Jason Brennan: Is Democracy Just? (46m)

This episode features a lecture by philosopher and political scientist Jason Brennan from 2017. Brennan looks at justice and democratic government. Purchase books by Jason Brennan on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (46m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Doubly-Damned Lies

Nobody asked but …

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about lies, damned lies , and statistics:

Mark Twain popularized the saying in Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 1907. “Figures often beguile me,” he wrote, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'”[2]

Alternative attributions include, among many others (for example Walter Bagehot and Arthur James Balfour) the radical English journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831–1912), Jervoise Athelstane Baines,[3] and British politician and man of letters Leonard H. Courtney, who used the phrase in 1895 and two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society. Courtney is quoted by Baines (1896) as attributing the phrase to a “wise statesman”,[4] but he may have been referring to a future statesman rather than a past one.[5] The phrase has also been attributed to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.[6][7]

Edward Tufte, a master statistician, said, “It is straightforward for me to be ethical, responsible, and kind-hearted because I have the resources to support that.”  But it takes more, because too often, too many people with resources choose exploitation, irresponsibility, and mean-spiritedness to gain more resources, pointedly those of power.

I have begun to get the impression that the actual cost of living is not accurately reflected in government-produced statistical indices.  I have spent hours perusing the federal presentation of statistics.  The amount of data is stupendous, but I can’t tell you where it begins and ends.  The amount of information that you get from that data is unknowable.  Part of the problem is that there is no verifiable central repository, and even if there were, the configuration would evolve from moment to moment.  There is no reliable standard for answering the questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how (process, how much, how many, etc.)  There are no conceptual handles for grasping the associations and relationships among the data.  It is a miasma.  It is a sargasso sea of loose ends.  I now understand how the Pentagon could lose trillions, or why we will never know how much particular programs cost, or why boondoggles are endless.  If the government does accounting like it does everything else, why are we keeping score?

— Kilgore Forelle

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American Gun Ownership: The Positive Impacts of Law-Abiding Citizens Owning Firearms

It’s no secret that mainstream press coverage of gun ownership in the United States tends to be in favor of gun control – especially when those reporting on the topic are not firearm owners themselves. Journalists focus on how many people are killed by guns, how many children get their hands on improperly stored firearms, and how many deranged individuals go on shooting sprees.

This anti-gun news bias is widespread among the “urban elite” who have very little personal experience with guns and yet write for influential newspapers like The New York TimesWashington Post, etc. Despite this bias, law-abiding private citizens owning guns does have positive impacts on American society that often go unreported – many of which are significant.

Criminals and the Armed Citizen

Perhaps the most notable impact of gun ownership on American society is how it influences the behavior of criminals.

The fact is, criminals fear armed citizens more than they do the police. There’s many reasons for this, but here are the most prominent:

  • Police are rarely onsite during a crime.
  • Police are bound by policy and procedures, and are trained to only use their firearms if it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Civilians are also less trained.

In a research study sponsored by the United States Department of Justice, James Wright and Peter Rossi interviewed over 1,800 incarcerated felons, asking how they felt about civilians and gun ownership. Thirty-three percent of these criminals admitted to being scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by a gun-owning victim. Sixty-nine percent of them knew at least one other criminal who had similar experiences. Nearly 80 percent of felons also claimed that they intentionally avoid victims and homes that they believe may be armed.

This shows that at least one in three criminals has been deterred because of an armed citizen, and that four out five avoid victimizing people that have guns.

Law-Abiding Gun Owners & Defensive Gun Use

Advocates of civilian disarmament tend to scoff at the capabilities of everyday gun owners. Many believe that guns in the hands of normal people are crimes waiting to happen. However, thanks to the research of individuals such as John Lott, we now have evidence showing that gun owners are some of the most law-abiding segments of the American population.

Lott drew the example of concealed license holders when compared to law enforcement:

Concealed-handgun permit holders are also much more law-abiding than the rest of the population. In fact, they are convicted at an even lower rate than police officers. According to a study in Police Quarterly, from 2005 to 2007, police committed 703 crimes annually on average. Of those, there were 113 firearms violations on average.

With 683,396 full-time law enforcement employees nationwide in 2006, we can infer that there were about 102 crimes by police per 100,000 officers. Among the U.S. population as a whole, the crime rate was 37 times higher than the police crime rate over those years – 3,813 per 100,000 people.

Not only are gun owners very law-abiding, they are also quite capable of defending themselves against criminals. Criminologists Dr. Gary Kleck and Dr. Marc Gertz carried out a study that found 2.2 to 2.5 million cases of defensive gun use (DGU). Around 1.5 to 1.9 million of these cases involved handguns. There is reason to believe that DGU numbers completely overshadow the criminal use cases of guns.

However, in today’s era of outrage politics, many incidents of DGU go under the radar because of their lack of shock appeal that does not make for good headlines.

A Sense of Security

Most people realize that law enforcement cannot be everywhere, yet so many rely on nothing but a 911 call to protect both their home and those inside it. For those who live in remote areas, it can take an hour or more for first responders to arrive after an emergency call, but in most cases, even five minutes is too long. But when a homeowner is armed and trained, the sense of security increases.

Thanks to modern psychology, we know that people need this sense of security in order to grow and develop into healthy adults. Not surprisingly, privately owned guns provide that. Sixty-three percent of Americans now believe that having a gun in the house increases safety. While some may dismiss the importance of feeling secure and safe, or claim that another person’s desire for safety makes them feel unsafe, it is by far the most basic of human needs. And without it, people are left feeling frightened, angry, and defensive – often unable to reach, or even focus on, higher goals.

Continue reading American Gun Ownership: The Positive Impacts of Law-Abiding Citizens Owning Firearms at Ammo.com.

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The Not-So-Just World Hypothesis

I’ve long been skeptical of what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis.  A standard statement:

[T]he just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, desert, stability, and/or order, and is often associated with a variety of fundamental fallacies, especially in regards to rationalizing people’s suffering on the grounds that they “deserve” it.

One of the main forms of (alleged) evidence in favor of the Just World Hypothesis is that people derogate and blame the victims of crimes.  But I’ve simply never noticed this in real life.  All I’ve seen, rather, is that people claim that other people derogate and blame the victims of crimes.

To explore these doubts, I ran three Twitter polls.  Yes, I know this is far from decisive evidence.  But I still trust it more than many of the studies that got the Just World Hypothesis off the ground.

I started with two paired survey questions:

Responses match my expectations.  Virtually no one thinks that crime victims are “highly” or even “somewhat” blameworthy.  Almost everyone thinks that crime perpetrators are “highly” or at least “somewhat” culpable.

My last survey zoomed out to the Big Question:

Well look at that!  Disbelievers in the Just World Hypothesis outnumber believers by over 2:1.  Only 3% of respondents think the world is “Very just.”

Are my respondents atypical?  Indubitably.  Nevertheless, I have much more confidence that my results will replicate on a national representative sample than the published academic work on this topic.  If anyone wants to try, feel free to use my questions!

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Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over

“Imagine what would be possible right now with ideas that are bold enough to meet the challenges of our time, but big enough, as well, that they could unify the American people [like the 9/11 attacks did],” said South Bend, Indian mayor Pete Buttigieg in his opening statement at the September 12 Democratic presidential nomination debate. “That’s what presidential leadership can do. That’s what the presidency is for.”

US Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said she plans on “unifying the country” as president too.

“I know what’s broken. I know how to fix it,” US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) assured us as she applied for the job of running nearly every aspect of our lives.

The other candidates, and most if not all recent presidents, display the same symptoms of — there’s really no other term for it — narcissistic megalomania.

If you’re going to go to the trouble of running for president, a good first step might be to crack open a copy of the US Constitution and find out precisely what, as Mayor Pete says, “the presidency is for.”

In simple terms, it goes something like this:

Congress, supposedly within rigid confines also set forth in the Constitution, legislates. The president’s job is to execute Congress’s will.

Yes, the president has veto power, but Congress can override a presidential veto with a vote of 2/3 of both houses.

Yes, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, but only when they are “called into the actual Service of the United States,” which is when Congress declares war (the founders frowned on standing armies).

Yes, the president appoints executive branch officials to carry out Congress’s instructions, but the highest of those officials have to be confirmed by the Senate. Ditto the Supreme Court justices who referee disputes of law.

Yes, the president can negotiate treaties, but once again those treaties have to be ratified by the Senate to become law.

The presidency is not “for” weird schemes to “unify the country” with “bold” and “big” ideas. It’s not the president’s job to figure out what’s “broken” and “fix it.”

The president, under the Constitution, is not “in charge.” He or she is a functionary with extremely limited powers.

But the Constitution has clearly become passe. Congress has (unconstitutionally) handed over much of its power to the executive branch and (dysfunctionally) failed to wisely exercise what little power it still claims.

We’re most of a century into what some call the age of the “imperial presidency” — America’s sickening descent to the status of banana republic.

No wonder candidates for the presidency act like they’re running for Mom or Dad of Everyone.

“[W]hether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain,” wrote 19th century anarchist Lysander Spooner: “That it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

American politics routinely confirms that diagnosis.

The Constitution is dead. It’s time to start over from scratch.

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