Archive for December, 2010

Retracting praise for Alan Dershowitz

December 21, 2010

Earlier this year, I posted a video of a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein. The debate was about Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel.

After watching the debate, I concluded that Finkelstein made mostly ad hominem attacks against Dershowitz, who made much more of an effort to stay on point.

Now, after investigating the matter further, I have come to the opposite conclusion: that Dershowitz has not a single persuasive reply to any of the charges leveled against him and his scholarship in Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah. Further, as revealed in his in-depth analysis of the feud, Frank Menetrez demonstrates that Dershowitz consistently misquotes Finkelstein. In my view, Dershowitz misrepresents Finkelstein so badly that it is hard to say he is arguing in good faith.

Mr. Dershowitz, you can consider my earlier compliment withdrawn.

Michael Neumann on self-determination

December 11, 2010

Lately on this blog I’ve written about secession and the creation of new states from existing ones. My opinion is that states do not have a “right” to put down such rebellions, and that in many cases the national government should let the group secede. At the same time, I’m queasy about the idea of “national self-determination” – the idea that groups have a right to their own state.

The other day I came across an interview of Michael Neumann, who is most famous for his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and author of the book The Case Against Israel. In the interview, Neumann talks about self-determination, and his views on the subject so closely mirror my own that I can do no better than to quote him directly:

Michael Neumann: As for why I’m critical of “the principle of national self-determination”, that’s because ‘nation’ or ‘people’ is constantly used to mean ‘ethnic group’. So interpreted, the ‘principle of national self-determination’ is one of the most destructive ideals ever advanced.

We might suppose there is an ethnically homogeneous population on some planet, and members of that population want the same thing. Their interests never clash with the interests of other populations on the planet – maybe there isn’t any other population on the planet. Should they be able to determine ‘their destiny’? Sure, why not – as long as they do this for good, not evil.

On this planet of ours, whenever the clamor for ethnic self-determination arises, it’s shamefully, blatantly bogus. The ethnic groups in question are almost never well-defined and never monolithic: not every member of the group has the same interests. What really happens is that you have some fake ‘community leaders’ spouting all sorts of self-induced lies about how important their ‘identity’ is to them. These posers claim their vitally important identity needs someone to ‘preserve’ it. Oddly enough for such spiritually attuned people, preserving it usually requires something quite material, like a bunch of land, or a wad of government cash.

Worst of all, it always turns out that, wherever this ‘people’ allegedly needs to determine itself, there are other folks living there as well. What about them? Their ‘destiny’ may not mesh with the ‘destiny’ of the self-determining ‘people’. We know all too well how this usually plays out. How did we ever get to believe that ethnic rule is acceptable? Self-determination wouldn’t even make a strong case for Palestinian statehood. Are the Palestinians a ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense? Well, what happened to them being Arabs, and to Arab nationalism? What happened to the whole region, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, once being called just ‘Syria’? Nothing could be more of a reality than the Palestinians who inhabit Palestine. But when we abstract them into a ‘nation’, their case for statehood becomes weaker, not stronger – perhaps not as bogus as the Zionist case, but hardly compelling.

Judging government by its consequences

December 4, 2010

Some people think certain government programs are good, while others think those same ones are bad. I think the Drug Enforcement Agency should be eliminated, while some people think its budget should be increased.

Why do people disagree about political issues? Is it because we are exposed to different data on the issue? If that’s the case, then we should just make our data known to the other person (see this paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson in which they argue that most disagreements are dishonest [Editor’s note: this sentence was changed for reasons explained in the comment section]).

I think that our disagreements have something to do with our different knowledge sets and something to do with our bias that we reason better than the next person (who doesn’t think their ability to reason is above average?). However, I think that in politics there is another reason we disagree, and that is the way in which we measure a policy’s success.

As a utilitarian, I judge policies by their consequences, specifically their consequences for human well-being. That philosophy is vague enough that it doesn’t sound very radical, but its implications are. I believe that when we judge government by this rubric, we will find that very little of what government does is justified. This extends even to arenas thought to be the exclusive purview of the state such as the provision of law.

Edward López is an economics professor at San Jose State University in California. He is one of a growing number of economists to enter the field of “law and economics.” These economists judge the law by its consequences and not by the intentions of its crafters. In his book The Pursuit of Justice, López reveals that when we strip away the romance surrounding the law and look at its effects, the results do not reflect well on government-provided law:

López: As an economist, I know that wishful thinking will never produce solid answers. Yet in reading the literature, I found that the vast majority of legal scholarship and commentary treats the law with fantasy. It pretends that law is a public good that can only be provided by governments, and since it is governments that supply law it must be the case that law serves the public interest. What I found in the literature was deeply inconsistent with what I found in the world.

Granted, there are many other ways of judging law and government than its consequences. In fact, I suspect there are few people who are pure consequentialists, which is what I am.

So that I can be a more efficient blogger, targeting my posts to areas where I disagree with my readers, I’m curious to know what my readers think of this issue. Specifically, I want to know what standard you use to evaluate law/government.

If most people agree with the consequentialist approach, I will spend more time trying to convince my fellow consequentialists to be skeptical of the government. If, however, my readers disagree with me even at that fundamental level, I will devote more posts to the merits of consequentialism.

Justifiable terrorism?

December 2, 2010

I often hear people say that while war is sometimes a necessary evil, terrorism against civilians is categorically wrong. I think this is a mistake. As a utilitarian, I do not believe anything is categorically wrong. However, I understand that most people are not utilitarians, and that they will need some convincing.

Let me start by pointing out something that is much milder than terrorism but still considered usually impermissible: violence. I can’t think of a single person who would go so far as to say violence is always wrong. Hurting someone else is usually wrong, but we can easily think of mitigating circumstances that would make violence just. Violence to save your own life or someone else’s does not seem wrong at all.

At this point, think back on your life on all the times you used violence against someone else. I did this exercise earlier today, and what I remember is using violence as a child against my younger sisters, and also a few times against other boys on the playground. Since adolescence, however, I have no recollection of harming someone else (my friends can correct me here if I’m misremembering the past). What struck me about this exercise was the fact that many if not most of my violent acts almost assuredly made the world worse. And yet, despite having a poor record on the use of violence myself, I don’t hesitate to advocate violence in very select circumstances.

My attitude toward violence parallels my attitude toward terrorism: that it is almost always wrong, except in unusual circumstances. In the case of terrorism, perhaps we should add very unusual circumstances, because terrorism is a particularly ghastly kind of violence. Just as most of us believe violence to save life and limb is justified, I believe that terrorism that prevents an even greater level of suffering is also justified.

I hesitate to list an example of justifiable terrorism, in part because I don’t know of any that is obviously just, that despite its huge cost in human life, increased utility more than available alternatives.

Rather than name a specific attack, I will simply say that terrorism is most forgivable when done by a group of people whose civilization is under siege by a much larger, harshly repressive military. This seems to be true of the Palestinians suffering under the Gaza blockade, the Algerian war of independence against France, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam against the South Vietnamese and American governments, the Chechen war of independence against Russia (mentioned in the previous post), and the African National Congress’s campaign against apartheid in South Africa, just to name a few.

On states’ rights and wars of independence

December 2, 2010

I take the standard libertarian view that coercing another person is (almost) always wrong. Many people extend that view of the wrongness of interpersonal violence to world affairs, where they think it wrong for one state to conquer another.

Perhaps where I differ from most people is that I think state on non-state violence is just as wrong as any other kind of violence. I do not believe states have “rights” to the territory that they control. Think about it. Why is it wrong to acquire power through force (i.e. invasion), but not to maintain it through force?

Take Russia’s actions in Chechnya. In an effort to put down a separatist rebellion, Russia shelled market places, shot up buses full of civilian refugees and basically destroyed the city of Grozny.

Does Russia have a right to do this? No!
Does it have any right to rule Chechnya at all? No!
Am I saying governments should let anyone leave who wants to? Maybe!

If the Chechens were to carve out their own state from Russia, I would still say that they don’t have a right to rule it. But neither did the Russians before them. And it may even turn out the Chechens are worse off in some respects after independence.

But ask yourself this key question: under what circumstances is Chechen independence so terrible that the Russians are justified in using large-scale state terrorism to prevent it?

This is my view of wars of independence in general.