Good article by Reason's Ron

Good article by Reason's Ron Bailey on Tech Central Station (thanks to Instapundit) about the smear campaign on Bjorn Lomberg. Lomberg is a ex-Greenpeacer statistician from Aarhus University who set out to show that there was something wrong with Julian Simon's anti-enviro-gloom research, only to find that most of it was right.

I went to see Lomberg speak on Capitol Hill a couple months back (it started late because the caterers were caught in post 9/11 security). It's clear why he's perceived by the enviro-left as a threat. He's a charming, articulate, attractive, liberal, gay, environmentally concerned, Scandanavian intellectual. By all indications, he should be on their side. But he's not. Instead, he's curious and intellectually honest.

For a long-time fan of Simon (God bless him), there was very little news in Lomberg's lecture. But messengers matter, and Lomberg is great messenger for those who don't think the world is falling apart. Simon was iconoclastic and could be dismissed as a crank (the left loved to mention that he wrote books on running mail a mail order business, as though grass roots capitalism is tantamount to Satan worship). But Lomberg, in his jeans and too-small black t-shirt, making a Simon-like case with mathematical competence, a young winning smile and charming Euro-cadences… that's just too much to take. The delight of the largely conservative and libertarian crowd is a sure indicator of left consternation.

In a comment on my

In a comment on my blurb for Will Thomas's cipro article, my revered colleague, Damon Chetson, replies that intellectual property rights are a myth.

One of the interesting divisions among libertarians is the split between IP communists, like Damon, and pro-IP rights people, like myself. Some IP commies claim that the point of property rights is to create a system of efficient allocation for things that can't be used by everyone at once. There's no point in having a car, say, if you don't have a right to exclude others from using it whenever they want, because if they're using it, you can't. And if you don't divide up common areas into parcels of property, everyone will race to plunder whatever they can from the limited stock of resources. However, the molecular structure of cipro (or the sequence of words in a novel, etc.) is costlessly replicable. Thus allowing everyone to use it doesn't keep the inventor from using it. Therefore, there's no point in attributing a right to use that structure of molecules (or sequence of words, etc).

My reply is that property rights aren't based solely on the necessity of assigning entitlements of use to things that everybody can't use at once. We need to distinguish the moral basis of rights from the reasons we have for respecting other's rights. The basis for my right in my car is that I bought it from someone who had a right in the car. Your reason for respecting my right to my car is that we're all better off in a system that efficiently allocates entitlements of use for rivalrous goods. With IP, the basis of my right to a certain molecule is that I discovered it. Now, here's where the IP commie comes in… “But do we really have a reason to respect that right? Wouldn't we all be better off if we didn't?”

This, I think, is the hard question. John Locke, the ur-rights theorist, argued that you have a right of original acquisition if you “mixed your labor” with the thing, and if you “leave enough and as good” for others. The tragedy of the commons problems that show that property rights are required for leaving enough and as good (required, because if no one has rights to the commons, it disappears due to abuse and plunder), apply equally to IP, but in a different way.

Think of the land of ideas as an abstract commons — everyone can wander in and explore. The problem here is that the commons is such a vast wasteland that it is incredibly difficult to find the oases of value in it. The tragedy of the intellectual commons isn't due to everyone racing to take what they can before others get to it, but due to no one bothering to go into it to discover its amazing treasures. If there are no IP rights, some people will go into the commons for fun (open source-like folks), and will be happy to share what they find. However, most people will be discouraged if they know that they won't have rights over what they find there. And so many amazing, life-enhancing things will be left unfound.

The question is: Under IP communism, will the value that comes from the public diffusion of the things that are found make up for the value that is lost from the things that are not found, due to disincentive? And would this be a good enough reason to override the basic moral rights of discoverers and creators? Not easy questions.

The IP commie argument that in an open source world people will simply respond to different incentives, and therefore gladly contribute their intellectual effort for the commonweal, smacks too much of the regular commie argument that the abolition of property altogether will only bring out the best in all of us, which will bring forth utopia. We all know how that worked out.

I've been looking…. Is there

I've been looking…. Is there an argument against cloning other than (1) We shouldn't be playing God, (2) It makes me feel really funny, or (3) It's not safe yet?

(1) and (2) are ridiculous, because there is no God (and if there were she'd want us to do it) and feeling funny isn't an objection to anything. (3) is a perfectly good argument, but without staying power; it'll be safe soon enough.

I'm interested in having a good debate about this, but there seems to be too little intellectual substance on the “neg” side to have one.

Okay, let me put out some argument bait. I'll even put it in terms prejudiced against my side (no parents desperate for children/organ transplant or die stuff). So… Suppose I want a clone of myself, just for kicks (I'd be a good dad and all), and I find a willing egg-womb donor. Why shouldn't I be able to do it?

Fire away.

If you're so smart… why

If you're so smart… why don't you write an encyclopedia entry! Go to Wikipedia, which is, naturally enough, a wiki and an encyclopedia. A wiki is a web page that can be edited by anyone who can view it. At Wikipedia, you can jump right into entries and improve them (although if it's not an improvement, someone else will soon change it back), or use your commanding knowledge of East Siberian hunting beavers to author the definitive article on the topic. The cool thing about Wikipedia is its anarchic, but stable and cooperative, open-source ethic.

I'm worried that Tony Adragna

I'm worried that Tony Adragna may have misconstrued what I intended by “rational ignorance” when he links to my blurb about Eugene Volokh from his post on Leon Kass. I shudder even now to mention them in the same breath. (Volokh good! Kass bad!)

Rational ignorance, in the sense Volokh was talking about, has to do with the opportunity costs of thinking. This is a big notion in voting theory. The democratic ideal is full participation by a fully informed citizenry. However, gathering sound information about candidates and policies is expensive, requiring a great deal of time and mental energy (and critical thinking skills that are also costly to acquire.) Given that the chance that any one voter's vote will decide the election is approximately zero, there is very little expected payoff in becoming informed. It is more rational to expend time and energy doing things that will have a payoff. Thus it is rational to remain ignorant of candidates and issues, and studies have shown that most eligible voters are indeed rational in this sense — they know next to nothing! (They might have a very nice lawn instead.)

At lunch, Volokh was using the notion to explain why citizens might be rational to consider existing policies to be well-considered, and thus biased to accept new policies that extend the principles of present policies. It's cognitively economical to defer to experts, and legislators seem (to the folk) to be experts, so the fact that something is a law creates a rational presumption in its favor, which may then extend to new but similar policies. And that's how (very crudely put) you get on a slippery slope. He's not saying this is a good thing; it's just what one might expect on an assumption of rationality.

Kass's “wisdom of repugnance” isn't about ignorance at all. He's saying that our feelings are sources of knowledge about ethical matters. You might say that Kass has a theory of rational passions — a theory that our visceral gut feelings are reliable guides to rational action. Now, I happen to think that this view is ignorant, but it's not about ignorance.

Probably I completely misunderstood what Tony was thinking, but it's a hoot to expound on rational ignorance anyway.

Oh the irony! Ashcroft won't

Oh the irony! Ashcroft won't release a list of the detainees because that it would “violate their rights. As Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said (to WashPost):

It is ironic that the government is now concerned about rights when it has arrested and jailed hundreds of people without giving the American public any proof that the detainees are being treated fairly.

Indeed.

Whatever his weaknesses, Bush has

Whatever his weaknesses, Bush has no difficulties in categorical moral pronouncement. The War Against Terrorism has prompted from Bush the most exhilarating restoration of manichean language to the public forum. God bless Bush for being able to say 'evil' without irony, because it's certainly nothing to be ironic about when it's staring you in the face. However, it's pretty aggravating when you're on the wrong side of it.

“The use of embryos to clone is wrong,” Bush said. “We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it, and that's exactly what is taking place.” Ari Fleischer, WaPo reports, says that “the President has drawn a strong ethical line in the sand and said that line should not be crossed.”

In reply, one could say trivial things like, “I grow cucumbers, which are forms of life, just so I can eat them.” But Bush means human lives. There is no doubt that cloned embryos are humans. To be human is to have human DNA. However, having human DNA is far from sufficient for moral standing (unless you think there's a special moral magic in some molecular configurations.) The point at which clusters of cells do acquire moral standing is a vexed question. Which is why Bush's otherwise praiseworthy moral certitude is so chafing on this issue. Especially when you just think about it for a second. The lives that will be saved by stem cell research are the real deal: full-fledged men and women, boys and girls with hopes, dreams, fears, loves and conscious inner lives. People have been talking about “moral equivalence” lately. To morally equate bunches of insensible human cells to bona fide laughing, loving human beings is to assert a false equivalence of the cruelest kind.

Forget moral equivalence… America's worse!

Forget moral equivalence… America's worse! Check out this interminable Chomsky lecture (RealAudio) made at the MIT Technology and Culture Forum. (Link from Backwash.) Chomsky, in his usual laconic, newspaper quoting fashion, enumerates America's crimes against all that is true and good. We're starving the Afghans. And our involvement in Nicauragua in the 80's constitutes a lawless terrorist act with which 9/11 pales in comparison. At least on lone voice remains to speak truth to power!

Seriously, I'm no big fan of interventionist foreign policy, and some of what Chomsky says resonates slightly (e.g., I'm no fan of huge corporations either, though for reasons different from Chomsky). I do feel, post 9/11, that we need to seriously reassess our involvements and “entangling alliances,” as Washington put it. I think it is worthwhile to separate the idea of the nation — the American people and the ideals of the Founding — from the idea of the state — the actual government and its policies.

One can be pro-American, as I wholeheartdely am, in the sense that I love what this country is supposed to be about, and I love the way our people try to realize what this country is supposed to be about. And one can at the same time be anti-government, as I am, in the sense that I disagree with most of the overgrown state's actual policies, and I'm pessimistic about the state doing much good in general. However, defense is an important exception, and I feel surprisingly good about how the war has been conducted thus far (though not on the Ashcroft front). Left libertarians like Chomsky seem to be entirely lacking in perspective, having vilified the U.S., both its ideals and its actuality, for so long that it is impossible for them to see when we're by and large doing the right thing.