Why telecom immunity must be prevented.

Glenn Greenwald, far and away the most professional and intellectually honest blogger I've ever encountered, has an excellent defense of the rule of law here.

Too many Obama supporters are willing to look the other way on this issue, since he came out in favor of the "compromise". McCain, of course, is far worse on this issue--his recent claim that allowing Guantanamo detainees habeas corpus rights was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history gives you a sense of where he stands. In short, I can understand why they would want to refrain from criticizing Obama, insofar as they fear it would weaken his electoral prospects and could result in something far worse.

But, as cynical as I may be about a lot of things, there are some principles which I believe should be upheld despite the political repercussions. The rule of law is first and foremost on this list. Early modern philosophers like Spinoza and Locke (who stole many of Spinoza's political ideas without citing him) recognized the corruptibility of humans in power, and sought to establish rules of governance to circumvent this corruption. (Even then this was not a new idea; political principles like the separation of powers can be traced at least as far back as the Roman Republic.)

The authors and advocates of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, for all their imperfections, appreciated how vital the rule of law was for long-term stability and a just society. No human being, no matter how seemingly wise or benevolent, should be entrusted with the powers of a monarch. That includes Obama. (In fact, the only exception I would even consider is if such power was necessary to reinstate the rule of law because of a jaded and distracted populace who failed to recognize its importance.)

If any of this resonates with you, read Greenwald's article. It is well worth your time.


Free Speech on the Internets?

This article is worth taking a look at. It's a bit lengthy, but it covers a number of different dimensions of a highly complex problem.

I won't speak to all of it, but I'd like to focus on one particular issue:

Companies in charge of seemingly public spaces online wipe out content that's controversial but otherwise legal. Service providers write their own rules for users worldwide and set foreign policy when they cooperate with regimes like China. They serve as prosecutor, judge and jury in handling disputes behind closed doors.

The governmental role that companies play online is taking on greater importance as their services - from online hangouts to virtual repositories of photos and video - become more central to public discourse around the world. It's a fallout of the Internet's market-driven growth, but possible remedies, including government regulation, can be worse than the symptoms.

With the exception of the totally unsubstantiated claim that "government regulation" "can be worse", these paragraphs get to the heart of the issue I wish to consider, viz., the downsides of privatization.

Much in the way that an ant colony takes on a life of its own above and beyond those of its ants, corporations develop their own sets of survival instincts and quasi-desires. This is a metaphor, of course, but it does come very close to the truth.

An idea popped into my head just now, and I doubt it's entirely original, but I think it's worth sharing. Multinational corporations are like the modern instantiations of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. They are entities which ostensibly care about human well being, but which have their own interests which tend to take precedence and often have very little to do with what is good for human beings.

They share our world with us, but seem to occupy parts of it that ordinary mortals cannot access. They aren't omniscient or omnipotent, but their capabilities far exceed ours. And they are highly flawed, perhaps even more so than we are.

Similarly, there is a large but finite number of them, and a smaller number still of the most powerful ones. Thus, our options for loyalty end up somewhat limited.

This last point is crucial. Contrary to what free market proponents often suggest, corporate consolidation has left us with very few choices. Let's say that I run an open home network, and that my neighbors and their friends use it to download some copyrighted materials illicitly. If the RIAA and MPAA had their way, an ISP would have to cut off your access entirely if you received three accusations of illegal downloading. That's right, they don't even have to successfully prove anything; you merely have to be accused three times. One of your neighbors downloads the latest Metallica album, a second grabs a bootleg of the new Indiana Jones film, and a third pirates a copy of Photoshop and BOOM! no internet for you!

(If you think I'm making this stuff up, you should read BoingBoing more often... In any case, this is particularly unfortunate because it undermines human courtesy, discouraging people from sharing a resource that they don't fully consume. If not for factors like this, I probably would operate my home network without a password.)

In many areas of the country, broadband markets are monopolized, so your choice is: use this particular ISP, or stick with dial-up (if you can even do that; since in many cases the same company controls broadband and phone service, you might find yourself cut off entirely). If you're kicked off of your area's only ISP, you are shit out of luck.

I would probably die without the Internet. I wish I were kidding. Until recently, I lived alone (for nearly four years), and whenever my connection cut out I was both angry and panicked. The 'net allowed me some means of contact with other human beings, probably saving my sanity. It may be relatively new, but high-speed internet access is now, for many people, a need. (In fact, I think free wireless high-speed internet should be a human right, but that's for another post...)

Now, granted, state institutions and bureaucracies exhibit many of the same characteristics that large corporations do. This is especially so with non-democratic governments. In China's case, for instance, it's clear that government control can be a lot worse than having to deal with private corporations. (The author of our article above fails to make this case, leaving "government regulation" as a vague term that could apply to radically different regimes.)

The key difference, though, is accountability. Corporations are by and large highly undemocratic institutions, beholden only to making profit for their shareholders. Certainly this schema works quite well in a number of areas, but there are some in which it is entirely inappropriate, most notably when we are dealing with common goods.

So, for example, healthcare and other kinds of insurance are worth having insofar as they allow the pooling of risk. The profit motive totally undermines this; huge amounts of time and money are spent not to cover particular expenses and companies try to offer insurance only to those who don't need it. It's highly inefficient, which partly explains why Americans pay more for healthcare than anyone else, even though its quality of care is comparable, and sometimes worse, than that of other industrialized nations.

A second example is in the cultural sphere, in art and music. Back before today's oppressive copyright regime, artists frequently borrowed images and ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries. Today, you can't even use a 5 second sample from a song without permission. (In fact, according to the AP's idiotic new policy, I shouldn't be able to post quotations from their articles any longer than 5 words, without paying for it. Perhaps I should just split up those two paragraphs into a series of 4-word quotes...) This has driven certain genres of music that depend on practices of sampling and remixing underground. Everyone loses as a consequence (except the huge media conglomerates--who for some reason seem very reluctant to share their ill-gotten gains from suing their customers with the artists they are purportedly protecting).

A third case, the last I'll consider, involves infrastructure. Only the most diehard/insane libertarian wants to privatize the roads. Nevertheless, much of the US infrastructure is crumbling because of moves toward privatization in the past few decades; there's little profit to be had in making sure bridges are safe. So why is it that when it comes to the Internet, the aptly named "information superhighway", that we run almost entirely on privately-owned toll roads?

The fall of Communism as a realistic alternative to Capitalism does not mean that the latter is the best we can do. We should use markets in the places where they are most effective, but not shy away from trying out other models when they are not. If the concern is that governments are inefficient or incompetent, we can always rely on local experimentalism. (Remember "states' rights"? Neither do I...) If a state institution is not producing the effects it is supposed to, you scrap it and try something else.

But even when we do rely on markets, we need to keep corporations in check. They will maximize profits by whatever means they can get away with. (That's not a statement about "evil CEOs" but rather about the nature of the system, and the ways it promotes some kinds of behavior over others.) It's the state's job to set the rules and enforce them so that corporate interests don't trump human ones.

Why is that so difficult for some people to swallow? I don't understand how you can be totally distrustful of one large set of institutions (government) and totally trusting of another (the market). (I mean, at least most first world governments are ostensibly democratic.) As with any powerful entities, we should set them up in opposition to each other to ensure that none becomes too strong. But instead, we get them colluding while most citizens are too fat and entertained to really care.

(Hmmm... This is not the most coherent post I've ever written. I need to refine some of these thoughts, but I might as well publish it as is for now.)


In Defense of Hypocrisy

[This entry is something I originally posted on another (private) blog of mine, with a few minor edits. I was prompted to write it after recent incidents involving presidential candidate Barack Obama and popular website BoingBoing, both of whom have been mercilessly accused of hypocrisy in the recent past. The cases aren't really equivalent--I think Obama is actually more deserving of the epithet--but I did get sick of all the drama.]

Yes, that's right, I'm going to defend hypocrisy.

A lot of otherwise nonjudgmental people seem very quick to throw out this particular accusation. Nobody likes a hypocrite, but why? I think it's time to challenge some assumptions.

The first problem with calling people out on hypocrisy is that we're all hypocrites (for example: I have in the past and probably will in the future call people out for hypocrisy). Many of us have at least a few strong ideals that we will share with other people from time to time, but we're all of us imperfect, human: we don't always live up to our values, although we're very good at making excuses for ourselves when we fail.

There's been some social scientific research on hypocrisy, but I don't feel like looking it up and you probably don't feel like reading it. Suffice to say, from what I have perused, there's evidence (surprise, surprise!) that hypocrisy is quite common, for just about everyone. But we all know this, anyway, from experience, so I'll move on.

At this point you may object: "Sure, we're all hypocrites sometimes, but some are bigger than others. Nobody listens to me, but public figures can have a lot of influence on other people, and there's nothing worse than them telling others not to do things that they themselves do."

My response to this brings me to my second point. Sometimes it's okay to hold different people by different standards. (In fact, the very objection hypothetically posed presupposes that public figures be held to a different standard than private citizens.)

Take Al Gore as an example. He travels around the world a lot, doing his slideshow and so forth, to try to convince people of the enormity of human-caused global warming and to inspire them to take action against it. Since he doesn't have a magical zero-emissions jet, his carbon footprint is rather considerable.

Now let's pretend (counterfactually; in truth, Gore spends large amounts of money to offset his carbon footprint) that he ignored this fact and continued to do his slideshow all over the world. Has our hypothetical Gore lost all credibility because he's a hypocrite?

In a world of black-and-white morals (like Tennessee, perhaps), that might be the case. I don't know how many times I've heard arguments to this effect: "Don't trust Noam Chomsky; he hasn't given up all his positions to go live on an anarchosyndicalist commune!" But in the real world, sometimes you have to do things you don't approve of in order to accomplish things you value more. Gore has changed so many other people's behavior that his effect will be a net positive regardless of what he does.

Take another, less controversial example. Let's say that you really support candidate X or proposition Y and spend large amounts of effort, time, and money to convince people to vote for him/her/it. Voting day comes around, and you suffer a lapse of energy, deciding to stay home instead of going out to the polls. As it happens, the race is close (say 100 votes), but your desired outcome is achieved. (Elections are almost never decided by a single vote.) Would you be a hypocrite in this case? In a sense, yes, but you still achieved more good than if you had merely voted without campaigning. (In presidential elections, this is more excusable for people who don't live in swing states.)

In short, people's circumstances often differ. We live in an egalitarian-minded society, but few ethical rules can be applied uniformly without consideration for the situation. When the actions of a mass of people easily outweigh those of an individual, hypocrisy isn't all that bad (except to the extent that it does in fact undermine your credibility, reducing your potential impact).

Third, and finally, accusations of hypocrisy are often leveled as excuses for one's own questionable behavior. In logic, there is a seldom invoked fallacy called "tu quoque", which is just Latin for "you too", that applies to charges of hypocrisy. It's an instance of ad hominem, in which you attack the speaker rather than what s/he says. Wikipedia has a decent article on it, so let me copy their formulation. The following argument is invalid:

A makes criticism P.
A is guilty of P.
Therefore, P is dismissed.

I see this a ton on political blogs. "The Republicans are telling us not to use 527s to smear them? But what about the Swiftboat Vets, etc.? If they can do it, we certainly can too!" This is one reason the high road is seldom taken in politics.

But you can see how easily this can be used to rationalize a person's behavior. In the previous example, if dirty politics is wrong in one case, then it's still wrong for you to do it even if your opponent does it and at the same time says not to do it. It may make it easier on your conscience, but just because large numbers of people do something does not make it right. (Two wrongs don't make a right, as it is often said but seldom practiced. :-) )

In this case, in fact, the accusers are being doubly hypocritical. First, for trying to justify their use of practice Z, which they otherwise say is wrong, and second, for accusing another person of being a hypocrite while themselves being hypocritical ("meta-hypocrisy" you might call it).

Look what has happened here, though. In all the accusations back and forth of hypocrisy, the real moral issues at stake have been lost sight of. Instead of discussing the appropriateness of policy T, we end up discussing whether minor infraction U counts as a violation of principle V, thereby making actor W a hypocrite. While these kinds of social games may be fun (and increase TV ratings), they are totally counterproductive.

So the next time you feel the urge to accuse someone of hypocrisy, stop a moment and think if it really matters. (Just because everyone else likes to yell "hypocrite!"--including me, at least sometimes--doesn't make it right, after all.) If it's an issue that you care about, playing the hypocrisy game will be self-defeating. More likely than not it will serve as a distraction, leaving the undesirable status quo in place. Why not just focus on what's objectionable about the policy position, behavior, or whatever, that's in question?