Category Archives: Current Events

Moral appeals in times of scarcity

The New York Times recently reports there is a developing cooking oil shortage. The subhead to the article reads: “Several British supermarkets have joined other chains around the world in asking shoppers to limit their cooking oil purchases, as supplies dwindle and prices rise.” Before reading the article I wondered if this sort of request of consumers risked being naive and counterproductive. After reading it, I am still unsure.

Basic economics typically says that the most efficient way to allocate resources is through the price mechanism. Prices send important signals to producers and consumers about the availability of and need for goods and services. As prices rise and fall, producers and consumers can often adjust their behavior. Consumers can change how much and what they consume. Producers can see opportunities for profit and bring more or different goods to the market.

Sometimes people refer to prices as one way to “ration” goods. This isn’t quite right. Rationing supposes some deliberate allocation mechanism. Prices, on the other hand, typically respond to market signals, not the dictates of some bureaucrat.

Critics will insist that prices assign opportunities to access goods to people in just the way that any government rationing does. I’d dispute this, but instead of quibbling over meanings of terms, consider more neutrally the merits of certain ways of allocating goods.

Wartime era rationing is one way to allocate scarce goods. Another example is first-come, first-served, such as in queuing. Alternatively or in addition, there might be per-purchase or per-person limits.

Queuing is a way to allocate goods because only people with the resource of time will get access. America’s national parks now experience historic levels of demand. There are often caps on the number of daily visitors. People gain entry only by investing the time to show up early and wait in line.

Another way to allocate goods is by per-person limits. Consider how Ticketmaster restricts concert ticket purchases. During the pandemic, in the USA many stores allowed consumers to purchase only so many packages of toilet paper. This supposedly prevents resellers from buying all available products and cornering the market.

Should there be non-price-based restrictions on cooking oil purchases? For some people, cooking oil is a type of good they use to satisfy their basic food needs. Their demand for cooking oil might not be especially “elastic.” Their needs for it don’t always respond to price signals as readily as their needs for other goods. The significance of oil for many consumers might partly explain why some providers use moral exhortation. The New York Times article includes a photo showing a sign a British grocer had posted, which read, “So that everyone can get what they need – we’re limiting these products to 3 per customer.” This notice explains the store’s policy and might help inspire people to conserve.

If there are no per-purchase caps, it might seem only the rich would get to eat. So, perhaps we should applaud some British merchants who restrict sales in order that people have “fair” access. Moral appeals might seem to help here since people are reluctant to have prices do all the signals for allocating goods. Such moral appeals, one might say, encourage people to conserve.

I doubt scarce goods in such circumstances become more accessible by wishing and pleading. Of course, my hunch is vulnerable to being overturned by data: perhaps those moral appeals have effects at the margins. After all, such appeals seem to encourage many people to bear the costs and inconvenience of recycling. Perhaps too, with cooking oil, sellers can make moral appeals to a sense of civic solidarity to ensure adequate access to scarce sunflower oil.

Still, I worry such limits, combined with moral appeals, mask naive understandings of economics. These measures risk backfiring. Telling people a store is rationing goods is often a surefire way to inspire panicked buying.

Consider again what happened with toilet paper. As soon as stores imposed limits during the pandemic, there were runs on toilet paper. Many families joined others in the US in hoarding it. They did this not because they needed to have over one hundred fifty rolls available, but to fend off shortages in light of people who threatened supplies with panicked buying. In other words, many people overbought out of fear that other people were overbuying. The same routinely happens in the US south when snow storms are in the forecast. People hit the grocery stores to stock up on bread, milk, eggs, and beer (and… not necessarily in that order). If the store caps how much people may buy of such staples, people will often buy up to the limit and encourage family members to do the same. A week or two later, many people are pouring spoiled milk down the drain. So my first worry about these limits is that they inspire panicked buying and exacerbate any shortages there might otherwise be. If a store adds a moral appeal, we must ask whether that’s the most effective way of getting people to allocate resources “fairly.”

Many families would not overbuy if prices had risen to reflect increased demand. If each toilet paper roll were $50, they would curtail consumption and purchasing. It then seems that price signals might be a more effective signal than any per-purchase caps. It might also be more effective than moral appeals.

People might say that increasing prices is inappropriate because high prices clash with “fair” access. Alternatively, they might say, per-purchase caps secure such “fair” access. They might say: surely everyone should have fair access to wiping their fannies in times of scarcity. After all, they might add, demand for toilet paper is inelastic. You’ve got to wipe!

This is false. Demand for many goods people regard as essential is often somewhat elastic. This is true even with toilet paper. Consider how you’d change usage patterns if each roll were $100 or $500. You’d use less. You’d consider substitutes. You can (and many people did) buy a bidet, such as from this seller, which I promote for free only because I like the name.

I don’t dispute the effectiveness of moral appeals in some cases. Whole blood donation in the US provides some evidence. Blood donation drives exhort people to help the sick and needy. Compensation for donors is merely free juice and cookies afterwards. For the most part, in the USA there is an adequate and safe blood available. (But see a related recent book by fellow blogger James Stacey Taylor, giving a compelling defense of paid plasma donations.)

I remain worried that certain moral appeals risk cheapening moral discourse. (See related discussions by Tosi/Warmke.) They risk making morality an empty exhortation, especially when is a better alternative: the merchant could raise the price.

Some merchants won’t do that. It’d be bad PR. Consider a local hardware store in a small town when a rare snowstorm is on the horizon. One might think that’d be a great opportunity to raise prices on shovels and ice-melting salt. Many won’t raise their prices, though. They know that if they do so, it’ll sour their reputation within the community. In that case, one can imagine the owner refusing to sell anyone more than one shovel. The owner might think it’s more important that more people in the community have access to shovels.

Offering moral appeals in certain cases of scarcity seems to undermine the signaling function prices provide. Indeed, offering moral appeals seems to undermine the point of the moral appeals. When prices do not reflect supply and demand, producers lack the information they need to know how to shift production and distribution. But it’s also a problem for consumers. Consider the standpoint of a consumer who wants to allocate their family’s scarce resources carefully and plan responsibly for the future. Suppose that consumer wants not to deprive others of fair opportunities to access important goods. Without appropriate price signals, that consumer might not know what to do. They want their family to have toilet paper (or cooking oil, or milk, or gasoline, or eggs, or whatever), and they might want others to have appropriate opportunities to gain similar access. But the sign on the British grocer’s shelf doesn’t tell them how important it is to, or the extent to which they should, constrain their choices. Prices give even better information in most circumstances.

Ultimately, it might best be left to merchants to decide how to price their goods and what message to send. Some messages risk inspiring greater panicked buying. They also risk undermining the appropriate force of moral reasons.

Prices convey plenty of information. Substituting or adding moral appeals risks making scarcities worse and risks cheapening the value of moral appeals.

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.

Why ‘ProSocial Libertarians’?

I am wary of isms and labels. They are used too often by too many as excuses to stop thinking. Worse, no doubt aware of the human tendency to avoid ideas that challenge our preconceptions, unscrupulous advocates on all sides use labels such as ‘socialism’ or ‘far right’ to pillory views with which they disagree, in effect saying ‘These ideas are beyond the pale. You can ignore them.’ This, in turn, further discourages people from venturing outside the safety of their thought bubbles and trying to understand why others might hold different views. 

Although I am quite sensitive to this thought-stultifying use of labels — having taught critical thinking for years — I am sure I am not the only person for whom effectively labeling something as beyond the pale piques one’s curiosity instead of squelching it. (This, by the way, is the main reason — along with my name — that I first read Ayn Rand.) So, fortunately, there are also people who want to be challenged and seek out ideas that put their preconceptions under strain. If you fall into this group, you should enjoy this blog.

Despite the risks that labels bring, we cannot manage without them. To minimize the risks, we should acknowledge that labels are only a starting point for discussion and that the meaning of any politically interesting terms will need to be clarified on an ongoing basis. 

In light of all this, if I had to choose a label that best captures my political orientation, that label would be ‘libertarian’. I found it dismaying, then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to see the term ‘libertarian’ — as well as related terms like ‘freedom’ — arrogated by a rogue’s gallery of activists and politicians who have been called — with some justification —antisocial. 

What was dismaying was that these so-called ‘libertarians’ were acting out an old, muddleheaded conception of libertarianism that many people could (wrongly) take as reason to dismiss libertarian ideas as unworthy of serious consideration. For, according to this old, muddleheaded conception, libertarians just _are_ antisocial. Like Randy Weaver, libertarians on this conception want nothing more than to be left alone and they will happily head to the woods with their guns and family to achieve this end. Properly understood, however, libertarians need not be Randy Weavers. Or, at least, so I believe. (Please note: In no way do I intend for my use of Randy Weaver as an example of an antisocial libertarian to diminish the tragedy and injustice that befell him and his family at the hands of the United States government.)

Given what the honest use of labels requires, I want to be as clear as I can about what I mean by ‘libertarian’ and why being a libertarian involves being prosocial, not antisocial. But there is no such thing as a conceptual dictator, so any work towards understanding libertarianism will, of necessity, be a joint enterprise. Hence, the idea of this blog: a civil forum for exploring what it means to be a libertarian and the ways being a libertarian involves being prosocial. Hence also, our name: ProSocial Libertarians.

Three News Items to Rally Around

Since I spend a good bit of my time thinking about polarization and ways to combat it, I thought I would bring attention to three recent news items that should help reduce polarization but seem to mostly go unnoticed.

First, there is this from WaPo 10/24/2021, about a police chief in a town in Georgia, seeking to have police officers shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill (so, shooting in the legs or abdomen, for example, instead of the chest).  Of course, it would be best if no one had to be shot at all, but those that (rightly) complain about police violence should be embracing this as an improvement as it would presumably mean fewer killings by police.  And those who worry endlessly about “law and order” would seem to have to choose between that and saying “yeah, we don’t mind it if the police kill people.”  Since the latter would likely be seen as including some nefarious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine why they, too, wouldn’t embrace it.

Second, from NYT 11/3/2021, is a short about a Swiss company literally taking CO2 out of the air and making soda with it. Why everyone isn’t talking about this ecstatically is beyond me. I know folks on the (pretty far) left who worry endlessly about global warming and claim we have to stop this and stop that to at least slow it down before we all die. I know folks on the (pretty far) right who claim, more or less, that global warming is fake news. Either way, this should be good news. If global warming is fake, then this sort of technological advancement may be uninteresting in the long run—but those on the right should be happy to say “OK, we know you’re worried, why don’t you invest in this to help?” If its not fake news (fwiw, it’s not), this may be the way to save us and the planet. Those on the left (assuming they don’t want simply to be victims and keep fighting about “green new deal” sort of regulations) should be embracing the possibilities, declaring “yes, we need more of this as a good way forward without killing the economy and making everyone worse off.”

Finally, from Axios 11/5/2021, is a story on the jobs report.  In a nutshell, “America has now recovered 80% of the jobs lost at the depth of the recession in 2020. … Wages are still rising: Average hourly earnings rose another 11 cents an hour in October, to $30.96. That’s enough to keep up with inflation.”  I know that some question the specific numbers.  That’s no surprise.  What is surprising (even given how bad Dems usually are on messaging) is that Biden and the Dems haven’t been touting this at every chance.  It should please Reps a well except that it may make some swing voters less likely to go to their side.  

The above three stories are pretty clearly good news for everyone.   The third is perhaps better for Dems than Reps, but somehow they haven’t decided to hype it up or use it as a way to convince moderate legislators or voters to help them.  The first and second are good for everyone.  Yet it doesn’t seem like many are talking about any of the three.  It’s almost as if both sides of our political divide want to remain divided.  And to alienate those of us who refuse to take either side.  Or perhaps they want to clearly demonstrate that neither side should be taken seriously and it’s high time for a party to emerge in the middle. 

The “middle” here might be interesting.  What party consistently opposes state coercion and force against civilians?  What party consistently opposes the state looking the other way when negative externalities become worse and worse?  What party consistently favors policies that grow the economy so that all will do better?  There is such a party, even if it has its own problems.

Diagnosing the abortion debate

Reporting back in January 2017 showed that abortion rates have fallen to levels lower than any year since 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, and reflect about a 50% decrease in the rate from its peak in 1981. The study, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, cites as causal factors greater access to contraception as well as laws in many states that restrict abortion clinics or require ultrasounds. The controversial Texas bill is the most recent attempt by states to broaden restrictions by preventing abortions when “cardiac activity” can be detected. Of course, pro-life groups still ultimately want to see Roe overturned. This would mean that individual states would determine what legal restrictions, if any, would apply to people seeking and providing abortions.

Abortion rights and restrictions can pose a special challenge to a species of liberal views about when it’s permissible to interfere with a person’s liberty of action. Liberal views generally presume non-interference as a moral default and impose the burden of justification on those who would coercively restrict them. And, on some prominent liberal views, simply pointing to “the truth of the matter” won’t be sufficient to overcome this justificatory burden. On these liberal views, beliefs, values and commitments that don’t make sense to people, or for other reasons they can’t go along with, don’t satisfy the justificatory test. These “alien” restrictions would, from the point of view of these people, undermine their authority and agency. Coercion will sometimes (often!) be permissible, but only in virtue of considerations that make sense relative to their commitments.

Applying this to the long-standing abortion controversy, first, notice how easy things would be if it weren’t based on reasonable considerations. If it were flatly unreasonable to deny fetal personhood, then it would be much easier to justify laws restricting abortion. And if it were flatly unreasonable to ascribe personhood to fetuses, then there would perhaps be no accounting for such a law. But reasonable people disagree about fetal personhood. 

More: both parties to this disagreement reasonably believe that the other side is involved in imposing serious harms to the interests of others. This means that abortion law will lack authority for pro-choicers if pro-lifers have their way politically. It’s relatively obvious how this is so: most restrictions won’t make moral sense to pro-choicers. They say that the restrictions violate women’s privacy or bodily autonomy. But abortion law will also lack authority for pro-lifers when pro-choicers have their way politically. The reason is that, since pro-lifers reasonably believe that fetuses are persons with a right not to be killed, they think they have adequate justification for protecting them by imposing coercive measures that increase the costs of people killing them. In other words, pro-lifers have an intelligible rationale for rejecting laws that carve out space for people to kill other people. 

This situation, then, describes something like a moral state of nature between the two sides. We’ve failed to achieve coordination. Pro-choicers know that, even after engaging in careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence, pro-lifers won’t acknowledge the right of women to have an abortion. But this doesn’t mean that they just let pro-lifers violate women’s bodily autonomy. Pro-choicers are basically left with one option: to take up what P.F. Strawson called the objective attitude towards pro-lifers. They will see pro-lifers as a force to contend with, managed and kept at bay as best they can as they go about their affairs, but that’s different than exercising genuinely normative authority over them. 

Yet in the same way, pro-lifers know that abortion-seekers won’t acknowledge the personhood of fetuses, even after careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence. “Public reason” has run out for them, too. But this doesn’t mean that pro-lifers just let abortion providers kill children. Third-party protection is publicly justified. From the pro-life perspective, abortion seekers and providers are doing something similar to driving a car towards a person in the street they can’t see. They have reason to stop them or make them swerve. In other words, pro-lifers similarly must treat abortion-seekers as mere objects of social policy rather than people with whom they are interacting on genuinely moral terms.

The problem, then, isn’t that both sides are willing to impose their preferences, limiting the freedom of those who disagree, simply because they know they’re right. Rather, both sides are intent on protecting their freedom to protect themselves or important third-party interests. Both sides, from their respective points of view, are resisting subjugation. 

I’m at a loss to make moral headway here. Disagreement doesn’t always lead to this kind of social breakdown of reasoning and moral community. I can think of some other examples (meat eating?), but it’s relatively rare, which is a good thing. It also seems pretty isolated most of the time — thankfully, a disagreement and breakdown in this area hasn’t led to a more general breakdown of moral relations among people who are on opposite sides of the issue. Most people even have friends who disagree with them about abortion. 

In fact, I think this lends some credibility to the account of the abortion debate that I’ve offered here. It’s a case where we are forced to take the objective attitude towards our opponents because it turns out that they aren’t true moral subjects of the proposed requirements. Strawson’s participant reactive attitudes wouldn’t be appropriate since those things suggest serious culpability for violating something everyone is in on and knows better than to do.

Vaccines, Science, Judgement, & Discourse

My very first entry into this blog—back on July 2, 2020—was about wearing face coverings because of Covid. That was fairly early into the pandemic, but I think the post has aged very well and I still stand by it.  It seems clear that when there are many cases of a serious new infection, people should wear masks if they go into an enclosed space with lots of unknown others. I also think, though, that it would be wrong to have government mandates requiring that people wear masks (except in places, like nursing homes, where the occupants would be at a known and significant risk) and that private businesses should decide the policy for their brick and mortar operations, just as individuals should decide the policy for their homes.  There is nothing inconsistent in any of that.

Similarly, it seems to me that everybody who can, should want to be inoculated against serious infections (having had the actual infection is likely sufficient). Again, that doesn’t mean that it should be government mandated. (I’m so pro-choice, I think people should be able to choose things that are bad and foolish; I don’t think they should be able to choose things that clearly cause harms to others, but neither the vaccine nor its rejection by an individual does that, so far as I can tell.) We shouldn’t need government mandates to encourage us to follow the science.  So let’s discuss that.  

Acetylsalicylic Acid alleviates headaches, fevers, and other pains.  I don’t know how that works.  Here’s a guess: the acid kills the nerves that are firing.  I actually doubt there is any accuracy in that guess at all, but it doesn’t matter.  I don’t need to know how aspirin works.  I know it works and is generally safe so I use it. How do I know this?  It’s been well tested, both by scientists and by tremendous numbers of people throughout the world.

Now, I actually think I have a better sense of how vaccines work than how aspirin works, though I doubt that holds for the new mRNA vaccines and I realize I could be wrong.  Again it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll use them nonetheless—and for the same reason. The fact is that most of the time, most or all of us simply trust in science.  We use elevators, escalators, cars, planes, trains, clothing with new-fangled fabrics, shoes with new-fangled rubber, foods with all sorts of odd new additives, etc.—all of which were developed with science.  And we don’t usually let that bother us.  

What seems to me foolish in standard vaccine refusal is roughly the same as what seems foolish to me in opposition to using the insecticide DEET in areas where mosquitoes carry malaria, which kills many people. It’s true that the DEET causes some significant problems, but it is unlikely that those problems are worse than the many deaths that would result without it.  This seems clear just based on historical use of the chemical. Similarly, vaccines may cause some problems but the (recent) historical use suggests pretty clearly that they save lives.

Of course, there are always mistakes.  Science is constantly evolving—it is more of a process, after all, than a single state of knowledge.  Scientists make mistakes.  Worse, sometimes scientists bend to their desires and sometimes industries have enough financial power to change the way science is presented. (Looking at you, sugar Industry!) Given that and a personal distrust of government, I certainly understand when people want to wait for evidence to settle.

A drug or other scientific advancement used too early may well turn out to be more problematic than its worth.  But aspirin has been well tested.  And vaccines have been well tested.  Even the recent Covid vaccines have been well tested.  The fact is you are far more likely to die from Covid if you are unvaccinated than if you are.  Granted, the odds of dying either way are thankfully slim for most of us.  But what people are now faced with is a free and easy way to avoid (a small chance of) death.  Admittedly, it’s possible that in 20 years we’ll learn that these new vaccines cause cancer or such.  But scientific advancement will continue and the fight against cancer is already far better than it was any time in the past.  So the option is between a free and easy way to avoid a chance of death or serious illness now combined with some chance of added problem later that we may know how to deal with and, well, not avoiding that.  Maybe this is a judgement call, but the former seems pretty clearly the better option in standard cases.  (Other downsides, so far as I can tell, are mostly fictitious.  If you’re worried about a computer chip embedded in the vaccine, for example, realize you could have had one put in you when you were born.)

About it being a judgement call. Consider using a GPS.  Some people just slavishly listen to the directions from their GPS. Unfortunately, this can have pretty bad results.  Other people refuse to use a GPS at all, perhaps thinking they have to do it on their own. For me, the GPS (in my phone) is a tool that is helpful to get where I need to go when I can’t really remember all the directions well or simply don’t trust my ability to do so. Still, I listen to the GPS and sometimes override its directions, for example, if I think it’s going in an unsafe way or a way that’s likely to cause more problems.  Here too, judgment is needed.

Unfortunately, we all seem to think we individually have great judgment even though it’s obvious that not all of us do.  Or perhaps better, none of us do all of the time.  Sometimes one has to recognize that we have to trust others to know better than we do.  

So, what should we do?  We should each try to be honest with ourselves about whether our judgment is likely to be better than those telling us to do other than we would choose. We should listen to people who are actually able to consider all of the relevant evidence.  Because it’s unlikely that any single source of information will always be completely trustworthy, we should likely listen to variety of generally trustworthy sources. 

We need to find people we can rely on—mentors or people recognized as experts in the relevant field—and take their views seriously.  This may simply push the problem back a step: those whose judgment lead them to make bad choices may simply choose to listen to other people with similarly bad judgement.  That is a real problem worth further investigation.  My only suggestion here is to trust those who are leading good lives and who have the trust of their professional peers.  I don’t pretend that is sufficient, but can’t say more here except to note that we can only hope to get better decisions, for ourselves and others, if we have better discussions.  To that end, see this postAlso, realize that if people would in fact standardly make better decisions (in part by having better discussions prior to making decisions), there would be less call for government intervention.  Indeed, if we had better conversations across the board, we would have less people wanting government intervention.  Realizing that those who have suffered through COVID are inoculated, for example, should stop others from trying to pressure them to get vaccinated.


Thanks to Lauren Hall, Connor Kianpour, and JP Messina for suggesting ays to improve this post.

Being Pro-Choice

I’m pro-choice. If a woman wants to have an abortion, I believe it is her choice to do so and no one ought to stand in her way. I oppose abortion laws. Similarly, I believe that if I want to take an antibiotic, it is my choice to do so and no one ought to stand in my way. I oppose prescription laws. And also similarly, if someone wants to inject themselves (or swallow) Ivermectin, it is their choice and no one ought to stand in their way. In each of these cases—and all others—I believe information should be provided so that the individual in question can make an educated decision about the action in question, but I believe that they should be allowed to act on their own decision.

I said that in the cases described *and all others* they should be allowed to act on their decision. That also applies, then, to doctors who do not wish to perform abortions and doctors who do not wish to *administer a patient ivermectin (or any other medicine). They ought to be able to act on their choices just as the patients in question ought to be able to. Yet, at least one judge in Ohio has thought it appropriate to require hospitals (admittedly, not specific doctors) to administer a medication they oppose using for a patient (see this). And, as I assume most readers, know, Texas now has a law in place that makes it much harder for doctors to perform abortions on patients who want it. To be clear: even if both patient and doctor agree that the abortion is the best course of action and are willing participants, the doctor is likely to face legal repercussions if the woman is more than 6 weeks pregnant and any private citizen decides to sue. (See this and this.)

What we have in both these cases is a situation where the freedom of some to live in a world where the actions of others are limited—e.g., to not give a patient a drug they oppose using or to help a woman have an abortion—is thought to outweigh the freedom of those others to live their lives as they see fit. The freedom—really, its just the preferences—legally outweigh those of others. To think this is a deep moral debate strikes me as misguided. Abortion is a rightly contentious issue and, in my view, its moral permissibility can only really be resolved by determining whether or not the fetus has a moral status on par with the mother’s. The people behind the Texas law—and those that would sue medical professionals because of it—do not seem interested in trying to discuss that question at all. They seem simply to want to impose their views on others. Those wanting people to be able to use Ivermectin in Butler County, Ohio, similarly seem simply to want to impose their view—or that of the patient—on medical professionals. In both sorts of cases, we have a pernicious form of moralism at play. (See this and this.)

I assume there will always be doctors unwilling to perform abortions. They should be free to act on their preferences. I assume—and hope—there will also always be doctors willing to perform abortions. They, too, should be able to act on their choices (when they have a patient that so chooses). A patient and a doctor coming to an informed agreement should not be interfered with. The same holds for a doctor willing to *administer a patient Ivermectin when the patient wants such. And a doctor unwilling to administer it. For that matter, the same is true (or so I believe) for a doctor and patient wishing to use a Mercitron on a patient that wants it. (See this). Unfortunately, this is not well accepted.

* 9/5, replaced “inject” or “injection,” fixing as needed to accommodate.

The Shaky Pullout from Afghanistan

Joe Biden is on track to do what his two predecessors failed to do: get out of Afghanistan. They failed to achieve this goal due to the worsening security situation and the incapacity of the Afghan forces to take over. After many more years and countless billions spent, it is still unclear that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has the capacity to keep the Taliban from taking over more territory, let alone maintaining control of the capitol. As recently as March, John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said “the Afghan government’s fears for its survival are only exacerbated by the knowledge of how dependent their country is on foreign military and financial support. If the goal of the reconstruction effort was to build a strong, stable, self-reliant Afghan state that could protect our national security interests as well as its own—it is a mission yet to be accomplished.

According to Biden, however, that is not the American goal. They did not intend, despite 20 years of evidence, to “nation-build” in Afghanistan. Their goals were 1) “get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11” 2) “deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden” and 3) “degrade the terrorist threat” to reduce the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorist organizations in the future. If these were the goals, they were arguably achieved by May of 2011 when President Barack Obama ordered the successful strike against Bin Laden. 

There is a possibility Obama, or perhaps President Donald Trump would have had to reopen the mission, as Obama did in Iraq in 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) spread across the globe . If that were the case, they would have to remain to this day as the threat from IS Khorasan in the country, let alone the region, remains significant.

Instead, Biden decided to honor the deal struck between Trump’s Administration and the Taliban to completely remove the US presence from the country, albeit on a slightly slower timeline. And what was the reasoning? He determined it is not in the “national interest of the United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely.”

He has a point. If the mission has yet to be completed after 20 years, it won’t be completed without a big change within the foreseeable future. Furthermore, he had a front row seat to Obama’s failure to end the war using a troop surge. Is this, therefore, the least worst option?

The truth is we don’t really know. Biden didn’t engage in a long, involved discussion outside of his administration—except to consult with former Presidents Bush and Obama. There wasn’t even much discussion with Congress before he announced he would completely withdraw troops. Even after months, there remained a lack of clarity about the merits of the withdrawal. If the pull-out from Bagram Air Base is any indication, there is nothing orderly, well-thought through, or well-executed about the withdrawal. After 20 years, countless public embarrassments due to poor policy planning, no way to achieve victory, and a great risk to security from instability in that country, shouldn’t the administration take more time to have a serious and perhaps a public discussion about how to bring this war to a close? Shouldn’t members of Congress push the administration to engage in this deliberation? Shouldn’t the public?

The fact is, the Taliban is salivating over this result and using it to demonstrate that they have achieved their mission: remove the imperial power from their state and reassert their control.

But Biden is resolute. He claims he “will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.

As I demonstrate in a recent article discussing 10 criteria for successful deliberations about military policy, an effective way to avoid implementing haphazard policy is to engage in thoughtful discussions in order to effectively achieve well-articulated goals. Instead, what we see from this administration is what we’ve seen throughout the War on Terror: policy that looks reactionary and poorly developed because it is.

The Paradox of Community

Conceptually, community is distinct from neighborhood.  A community can be in a neighborhood, but it might instead consist of widespread people who share some commonality (the community of PPE scholars, for example).  A neighborhood, for its part, may merely be a place people live, not knowing those that also live there. 

Take communities to be groups of people bound together by traditions. Traditions are essential to community. They also vary by community. They might be matters of language, religion, commitment to country, behaviors, holidays, heritage, or any number of other things, some requiring more strict abidance by group norms, some requiring less. Traditions necessarily (but, importantly, not always problematically) hold us back, keep us limited—for the simple reason that people are committed to them. When people are committed to one way of doing things, they are resistant to changes to it. A commitment to car culture, for example, makes it less likely that a group would find (or even look for) an alternative means of transportation. (Or accept such if offered. Think of Segways—why aren’t these available for long distance use? or sealed from rain and cold?)

While traditions hold people back, they also provide a foundation for change.  From the security of being able to interact with others in accepted ways, one can develop new ways to do so—and new ways not to do so.  Because they have traditions, communities make it possible to innovate. Innovation, though, can cause the community to change or even disintegrate. Tradition and innovation are symbiotic even while they simultaneously threaten each other.  Call this the paradox of community (it’s at least a significant tension).

The paradox of community—the fact that a community’s traditions make innovation possible while simultaneously trying to prevent innovation (because innovation could bring the end of the tradition)—makes life in community … interesting.

Another fact about communities is that they either grow or die; stasis is illusory. Communities grow as their members change (some join, some exit, some change themselves), innovate, bring about changes to the traditions (adding some, altering others, ending still others). This is why the paradox is so important.

Some within a community can become so committed to a particular tradition(s) of the community that they work to slow the pace of the community’s growth in order to prevent the altering or ending of their favored tradition(s) or the inclusion of others.  They may do this by trying to encourage newcomers to learn and accept the existing traditions of the community or by actively working to create an environment whereby those seeking change are limited. If they succeed too much—preventing any change in the community’s traditions—they attain stagnation rather than stasis.  This is because absence of change in a community (as for an individual person or any animal) brings the end of the community.  It means no new members–and with no new members, it dies as it’s members die.  Change—innovation—is essential to community.

Of course, new people may attempt to join the community. When they do, they would bring their own histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals. They could (and perhaps should) learn about the community’s ways of doing things. That is consistent with their bringing their own ways of doings (and their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals). It is consistent, that is, with change. But if those within the community seek to limit change, they may try instead to indoctrinate the newcomers into the community’s traditions so that they live as those in the community now live, rather than bringing anything different. Indoctrination thus treats newcomers as having nothing of their own to contribute, as if their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals have no place in the community. Newcomers would thus not be allowed to bring their ideas and preferences into the community’s traditions–those traditions would not be allowed to change. Such newcomers are, then, likely to exit the community. (Notice that this does not mean they physically move away or drop their official membership–remember, communities are not the same as neighborhoods (or associations)).

To build community, change must be permitted. This means that all in the community must listen to each other, open to hearing new things that might be incorporated into the web of community activity and the traditions that shape them. This does not mean jettisoning everything previously held dear, but it does mean being open to the possibility of doing so (likely not all at once). Long time members of the community can teach newer members how things were or are done, but that counts no more than what newer members bring to the table. Importantly, those whose ideas are rejected out of hand have no reason to participate in the community. Ignoring this–thinking that all learning here is in one direction–will simply give rise to factions, splintering what was a community, killing it while perhaps giving birth to new, smaller, communities as those factions continue to grow.

So, both tradition and innovation are essential to community. What this means, in part, is that while change is necessary, the pace of change may be too much for some people within a community, at least those committed to one or more of its traditions. Still change can’t be stopped; a successful attempt to stop it, kills the community. The question for those in a community is thus whether their favored tradition(s) and it’s (or their) history are more important than the community itself. To side with a tradition is to side with those no longer present; to side with community is to side with those currently constituting the community—including those who wish to see change.

Of course, those siding with a tradition may take that tradition to have independent value and thus to be worth protecting. They may take this to be a principled defense of preventing change in the community. It is not. The community from which a defended tradition stems, like all communities, must be able to change. (Again, stagnation means death.) Indeed, all surviving communities have what can reasonably be called traditions of change–ways that change takes place. So when defenders of one tradition seek to prevent change, they are pitting one part of the community and its traditions against another and claiming that one of the traditions should be defended at the cost of another—their favored tradition at the cost of the community’s tradition of change. That, though, is just a preference. One cannot just assume that one favored tradition is more valuable than another. After all, those seeking change may rightly claim to be defending a tradition of change within the community.

Putting the last point differently, those seeking change are defending the community as the community currently is and is growing with its current members and their preferences. Those seeking to prevent change, by contrast, are defending only part of the community—some specific tradition(s) they happen to prefer—and, by seeking stagnation, killing the community.

Lest I be thought too critical of defenders of particular traditions, I should note that I do not think there is a good principled reason for either protecting particular traditions or for changing or jettisoning them. In either case, on my view, further considerations are necessary. What we need to determine, on my view, is when interference is justifiably permitted–what principles of interference we ought to accept rather than simply what traditions we happen to prefer. (I discuss some such considerations here and in my 2014.)

Springsteen Fandom and Vaccine Passports

Bruce Springsteen is the first live act returning to Broadway. He is now featured at a few dozen shows running at the St. James Theater. What sort of freedom should Springsteen fans have to associate with other Springsteen fans?

Let us suppose Lee loves Springsteen’s music. Lee owns a restaurant in Jersey City called the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill.” Lee’s restaurant is filled with Springsteen and E-Street band memorabilia. It plays a revolving soundtrack of Springsteen’s discography. After the recent shutdowns nearly bankrupted Lee and coincided with a very painful divorce, Lee realized how important Springsteen’s life and music are personally and for everyone. As Lee will say, Springsteen matters. The stories Bruce tells are deeply meaningful.

Lee wants to set up a Bruce-safe space. Lee has decided to require as a condition of admission to his restaurant that you show a ticket stub from his performance at the St. James Theater, or any ticket stub from any other live Springsteen performance, ever.

We might think Lee is making a risky business move, but it turns out that Lee’s devotion is common. Bruce has inspired some very dedicated fans. There is even a documentary about their fandom, “Springsteen and I.” Fans of The Boss will talk at length about how his music resonated deeply with them and helped them through difficult times. Writing for The New York Times in 2012, David Brooks admired Springsteen’s talent for helping people to understand themselves and their world. After attending several of his concerts in Europe, Brooks wrote, “The passion among the American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish. The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher.” So, a business revolving around things Springsteen might do very well.

Imagine Lee explained his decision this way: “Things are crazy now. I want a place where ‘Bruce Tramps’ can feel safe and know they are among friends. So the only way you’re getting in here is if you know and care about The Boss. Any Springsteen concert ticket stub will do. I don’t care about your race, sex, sexual orientation, color, or creed. I just want to be sure you get the Boss.” People warn Lee that ticket stubs can be forged and just handed off to others, but Lee says the ticket-stub is a passport to getting into the restaurant. Lee says it’s an important step toward ensuring a safer space for fans.

You know what? That bar & grill might just succeed. People might want that type of environment.

Should Lee be able to have a place like that?

Now imagine all The Boss haters out there. They complain. Why should Lee, and any Bruce Tramps, be able to restrict others from Lee’s bar & grill? They take it to the state. The governor and state legislature of New Jersey are outraged, too. They pass a law. From this point forward, any business operating in New Jersey “may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying Springsteen concert attendance to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state.” When asked why, the governor claims that requiring evidence of Springsteen concert attendance reduces individual freedom and harms privacy. As the governor says, people should be free to decide what sounds go in their ears.

Lee complains emphatically, and so do many patrons of the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill.” Lee says, “It’s my restaurant! You don’t have to come here!” Well, too bad, Lee, and too bad for all the Bruce Tramps who want to eat and drink there among like-minded others. The state of New Jersey has spoken.

In case this seems outlandish, substitute “COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery” for “Springsteen concert attendance” in the text of imagined NJ law, and you’ve got a quote from a law recently passed in Florida. This is the law that now binds cruise ships, restaurants, health clubs, and… any other business in Florida. Businesses are legally forbidden to demand, as a condition of entry, that patrons provide some written or digital evidence that they are at low risk to transmit COVID-19. If you do require that, agents of the state will come to your business, sooner or later with guns, and compel you to stop or else they’ll impose a $5000 fine per incident. If you don’t pay that fine, ultimately they will use the force of the state to shut you down.

Why?

In May, many media outlets quoted Florida governor Ron DeSantis as saying, “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.” Many arguments against such vaccine passports talk about protecting people’s freedoms to decide what goes into their bodies. DeSantis had previously issued an executive order where he claimed that vaccine passports “reduce individual freedom and will harm patient privacy.” When applied to private entities such as restaurants, health clubs, or cruise lines, the least we can say of DeSantis is that he is conceptually confused. You do not enhance freedom by crushing it. That is what the state of Florida is doing, and so too the other states forbidding businesses from demanding “vaccine passports.”

With the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill,” it might seem Lee and other fans of the Boss have an idle affectation about the people with whom they’ll keep company. We might even think they’re weird but admit it’s their choice to be that way. If they want to hang around only with other Bruce Tramps at a restaurant, well… more power to them. No one gets hurt from this exercise of their freedom.

The stakes are much higher with communicable disease. Cruise ships are confined spaces where disease can run rampant. This is what happened on the Diamond Princess and other cruise ships at the start of the pandemic. In health clubs, people exercise vigorously and breathe hard, aerosolizing whatever germs are in their lungs. In concerts and stadiums, when people cheer and scream, their mouths are vuvuzelas spewing infection.

The law now forbids Florida businesses from requiring patrons to show they have taken a key step to reduce the risk they pose to others. Even worse, patrons who want to associate only with other risk-averse patrons are now not free to do so in businesses that want to cater to them. That is the cost to freedom from these bans on vaccine passports. (Here we can pass over the loss to freedom that comes when people get infected and are hospitalized or drop dead, as well as the loss of freedom to those whom they infect.)

Even though a cruise line would want to sell me a lower-risk cruise, I am unable to purchase one from a company whose ship departs a Florida port and which requires as a condition of boarding that one provide some proof of vaccine status. That’s at least as groundless as not being able to go to Lee’s bar & grill to hang around only with other Bruce Tramps.

People might disagree about the seriousness of the pandemic or the best ways to manage risk. Here I pass no judgment about what is reasonable to believe about this disease in particular. I admit it seems to me a poor risk management strategy to forbid people to do what they believe best reduces it. (See a related recent great post by John Hasnas.) It also seems like a poor strategy from politicians who claim to protect freedom that they forbid voluntary acts among consenting adults who are concerned about risk. This is analogous to Nevada passing a law that forbids brothels from requiring patrons to wear condoms.

Even if we disagree about how serious COVID-19 is, the least we can do is leave people and businesses alone to sort out how they manage such risks.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for thoughts about an earlier draft.