Sunday, April 27, 2008

holy crap.

The Toronto Star is running a story opposing handgun bans.

You read that right. Go read it. Now.

Coyne hits the in & out nail on the head.

imho, the "in-and-out" story should be dead. While I think the Tories broke the spirit of the law, and that if they want to be able to spend more they should be moving to eliminate any and all campaign spending limits (which are bad for free speech anyway, especially when they're imposed on non-party groups), this all could have been pointed out the first time we all had to hear about it.

Andrew Coyne gets even more to the heart of the problem in his opinion column in the latest Maclean's:
"If you want something to get upset about, you should know that a good part of all this spending, national or local, is on your dime: whether through tax credits for political contributions, or the reimbursements of candidate's expenses, or the infamous $1.75-per-vote "allowance" brought in under the Chretien reforms. If you ask me, that's a scandal. But whether a party spends with its left hand or its right? Meh."
I commented on the disparity between donations to charities and to political parties the other day, because I think Coyne is absolutely right.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Musings on Capital, Property and Morals

I recently read Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, which has been one of the better decisions I’ve made in my quest for intellectual development. I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the legal and economic basis of property rights, their historical development in the West or concrete strategies for helping developing nations.

(The book is also quite good for anyone under the mistaken opinion that the plight of the poor in the developing world is a result of the capitalist system. The perversions of capitalism under which power and property are monopolized by the rich and powerful through extensive government and bureaucratic force certainly have nothing to do with the spirits of freedom, entrepreneurship or capitalism.)

At any rate, as I neared the end of the book it occurred to me that comparing de Soto’s explanation of the failure of attempts to institute new property rights systems that aren’t in sync with the local informal systems to attempts to legislate morality might make the issue much clearer to those who hadn’t thought of it before.

Uncontroversial, effective law embodies the pre-existing values of society – opposition to theft and murder are good examples – and is almost universally followed.

Controversial and therefore oft-broken and ineffective laws usually try to impose a set of values not overwhelmingly held by society. In this category we see any number of attempts to prohibit consensual activities – probably the least controversial of which to address would be the tremendous failure of the prohibition of marijuana to stop or even significantly stem marijuana usage. Any number of public polls reveals why this law is so often broken – people don’t agree with it in the first place.

In The Mystery of Capital, de Soto alleges that the poor are not all without property as we often assume, and that in fact the majority of them have a great deal more property than we would expect - an estimated $9.3 trillion worldwide - including houses and businesses. This property is not legally owned, but held according to the social contracts of the communities in which they exist. These “extralegal” arrangements are not discovered or recorded by governments, let alone legislated, but they exist just the same.

The book argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that the secret to the economic progression and success of the developing world is the successful integration of these extralegal arrangements into cohesive legal property systems enforceable by higher levels of government. The fact that this has been successfully achieved only in the West explains “why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else.”

The historical failure of attempts to legally integrate the poor of developing nations into national property rights systems is explained by governments that have attempted to mimic Western property rights systems without recognizing and incorporating the property systems already informally in place.

The West, de Soto alleges, was able to develop a socially accepted and therefore effective legal property system only over time, working through and then with the existing arrangements of extralegal property owners rather than against them. The purpose of government, after all, isn't to create property rights, but to protect them.

It doesn't take much of a stretch to see how the explanation of the failure of legal systems de Soto makes a case for appears to apply also to failed attempts to legislate morality, rather than to simply codify existing values into law.

Margaret Gruter, quoted from Law and the Mind in de Soto’s book, puts it very succinctly:
“Law is... not simply a set of spoken, written or formalized rules that people blindly follow. Rather, law represents the formalization of behavioural rules, about which a high percentage of people agree, that reflect behavioural propensities and that offer potential benefits to those who follow them. (When people do not recognize of believe in these potential benefits, laws are often disregarded or disobeyed.)”
and de Soto correctly observes that "if the legal system does not facilitate the people’s needs and ambitions, they will move out of the system in droves” and simply own homes and operate businesses illegally.

new links

I've been remiss - these should have gone up as soon as I'd sat down to start blogging again.

For those who didn't hear about the wacky shenanigans of the D.C. park police at the impromptu silent dance party for Thomas Jefferson's birthday a few weeks ago, check out Free the Jefferson 1, a site dedicated to helping a dancer who found out the hard way that no, you cannot, in fact, dance if you want to. (Or, if you really want to, you must leave your friends behind.) The site will remain in my links until the situation is resolved. (Help out by donating, even if all you can contribute is $15 or $20... or perhaps $17.76?)

On a related note, my good friend Jason had started a blog in his post-Bureaucrash career over at J.D. Talley. Do check it out - it's closely related to the first link as he is right in the thick of things in the silent Thomas Jefferson dance party scene.

Friday, April 25, 2008

World Malaria Day

Today is World Malaria Day, a day for spreading awareness about this devastating disease.

You might think to yourself, "Well, it's very sad that over one million people a year die of this preventable, curable disease, but there are lots of diseases that people have the misfortune to suffer from simply because they are in third world countries. Why is this different?"

Well, unlike other diseases confined to less developed nations like polio, neglected tropical diseases, leprosy, etc. that are simply a result of being poverty stricken, (a problem for another post) malaria continues to be as prevalent as it has for one major reason: the privileged arrogance of the Western World.

And I don't mean that the way it's usually said. I don't think that our success, or capitalism, or any kind of economic circumstances are somehow causing more people to be bitten by mosquitoes.

The fact is, though, that we did a few very simple, affordable things to eliminate malaria in the first world, and we're not allowing people in nations still affected by malaria to do what we had to free ourselves of this disease.

In North America, we drained swamps to eliminate breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We basically drove them to extinction. Admittedly, it's led to a shortage of wetlands that isn't something that should be without consideration, but surely the elimination of human suffering that we've achieved is worth it - especially since a wetland shortage is something that we can find important only because these actions and others leading to our prosperity have already been taken.

Because we were foolish enough to spray DDT over whole fields, we deny the poorest, most disadvantaged people in the world the protection it offers - and it is some of the very best protection - in spite of study after study showing that the type of use needed to protect people is extremely safe.

And it's not that we're simply "more enlightened" these days. Take West Nile - a zoonotic disease with a human fatality rate considered negligible before it came to America. When West Nile started affecting us, though, our response was anything but negligible. Targeted pesticides in storm drains, mosquito repellent everywhere and massive public campaigns to eliminate standing water. I have an extremely hard time believing that if malaria were still filling wetlands we've eliminated we wouldn't drain them all over again.

Whatever you think of our obligations to humanitarian projects and aid for other countries, surely we can agree that we have an obligation to do no harm. We are not meeting that obligation, and the continued prevalence of malaria is one of the most devastating consequence.

At the very least the world's poorest people should have the option to protect themselves in the ways we did. They don't, and it's not something any of us should stand for.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

get fixxed

OK, after this I really am going to get back to studying, but in the meantime, check out Get Fixxed - blog of fellow liberty-lover, Xaq.

not at all related to Earth Day

Just a little tidbit for any doubters out there of public choice theory: compare the incentive to donate to a registered charity to the incentive to donate to a registered political party. You sure can see the difference it makes when you're the one who passes the law and the one who benefits from it.

For charitable donations in Canada:
In 2007, the first $200 you donate is eligible for a federal tax credit of 15.25% of the donation amount. After the first $200, the federal tax credit increases to 29% of the amount over $200. Generally, you can claim all or part of this amount up to a limit of 75% of your net income. For gifts of certified cultural property or ecologically sensitive land, you may be able to claim up to 100% of your net income.

For donations to a political party in Canada:
Income tax credits

When Parliament changed the Canada Elections Act, it also changed the Income Tax Act to allow higher income tax credits for political contributions by an individual:

* for contributions up to $400, a credit of 75 percent (for example, a $300 credit for a contribution of $400)

* for contributions from $401 to $750, a credit of $300 plus 50 percent of the amount over $400 (for example, a $475 credit for a contribution of $750)

* for contributions over $750, the lesser of $650 or $475 plus 33⅓ percent of the amount over $750 (for example, a $650 credit for a contribution of $1,275)

EDIT: As someone points out in the comments, your tax credit is hardly the end of it - it's hard to say, really, how much a $100 donation to a political party costs the taxpayer. $75 upon donating, plus if you're near an election, you can add 60% of any the donation spent in that election... plus 60% of any of that refund spent in the next election. It's safe to say, though, that every time you donate to a political party, especially during an election, you're probably going to cost the taxpayers as much as you're willing to pay - and maybe more.

more Earth Day fun.

More great reading for Earth Day - below is a great excerpt from a book talking about the politics of fear from the Post a few days ago. The passage is on Rachel Carson, and while it's lengthy, you really ought to give it a read.

Carson has a special place in my heart, and it's not a good place. You see, Carson and her sloppy attempt at science were largely responsible for the worldwide ban of DDT that has allowed malaria to continue to be such a huge problem for people in third-world nations. Of course I'm happy we've stopped using DDT in such large quantities that it was killing or mutating plants and animals, but the amount needed to deter mosquitoes has no such effect.

Malaria was once prevalent in North America. We used chemicals like DDT and drained swamps to fight it off, eliminate it and become successful. In large part thanks to Rachel Carson, though, we've never given millions of the poorest people in the world the chance to be free from this devastating and easily preventable disease.

For more information on why you, too, should remember Rachel Carson in infamy, visit Rachel Was Wrong, brought to you by the fantastic folks at CEI, where I'm ecstatic to say I'll be interning for Bureaucrash this summer.

Here's the article:

Thanks largely to Rachel Carson, the spectre of cancer has sown an irrational fear of chemicals
We really don’t like chemicals. We don’t even like the word. In surveys of the American public conducted by psychologist Paul Slovic, past president of the Society For Risk Analysis, people were asked to say what comes to mind when they hear the word chemical. The results were “dominated by negative imagery,” he says. “Death.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” In Canadian surveys carried out by Daniel Krewski, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, people were asked what thought pops into their minds when they hear the word risk. One common answer was “chemical.”

Water is a chemical, and so is mother’s milk. But that’s not how people use the word today. Chemicals are invented in laboratories and manufactured in giant industrial plants. And they are inherently dangerous, something to be avoided whenever possible. It is this cultural re-definition of “chemical” that has transformed organic produce from a niche market into a booming, multi-billion-dollar industry, and why the word natural has become the preferred adjective of corporate marketers, no matter what they’re selling. “The tobacco in most cigarettes contains additives drawn from a list of 409 chemicals,” reads an ad that appeared in American magazines in 2006. “Natural American Spirit is the only brand that features both cigarettes made with 100% organic tobacco as well as cigarettes made with 100% additive-free natural tobacco.”

This is new. Prior to the 1960s, “chemical” was associated with the bounty of science. It meant progress and prosperity, an image the DuPont corporation sought to capitalize on in 1935 with the help of a new slogan: “Better things for better living … through chemistry.” New products came to market with little or no testing and were used in massive quantities with scarcely a thought for safety. It was an era in which children caught in the mist of a crop duster had their faces washed by mothers who had no idea it would take more than a damp facecloth to make their children clean again.

The end of that era came in 1962, when Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published a book called Silent Spring. “For the first time in the history of the world,” Carson wrote, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”

Carson’s primary concern in Silent Spring was the damage being inflicted on the natural world by the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals, particularly DDT, a pesticide she believed was annihilating bird populations and threatening to usher in a springtime made silent by the absence of birdsong. But the book likely would not have come to much if it had stopped at that. Carson further argued that the chemical stew that was crippling the natural world was also doing terrible harm to Homo sapiens.

In a chapter entitled “One in Every Four,” Carson noted that the proliferation of synthetic chemicals that started in the late 19th century was paralleled by a rise in cancer. In the United States, Carson wrote, cancer “accounted for 15% of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4% in 1900.” The lifetime risk of getting cancer would soon be a terrifying one in four and “the situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing. A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease … 12% of all deaths in children between the ages of one and 14 are caused by cancer.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of Silent Spring. The book influenced a whole generation of policymakers and thoughtful citizens, including U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas and President John F. Kennedy. The chemical industry launched a campaign of nasty attacks on Carson — that “hysterical woman” — but that only raised the book’s profile and damaged the industry’s image. Commissions were launched to investigate Carson’s claims, and citizens’ groups formed to press for a ban on DDT and other chemicals. It was the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. In 1982, DuPont dropped the “through chemistry” part of its famous slogan. At the end of the century, Silent Spring routinely appeared on lists of the most influential books of all time, and Time magazine named Carson one of the “100 People of the Century.”

Carson didn’t live to see her words change the world. She died in 1964 — killed by breast cancer.

Cancer is the key to understanding why Silent Spring set off the explosion it did. It wasn’t just any disease Carson warned of. The very word cancer is “unclean,” wrote a survivor in a 1959 memoir. “It is a crab-like scavenger reaching its greedy tentacles into the life of the soul as well as the body. It destroys the will as it gnaws away the flesh.” Cancer has a unique image in modern culture. It is not merely a disease — it’s a creeping killer and we fear it like no other. Paul Slovic’s surveys show cancer is the only major disease whose death toll is actually overestimated by the public. It also has a presence in the media even bigger than its substantial toll.

And yet, despite its enormous presence in our culture, cancer wasn’t always the stuff of nightmares. “In 1896,” writes Joanna Bourke in Fear: A Cultural History, “the American Journal of Psychology reported that when people were asked which diseases they feared, only 5% named cancer, while between a quarter and a third drew attention to the scary nature of each of the following ailments: smallpox, lockjaw, consumption and hydrophobia [rabies]. In the fear-stakes, being crushed in a rail accident or during an earthquake, drowning, being burned alive, hit by lightning, or contracting diphtheria, leprosy or pneumonia all ranked higher than cancer.”

That changed after the Second World War. By 1957, cancer was such a terror that an oncologist quoted by Bourke complained that the disease had been transformed into “a devil” and the fear of cancer — “cancerophobia,” as he called it — had become a plague in its own right. “It is possible that today cancerophobia causes more suffering than cancer itself,” he wrote. With Silent Spring, Carson told people that this new spectre wasn’t just in their nightmares. It was all around them, in the air they breathe, the soil they walk on and the food they eat. It was even in their blood. Small wonder people paid attention.

Carson’s numbers suggested fear of cancer was rising rapidly simply because cancer was rising rapidly. But her numbers were misleading.

Carson’s statement that cancer “accounted for 15% of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4% in 1900” makes the common mistake of simply assuming that the disease’s larger share of the total is the result of rising rates of the disease. But according to U.S. Census Bureau data, cancer was the number seven killer in the period of 1900-04. Number one was tuberculosis. Number four was diarrhea and enteritis. Number 10 was typhoid fever followed by diphtheria at number 11. Scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles ranked lower but still took a significant toll. By the time Carson was writing in the late-1950s, vaccines, antibiotics and public sanitation had dramatically reduced or even eliminated every one of these causes of death. (In 1958, tuberculosis had fallen from the number one spot to number 15. Enteritis was number 19. Deaths due to diphtheria, scarlet fever and the rest had all but vanished.) With the toll of other causes dropping rapidly, cancer’s share of all deaths would have grown greatly even if the rate of cancer deaths hadn’t changed in the slightest.

The same facts take the sting out of the statement Carson thought was so important she put it in italics in her book: “Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” By 1962, traditional child killers such as diphtheria had been wiped out. More children were dying of cancer than any other disease not because huge numbers of children were dying of cancer but because huge numbers of children were not dying of other diseases.

As for the title of Carson’s chapter on cancer — “One in every four” — it comes from a 1955 report by the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicting that the then-current estimate of cancer striking one person in five would rise to one in four. But as age is the primary risk factor for cancer, the fact that far more people were surviving childhood and living to old age would inevitably mean more people would get cancer — mostly when they were old — and so the “lifetime risk” would rise.

However, the ACS noted that wasn’t the whole story. Data on cancer were still sketchy in that era but in the previous two decades there was an apparent 200% rise in the incidence of cancer among women and a 600% rise among men, which was mostly the result of a rise in only one type of cancer. Lung cancer “is the only form of cancer which shows so definite a tendency,” the report noted.

Lung cancer started to soar in the 1920s, 20 years after the habit of smoking cigarettes took off among men in the United States and other Western countries. Women didn’t start smoking in large numbers until the 1920s and 1930s — and 20 years after that, cancer among women took off as well. When smoking rates started to decline in the 1960s and 1970s — again, first among men — so did many cancers 20 years later. This pattern mainly involves lung cancer, but other forms of cancer are also promoted by smoking: cancers of the larynx, pancreas, kidney, cervix, bladder, mouth and esophagus.

But Carson didn’t write a word about smoking in Silent Spring. In fact, the only mention of tobacco is a reference (again, italicized for emphasis) to arsenic-bearing insecticides sprayed on tobacco crops: “The arsenic content of cigarettes made from American-grown tobacco increased more than 300% between the years 1932 and 1952.” Carson was nodding toward a popular theory of the day. It isn’t inhaling tobacco smoke that kills. Tobacco is natural and safe. It’s the chemicals added to tobacco that kill. This theory was fiercely advocated by Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute, who was a major influence on Carson’s views and is repeatedly quoted in Silent Spring.

At the time, that hypothesis was not unreasonable. The research linking smoking to cancer was fairly new and very little was known about synthetic chemicals and human health. And while the rise in cancer may not have been as enormous as Carson made it out to be, it was real, and the possibility that all these new wonder chemicals were the source was truly scary. From Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. In stores now. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission.

Happy Earth Day!

Here's a letter I sent to the paper today in response to the Premier's announced ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides. I could have gotten into more without the 300-word limit, but there's a lot to be said for brevity, too.

Boy, did I ever get a laugh out of Dalton McGuinty's Earth Day announcement of a ban on pesticide use for cosmetic purposes.

As much as I appreciate the Premier's attempt to pass off enacting a ban that, by his numbers, 90% of people support as political courage for the sake of the environment, I have to point out that the government really doesn't do much more for the environment than pay lip service.

I have no doubt that energy conservation is a good thing, and apparently neither does the government when banning incandescent light bulbs is concerned - but they continue to subsidize the price of electricity to "protect" us from the true cost of using it.

Whenever gas prices rise, we see politicians threatening to legislate a price cap, again to “protect” us. No one wants to pay high gas prices, but think of the incentive for Canadian auto manufacturers to produce more fuel efficient, green vehicles if their customers were dealing with $2.00 or $3.00/L fuel as they do in Europe, or for drivers to walk, bike or take the bus.

In the case of the pesticide ban, golf courses will be exempt. I am skeptical about how scary it is that my neighbour has a green, weed-free lawn, but if it is dangerous, shouldn’t golf courses be the number one target of this legislation? And if pesticides are so dangerous that we need to ban them, why is only cosmetic use being banned?

The government's Earth Day message: We're for the environment, so long as it won't cost us votes. Heartwarming.

I think that Premier McGuinty is right: Ontarians do want to be green. But we don't need bans to do it; we just need the government to get out of our way.

For more on how freedom can save the world, check out some of the talks from the Toronto Liberty Seminar's talks on government interference with environmentalism:

and on free-market environmentalism:

(They are in order, if you're interested in what Pierre's talking about at the beginning of his speech.)

There are two other talks from the TLS that should be appearing soon at the Institute for Liberal Studies site. Stay tuned!