Friday, June 30, 2006

Shorter OSE. Origins and Architecture

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.
Western thought has been described as a series of footnotes to Plato. This is a tribute to his achievement and to the way that his ideas have continued to exert influence to the present day. Many of our problems in politics and the social sciences are complicated by methods and doctrines that we have inherited from him.

Some of these are:
Essentialism – excessive concern with the “correct” definition of terms.
The idea that individualism and altruism are not compatible.
The idea that “who shall rule?” is the most important question in political philosophy.
The quest for a utopian society by means of violent and revolutionary reform.

Karl Popper subjected Plato’s social and political thought to searching scrutiny in the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies (OSE). My aim here is to make this work more accessible by providing the bare bones of the arguments with some supporting text from the book.

The Origin of The Open Society and its Enemies

The OSE had a really strange origin, a truly unintended consequence of a project that Popper commenced after his first major book on the philosophy of science was launched in 1934/5 and his focus shifted to politics and the social sciences.

His major concern as a man of the moderate left was the failure of Marxism to provide a bastion against the rise of fascism. He attributed this more than anything to an intellectual error, especially the doctrine of historical inevitability. He labelled this "historicism" because he found that the doctrine of historical determinism was only the tip of a complex iceberg of defective ideas about the methods of the social sciences. The label was unfortunate because similar words (including some in German) have different meanings to that assigned by Popper. In any case, Popper turned his attention to a critique of a whole suite of defective theories and methods, some of which were noted above.

In 1936 Popper discussed some of the themes at a private gathering in Brussels as he made his way to London looking for a job to get himself and his wife out of Austria. Later in the year he gave a talk on "historical laws and the methodology of sociology" to Hayek's seminar at the London School of Economics. At that time he was friendly with Freddy Ayer who travelled to Vienna in the early 1930s to sit at the feet of the Vienna Circle. In 1935 he published Language, Truth and Logic which became the major vehicle for positivism in English for some years after World War 2. In Engalnd Ayer was helpful and introduced Popper to various contacts in London and Cambridge but he could not get a position in Britain and had to settle for a lectureship in New Zealand.

Popper returned to his notes on "the poverty of historicism" in 1939 when he was settled at Canterbury College, Christchurch. By that time he was writing in English and his closest colleague was Colin Simkin, a young NZ economist (aged 26 when he met Popper). Simkin later wrote a charming memoire of the human side of the production of the OSE. Simkin moved to the Uni of Sydney and many years later, in 1983, Bill Bartley gave me his address. By great good fortune he only lived a mile away and we met almost weekly for the rest of his life.

Section 10 of The Poverty of Historicism is devoted to a critique of "Essentialism", the obsession with the correct definition of terms, which Popper identified as a pervasive error of method in the social sciences that he traced back to Plato and Aristotle. In the course of writing that small section, Popper found that his notes were growing and growing until he stopped work on The Poverty and instead wrote a completely different book, which grew and grew into The Open Society and its Enemies.

The architecture of The Open Society and its Enemies

Popper covered a huge amount of ground in areas outside his previous concerns in science, mathematics and the philosophy of science so he needed a robust structure to keep the material in order. As an added problem, the work was done mostly in his own time because his professor became hostile and considered that time spent on the book during working hours was stolen from the university were he was employed to teach. Library facilities were primitive (he grew up in a house with as many books as the stock in the Canterbury College library at that time). The war news was mostly bad during the early period of writing and the news from Austria was worse, with 14 of his relatives engulfed in the Holocaust.

The first volume is concerned with the spell of Plato and the second, on Marx, is subtitled "the high tide of prophecy", a residue of his original concern with the myth of historical determinism.

In the first volume he first described the beginning of the myth of origin and destiny, then Plato's descriptive sociology (where he found a class analysis), then Plato's political program (with his theories of justice, leadership and social reform). Finally he examined the turbulent history of the time to explain why Plato was so desperately concerned to draft a blueprint for a stable state. The second volume starts with chapters on Aristotle and Hegel, then moves on to Marx's methods, and ends with chapters on the sociology of knowledge, rationality and the meaning of history (if any).

In some ways the reception of volume 1 has been distorted by the “historicist” label that Popper attached to Plato and there is a mass of literature that disputes Popper’s interpretation of Plato and other ancient scribes. Most people are not sufficiently interested in Plato's ideas to care whether Popper or Plato’s defenders are correct and I have left those arguments to others because the strength of Popper's ideas lies in the way they help in our daily task of devising and strengthening the traditions and institutions that make for peace, freedom and prosperity.

The gloss that I have put on Popper's work in this field (like that of Hayek) is that he is concerned with the critical review and reform of the rules of the game of social and political life. It is not all that hard to envisage better rules of the game that lead more directly to peace, freedom and prosperity, but massive amounts of energy have been devoted to installing and defending rules that lead in the opposite direction. This is where Popper's ideas have direct application at present.

In summary, The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of human freedom and dignity, and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone's dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper's dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.

From the Preface to the first edition (1945)
If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage.
From the Preface to the revised edition (1950)
Seen in the darkness of the present world situation, the criticism of Marxism which it attempts is liable to stand out as the main point of the book. This view of it is not wholly wrong and perhaps unavoidable, although the aims of the book are much wider. Marxism is only an episode—one of the many mistakes we have made in the perennial and dangerous struggle for building a better and freer world.

Not unexpectedly, I have been blamed by some for being too severe in my treatment of Marx, while others contrasted my leniency towards him with the violence of my attack upon Plato. But I still feel the need for looking at Plato with highly critical eyes, just because the general adoration of the ‘divine philosopher’ has a real foundation in his overwhelming intellectual achievement. Marx, on the other hand, has too often been attacked on personal and moral grounds, so that here the need is, rather, for a severe rational criticism of his theories combined with a sympathetic understanding of their astonishing moral and intellectual appeal.

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Shorter Open Society and its Enemies

“Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly.” (Popper to Gombrich, November 1945)

This is the first of a series of posts which first appeared on Conjectures and Refutations starting in October last year and running to March this year. Thanks to Matt McIntosh for allowing me to guest blog on his site. The idea is to make some of the leading ideas from Popper's book The Open Society and its Enemies accessible to busy people and people with short concentration spans.

Why re-post, why not just link to the original pieces? My experience is that many readers like to scan the blog and they don't want to go off on a lot of links. Besides, posting here allows for discussion among the readership of this blog.

Two very important books appeared at the end of the Second World War, pointing up lessons to be learned from the disastrous social and political tendencies which precipitated the war. Both books were written by Austrians in exile, F A Hayek in England and K R Popper in New Zealand. Both books, The Road to Serfdom and The Open Society and its Enemies (OSE) were widely read and discussed but Serfdom stole a march to achieve a wider popular readership when it appeared in the United States in a Readers Digest condensed version. This is now on line.

Serfdom was not a big book to start with (240 pages) but the OSE runs to almost 800 pages of which more than 200 are footnotes, in smaller print. In fact the size of the manuscript was a major impediment when Popper, Gombrich and Hayek offered it to a number of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Several asked for abbreviation but Popper would have none of that. He wrote to Gombrich.
I am definitely against cuts. I believe that the book is of sufficient value to be sometimes a trifle less brief than it might be possible to make it …[but]…I entirely reject the contention that there is the slightest intrinsic reason for cuts. The extrinsic reason that the book is a very long book, I admit. But since ordinary intelligent people have read through the text in one week-end, it cannot be too long …The ordinary intelligent man does not like to be regarded as illiterate or as an imbecile. He is ready, and even proud, to buy a thick book.
However times have changed. For many students nowadays, reference material hardly exists unless it can be accessed on line. Because the book still speaks powerfully to our condition I think it is helpful to provide an on-line summary of the book. I hope that many of those who sample the on-line offering will promptly seek out the book to read the whole story!

Problems of production

Ernst Gombrich, Popper’s friend in England, had the major burden of seeing the book through the press at Routledge. Popper assisted in the process by sending some 95 aerograms with instructions on the finishing touches for the massive manuscript. On one occasion Karl sent off twelve aerograms on a single day. On another occasion he completely rewrote chapter 17. This is sample of the instructions.
In my typed airgraph of today, I mentioned that, as far as Chapter 12 is concerned, only the Section Number Corrections have first priority. I now wish to amend this: there is also a false quotation which is important to replace. It is the quotation on MS p.281, from ‘Hence’ in line 5 to the end of paragraph in line 7. – I suggest to correct these lines in accordance with my ‘Corr. to Ch. 12’, Airgraph 4. This however would imply that the passage on p. 281 is replaced by one that is about two lines longer. If this creates difficulties, then I suggest to replace the ‘Hence…’ passage by the following of about equal length: ++ States may enter into agreements, but they are superior to agreements (i.e., they may break them).++ In this case it would suffice to amend the corresponding note 72 simply by replacing, in line 3 of this note, ‘336’ by ++330++. If, however, there was room enough for my original correction to p.281, the ‘336’ should be replaced by ++330++ and ++333++.- Of course if the full corrections of Airgraphs 1 to 11 can be used, then note 72 should be corrected in accordance with Airgraph 9.
When Routledge decided to produce the book in two volumes Gombrich cabled Karl “Routledge want division after Chapter 10”. The local censor called Gombrich to the post office for an interview about the message and fortunately he accepted the explanation that they were not talking about troop movements! I wonder if the censor enjoyed scanning the contents of the 95 aerograms from Popper?

When Popper was applying for various university positions in New Zealand and Australia he wrote to Gombrich:
You kindly advise me to prefer Otago to Perth, in spite of the Cangeroos [sic]. But I think you don’t really know enough of Australia by far: the nicest animal there (and possibly the loveliest animal that exists) is the Koala bear. Cangeroos may be nice, but the opportunity of seeing a Koala bear is worth putting up with anything, and it is without reservation my strongest motive in wishing to go to Australia.
Finally, in a letter dated 16 November 1945.
Dear Ernst, This time we are really off, I think…The passage will be very rough since we sail via Cape Horn – perhaps the roughest spot in all the Seven Seas. Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly. If there is important news it can, I suppose, be wirelessed to the ship. I shall let you know more precisely when they arrive, and if you could find them a room in a Boarding house or Hotel (where they might perhaps be brought back to life again), it would be very nice indeed…If you don’t happen to hear of such a room: bury them. To be serious, I am really cheered up by the prospect of seeing you in less than two months.
In the event, Popper and his wife walked off the boat to meet the Gombrichs, and Ernst had a “hot off the press” copy of OSE in his hand.

Popper’s Party Politics

Many people who read tracts in political philosophy like to have a sense of where the author is located in relation to their own political leanings. If the author is alive, the reader might like to know whether the writer votes Labor or Conservative, Republican or Democrat. Popper became hard to place in later life, although there is no doubt that he was left-leaning in youth and he did not become favourably disposed towards Hayekian market liberalism in later life, even though he was disenchanted with the social democrats. In my view the only thing that held him back from something very close to market liberalism was a lack of understanding of the factors that cause unemployment (essentially, ill-advised interference with the labour market by means of minimum wages for example).

Still, the point is that the mature Popper could not be a partisan for any political faction. When we met in 1972 he asked whether I wanted to be actively involved in politics, to which I replied, 'Yes, but I can’t decide which party'. He said ‘Yes, I understand, but it is no longer an issue for me’.

Just to be clear where I am coming from, I describe myself as "classical, market or non-socialist liberal" with a touch of cultural (and ecological) conservatism. I don't think it makes sense to demand a single guiding principle and so I nominate three: peace, freedom and prosperity.

The good thing about these aims is that the same policies tend to promote all three, with a minimum of trade-offs. So what are the policies? The following three would appear to be a minimum set, others can be added to taste:

1. Free trade, that is, the freedom for people to engage in the voluntary exchange of legal goods and services, even if they happen to be in different countries.

2. The Rule of Law, equality before the law, due process etc.

3. A moral framework, including elements like honesty and compassion.

And three guiding principles for public policy:
Minimising suffering.
Fighting tyranny.
Promoting tolerance.

The Readings to Follow

The main ideas in volume 1 (on Plato) are in the following instalments

The origins of the work, the main themes and the architecture of the two volumes.

Introduction, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2: The myth of destiny and the contribution of Heraclitus.

Chapter 3: Plato’s theory of forms or ideas and the problem of essentialism.

Chapter 4: Change and rest. Plato’s design for the perfect state.

Chapter 5: Nature and convention. Coming to grips with manmade rules and conventions without lapsing into relativism.

Chapter 6: Totalitarian justice versus the protective state and the language of political proposals.

Chapter 7 and 8: Leadership and the philosopher king. The paradoxes of sovereignty, a defensible theory of democracy.

Chapter 9: The utopian impulse for revolutionary reform. When the resort to violence is legitimate.

Chapter 10: The open society, the strain of civilisation and the fear of freedom.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The philosophy and economics of freedom

This is a rather nerdy piece that was originally written about twenty years ago for a liberal/libertarian essay competition. It draws on some ideas from Popper via Bill Bartley to offer an explanation for the difficulty of getting thoughts of freedom to really come through in the competition with thoughts of unfreedom.

This essay shows how William W Bartley and Karl Popper have created a major shift in the Western tradition of rationality, a shift which immensely strengthens the philosophy of liberalism. True lovers of freedom have always been forced to work against the authoritarian grain of Western thought because the dominant intellectual traditions, rationalist and irrationalist alike, sponsor dogmatism and intolerance. Even those who challenge this authoritarian heritage usually share a powerful and unconscious assumption with their opponents. Bartley labelled this theory justificationism and liberals help to sustain opposition to their cause if they propagate this theory. This self-destructive tendency should cease when the implications of the Popper/Bartley innovation are developed and disseminated.
The survival and progress of liberalism depends on a free market in ideas, unconstrained by the cramps on trade in criticism that are imposed by cartels, monopolies and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. On top of this, people tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board, altered on occasion by shifts of allegiance which occur by processes akin to religious conversion. This has hardly changed with the advent of mass primary, secondary and lately higher education. Clearly education and instruction alone do not furnish the habits and disciplines that are required for continuing intellectual growth and for the imaginative criticism of received opinions.
Bartley introduced the idea of metacontexts to explain what is so important and different about the non-authoritarian theory of knowledge and rationality.
A metacontext may be compared with an ecological niche such as a nutrient broth or a seed-bed where some types of organism or plants thrive while others are stunted or killed outright. The metacontext of pancritical rationalism is hospitable to liberalism, while in contrast the justificationist metacontext is potentially lethal for the tradition of free thought. Liberalism has been forced to constantly work against the grain of the justificationist metacontext and so has survived precariously, with the gains of one generation often lost to the forces of irrationalism and authoritarianism in the next. But even worse than working against the grain, the traditional theory of rationality (based like its opponents on the assumption of justificationism) actually supports the justificationist metacontext. So rationalists, like Bertrand Russell, of the justificationist variety, unwittingly nurture the seedbed of their destruction.

This explains why the survival of liberalism is so precarious, why it needs auxiliaries to support its causes and why civilisation lapses into occasional bouts of irrationalism. Episodes such as the Nazi holocaust and the wilder excesses of the generation of '68 are generally regarded as strange aberrations in the normally rational Western tradition, perhaps calling for psychological analysis of the individuals involved, for studies of 'the authoritarian personality' or ruminations on the 'contradictions of developed capitalism' or the decline of religious faith. But seen from the perspective of Bartley's work such failures of reason are only to be expected in the justificationist metacontext, which sponsors dogmatism and fanaticism. And as long as this metacontext remains dominant our traditions of rationality, tolerance and freedom will remain fragile and liable to collapse at any time of social or political crisis.
Freed from apparent tensions in the new metacontext, Popper and Hayek emerge as the outstanding moral philosophers of modern times. Moral and political philosophy have been largely emptied of moral and rational content by the influence of analytical philosophy, which promotes conceptual analysis and Marxism, which promotes the rigid defence of ideological stances. This situation is radically transformed by the contribution of Bartley, Popper and Hayek who have showed that we should not seek positively justified beliefs, nor should we strive to refine concepts and sharpen definitions. Instead we should formulate and criticise standards which act as rules of the game in social life, whether at the domestic level (who puts out the garbage) or at the level of the Constitution of the State (how do we limit the powers of the rulers). This approach cuts through the verbalism which bogs down traditional discourse on morals and politics because it is constantly in touch with practical problems and their possible solutions.

The postscript on economics introduced the theory of metaphysical research programs which may help to demonstrate the synergy between the ideas of Karl Popper and the Austrian school of economics and social thought.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Animal rights #1

I’ve just finished reading a persuasive extract from Peter Singer’s book titled Animal Liberation. Singer spoke at Melbourne University recently – promoting his new book – but I couldn’t find time to hear what he was on about due to exams. The chapter is titled ‘All Animals Are Equal…or why the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too.’

Surprisingly, I agree with most of what he says in this chapter. We should extend consideration, and indeed compassion, to animals wherever possible. Animals do experience pain. In Victoria basic dignity and protection from harm is afforded to certain animals under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

The real potential for divergence of opinion comes when Singer says stuff like this:
Nor can we pretend that we have nothing to do with these practices. One of them – experimentation on animals – is promoted by the government we elect and is largely paid for out of the taxes we pay. The other – rearing animals for food – is possible only because most people buy and eat the products of this practice. That is why I have chosen to discuss these particular forms of speciesism. They are at its heart. They cause more suffering to a greater number of animals than anything else that human beings do. To stop them we must change the policies of our government, and we must change our own lives, to the extent of changing our diet.
Well I suppose we could all become vegan Jain monks and walk half-naked through the streets while simultaneously sweeping away the insects that might inadvertently be crushed by our feet.

But I’m not convinced animals should be afforded greater protection than they are presently. I enjoy eating meat. I like the taste. I have no problem with being the superior species on planet Earth. At the same time I encourage people to boycott whatever companies they feel are treating animals badly, just as they would boycott and protest against companies that are ‘exploiting’ third-world workers.

In the future maybe we won’t want to eat meat anymore. Maybe we’ll just pop a pill and get our nutritional and taste wants satisfied. For now though, if you’re feeling bad about the way animals are treated and want to make a difference then go adopt a pet from the shelter. And pamper it.

I did that. I used to have a dog. But then it got eaten.

More on that story next time!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dividing Fences

An amusing and individual way to indicate one is not on the best terms with one's neighbour.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why this blog?

When I moved to Australia from India in 2000, I was about 13. It was then I started writing letters to the editor and getting interested in current affairs. If someone had to label me at that time the word they would have used would probably be ‘socialist’. Mentally I’ve traveled some distance since then, and I think I understand why those sorts of ideas are initially so attractive. It’s because they don’t start from first principles. It’s because they don’t take that extra step into deeper thinking.

That sort of transition requires reading and a level of guidance. I credit my father for introducing me to the reading, and I also credit him for responding ably to my concerns. If you’re young and idealistic like me and want to help the poor, liberalism provides a totally different framework for doing this. Ditto with human rights and some of the other pet issues of the left (such as climate change, an issue The Age will not tolerate dissent on). The title of this blog, 'Thoughts on Freedom', is a reflection of the importance of the word ‘freedom’ in finding solutions to societal problems.

To a greater or lesser extent I wanted this site to be an exploration of that word, albeit not necessarily from a pre-determined classical liberal perspective. Freedom is important because it is a universal value. I am yet to see any culture, primitive or modern, that actually celebrates slavery or coercion. No, as humans – as animals – we prefer to be free. If we’re all getting involved in the world of ideology to improve people’s lives, then even socialists should recognise the individual as the unit of ethical value. It is, after all, individuals that make up groups.

That’s why I encourage people of all political persuasions (and those who are just curious) to comment here on their interpretation of the word ‘freedom’. I think the debate has become too polarised. A lot of the people who promote liberal ideas take cheap shots and don’t aim for inclusiveness and building cooperation. They preach to the converted rather than attempting to persuade. That strikes me as odd; because freedom is undoubtedly something everyone would rather have, regardless of whether they explicitly express this fact.

That brings us to the question of limitations on freedom. If an individual’s freedom is limited by the freedom of others to enjoy life and the pursuit of happiness, then when are democratically elected governments justified in placing limits on freedom? I want to explore the real meaning of words like ‘public good’ and ‘welfare’. I hope others will take this opportunity to share what freedom means to them in a practical sense. Why on earth is it so darn important?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An answer to Mikey's questions...

Mikey asked such good questions in the comments to my Euston Manifesto post - and because I don't know how to hyperlink in blogger comments yet - I thought I'd answer him in a post.

I have to admit I had to look Structuralism up, because I didn't know what it was. I then recognised that I've encountered the ideas before, and tend to regard them as a useful tool rather than a philosophy as such.

This is probably a reflection of my legal training, which tends to ask about the birds and the bees, rather than the 'birds' and the 'bees'. Legal reasoning assumes there is such a thing as a reasonable man and that his reasonableness can be defined as such. By the same token, it also accepts that 'proving a fact' can be very difficult.

In that sense then, I am not a structuralist, but if those ideas were or are useful to a field of knowledge, then I say use them. I know I would.

With respect to sociology, I don't think it's a science. It does, however, make use of scientific tools (statistics, regression analysis etc). I suspect its findings would be less useful if subordinated to a political ideology.

What makes Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics so interesting is their willingness to see where the data leads. I don't think they wanted to find such a strong correlation between legalized abortion and lower crime rates, but they reported those findings because that's where the data led them. They are economists, a field of knowledge also at the 'edge' of science (the 'dismal science'). Sociology could learn from them.

I suppose, then - like most lawyers - I believe it is possible to be objective within one's knowledge boundaries ('the facts in issue'). It is therefore possible to practice sociology objectively, divorced from ideology.

As with Structuralism, I had to start googling to get information on the World Social Forum. From a preliminary view, it seems they have interesting ideas on software and copyright, woolly ideas on globalisation and absurdly unscientific ideas on GM foods. So a bit of a mixed bag really. They could do better than featuring Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter on their website. Both are unreconstructed anti-Americans.

I realise that doesn't quite answer Mikey's questions, but those are just a few thoughts to be going on with.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Unleashing my bias

Some people want the ABC privatised. Others like it public. I personally have no strong opinion either way, although I tend to agree with John Roskam in today’s Age. There may be some benefits of a public broadcaster, which I think Andrew Norton alludes to in his post on Catallaxy.

I like the serious tone of ABC television and the fact that it has time to run complex arguments at length. This is not to say that a commercial station wouldn’t do the same thing better – heck, when I had cable I would only watch Fox News and CNN (and the BBC, but isn’t that partly government funded?). But does it really matter if the ABC is biased towards the right or left in an age where we have so many other media outlets to choose from? If, as rational individuals, we assume the worst about any government (as we should, because they're a self-interested bunch like the rest of us) political bias hardly matters because we can adjust our decision making and thinking accordingly.

I wrote a paper on High Court appointments for a university assessment recently where I argued on similar lines. The same principle would apply to the court's appointees - whether or not they are appointed on the basis of merit or favouritism is a moot point if they're getting security of tenure and are well paid. At a broader level, the particular bias in an institution of government at a given time is nothing more than a reflection of current community opinion. This is the democratic element we shouldn't forget. And besides, there is no one - not even me! - who isn't biased. If you're human you're biased. It doesn't matter how well you reason around it.

I'm not implying the current bench is less than the highest quality. Indeed, I'm no expert, and from the judgments I've read so far - even controversial ones like Mabo 2 - the process of reasoning is well substantiated. Although, one might put that down to the nature of legal reasoning, which can probably be deceptively balanced unless you know what you're looking for (which, as a first year law student I don't). Of course, in such a situation it would be great to have more state input into the appointment process. Just so we can get a well-rounded bench - or board, in the case of the ABC. Professor Greg Craven has done some fantastic work in this area which I highly reccommend checking out.

If I followed through on my inherent bias towards privatisation it would lead to me adopting a predictable stance. I mean, apart from public goods why have anything in 'public hands' if it can be provided by the private sector? That would be my bias, and I'm sure others have theirs. But in this instance I'm not particularly fussed either way. I don't mind a bit of left-wing reportage if it forces me to think.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Euston Manifesto

The Euston Manifesto strikes me as an attempt by the many decent people who support or have supported broadly leftist ideals to retake their movement from those who aim to steal it, or at least to squat on the name. As someone who was once of the left but is no longer - largely for economic reasons, of which more later - I applaud those behind it.

The need for such a statement - itself uncontroversial, hit the link for details - was brought home to me during one of the many anti-Iraq war protests held at uni while I studied law. Apart from the usual behaviour one expects at demos/protests/sit-ins (flag-burning, cat-calling, sloganeering etc), I saw an international student spat upon when he ordered a coffee at the beverage stall outside the refectory. The student in question was American, and the spit landed upside his ear once he opened his mouth - thereby revealing his accent.

At that moment - a few years back now - I knew that a large segment of the anti-Iraq war movement had simply departed reality. I wondered, too, how much of a correlation there was (and is) between those protesters and 'the left' more broadly. The Euston Manifesto - its very existence - suggests more than a little. I know quite a few people who still consider themselves dyed in the wool lefties; they maintain that they haven't changed - the movement has. Inevitably, we disagree on economic issues. However, like me they refuse to cut Muslims any slack, regardless of how offended those Muslims may be by certain cartoons. They refuse to engage in immoral equivalency. They deny a pass to third world barbarity on the grounds that 'it's just their culture' or 'our colonialism made them do it'. Inexplicably, they find themsleves on the right.

I'm tempted to sign the manifesto myself - it explicitly reaches out 'beyond socialism and socialists' - in part because I think it is possible to combine a social conscience with libertarian economic principles. People I respect - like rocket scientist Zoe Brain - have signed up, putting paid to their often shallow categorization (by others) as 'rightist'. For the moment, I'm pleased to see one section of the community stating clearly and proudly that religious zealotry is just as unacceptable when articulated by the world's poor as by George W Bush's white heartland, that the United States is a beacon of hope for many, and that Islamic fundamentalism should receive no free pass. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander.

Monday, June 12, 2006

My libertarian rabbit

Lately, I've been having long and meaningful chats with Jack (my pet rabbit) on issues of national importance. I find it has helped to clarify my thinking. Which is why I was extremely shocked, during a politics tutorial on animal rights earlier this semester, to find that there are people out there who gain pleasure from abusing rabbits. These are otherwise respectable professionals, and it's happening in Australia.

I will take a break from blogging for a few weeks week starting Sunday the 25th of June to think these issues through (and to visit Wollongong). In the meantime I leave you with these pictures as a preview of my take on animal rights.

Think long and hard about whether there is a correlation between cuteness and the desire to cuddle.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

That good ol’ 19th century mindset

If you are anything like me you will have giggled hysterically while reading The Communist Manifesto. Marx was the ultimate ‘class based warrior’ and was a reflection of his times. As A.J.P. Taylor (1967, Penguin Books) writes:
His theory was also implicitly a judgement in psychology. It assumed that men would behave as the social forces determined they should. The rich and powerful would always behave like the rich and powerful; the poor would always behave like the poor; ultimately the inhabitants of Utopia would always behave in a Utopian way. There was something odd in this when one reflects that Marx, the radical, came from a settled, respectable family and ought, by his own rule, to have been a conservative. This oddity was almost universal among later Marxists, most of whom, while preaching socialism, belonged to the class which socialism would destroy. It seems that the rules which philosophers lay down do not apply to philosophers themselves.
Taylor goes on to point out that ‘[Marx] also thought that he and Engels were living in an age of fully-developed capitalism, when in fact capitalism had hardly started.’ He makes a scathing critique in his introduction to Marx and Engels’ work:
…Marx, prompted by Engels, equated the workers in the cotton mills with the proletariat. This was a false equation. The proletariat, if the phrase meant anything, were at the very bottom of the social ladder and possessed literally nothing. They were driven to revolt by their increasing misery. The industrial workers had a higher standard of life than most members of the lower classes even in 1844, when Engels studied them, and their standard of life moved steadily upwards. Even in Marx’s time, they had a form of property in the cooperative stores, and soon they acquired their own houses.
So the workers that Marx was agitating for weren’t the real poor. Similarly the illusory ‘poor’ politicians in developed nations fight for today is basically an endearing term for the middle-class – or worse, the highly organised and generally well-off members of unions. And while the federal Labor Party remains stuck in this 19th century mindset (‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’) their state counterparts have finally learnt to adapt, and are busy fighting for the poor the liberal way.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The freakonomics of nappy hair

One of my favourite reads in the last six months was Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics, which takes the sort of analytical tools we're taught in first year law/economics/commerce courses and applies them to, well, the sort of stuff that economists don't usually apply them to. There's an interesting analysis of the impact 'trailer park' names have on economic outcomes, and on the link between legalised abortion and decreasing crime rates.

I'm not sure how accurate all this is - I'm currently reading the source studies they quote on the abortion issue - but my hunch (and research) thus far indicates that Levitt and Dubner are on to something. The book also includes the most elegant explanation of regression you're ever likely to see - it's worth reading just for this. In that spirit, then - and in light of the fact that I lured people to this blog with pictures of my DOG in my last post - I'm posing a few freakonomics questions of my own.

Nappy hair

I'm the proud owner of what African-Americans refer to as 'nappy hair'. That is, seriously curly hair. I'm not talking pretty curly, like Nicole Kidman. I'm talking curlier than Guy Sebastian hair. I'm talking hair like this:

In days gone by, I straightened it. This meant sneaking around to Torres Strait Islander friends' houses (in Logan, where I grew up) and pinching bottles of 'Dark & Lovely' relaxer, imported at great expense from the US, and copping constant questions about my heritage. So I did what countless other women with nappy hair do - I poured chemicals into it to create a sort of reverse perm. I wanted it straight and shiny, like models on the telly. So did they, because kinky, afro hair was considered 'unprofessional', 'untidy' and 'lazy'.

Finally, a TSI hairdresser pointed out that my hair would probably fall out one day because of all the crap I was putting in it, and took the time to teach me how to braid and cornrow my hair (no small thing, and she refused to charge for her lessons). I stopped relaxing it, and now nearly always braid or cornrow it - as my profile pic shows.

That particular style took me six hours and was very much a 'special occasion' effort - for my law graduation last year. I usually do simpler styles that take about three hours to complete. That's a lot of time for a hairdo, I know, but I then don't have to touch it for a month. I keep it moist (very important for those with curly/kinky hair) and never let any chemicals near it.


I'm interested in the effect 'natural' hair has on economic outcomes. I know the line in the Lazyboy song that suggests most people take curlyheads less seriously, but is this true? Where's the study to back that assertion up? I've turned up to interviews with cornrows, and with my natural afro (although with plenty of product in it, to make it look shiny and healthy). I've been hired in both circumstances, and rejected as well. I'm not dark skinned - in summer I sport the typical Queenslander's deep tan - something so common that I can't conceive of discrimination based on colour. In winter I'm as light as any other caucasian. Does hair make a difference, and have those generations of curly-headed women who've tortured their hair (literally) to breaking point been doing it for nothing?

This intrigues me, because it's not only a question about race ('if you have hair like that, you must be black') but about employer preferences ('I may espouse tolerance, but in private I believe all young people should dress/look like bank managers'). I'm a lawyer, not an economist, and it does concern me that something so trivial as hair may be prejudicing peoples' employment chances. Is the fact that I'm female relevant? Or have we moved on? Is curly hair sexy? I once had a Muslim (female) colleague suggest that by letting my hair 'go natural' - ie not in braids or cornrows - I was 'inviting' male attention. What does this mean?

Over to the economists - or, should I say, the 'freakonomists'.

Questions on product liability and government

In the debate over amendments to the Trade Practices Act during 1992, there were a lot of statistics thrown about regarding the number of injuries and deaths arising from defective products in Australia. For instance, Senator Powell of the Democrats said, 'In relation to injury, illness and incapacity, it has been estimated that the figures indicate around 10,300 permanent injuries or illnesses for the whole of Australia for the few years covered by the survey [by the Trade Practices Commission], and around 500 deaths for the same period...An estimated 1,800 to 3,600 children are injured each year as a result of physical product failure with a higher, but unfortunately unquantifiable, number injured because of unsafe design. Figures for adults injured as a result of physical product failure ranged between 9,500 and 19,000.'

Last year I wrote that:
It is instructive to first look at what situations self-regulation would generally work. The great philosopher Montesquieu wrote in his Spirit of the Laws that "it is almost a general rule that wherever manners are gentle, there is commerce; and wherever there is commerce, manners are gentle." Samuel Richard added that "commerce makes him who was so proud and haughty, suddenly turn supple, bending and serviceable. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in talk and action." This is not surprising when we consider the incentives at work in a business.

The first and foremost objective of a business is to make profits. Without the profit motive, no entrepreneur would take the risk of setting up a business in the first place. To achieve profits a businessperson needs to know what the market, or the consumer, wants. Hence, it is in the interest of the businessperson to be ethical in his or her relations with customers, largely due to reputational effects. One can regard this as true with one important qualification: there must be competition. In the absence of competition – a monopolistic situation – the incentives that pushed the businessperson towards, for instance, adopting corporate social responsibility, will no longer be strong enough to ensure ethical behaviour and human nature will take over.
In our daily dealings with businesses, reputational effects are ordinarily quite powerful. This is why franchises prize the 'good-will' factor so highly. But evidently there are numerous careless manufacturers causing pain and suffering, and reputational incentives aren't working to the degree they should - that is, 99.99% of the time. The inclusion of the strict liability mechanisms in the Act have had the effect of causing a large number of cases to be settled before they get to court. Companies are understandably more cautious now that it has been made much easier for a consumer to recover compensation.

Product liability laws impose a cost on a manufacturer that is perhaps a part of the government's legitimate role as impersonal arbitrator. With freedom comes responsibility, and if businesses cannot meet a reasonable standard then it is justifiable to have the government intervene. But where to draw the line? And why? If a 'balance' is to be struck how can we objectively decide this? In the speech linked above Powell proposes the onus of proof to demonstrate whether a product has a defect be placed upon the manufacturer rather than the consumer. It seems difficult to justify this sort of heavy-handedness, yet the fact that injuries and deaths are presumably continuing (I don't have the data on hand to show if they have reduced after the amendments to the TPA) suggests something should be done.

I tend to think that the government's role should be minimal. We need ways for people to sue and recover compensation for their injuries, but there is an important role for groups like the Australian Consumer Association which, according to Powell, highlights around 50 unsafe products each year. In other areas, and under circumstances where it's not a matter of life and death, I would strongly support these sorts of consumer associations. Government control of film classification for example, should be scrapped. People should be able to go to whichever voluntary association's ratings best fit with their morals and values. Associations of this nature are more likely to have an interest in the welfare of the people they serve. However in the case of product liability I am still unclear as to the appropriate role for government.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Doin' what comes naturally...

I've always thought that when it comes to instincts, it's human beings that are remarkably light on. However, after my dog's first attempt at stud work, I'm having my doubts. He's a beautiful, 3 year old husky and should be rearing to go. Alas, no luck - he doesn't even know which end he's supposed to, erhm, approach.

As you can see he's a handsome fellow - why we've got a queue of breeders after his services. Right now the whole thing looks like going pear shaped - that is, my grand stud dog plan. It's no good being the son of two Australian Champions if you muff the important bit!


Well, mother nature is savvier than I thought. I now have a very happy husky - things finally worked out. Needless to say our other dog isn't best pleased... and nor is the female's usual mate, who had a nice dose of the envies whilst confined to the back of his owner's ute.

I'll be interested to see the puppies when they arrive. The breeder is hoping for a litter of blue-eyed pups. His female is blue eyed, but his usual stud dog has brown eyes. My dog (as you can see) is also blue eyed, so unless there's an unreasonable amount of brown eyed recessive genes about, the puppies should be blue eyed as well. We shall see!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The mandatory pre-exam whinge

Note: I was inspired to write this post as a consequence of the philosopher Bertrand Russell (and I'm really not happy about it).

So there I am in my room, Monster Magnet playing as I attempt to dechiper the seemingly incomprehensible and abstract world of Logic. And then, as if I hadn't been punished enough already, I gaze across the page to find Exercise {12.2}, which says

Translate away the definite description connectives in your answers to the previous question, using Russell's analysis of definite descriptions.

At first I'm thinking that sounds okay... I'm not thinking that once I get to question 7, 8, 9 or 10. Oh, no. For instance question 7 ('The flying horse is swifter than the horse that does not fly') translates into the shorthand form of:

(Ix)(Fx & Hx, (Iy)(Hy & ~Fy, Sxy))

Notice how that's nice and succint? Now see what happens when you apply Russell's analysis to it:

(∃x)(Fx & Hx & (∀y)((Fy & Hy) > x=y) & ((∃y)(Hy & ~Fy & (∀z)((Hz & ~Fz) > y=z) & Sxy)))

Omygod! How tedious and complex! And they both say the same thing! This opens up so many opportunities for the kind of silly mistakes I am endlessly prone to making under pressurised exam conditions! Damn you Russell!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Well, here it is... an introduction (of sorts)

Thanks to Sukrit for letting me join in on this... and please excuse any infelicities in my early posts. Why?

1. I'm new to this blogging caper

2. I've been meaning to do my own blog for ages but have been too lazy to get started, hence my piggy-backing on Sukrit's efforts.

3. I am a lousy typist. Quick, but prone to a high error rate. This comes of having wonderfully efficient secretaries who turn my mangled dictation into clear, coherent advices. Memo to all young lawyers: never diss a legal secretary, especially if she's over 40. She probably knows more than you do.

About me

I've already failed to make the above heading bold (now fixed - I'm learning), and since I'm already well into a bottle of excellent Wolf Blass Cab Sav, I'll refrain from trying any more on the grounds that this whole post will probably disappear up its own fundament.

I am a country lawyer, planning to head to the bar in a couple of years' time. I enjoy my civilised hours, regular travel throughout regional Queensland and friendly clients/solicitors/barristers. I'm from what could best be described as a 'white trash' background. I'm the first person in my family to finish year 12, let alone a law degree. I think my parents had one book in the house when I was a kid - the phone book.

I read F A Hayek's The Road to Serfdom as part of a law and economics subject I studied at uni. I sat up all night so I could finish it. I am probably responsible for about 20 other people (including my brother, a very bright fitter who didn't get the chance to go to uni) going out and buying it. Ever since then I've been keen to learn more about classical liberal ideas, although I admit that I'm often very ignorant (this will show in my posts sometimes - I ask readers' indulgence in advance).

The older I get, the more I realise that many Australians lack a basic tolerance of the different, the eccentric, the unusual. They pretend a certain tolerance, but dress it up as tolerance of 'people of colour' or 'people of non-English-Speaking-Background' or 'the differently-abled'. A gay National Party voter, however, would be truly beyond their ken.

For a while I lived in a wholly Welsh speaking part of the Valleys (Ystalyfera, if you're interested). There was a bloke in my street who used to stand on his roof every Sunday and preach to the sheep in his backyard. Clearly religious, he communicated an ecstacy of religious vision devoid of violence or hate; sometimes he'd join with some other Welshmen, and they'd sing. More sheep would turn up. I was raised a Catholic, and knew St Francis preached to the birds, so he had heritage.

He was always welcomed at the Green Dragon across the road. No-one rang up the men with butterfly nets asking them to take him away. As far as I know he's still there, preaching to the sheep in what is probably the most musical language on the planet (Cymraeg pronounced 'kamraig' = Welsh). I like to think Australians will one day learn a similar tolerance.

I'm of the view that Classical Liberal ideas are likely to inspire the sort of tolerance I'm talking about. Which is why I've joined Sukrit's blog. I've found that I really, really care about freedom. I don't think a lot of people in this country care enough. Maybe I'm wrong, but I wait to be convinced.

Keep passing the open windows, folks.