February 2015
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Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at jw@bway.net. I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. I have gotten into the habit of leaving out full names and email addresses; I have had too many people think better of something they said fifteen years ago. If you want your name and email included, let me know. Flames, however, will be published with full name and email address.

Dear Jonathan:

Is Ridicule of Mohammed to be tolerated as Free Expression?

The First Amendment starts with freedom of religion, freedom of belief. This means, in particular, that the Federal Government would not prosecute heresy. Once that was understood and accepted, the next step, freedom of expression was a smaller step, with the exception of speech that effectively challenged governmental policies or figures, which John Adams notably struggled with, and the Feds still do of late (eg, communists, MLK, Black Panthers, AIM, Occupy).

Nonetheless, in theocratic countries, if there is not religious equality, it should not be too surprising that heresy is seen as a state problem. It is true that many of the recent murders in defense of Mohammed have not been carried out by the state; that is, after trial and conviction, but after perhaps some other type of Star Chamber proceeding, more ad hoc than Terror Tuesdays.

Until our sense of Freedom of Thought is accepted by others, it should not be a surprise to see our sense of Freedom of Speech violated.


Hi Jonathan,

I am reading the article Why I am not a libertarian, and it is one of the better, rational arguments for more freedom, but against absolute freedom I have read in a long time. I consider myself a libertarian too, but I too am "struggling" to find out where my limit goes. Should a single person owning the water rights to a river be allowed to forbid everyone else to drink from it?

I do have a few comments though. Don't take these as an argument against what you say in your article. Mostly it is just continuations of some of the thoughts, twists on thinking etc. I write them to you just as much to get the arguments out there, for others to scrutinize.

1) The tragedy of the commons.

Something is both right and wrong in the tragedy of the commons.

It seems wrong to me that collective ownership is what causes the moral hazard in the tragedy of the commons. After all, what is the difference between a big, public company owned by thousands of investors, and a village owning a common gracing area, pond or river? I believe that collective ownership in the form of shares very much proves that collective ownership can work.

I believe the real cause of the moral hazard in the tragedy of the commons is when action and consequence are disconnected. When a human being does not have to suffer the consequences of his or her actions. You can observe this moral hazard in both public and private organisations.

A person overfishing a pond or the ocean does so because it has no short term consequence for him. People putting their dirty shoes on the seat of a privately owned train also does so because they believe it will have no consequences for themselves. Goldman Sachs selling bad debt and betting against it afterwards was also primarily done because Goldman Sachs would not have to suffer the consequences of selling bad debt.

My point being, that short term ego-negative behaviour (good for me, bad for others) is not really caused because something is individually or collectively owned, but because people believe they can get away with it without consequences for themselves.

If there was death penalty for destroying the commonly owned gracing area, I am sure it would be kept a lot better. Not that I believe in death penalty for that crime. I just say this as an example - that if actions having potentially dire consequences for the actor, the actor may think twice before destroying a resource, regardless of whether the resource is owned privately or publicly.

There is a middle ground, by the way: Commonly owned, privately managed. The country owns the coral reef and have decided that it must be preserved for the future. But instead of hiring people to work for the state, the state hires one or more private companies to do the job. This avoids some of the inefficiencies of the state.

2) People are irrational in groups, but rational individually.

If you read the book "The Wisdom of Crowds" you will learn that some types of group action really is irrational and bad. The book explains the dynamics better than I can. Basically the book explains why markets work very well (are wise) while consensus driven groups are bad at making good decisions (are unwise).

In fact, a market individuals can collectively be smarter than any single individual in the market. This is not true for consensus driven groups.

As far as I can tell it is not the "profit motive" that makes markets smarter, but the aggregation of information into a kind of "weighed average" rather than an "agreed average". But I am not 100% sure.

3) The price of libertarianism

In the article you mention that we deserve to know how many people will die off in a libertarian society in order to decide if that is acceptable of not - just like whether the risk of getting into your car and driving to work is acceptable or not.

While I agree to that argument, along those lines we must also know how many die today of inadequate health care, or hunger or who live in depression because of government run health care and social benefits. If somebody tells me that the price in terms of deaths and human suffering is zero in a welfare state, that would be equally dishonest.

In Denmark where I come from, we have 5000 people dying every year in hospitals of diseases etc. they did not have when they were hospitalized. We are a population of 5.5 million, so that is almost 0.1% of the population that dies every year from that. I don't know what the number is in a country with private health care.

Then we have all the suicides (Denmark has a high suicide rate) from depressed people. Some of which become pacified by welfare benefits. I have no exact numbers though.

The same argument goes for rent regulation schemes. First we must determine how many are homeless as a result of rent regulation schemes. For instance, rent regulation decreases the incentive to build new homes to offer for rent. So, there will be less homes to rent, which must inevitably result in homelessness too.

4) Libertarianism and Compassion

Profit is not the only motive in a free society. Compassion and altruism is a perfectly acceptable incentive too.

Offending someone is not hurting them. Being offended is a choice. It is very often learned behaviour. You learn to be offended over this and that. Seeing a naked women was natural many, many years ago. Now it is not.

Receiving a blow to the face and feeling harm is not a choice. Your body is physically harmed. You don't need to learn that, and though you can learn to ignore the pain and injury, you cannot unlearn that a blow to your face can cause injury. But you *can* unlearn that an action offends you. You can learn to ignore it.

Other than that I must say I feel I agree with your position on laws against discrimination based on gender or race. I do believe in the right to discriminate based on behaviour.

5) Free rider problem

One aspect of libertarianism you do not explicitly mention is the free rider problem. Let us say that 90% of the population of a geographical area (e.g. a city) agress to collectively pay for protection. City walls, guards and perhaps a standing army. The 10% of the population who do not want to pay for that may still benefit from it, in case the city is attacked.

Or - 90% of the population of a city agree to pay for leading water into the city, into public wells. These public wells may still be used by non-payers. Yes, some systems could be deviced to prevent that, like leading the water directly into people's homes etc. But sometimes the price of preventing free riders can be very high. Higher perhaps, than just letting them free ride. But if you let them free ride, the percentage might increase from 10% to 15, 20 etc.

My own conviction is that we must try to work towards more voluntary solutions, not more government solutions. Of course, like you argue, there might be a limit where it breaks down. But we are far from there yet.