April 30, 2008


Review of "Thomas Paine" by Craig Nelson

April 29, 2008

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Actually, in some ways, reviewing it is easy. It was well-written (favorite line: “After Luther, there would be two kinds of Europeans: those initiated into the illuminating world of print, and those still playing with hoops” apparently the only thing that has changed since Luther is that we have way better toys than hoops). It presented a clearly favorable – but still fair – portrait of Thomas Paine. It was a solid “life and times” style biography – as it has to be with Paine who was highly involved in so many of the interesting events of his time. The reason that I find it difficult is that it is so hard to know what to make of the subject – see Wikipedia for a summary of his life, which I don’t feel like re-writing.

At times Thomas Paine seems to be such an ideal character and defender of liberty. How can I not admired a guy who wondered “if a system of government could not exist that did not require the devil?” At other times, it’s hard to know what exactly he actually believes. Mr Nelson identifies as Benjamin Franklin’s ideological son, and refers to him as “Franklin unleashed.” Yet it’s Franklin who said “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” (a criticism that at times in his life seems particularly apt for Paine). And at still other times he veers off towards beliefs that are destructive to liberty.

It clear that Thomas Paine played an incredibly important (and highly underrated) role in the American Revolution. He was among the first to question British rule and to seriously suggest (and subject to reason, the proposition that the colonies begin) a break from British rule. I sympathize with someone who questioned religion and decided to subject it to reason. Yet, Paine also seems to lay the foundations for later movements that rolled back liberty and even some that were outright opposed to liberty (it’s only fair to note that Paine seems to have inspired the best reformers and the worst reformers alike). As Mr Nelson says:

In fact, it could be said that the most significant reason to read the works of Thomas Paine today is as an act of fealty, for anyone living in a modern nation will already know by heart everyone of his ideas and innovations, as they been so completely adopted by modern government and society as to seem as though never needing invention, as sui generis as Newtons gravity or Priestley’s oxygen.

Yet most of the founders were not happy with their creation; they were afraid they had killed off virtue. Mr Nelson quotes Jefferson:

All, all dead, and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us. . . . I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 . . . is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. . . . I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is the better for my having lived at all.

Bring it!

April 28, 2008


Great article

April 28, 2008

On global warming, in Skeptic (figure 4, once explained, is just devastating).

Update: The conclusion of this article isn’t that global warming isn’t happening. Rather, it’s that the models used to “conclude” that the globe is warming are based many other models and once we add up the cumulative uncertainty in all the modeling, we’re left with no scientifically valuable information. I think this later conclusion is also the common sense result.

International law

April 24, 2008

Mr Larison says something that I have heard many other, fellow opponents of war say: "Since aggressive war is itself a crime and a violation of international law . . ."


Now, I'm no legal scholar, but it seems to me that there are only two sources of law; (1) natural law and (2) law imposed by a sovereign – or "unnatural" law.  I don't see how it's possible that "international" law could come from either of these sources.  Instead it strikes me as coming from a third, illegitimate source – namely, academic papers and international, non-sovereign agencies.


Obviously Saddam Hussein could have had no natural right to rule his country the way he did; so, an invasion of "his" country and the act of overthrowing his regime could not violate any natural law (at least as far as all the theories of natural law that I have read are concerned).  I think you cold make a case that a "good" ruler has a natural right to not be aggressed against, but making that case for an obviously terrible ruler is impossible.


Since there is no international sovereign, there can be international law imposed by a sovereign.


That leaves us searching for another source of international law and I can't think of any others that would have a reasonable claim on legitimacy.  It will lack legitimacy, if for no other reason, than it is totally unenforcable.  Why not condemn something as illegal under the Larison Code?  Both sources of law seem just as arbitrary and unlikely to be enforced.


I don't think those of us who are opposed to war (especially those of us on the right) will help our cause in the long term by throwing around prohibitions based on "international law" (perhaps we can consult the international Constitution for the basic tents of this law or refer disputes to the international Supreme Court which will surely be deferential to the international Congress).  Can’t we just be satisfied criticizing an action as bad, wrong and immoral without having to make up a new legal framework under which it is “illegal?”

Review of "Public Opinion" by Walter Lippman

April 23, 2008

This book provides an analysis of public opinion.  It does not consider public opinion an expression of the people, or any such nonsense.  Its goal, rather, is to explain how public opinion is “manufactured.”  Mr Lippman distinguishes between true facts, the human picture or impression of a selection of the facts and the resulting human action based on the picture. 


I’ll let Mr Lippman summarize his own work:


And so in the chapters which follow we shall inquire first into some of the reasons why the picture inside so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside. Under this heading we shall consider first the chief factors which limit their access to the facts. They are the artificial censorships, the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages, the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world, and finally the fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men's lives. . . .


The analysis then turns from these more or less external limitations to the question of how this trickle of messages from the outside is affected by the stored up images, the preconceptions, and prejudices which interpret, fill them out, and in their turn powerfully direct the play of our attention, and our vision itself. From this it proceeds to examine how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them. In the succeeding sections it examines how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion, how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.


Mr Lippman is careful to point out that true democracy cannot work.  All issues must be reduced to Yes or No decisions.  Winners of elections will use the resulting privileges to create hierarchies that will further influence how public opinion is formed.  Leaders will have to use symbols to reach the public, again distorting reality.  Are citizens smart enough to understand the issues they are supposed to decide – especially with the growth of government into areas in which citizens have no experience of any kind?  The question then is whether these criticisms undermine democracy.  Mr Lippman believes that this question is not one that democrats can consider:


Had democrats admitted there was truth in any of the aristocratic arguments they would have opened a breach in the defenses. And so just as Aristotle had to insist that the slave was a slave by nature, the democrats had to insist that the free man was a legislator and administrator by nature.


Mr Lippman’s answer is not exactly clear.  He criticizes those who believed that the manufacture of consent died out under democracy.  Instead, he believes that the manufacture of consent reached a new height of perfection in democratic systems. 


As far as democracy in the US, he believes that the original US Constitution was not as democratic as it currently is.  It was made more democratic by Jefferson (who had strong views about limiting government so that it acted only within spheres understandable to voters)


The frank denials were therefore expunged from consciousness, and the document, which is on its face an honest example of limited constitutional democracy, was talked and thought about as an instrument for direct popular rule. Jefferson actually reached the point of believing that the Federalists had perverted the Constitution, of which in his fancy they were no longer the authors. And so the Constitution was, in spirit, rewritten. Partly by actual amendment, partly by practice, as in the case of the Electoral College, but chiefly by looking at it through another set of stereotypes, the facade was no longer permitted to look oligarchic. . .


The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such. They owe that fiction to the victory of Thomas Jefferson, and a great conservative fiction it has been. It is a fair guess that if everyone had always regarded the Constitution as did the authors of it, the Constitution would have been violently overthrown, because loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to democracy would have seemed incompatible. Jefferson resolved that paradox by teaching the American people to read the Constitution as an expression of democracy. He himself stopped there. But in the course of twenty-five years or so social conditions had changed so radically, that Andrew Jackson carried out the political revolution for which Jefferson had prepared the tradition.


Mr Lippman doesn’t go so far as to suggest doing away with representative government.  He doesn't think there is a solution to many of the problems he identifies, as they are part of the human condition.  Instead he proposes way to minimize the problems.  Mr Lippman proposes creating a “specialized class” of professionals to collect and analyze data and present the conclusions.  Another body would then use the conclusions to help inform the public.  I’m not sure this is a realistic solution. 


I very much enjoyed Mr Lippman critique of democracy.  I like to note one more of his statements:


For the traditional democrat risked the dignity of man on one very precarious assumption, that he would exhibit that dignity instinctively in wise laws and good government. Voters did not do that, and so the democrat was forever being made to look a little silly by tough-minded men. But if, instead of hanging human dignity on the one assumption about self-government, you insist that man's dignity requires a standard of living, in which his capacities are properly exercised, the whole problem changes. The criteria which you then apply to government are whether it is producing a certain minimum of health, of decent housing, of material necessities, of education, of freedom, of pleasures, of beauty, not simply whether at the sacrifice of all these things, it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating around in men's minds. In the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective, political decision, which is inevitably the concern of comparatively few people, is actually brought into relation with the interests of men.


If the criteria that Mr Lippman lays out are taken as the goal of government, then we can rightly ask whether 1) democracy is good at achieving these goals and 2) a majority of people believe that these are the aims of government.  If 2) is not true then we’ll need another system of government.  If 1) is not true then we’d be right to look for another one.


I can’t resist one more quote:


Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences. That, perhaps, is why when we try to insist solely upon an appeal to reason in dealing with sudden situations, we are broken and drowned in laughter.

Review of "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer

April 22, 2008
I finally read this book.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say I listened to it.  I tried reading both the original and "translated" (into a more modern English) versions and listening to both the original and "translated" versions.  I could never quite get into the stories until I listened to the translated version.
I'm not going to write a review beyond saying that I was surprised how much I enjoyed listening to the tales (some of which were surprisingly bawdy) and linking to the Wikipedia page – which in turn links to summaries of all the stories that were very helpful during the listening.

Review of "Will in the World" by Stephen Greenblatt

April 22, 2008

I'm just going to link to two interesting review of this book – here and here – and say that I agree strongly with the second one.

The theory of everythimg

April 22, 2008

I think this is a legitimate candidate.

Great essay

April 21, 2008

On Schumpeter in CRB – the essay doesn't downplay his Austrian-ism at all, in fact the essay emphasizes it!