Category Archives: Politics

“If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain”

With the presidential election coming later this year, and one that I might not vote in, I thought it was an appropriate time to respond to a criticism I’ve received in the past but never answered adequately.

“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

Here are three reasons why I think that’s wrong:

1. An individual vote doesn’t matter.

In 2012, the United States had 129 million people turn out to vote. Even if we divide that by 50 and account for some of the differences in state sizes and voting procedures, it’s still clear that your vote is a nearly infinitisemal part of the total. The truth is that your vote only counts in the case of a tiebreak. If there is no tiebreak, even if you hadn’t voted, the results would have turned out the same.

Why is this relevant? Because it doesn’t make sense to say that unless you did something of symbolic value, with no real impact, you have no right to complain. The argument’s plausibility rests on you being able to do something about your situation, and if it loses that, it loses its basis.

2. If a person’s views are outside the box, those views can’t be furthered by voting.

Imagine a box of opinion in mainstream politics. Anything within this box is votable – there is some candidate or the other that represents the opinion and is willing to fight to make it reality. But what if your views are outside the box? If your views aren’t represented by a candidate with plausible chances of becoming president, then they simply can’t be furthered by voting for existing candidates. Once again, voting turns into an action without consequence. (In reality, presidential elections are worse than the box analogy makes it seem: you actually have only two distinct points to choose from, and any view outside, and also, in between, is not votable – I could add more nuance to this, but I’ll leave it there for now)

3. There are other ways to advance a political cause than through voting.

The biggest fallacy the argument exhibits is its overwhelming emphasis on the importance of voting, as if there exist no other means to change a society one lives in. You can start a blog, talk with your friends, talk to strangers, start an organization, donate to an organization, educate yourself, live your ideals, join a protest, etc. etc. Even complaining itself is a way you can advance your cause. And with that, I think the argument is fully demolished.

 

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Bonus Video:

Net Neutrality and Facebook’s Free Basics: A Case Study on Being Too Stubborn

In the past two years, Facebook has brought access to basic internet services to people in developing countries through a campaign called Free Basics. While Free Basics (as the name suggests) is completely free, it only offers limited services, a characteristic that is inflaming net neutrality advocates to not just criticize Facebook, but in some cases even call for its illegalization.

Net neutrality is the position that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content equally and without prioritization. The stock example is the issue that took place between Netflix and Comcast/Verizon a few years back. Many accused Comcast and Verizon for slowing internet speeds for Netflix streaming, which (at least as claimed) was particularly outrageous since they may have been doing so in an attempt to rid themselves of competition in the television arena. Net neutrality advocates want to ban this sort of behavior so that those that use the Internet as a platform to sell products and services do so on an even playing field.

While I think there are problems with net neutrality in general, what is more disturbing is when advocates take that principle to the point of absurdity. The outlawing of Free Basics is one such example, and economist Don Boudreaux brings clarity to that with a thought-provoking analogy:

A hungry woman dying of thirst in the desert is approached by an entrepreneur who offers her unlimited quantities of bottles of water and a selection of snacks, all at a price of $0.  No strings attached.  The entrepreneur also informs the woman that, if she wishes, he’ll sell to her a seven-course meal (champagne included) for $100.  A moment later an armed regulator shows up.  Offering nothing to anyone but diktats, the regulator orders the entrepreneur to cease and desist this practice of differential pricing.  Unless the entrepreneur offers to the woman access at one, flat price to all that he sells, the entrepreneur must not offer the woman anything.

Uncertain of the woman’s willingness to pay enough for a seven-course meal (champagne included) – and unable to afford to supply such a meal free of charge – the entrepreneur leaves the scene, giving the woman nothing.  The woman soon dies as the regulator boasts of his magnanimity at having protected her access to “food-neutrality.”

The situation with Facebook is the same. Through Free Basics, Facebook is offering completely free access to the Internet. It’s true that these involve only access to limited services, but something is better than nothing. It’s fine to try and persuade Facebook to expand the services they offer (as long as one keeps in mind there is a price they have to pay for this, and at some point it becomes overly difficult), but as soon as a person goes from polite criticism to the use of force to prevent them from doing anything, he steps over the line. It’s not just disrespectful to Facebook, who is attempting to help developing nations, but disrespectful to the people of these developing nations, including many impoverished individuals who have never had access to the Internet before.

A separate criticism Peter Nowak makes is that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not properly understand philantropy:

Ultimately, the difference between charity and marketing is that the true altruist doesn’t seek anything, including recognition, in exchange for a donation.

Those who seek something in return are merely catering to their self-interest.

A self-styled philanthropist like Mark Zuckerberg should know that.

Nowak might be correct in criticizing Zuckerberg for being deceitful about his motives – the CEO claims to be doing this out of altruism, yet includes Facebook as one of the services Free Basics offers – but I don’t think that’s very important. While altruism is an amazing virtue, it is not always practical. The most beautiful quality of capitalism is that people in market economies are led to serve others despite being motivated by self-interest. The person who exchanges goods he has produced for money does so only because he values the money over the goods. Meanwhile, the person who exchanges the money for the goods does so because he holds the opposite valuation. Through the voluntary trade of the property each owns, both parties benefit. In offering selective services free of charge, Facebook is receiving something it values more than it is giving up – likely the access to millions of users and the data they provide. Likewise, the individuals who are choosing to get access to these basic services are doing so because they value the access free of monetary charge over the data they give up. Attempting to ban Free Basics is direspectful of the choices these people themselves think will bring them benefit.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I disagree with net neutrality in general, I at least can admit that the arguments for it are plausible. Proponents are scared that the internet they know will change for the worse and become segmented based on the selfish interests of ISPs. But they need to realize that there are exceptions to be made. In stubbornly holding onto the idea that there should be a neutral internet, they should not go so far as to say that otherwise there should be no Internet. Because a third option, a completely free, though limited Internet, helps and would help billions of people on the planet, a portion of which are too poor to afford anything else.

 

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Trump and Vague One Liners

Sometimes a statement or argument sounds plausible only because of how vague it is. But when asked “what does it really mean?” and elaborated on, it crumbles quickly to the ground.

A few weeks ago during the Republican debate, Donald Trump defended his desire to kill the innocent family members of terrorists – their mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, children, and babies. I tore down some of those arguments previously and pointed out how evil and twisted Trump’s view on this issue was, but there was one exchange during the debate I did not mention:

In the clip, Rand Paul stated that in order to kill the innocent family members of terrorists, we would have to violate the Geneva Conventions and “defy every norm that is America.”

Trump responded concisely, saying “So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

On its face, the one liner sounds plausible. If someone is trying to kill you, of course you can kill them. That’s what the right to self defense is about after all. All Trump is saying is that we can defend ourselves by killing those intending to do us harm.

But what does the statement really mean? The pronouns and the vagueness they maintain are the only reasons this example sounds persuasive at all.

“So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

Let’s fill in the pronouns with their antecedents.

“they” refers to the terrorists

“us” likely refers to Americans in general (military and civilians; for those that think it’s just civilians, such as our innocent family members, I’ll include this as a 2nd possibility below)

“we” refers to Americans again

“them” refers to innocent family members of terrorists

Re-stated now, the one-liner appears as:

“So . . . the terrorists can kill us Americans, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”

To which the appropriate response now becomes “Uhh . . . of course not. Why would we want to kill the innocent family members of terrorists? The terrorists are the ones we should punish.”

The second possibility appears as:

“So . . . the terrorists can kill American civilians, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”

One more time, of course not. We classify the act by terrorists of killing innocent civilians as immoral. If we do the exact same thing, how are we any better? Punish the crime-doers. Don’t punish their children.

Again, the initial plausibility vanishes frighteningly quickly. It’s as if a blindfold was over the reader’s eyes, and one simple request for elaboration was enough to remove it.

 

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It’s Not a Lack of Seriousness That Disqualifies Trump – It’s a Lack of Moral Character and Judgment

I posted the following on Facebook two nights ago:

Trump’s statement during the debate tonight that we should intentionally kill the families of terrorists was one of the most immoral things I’ve ever heard a politician say. Just imagine for a second, that your sibling or one of your offspring happened to be a terrorist – does that at all justify killing you or your other innocent family members? Of course not. We don’t purposefully kill parents, or grandparents, or brothers, or sisters, or children, simply because they had the misfortune of being related to someone guilty of a crime.

Trump’s response in the debate centered around the family members knowing something was up in certain terrorist incidents, the fact of which I haven’t confirmed. But even if it was true in one or some cases does not mean it will be true in every case (and thus justify a forward policy of killing the families of terrorists). Some relatives of known ISIS members oppose them so much that they even wish they would die; if there exist family members like this, we can surely expect there to exist family members that would report on their relative if they knew what was happening. Now, even if it was true that family members thought there was a plot and didn’t say anything, it’s still irrelevant. Not speaking out about the dangers of your relatives is not the same thing as actively participating in terrorist crimes, and the former certainly does not justify death. On top of that, why not extend this reasoning to all the friends of the San Bernardino shooters who didn’t report their radical statements on social media? Should we just kill them too?

Trump’s second defense had to do with efficacy: terrorists might not care about their own lives, but they do care about their family’s lives. This is not entirely true, as some terrorists have threatened their own families. However, even it it was true, it is still a despicable way to bring about justice. It shows we’re willing to give up our values when we’re fearful and stoop to the levels of barbarism that the terrorists themselves exhibit when they purposefully kill innocents all over the world.

Sometimes, certain consequences of a belief system are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate that belief system. Likewise, sometimes certain statements are so clearly absurd and depraved that they should invalidate the person making those statements as someone we put our trust into. This is because it shows a lack of judgment and moral character. If you’re a Trump supporter, ask yourself “is this something I really agree with?” And if not, does it not frighten you about a potential president’s lack of judgment?

Should the US Go to War with Syria?

I have planned out at least one blog post on this subject, although I may not have time before Obama actually takes action. So I just wanted to link to two posts that you can read in the meantime or in case I don’t get to it at all:

  • Humanitarian Murder: It’s a Gas” by Joseph Fetz. Here, Fetz makes the libertarian argument against war while discussing Syria in particular. He shows that “humanitarian war” is essentially a contradiction in terms. This is a very well-written piece, and I highly recommend it.
  • Presidential War Powers: The Constitutional Answer” by Thomas Woods. Woods sets out the constitutional argument against presidential declarations of war and responds to counterarguments. Really, this is your one-stop shop if you want to understand the Constitution on war powers and be ready for many, many counterarguments. Of course, these can all be found in more detail in Woods’s books.

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The Nature of Power

It is the Nature of Power to be ever encroaching, and converting every extraordinary Power, granted at particular Times, and upon particular Occasions, into an ordinary Power, to be used at all Times, and when there is no Occasion, nor does it ever part willingly with any Advantage.  – John Trenchard, Cato’s Letter No. 115
This quote is particularly relevant when it comes to discussions of civil liberties with regard to current events. We are in an endless war with terrorism, involving a grab for power that goes further than even Trenchard may have imagined. As a perpetual war, the war on terror serves as a justification not just for an initial gain in power, but for a perpetual gain. Each and every encroachment on liberties should not be taken lightly, when permanence is already an intrinsic characteristic of the encroachments.

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Is the NSA Surveillance Legal?

Absolutely not.

I have three arguments:

1) The written law does not permit mass surveillance. Any attempted justification of the NSA’s surveillance must make a positive case for which laws and which statutes permit the NSA to undertake the type of surveillance it has been doing. Generally, apologists turn to the Patriot Act. But even under the Patriot Act, as Jennifer Granick and Christopher Sprigman point out, Section 215 states that the government can only gather data upon “showing reasonable grounds that the things sought are “relevant” to an authorized foreign intelligence investigation.” The data the NSA gathers must be relevant to a specific investigation. Clearly, there is no way that the data collected by mass surveillance could all be relevant to specific investigations. Mass surveillance is an indiscriminate collection of data; as such, it will collect information from not just suspects, but non-suspects as well. Finally, as Dave Sirota points out, even the courts have found the NSA’s activities illegal 4 different times.

2) The 4th amendment does not permit mass surveillance. The 4th amendment states the right to privacy of all US citizens. Government can only collect private information with a warrant. Relevant example: when you sign a contract with a telecommunications provider, there’s a section about its “privacy policy” that states that the telecommunications provider will not give any of your metadata or the content of your calls away unless it is to the government and the government has a warrant for the information. Clearly, mass surveillance means that government does not have a warrant for every record it is collecting. Another reason I bring up the privacy policy is because consumers are signing a voluntary contract with providers, a contract that explicitly states that certain information is being kept private. Therefore, this information is still private information. Just because you’re “sharing” this information with the phone company doesn’t mean they can give it to whoever they want, because it has been stated in the contract that they cannot do so.

3) The Constitution does not permit mass surveillance. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution lays out the specifically enumerated powers of the Congress. In other words, the Constitution is set up in such a way that the correct way to think about it is that “the government may only do this if we specifically say so” rather than “the government can do whatever it pleases unless we say otherwise.” So, not only must the surveillance not violate the 4th amendment – there must clearly be a  positive case for it as well under the Constitution. Under Article III, Section 8, which enumerated power does the ability of the goverment to surveil its citizens (or more properly, the ability of Congress to legislate such a power) fall under?

Somewhat off-topic: A common objection to this argument (when it is used generally) is that the Preamble states that the Constitution was created to “promote the general welfare” and even under Article I, Section 8, that “[t]he Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” (emphasis mine), suggesting that the government can do as it wishes as long as it is promoting the common good. But this is not an enumerated power, it is a purpose. If the words of the Preamble gave powers to the government, why would the founders create a section for specifically enumerated ones? Moreover, if such a wide, flexible net of powers (so anything that might help the general welfare is lawful?) was the founders’ intent, why would they go through the trouble of specifically enumerating them? Doesn’t that mean Article I Section 8 is a useless and redundant section? Both Madison and Jefferson emphasized this point. In addition, repeatedly at the state ratifying conventions, the founders told the states that the federal government would only have powers “expressly delegated” by the Constitution.

Questions or comments? What do you think?

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Edward Snowden Asking for Asylum

 

It’s almost like he’s applying to college or something. Huh, he applied to France?? Doesn’t he know he’ll never get in there??

DO NOT Click the Blue Words

  • Tom Woods goes psycho and decides to post an entire half of a college-level course free on YouTube.
  • I tell startups why they should get VoIP.

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UPDATE:

6/18/2013 11:37 PM: Whoops, just realized Woods only uploaded half of the course to YouTube, not the entire course. Still pretty psycho if you ask me 😉

The Lind Wars Trilogy (2x)

The Lind Menace

Attack of the Woods

Revenge of the Statist

A New Hope (yeah i gave up. I have no idea how to change this)

Michael Lind Strikes Back

Return of the Libertarian

I’m not sure why I compared this to Star Wars, but I think I counted 6 articles and jumped on it. I myself wrote a blog post which, to continue with the same analogy, could be compared to the Clone Wars animated series they had on Cartoon Network.

But seriously, the issue I had earlier with Michael Lind’s “devastating” question still remains: it is a non sequitur. I made a jump in my previous blog post (about this topic) to that conclusion, so I want to really spell it out here.

Michael Lind asks “If [the libertarian] approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it? Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?”

From this alone, one might think “alright, this is an interesting question for sure, and one that we might need to answer.” But Lind goes on to call it “devastating.”

Curious, sure, but devastating?

To understand why Michael Lind thinks his question is catastrophic for libertarians, we have to continue reading his original article. He states:

“But [the fact that some policies are libertarian] isn’t an adequate response. Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.”

Lind calls it a “utopia” to deride the philosophy, but in other, more objective words, Lind is saying that libertarians theorize a state of affairs that does not currently exist. It has not been tried. Therefore…what?

Therefore nothing. There is nothing you can say about libertarianism from an empirical standpoint. But Lind isn’t trying to say just this. If he came to this conclusion, I’d agree with him. Unfortunately, he’s going even further:

“If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?”

Ignore for a second that this itself is a blatant non-sequitur. Michael Lind thinks a political philosophy should be discredited by the fact that it has not been tried.

This is his real argument, the argument that is the basis for his “devastating” question. Implicit in his initial inquiry “If [the libertarian] approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?” is the argument “If it hasn’t been tried, it’s not good.” Well, okay, then, that throws every single technology out the window as well, because by definition, at one point in history, they hadn’t been tried.

Imagine if venture capitalists (the investors on Shark Tank for example) held this attitude. “Wait a second, your product is a new idea? Are you nuts!??!? Why would you try something new?? That idea is discredited by the fact that it hasn’t been tried. No way I’m investing in that.”

Likewise, Michael Lind’s question has no bearing on libertarianism whatsoever.

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