Doublethink Doublecross — The America's

Doublethink Doublecross — The America's Future Foundation (who recently made me a member as recompense for using my name and a quote from this blog in a fundraising letter without bothering to mention it to me first) purports to be “a network of America's next generation of classical liberal leaders” — classical liberal understood as a broad category encompassing both conservatives and libertarians. (Dear AFF, please feel free to use any portion of this post for fundraising purposes) I've suspected for a while that much of the leadership of AFF wasn't so much classical liberal as plain anti-liberal reactionary.

Why the suspicion? Well, take this anecdote from an AFF happy hour. A friend introduces me to two well-sloshed Irish-looking fellows in suits slouched over the bar. (One guy has something to do with AFF, the other, I think works for Bob Novak.) One guy loudly and drunkenly declares, “Catholicism is a philosophy of freedom!” I say, “Come again!?” He replies, “Freedom from sin!! Freedom to do the right thing!!!” I stare, stupefied. And then I think, this here is the right flank of the enemy. Smug, drunk, cigar smoking, Catholic conservatives in suits. The right flank. Why are we here together? What on Darwin's green earth do we have in common?

And what else?

Well, AFF has a little print magazine, Doublethink (.pdf). Now, either Doublethink's editor, Justin Torres, made a big fucking mistake, or he wants to straight-up alienate a good chunk of AFF's membership with his transparent bad faith. In his introductory remarks to the all new, all-reactionary biotechnology edition of the AFF organ, he writes, “Unlike this journal's discussions of other issues, we cannot, on this topic, pretend to straddle the fence between conservatives and libertarians.” Since I'd guess at least 1/3 of AFF's regular patrons are libertarians, you'd think that'd be sorta tucked in there all inconspicuous-like. But no. That's the freaking pull-quote, run across two columns in huge, I mean, HUGE italicized font.

So that's how it is, huh? So in general Torres and Doublethink “pretends to straddle the fence.” Which means, what? That Torres does not consider it part of Doublethink's brief to provide a forum for genuine engagement between conservatives and libertarians. When the magazine appears to do so, well, that's a fence-straddling ruse. When the pretense is dropped, Doublethink (and AFF?), is (what's the word? Oh yes…) staunchly conservative. And libertarians, well libertarians can stuff it. One might have thought that AFF would take the opportunity to get some articulate, well-informed, pro-biotech libertarians and see how the libertarian and conservative views stack up. But why do that when you can just take the libertarians' membership dues and use it to tell them what they really ought to believe.

The Doublethink biotech issue is chock full of the handwringing, gut-moralizing, sophomore philosophizing, sanctimony, and sheer bullshit bluster that we've come to expect from people who thrill to the prounoucements of Leon Kass (yes, there is an interview with Kass) and hail Hans Jonas as a “great philosopher of science.” Having admitted that he is practiced in pretense, Torres himself goes on to write a pretentious and ill-reasoned essay in defense of disease, infirmity, senescence, and death (to be fair, that's not how he frames it). Because I like AFF in general, but because I care a great deal about scientific freedom, and about improving the lot of humanity, this issue really chapped my ass. I'm irate. So let's let off some steam and give the philosophical smackdown to just one representative passage from Torres. He writes:

Parents who choose their child's IQ, eye color, or athletic abilities, or tweak its genes to produce a musical virtuoso or math prodigy, are abrogating to themselves a frightening power over another human being. To the extent that biology determines our natures–which is to say, to quite an extent, though not in every way–there is no freedom if other people are manipulating the parts without our consent.

First of all, let me be petty and note that Torres doesn't know what 'abrogate' means (pretty much the opposite of what he thinks it does.) Second, he needs to read something other than Kass or D'Souza, or take a good philosophy course on human nature or free will, or something, because… well it's embarrassing to see people reason like this in public.

Let's suppose Justin's right, and that biology largely determines our natures. Well, it doesn't begin to follow that manipulating the building blocks of biology has anything to do with freedom at all. A fortiori it doesn't begin to begin to follow that genetic manipulation abrogates (that's how you use it) the freedom of the manipulated. Justin's assumption is that folks whose genes haven't been manipulated are free. In which case, freedom must mean something like “just happened to turn out this way.” From the reductive point of view, our biology is, at bottom, a combination of genes. So Justin's saying that if your genes got combined the way they did because of a more or less random process (this sperm just happened to fertilize that egg), well then you've got freedom. But if somebody intentionally moved a few of those molecular suckers around, well then you're a SLAVE! “There is NO freedom if other people are manipulating the parts without your consent!”

Can anyone with an education make sense of this? It's a breathtakingly wild non-sequitur, but since I've heard both Kass and D'Souza make the same fantastic leap, I fear I'm missing some immensely important intermediate step that could transform the argument to several small non-sequiturs rather than a single yawning one. What's the idea? I'm baffled.

OK. Suppose Al and Betty come into our clinic. We take a bunch of ova from Betty, and a little vial of sperm from Al. Next, we tag each ovum and sperm with a unique identifier. Then we put them all through our super-fast genetic reader, which gives us a genetic profile of all of our germ cells. Now, our superdupercomputer spits out all the possible genetic sequences we could get with these eggs and those sperm. Since we've long ago finished the human genome, and we've got all the protein folding and cell-signaling shit all figured out (or whatever), we can pretty near figure what combination of gross attributes would be generated by each possible genetic sequence. We pick the one we like the best (hazel eyes, of course!), take that sperm and that egg, and use the one to fertilize the other. We implant it in Betty's womb, and nine month's later… dream baby!

Now, have we “manipulated” the biological “parts”? We'll, we have decided how we'd like things to turn out biologically. That genetic sequence will pretty much constitute the kid's biology, and that biology will pretty much constitute the kid's nature. OK! But it could have also turned out that that sperm would have fertilized that very egg had Al and Betty decided to stay in bed and hit skins instead of going to the clinic. And nine months later… dream baby!

NOW! According to Justin Torres, clinic baby has NO freedom. Yet conventional baby is free as you and me. But they are, wait for it… GENETICALLY IDENTICAL. They are exactly the same in every biological respect. Whatever capacity one has, the other has… because they're EXACTLY THE SAME. If one is free, then so is the other. So what does genetic manipulation have to do with freedom at all!!!???

Freedom in general is a lack of constraint, or the ability to choose among alternate courses of action. Our capacity for free choice undoubtedly has something to do with the way our brains are organized, and that undoubtedly has something to do with the way our genes are organized. But as long as the organization is a human one, whether it came together by chance or choice, then there's free will.

Are parents who manipulate a sequence of genes to get a better kid somehow constraining the kid in a freedom-diminishing way, or closing off alternatives that would have otherwise been open. Well, no. Not if the sequence they come up with is a possibility in the natural lottery. Maybe once they invest in the fancy genes, they'll turn into assholes and make little Al shoot jumpshots so that they might one day be enriched by Al Jr.'s native athletic prowess. But clearly, the problem's not genetic manipulation. The problem's being an asshole.

[Afterthought: The opposite might even be true, if enhancement is available, and you fail to take advantage of it for your children, then you may, by omission, be closing off opportunities that would otherwise be open to them. Kind of like failing to give your children an education. So you'd be depriving the kids of a kind of freedom by failing to enhance them. I don't know that this is true, but at least it makes some sense, as opposed to the bizarre claim that the mere fact of manipulation voids freedom.]

As a special treat for the slow, here's a ridiculous argument, somewhat parallel to the Al and Betty argument, in dialogue form (initials chosen at random):

JT: You know how piles of pick-up sticks can be SO beautiful?

WW: Well, um… Sure, JT. (Cough.)

JT: Well, I'll tell you something about pick-up sticks and beauty! If you randomly drop a bunch of pick-up sticks into a pile on the ground, then the pile's beautiful. But if you move any of the sticks, then the whole pile's not beautiful AT ALL!

WW: Well, why's that JT?

JT: Because when you move a stick, the thing that made the pile beautiful just disappears.

WW: Well, what was it that made the pile beautiful?

JT: Don't you go to church?

WW: Hmm… Let's see. How about this? What if there are only so many ways the sticks could be arranged?

JT: Well, OK. I suppose that's true.

WW: If the sticks randomly fall into one of those arrangements, well then the pile's beautiful? It that right?

JT: Yes! That's how it works! Very good!

WW: Then so what if I've got a beautiful random arrangement, but then I move just one of the sticks to one of the other possible arrangements. Is it still beautiful?

JT: Oh, no! There is NO beauty when the sticks have been manipulated!

WW: Even if the manipulated arrangement is identical to an arrangement that could have occurred by a random drop?

JT: It's just not the same! Nihilist!

WW: JT, have you been into the acid again? Or, worse, did you resubscribe to the Weekly Standard? JT, it's OK, you can tell me.

JT: You don't care about beauty! Philistine! (Storms off.)

OK. I feel better. But, hey, AFF! Anytime you want to show some genuine good faith toward libertarians, rather than simply “pretend to straddle,” how about you take any two of those guys in the bio-Luddite issue of Doublethink, and I'll get a guy, and we'll put on a debate. You know, air both sides of the argument. Provide a forum in which the best arguments may prevail. That sort of thing. Call me.

Is Military Spending Like Insurance?

Is Military Spending Like Insurance? — Dr. Weevil writes:

I'm no economist, but it seems to me that Will Wilkinson of The Fly Bottle and Megan McArdle of Live . . . from the WTC are missing the point in arguing that war is definitely (Wilkinson) or possibly (McArdle) bad for the economy. Many economically useful activities aim not to make money but to avoid losing it.

Weevil goes on to mention insurance, and asks “is not the defense budget a form of insurance?” He argues that it is. Well, let's see.

First, sure, insurance can be a good idea. But keep in mind that insurance is exactly like gambling. Because it is gambling. If, like Weevil, you pay in $30,000 and never file a claim, then you're a big loser. If you turn out to be liable for $30,00.01 or more of damages that the insurance company will cover, then you're a winner. But most people are losers in insurance. That's why insurance companies, like casinos, make lots & lots of money. However, most people are willing to gamble, since it's generally worse to need insurance and not have it than it is to have it and not need it. In any case, if you pay in $30,000 and never get anything back, then, as a matter of fact, you're screwed to the tune of $30,000 dollars. You are not in any sense wealthier. That's a nice car, a (state) college education, a fat downpayment on a house, the beginning of a small business. And it's just gone. Poof! Like playin' them slots down on the riverboat in Dubuque. Again, you ain't no richer.

And, yes, military spending is a bit insurance. But it's not really like insurance in that it doesn't really guarantee anything in case of bad luck. You can spend billions on the military and still get your ass kicked by the enemy. There might have been no amount of money that the French could have spent to prevent the Nazi conquest. But if I'm paid up with Geico, they will pay for my fender-bender. So be clear that in order to make the insurance metaphor go through, you have to assume that military spending will result in effective deterrence and prevention of disaster. But that's not an assumption you should blithely make. (And the Soviet economy would have certainly improved had the Nazi's been victorious there, so you have to assume that it's economically better in the long run not to be conquered.) Further, the idea about the military is that it actually deters or prevents disaster. Insurance doesn't do that at all. It just pays to clean up the mess.

So, given that the insurance metaphor is pretty much hopeless, does U.S. military spending insure the U.S. economy against disaster? It depends! If building up a vast nuclear arsenal prevented Soviet invasion, then we were probably Cold War insurance winners. But if you know about insurance, then you know about the notion of moral hazard. The idea behind moral hazard is that someone who has insurance in some domain is more likely to engage in risky behavior in that domain than someone who isn't insured. So simply having insurance can make it more likely that you'll need it. I think military spending is quite like insurance in that it can cause a moral hazard problem.

Because the US has a very powerful military, we're pretty cavalier in our interference with the affairs of other nations. We take risks we wouldn't otherwise take (we don't even think of them as risks!), having the confidence that other nations will be cowed by our might. But this kind of aggressive ultra-confident meddling is precisely the sort of thing that breeds resentment. So we become a target for terrorists and other malcontents. Which fact is used to justify the need for additional military spending (and additional aggressive ultra-confident meddling).

A better kind of insurance might be a foreign policy based on non-intervention and unilateral free trade. Sure, let's have a strong military that can protect us against invasion and the like. But like having too much insurance, having too much military just increases the chances that you'll need it.