “dignity”, it’s a shame that these two very intelligent men both fall into the trap of demonizing their opponents and cannot see that their own heated intemperance is fuelled by the dynamic of struggle for control over what GOVERNMENT does.  One can share BOTH Pinker’s concern that the government should not further interfere with private biomedical research and the choices of individuals, AND be concerned that the government should not be subsidizing various research practices that make one uneasy.  The key, clearly, is to minimize the heavy hand of the state.

The focus of Pinker’s essay is on questioning the validity of government action pertaining to “bioethics” and the implicit role of the Council, in which he sees such an alarming and authoritarian religious streak that he refers to the authors of  the Council’s essay as “theocons“.  Pinker argues that the Council has stacked the deck of its report in favor of religious viewpoints, and seems to believe that the focus of the Council on “dignity” is a Trojan horse to (1) sidestep the traditional bioethical principle of “personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another”, in order to (2) enable the assertion of greater governmental control over the promises of onrushing biomedical advances, which “could make millions of people better off and no one worse off.” 

But Pinker fails to note that the government is in fact providing significant funding for biomedical research, and that others have a legitimate interest in discussing the parameters of government-funded research.

Pinker makes the following statements:

  • The report does not, the editors admit, settle the question of what dignity is or how it should guide our policies. It does, however, reveal a great deal about the approach to bioethics represented by the Council. And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing.
  • Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.
  • The concept of dignity is natural ground on which to build an obstructionist bioethics. An alleged breach of dignity provides a way for third parties to pass judgment on actions that are knowingly and willingly chosen by the affected individuals. It thus offers a moralistic justification for expanded government regulation of science, medicine, and private life.
  • A free society disempowers the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens. Democratic governments allow satirists to poke fun at their leaders, institutions, and social mores. And they abjure any mandate to define “some vision of ‘the good life'” or the “dignity of using [freedom] well” (two quotes from the Council’s volume). The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and “American Idol” would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police. This trade-off is very much in America’s DNA and is one of its great contributions to civilization: my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.
  • Could there be cases in which a voluntary relinquishing of dignity leads to callousness in onlookers and harm to third parties–what economists call negative externalities? In theory, yes. Perhaps if people allowed their corpses to be publicly desecrated, it would encourage violence against the bodies of the living. Perhaps the sport of dwarf-tossing encourages people to mistreat all dwarves. Perhaps violent pornography encourages violence against women. But, for such hypotheses to justify restrictive laws, they need empirical support. In one’s imagination, anything can lead to anything else: Allowing people to skip church can lead to indolence; letting women drive can lead to sexual licentiousness. In a free society, one cannot empower the government to outlaw any behavior that offends someone just because the offendee can pull a hypothetical future injury out of the air.
  • The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using “dignity” to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy.
  • A major sin of theocon bioethics is exactly the one that it sees in biomedical research: overweening hubris. In every age, prophets foresee dystopias that never materialize, while failing to anticipate the real revolutions. Had there been a President’s Council on Cyberethics in the 1960s, no doubt it would have decried the threat of the Internet, since it would inexorably lead to 1984, or to computers “taking over” like HAL in 2001. Conservative bioethicists presume to soothsay the outcome of the quintessentially unpredictable endeavor called scientific research. And they would stage-manage the kinds of social change that, in a free society, only emerge as hundreds of millions of people weigh the costs and benefits of new developments for themselves, adjusting their mores and dealing with specific harms as they arise, as they did with in vitro fertilization and the Internet.

Pinker puts his concerns more bluntly in testimony he provided directly to the Council on March 6, 2008:

  • I think the volume has been steered in particular directions by a steep over-representation of certain viewpoints and methods and outright exclusion of important contrary viewpoints.
  • Now, here’s where the plot thickens.  A number of biomedical advances raise the possibility of opportunities that can reduce suffering, promote human flourishing, harm no sentient being, are freely and knowingly chosen, yet they elicit disquiet in third parties.  There are numerous examples brought up in the volume:  drugs that enhance cognitive functioning, anti-aging research that promises to extend the human lifespan, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, somatic cell nuclear transfer, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies, cloning, a market in organs for donation, and many others.
  • And it’s no secret that many members of the Council are viscerally repelled by these prospects but realize that they can’t rule them out with the consensus ethics of autonomy, human rights, or respect for persons.  Hence, we have the appeal to dignity.  The problem, of course, is that, for one thing, dignity is, as just about all the essays acknowledge, a squishy concept.  It has much of its basis in religious doctrine.  And for these two reasons, it has not provided the kind of consensus definition of the kind that would be necessary in a democracy.
  • I see the current volume as designed to put dignity on a firmer conceptual basis and therefore provide the grounds for regulating or banning these disquieting practices.  This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of the President’s Council, and it’s why I think there was a thumb on the scale in choosing the authorship of the reports. 

In response, Levin addresses – with a bit of overstatement and rhetorical excess of his own – what he sees as unfair and unjustified hysteria and personal attacks by Pinker, but Levin fails to address the meat of Pinker’s suspicions about the aims of the Council (or of the President in establishing it) and his arguments about the legitimate role of government in regulating biomedical research and activity:

  • The volume has so far drawn a modest response from bioethicists and others, some applauding the effort to lay out the range of opinions, and some bemoaning the lack of agreement on so seemingly basic a concept. But this week, in the latest issue of The New Republic, the volume has also elicited a bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol from an academic celebrity.
  • Pinker’s essay is a striking exhibit of a set of attitudes toward religion and the West’s moral tradition that has become surprisingly common among America’s intellectual elite. It is a mix of fear, suspicion, and disgust that has a lot to do, for instance, with the Left’s intense paranoia about the Bush administration, and with the peculiar notion that American conservatives have declared a “war on science”; and it involves more generally an inclination to reject any idea drawn in any way from a religiously inspired tradition — which unfortunately includes just about everything in the humanities.
  • These elements are all powerfully evident in Pinker’s screed. After briefly introducing the subject, his essay manages almost entirely to ignore the substance of the volume under consideration (taking up no particular essay in the book, for instance) and addresses itself instead to what the author imagines is a sinister Catholic conspiracy to subject the nation to a papist theology of death.
  • With deep alarm Pinker informs his readers that some of the contributors to the volume make their living at such “Christian institutions” as Georgetown University and that some of the essays even mention the Bible, which leads him to conclude that the work of the bioethics council, in this book and in general, “springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.”
  • This is, to begin with, patent nonsense. Even a cursory review of the council’s reports and deliberations will demonstrate it has spent significantly less time than even its Clinton administration predecessor considering any explicitly religious views or discussing religious issues, and has in no way sought to ground any positions, arguments, or recommendations in religion.
  • He rushes on to paint the bioethics council as a committee of pious executioners, arguing that “this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing,” and asserting without basis that the council (which, more than all of its predecessors in previous administrations, was designed to provide a diversity of opinion and not merely support for the positions of the president who appointed it) was “packed” with “conservative scholars and pundits, advocates of religious (particularly Catholic) principles in the public sphere, and writers with a paper trail of skittishness toward biomedical advances, together with a smattering of scientists (mostly with a reputation for being religious or politically conservative).” Pinker might have examined the record of the council’s discussions (including its devastating grilling of him in 2003, which may help explain some of his vehemence), its reports, and the backgrounds of its members, especially the scientist members, for a sense of how absurdly misinformed is this diatribe.
  • It would be hard to answer the bioethics council’s thoughtful and varied collection with a less appropriate rejoinder than Pinker’s insulting, ill-informed, and anti-intellectual tirade. He misrepresents the most elementary facts about the council’s work and intentions, repeating baseless charges and engaging in crude character assassination; and his assertion that the council is intolerant of dissenting opinion is belied by the fact that his rant is based on remarks he actually delivered at a council meeting, by invitation. His fears of a religious, and especially a Catholic, plot to overthrow democracy are absurd. And his insistence on filtering out of American life any hint of religious influence is badly misguided.
  • Even if dignity remains difficult to define, undignified public discourse is easy to discern, and Pinker has offered an obvious example.

[Update:  example of how discussion over Pinker’s essay totally misses the main point – the question not about dignity per se but the GOVERNMENT’s role in protecting/enforcing dignity – can be found at here:; and]

Nick Kristof on politics: why we conclude that I’m right, and you’re evil

April 17th, 2008 No comments

Here’s a very interesting piece by Kristof at the New York Times about the reactions of Obama and Clinton supporters, and introducing cognitive science studies of why more information often polarizes, rather than bringing people together

Divided They Fall

Simply, we are cognitively wired as tribal animals.  That means we are inclined to see “our side” as right, and the other side as lying and scheming.  And very clever rent-seekers know this and try to use it to jerk us around.

Ron Bailey of Reason has two similar posts up:

More Information Confirms What You Already Know

The Culture War on Facts


Anybody see any similarities for what passes for discussion of climate science generally, and at here at Mises?  I’ve got loads of examples for those who can’t seem to see it, or are interested in looking more.  Here are several, most recent first:


Climate spin: Who are the sneaky ones who changed “global warming” to “climate change”?


Thank you, Prof. Block, for feeding our confirmation biases


Thanks, Dr. Reisman; or, How I Learned to Hate Enviros and Love Tantrums


Escape from Reason: are Austrians conservatives, or neocons, on the environment?


Edwin Dolan: applying the Lockean framework to climate change


“Climate Change, Evidence and Ideology”


John Baden: a Mt. Pelerin misanthrope/watermelon?


Holiday joy: roasting “watermelons” on an open pyre!


“Heroic” contrarians, proven wrong on AGW, make another slick cry for relevance at Bali


Who knows climate science? The Mises Blog!


Goering and Madison on War


Bali:  Murdoch & 149 Other Top Vile Collectivists/Capitalists Call for Global Poverty …


Tribal pigheadedness: RedState bans Ron Paul supporters


Libertarian denial; clever but not wise










Tribal pigheadedness: RedState bans Ron Paul supporters

October 26th, 2007 2 comments

“The simplest way to explain the behavior of RedState [in banning Ron Paul supporters] is to assume that it doesn`t want to be controlled by a cabal of its enemies” (to misquote Thomas ;)).

 [The above and following are from a post I made with respect to the recent decision of RedState to refuse to allow Ron Paul supporters to comment about Ron Paul.

My post was here: And more here:

BTW, “Thomas” is an RS founder who commented on the techrepublican site. His home page is here:

Actually, because RS is very tribal, it doesn`t even want to LISTEN to those who disagree with its hawkish, big government/big defense ways. That`s why RS management and members reflexively see those who are turned off with what the Bush administration has wrought as “liberal” enemies rather than really engaging with the critique. To listen might require too much introspection, which must be avoided at all costs. As Lew Rockwell noted (emphasis  added):

The conservatives … want to evade responsibility for the results of the policies imposed by monsters that they themselves created. When the left does this, we know not to take it too seriously. If you give the state the right to expropriate all private property, you can’t be too surprised when dictators take over. Similarly, when the whole of your intellectual enterprise has been wrapped up in celebrating the nation-state and its wars, condemning civil liberties, casting aspersions on religious liberty, and heralding the jail and the electric chair as the answer to all of society’s problems, you can’t complain when your policies produce tin-pot despotic imperialists like Bush. You have no intellectual apparatus with which to beat them back.

The problem with American conservatism is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than risk losing one soul to heresy. It has never understood the idea of freedom as a self-ordering principle of society. It has never seen the state as the enemy of what conservatives purport to favor. It has always looked to presidential power as the saving grace of what is right and true about America. I’m speaking now of the variety of conservatism created by William Buckley, not the Old Right of Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, Garett Garrett, H.L. Mencken, and company, though these people would have all rejected the name conservative as ridiculous. After Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR, what’s to conserve of the government? The revolutionaries who tossed off a milder British rule would never have put up with it.

For my part, I’m hoping that the whole conservative movement will go down in flames with the decline and fall of the Bush administration. The red-state fascists have had their day and instead of liberty, they gave us the most raw and stupid form of imperial big government one can imagine. They have given America a bad name around the world. They have bamboozled millions. They have looted and bankrupted the country. They have killed tens of thousands. If they don’t crack up on their own, we must do what we can to discredit them and their ideology forever.


Whereas the government is considered to be bubble-headed and ham-handed in domestic policy, in matters of foreign policy the government is suddenly imbued with virtuous traits such as courage. Taxes, in this case, are not a burden but the price we pay for civilization. The largest and most violent government program of all – namely war – is not an imposition with unintended consequences but an essential and praiseworthy effort at protection. I don’t mean to pick on the right exclusively. The left often offers the inverse of this recommendation. They believe that the government can’t but unleash Hell when it is waging war and spending on military machinery. But when it comes to domestic policy, they believe the same government can cure the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach the unlearned, and bring hope and happiness to all. Each side presumes that it potentially enjoys full control over the government it instructs to do this thing as versus that thing. What happens in real life, of course, is that the public sector – always and everywhere seeking more power – responds to the demands of both by granting each party’s positive agenda while eschewing its negative one. Thus is the left given its welfare, and the right given its warfare, and we end up with a state that grows ever more vast and intrusive at home and abroad.

What neither side understands is that the critique they offer of the programs they do not like applies also to the programs they do like. The same state that robs you and me, ties business in knots, and wrecks the schools also does the same – and worse – to countries that the US government invades. From the point of view of the taxed, the destination of the money doesn’t matter; it is all taken by coercion and all of it saps the productive capacity of society. Similarly, the state that uses military power to impose its imperial will on foreign regimes – destroying property and lives, and making endless enemies – is the one the left proposes to put in charge of our economic lives. … It is undeniable that the warfare state will not restrict itself to harming and bullying foreign peoples. It always and everywhere does the same to the domestic population. It occupies us, attacks our property, ferrets out political enemies, and wages low-intensity warfare against us.

Categories: redstate, ron paul, state, tribalism Tags: