In a comment on SlateStarCodex today the author (“leoboiko”) advocates a programme of socialism under the assumption that intelligence and ability are inherited, rather than earned, by their possessors. She said,

For one thing, this means that the idea of “meritocracy” is inherently unfair. Giving people access to wealth and resources based on their IQ-related achievements is as unfair as making people richer when they’re born taller. We would want some sort of social program to guarantee everyone access to a decent life according to their needs, not according to their abilities.

And went on to illustrate the unfairness of a world in which wealth was allocated according to height.

I do think intelligence and ability is mostly genetic, and I agree that’s unfair. My response is,

What we are rewarding (and want to reward) is success in helping society progress – materially, culturally, etc. Helping other people. Making the world a better place to live.

Our society is not meritocratic in any sense. We don’t reward merit. Or intelligence. Being meritorious, well-intentioned, hard-working, intelligent, and capable gets you…nothing. What gets rewarded (imperfectly, of course) is actually delivering the result – benefits to other people, as evaluated by those people, by their willingness to voluntarily trade wealth for those benefits.

Intelligence is associated with wealth because we reward pro-social activity, and intelligence makes success in such activity more likely. Height doesn’t (except in basketball).

Steve Jobs wasn’t wealthy because he needed it, or because he was a nice guy (he seems to have been an asshole). He was wealthy because he created great things that benefited billions of people.

That’s as it should be. It’s not, and never has been, about fairness. It’s about incentives.

Without such incentives, capable people wouldn’t try very hard. And wouldn’t control large amounts of capital for use in their projects. And we all would be far worse off.

Of course I’m not claiming our society does this perfectly or consistently. There are lots of ways to cheat the system, and lots of people who become wealthy in ways other than “making the world a better place” – most obviously, monopolists and power brokers. I advocate fixing that.

But the basic system works. Making the world a better place to live is more important than fairness.

Stupid vs. Evil

November 5th, 2016

It is traditionally held in the United States that there are two major political parties, which can fairly be described as the “Stupid” party and the “Evil” party.

Thoughtful partisans on each side are firmly convinced that their own party is the “Stupid” party, while the opposition is the “Evil” party.

(If you think the situation is less symmetrical than that,  I submit that this is an indicator of your partisanship.)

However, this is wrong.

Both parties, like the electorates that support them, and humanity in general, are about 80% stupid and 20% evil.

Free speech and the left

May 29th, 2016

What is going on with the left and free speech?

Decades ago self-described liberals were consistently in the forefront of defending the right to free speech and the first amendment.

Lenny Bruce was the poster boy/martyr for this cause. Liberals defended pornography and communists. They consistently said “the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech” – not controls on speech.

The ACLU became famous for defending unpopular speech, even to the extent of defending the right of neo-Nazis to march though the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie.

From George Orwell’s 1984 to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to denunciations of Joe McCarthy, much of the left seemed to define itself as defending freedom of expression.

Mario Savio and FSM - Sather Gate, UC Berkeley, November 20, 1964

Mario Savio and FSM – UC Berkeley Sather Gate, 20 November 1964

But in recent years it seems the situation has turned 180 degrees. The #1 cause célèbre among all my left-of-center friends is reversing Citizens United. Campus protests demand censorship and “safe spaces”, and aim to drum professors advocating politically incorrect views out of the academy.

And then we have:

Arrest Climate-Change Deniers – Gawker

New Inquisition: Punish climate-change ‘deniers’ –

Al Gore at SXSW: We Need to ‘Punish Climate-Change Deniers’ and ..

Climate “Deniers” Must Be Jailed or Killed | – Acting Man

This all seems a very long way from the impassioned defense of free speech the left (in the US) used to stand for.

What happened? Why?

I asked an insightful slightly left-of-center friend, who said,

“Liberals will care about free speech if and as it fights harm and oppression and advances equality. There are a handful of people who care about free speech as an end in itself, but not many.”

I’m not sure if that’s correct. But if it is, what does that say about the contemporary left?

If the left of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s thought that free speech would advance its goals, helping to undermine the status quo, does it now oppose free speech because it sees itself in a position of power, able to dictate what are and aren’t acceptable ideas?

When and how did that change? Did the fall of the Soviet empire strengthen the left in the west, instead of discrediting it?

I’m confused. But as someone who really does care about free speech, it’s terribly disappointing.

Or, Why I Have No Use for Philosophers

This is my grandfather’s axe. My father replaced the handle, I replaced the head. This is my grandfather’s axe.

Every time I try to discuss anything of substance with a professional philosopher, and often even with someone trained in philosophy, I find myself in an argument over semantics – the meaning of words.

I think this is why philosophy is generally held in such low regard.

The Ship of Theseus is a more elaborate version of the Grandfather’s Axe story that has supposedly been the subject of much debate by classical and modern philosophers (the ship is maintained by replacing planks as they age, until none of the original planks are left – is it still the same ship?).

The thing I find incredibly frustrating is that these philosophers argue about nothing. There is no dispute whatsoever regarding what has actually happened – are any of the parts original? (No.) Is it the same design? (Yes.) We can answer any factual question about the ship unambiguously.

Yet the philosophers keep arguing about it – for millennia.

These people are far worse than useless – they are actively creating confusion and argument where none exist.

Perhaps it had to come to this…

December 18th, 2012

From Techdirt, 2012-12-17:

China Tries To Block Encrypted Traffic
from the collapsing-the-tunnels dept

During the SOPA fight, at one point, we brought up the fact that increases in encryption were going to make most of the bill meaningless and ineffective in the long run, someone closely involved in trying to make SOPA a reality said that this wasn’t a problem because the next bill he was working on is one that would ban encryption. This, of course, was pure bluster and hyperbole from someone who was apparently both unfamiliar with the history of fights over encryption in the US, the value and importance of encryption for all sorts of important internet activities (hello online banking!), as well as the simple fact that “banning” encryption isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Still, for a guide on one attempt, that individual might want to take a look over at China, where VPN usage has become quite common to get around the Great Firewall. In response, it appears that some ISPs are now looking to block traffic that they believe is going through encrypted means.

A number of companies providing “virtual private network” (VPN) services to users in China say the new system is able to “learn, discover and block” the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems.

China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country, is now killing connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China.

This is the culmination of at least 35 years of official concern about the effects of personal computers.

I’m old enough to remember. As soon as computers became affordable to individuals in the late 1970s there was talk about “licensing” computer users. Talking Heads even wrote a song about it (Life During Wartime).

The good guys won, the bad guys lost.

Then, even before the Web, we had the Clipper chip. The EFF was created in response. And again the good guys won.

Then we had the CDA, and then CDA2. And again, the bad guys lost and the lovers of liberty won.

In the West, the war is mostly over (yet eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty).

Not so in the rest of the world, as last week’s ITU conference in Dubai demonstrated.

I say – let them try it. Let them lock down all the VPNs, shut off all the traffic they can’t parse. Let’s have the knock-down, drag-out fight between the hackers and the suits.

Stewart Brand was right. Information wants to be free. I know math. I know about steganography. I know about economics.

I know who will win.

F.A. Hayek ♥ Mick Jagger

June 30th, 2009

I love when seemingly disparate things synchronize in unexpected ways.

According to The Legal Underground,  Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) “was exceedingly fond of t-shirts, especially those portraying images of Mick Jagger…”

Surprising enough; doesn’t fit our image of Hayek.

But it gets better.  Sir Mick is a fan of Hayek.

Before quitting to start the Rolling Stones, Jagger attended the London School of Economics, where Hayek had taught.

Supposedly, Jagger’s adviser at the LSE “said that Mick Jagger did a careful net present value analysis of the value in attending LSE as compared to the foregone revenue from playing rock and roll. When the dollars came out higher for music, Mick came by and apologized to the adviser, but said he couldn’t afford to continue in school; LSE was just costing him too much money.”

Did I mention that Jagger also owns an Enigma machine?  The rare 4-rotor type.

Now if I could just work Salma in there somehow, it would be perfect.

(Sir Mick: If you’re reading this, a comment confirming/denying the above story would be appreciated.)

Obama ’08

November 3rd, 2008

It’s the day before the US presidential election.  I’m going to be voting for Barack Obama.


I appreciate Mr. McCain’s genuine love of country, independence on some important issues, and willingness to confront his party’s leadership on matters of principle.

And I don’t have any problem imagining Gov. Palin in the presidency – in a free country the presidency isn’t a very important role anyway.  The president does not “run the country”, the people do.  The president’s job is to run the government, and Gov. Palin seems unlikely to be worse at that than most of the presidents we’ve had in the last century.

Further, I disagree with most of Obama’s domestic policies.  I disagree with less of McCain’s.

However, Mr. McCain has a reputation for stubbornness, arrogance, and poor insight into the longer-term consequences of his actions.  Probably the best example of this is that, despite being told so in clear terms, he is still unable to understand (or care?) that McCain-Feingold has the effect of limiting political speech and the competition of ideas, rather than enhancing it.

If this were the worst that could be said about Mr. McCain, I’d probably still prefer him to Mr. Obama’s creeping socialism.

But.  Mr. Bush – who campaigned in 2000 on a platform of a more humble, less arrogant foreign policy – has transformed the last vestiges of America’s reputation as an advocate and example of freedom into that of a thuggish, war-mongering bully, trampling the freedoms of its own citizens and a menacing invader and occupier of nations.  And Mr. McCain promises to continue those policies.

As well, the last 8 years have destroyed any claim of the Republican party to stand for limited government, constrained spending, efficient administration, or defense of the Constitution.  After 8 years of such performance, the Republicans simply deserve to lose.

Mr. Obama is clearly intelligent, is said to genuinely listen to and consider counsel, and appears to value reason and pragmatism.

I do hope the Democrats don’t get a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate – I’m a fan of divided government, and think that that a government that “can’t get anything done” is the best kind.

I expect Mr. Obama to disappoint me.  Nonetheless, I will vote for him.  It’s time for a change.

Update, April 2011:  Mr. Obama has disappointed me.  Can’t say I didn’t see it coming.