The Wrong Tool

I’m occasionally asked why I seem to side more with conservatives than progressives.

Well, I’m absolutely not conservative. I acknowledge that there is some inexplicit knowledge embedded within traditions, and I’m hesitant to change things very radically when the likely consequences of these changes are uncertain. But, I resist revering things that appear stupid, just because they have a long history. I want to do what makes sense. I want people to be free to challenge orthodoxy. I want people to be able to be weird. I don’t have to understand and appreciate what they’re doing. I think progress is made by people who go against traditions. And, even though people will often be mistaken, I think it’s more respectful to let them make their (peaceful) mistakes than to force them to conform to traditions they disagree with.

So, I share many values with progressives. I value individual liberty. I care about human welfare, and justice. I’m against the state getting involved in private aspects of our lives (like religion, expression, sex, etc.).

Where I differ with progressives is that I don’t share their romantic notion of the state. The two major party candidates do seem to share it, unfortunately.

I think the state, being an agency of force, should be limited as much as logically possible. It should only do those things that are appropriate to do with force (i.e. defend people from force and fraud, establish and enforce a legal framework that enables private trade and cooperation, etc.). It shouldn’t go beyond these things, because it will cause more problems than it solves, and may lead to tyranny.

There’s a joke about everything looking like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. It seems that many on the left think that the state is the only appropriate tool for the big problems that they see.

But, it’s usually the wrong tool.

I think that many people are confused between the collective action of civil society and that of government. They’re two very different things.

I can understand how the predisposition to use the power of the coercive leadership of the collective to address major problems may have evolved during times when tools for communication and cooperation among individuals were extremely limited. But, we don’t live in that time now. We have lots of predispositions that most of us have chosen to overcome (like rape, assault, murder…) . This should be one of them.

Now, people can solve all sorts of problems via voluntary cooperation; both via private for-profit companies and markets, and private non-profit organizations that marshal the resources of people who agree with the cause.

The primary “advantage” gained by doing things through government is that the government can force the unwilling to contribute to causes they wouldn’t otherwise support (or support as much as the proponents demand). This is a very dangerous path. Not only is it unfair and disrespectful to unwilling individuals, but this power created with good intentions will inevitably become controlled by those with the most political skill and influence, not those with the most noble intentions. The incentives are all wrong, and reducing existing government power is very difficult.

So, while I agree with many of the ends, I think that progressives have chosen the wrong means. I think they revere collective action over individual action too much, and state action over private action too much, and I think they are sabotaging the institutions that are likely to actually improve our condition and solve our problems.

So, at present, while both major parties are a threat to individuals and the positive institutions of civil society, I think that Democrats’ agenda will do more harm more quickly and we’re better off if they’re slowed down by a vibrant Republican opposition and conservative judges.

So, when Democrats are ascendant, I’ll probably spend most of my time criticizing them. When Republicans gain power and fail to act on their limited-government rhetoric, I criticize them as well.

I hope we can get enough gridlock to allow private civil society to progress quickly enough to make the government’s destructive initiatives relatively harmless.

It’s a race, and I’m rooting for technology to beat politics.

Bathroom Justice!

Ok, I’ve blogged enough about politics and religion. It’s time for a really controversial issue…

If a bathroom is shared among male(s) and female(s), should the toilet seat always be put down, or should it stay where it was after its last use?

(Let’s assume this is a private bathroom; so the issue is one of practicality, rather than presentability. Even if it isn’t, it’s easy enough to change the policy when entertaining.)

The first question that comes to my mind when considering which policy is best is “Which policy requires people to adjust the seat position the most?

Let’s call one policy AD (Always Down) and the other candidate policy CWN (Change When Needed). There are other potential candidates, but I think these are the main interesting ones.

Even without going through the gory details of the math, I think you can see that the answer is that AD requires more seat adjustments.

In AD, all of the seat adjustments are driven by a male urinating. Whenever this happens the seat must be raised before use, and lowered afterwards. So the number of seat adjustments in a day is twice the number of male urinations in a day (let’s call M1 the event and m1 the average number of M1 events in a day); so we have 2m1.

At first, I suspected that CWN would be better unless the ratio of females to males rose above a certain point, and then AD would be better. But, that turns out not to be the case.

In CWN, the worst case is also 2m1 (two adjustments for each M1, but at different times). But, if there are ever consecutive M1 events, we save two adjustments (one after the earlier M1 and another before the later one) In most cases, I think CWN will yield a number significantly below 2m1, but as we change the scenario (e.g. by adding females to the environment) to increase the frequency of non-M1 events (F1, F2, M2), consecutive M1s will become less and less frequent and we approach 2m1 as a worst case limit.

Note also that the answer to another interesting question: “On whom does the burden of adjusting the seat fall under each policy?” is that under AD the entire burden falls on the male(s), and under CWN at least half of the burden falls on the male(s) (because it will always be a male who raises the seat, and it will sometimes be a male who lowers it), and some falls on the females.

So, it seems that CWN is superior to AD with respect to both seat-adjustment effort, and a more equitable sharing of the seat-adjustment burden. AD imposes the entire burden on the males, and the burden is higher than what CWN divides between the genders.

OK” I can hear some women saying, “But the issue isn’t just seat-adjustment effort. It’s also the effort to remember to check the seat before using the toilet. How does that compare?

I’m glad you asked.

Under AD, the remembering burden is also proportional to 2m1 (the male(s) remember to check and raise (sounds like poker!) the seat before M1 and remember to lower it after M1). Once again, the entire remembering burden falls on the males. Females can just sit down with confidence.

Under CWN, everyone has to check before each use, but nobody has to remember to make an adjustment afterwards. So for males the number of checks is m1+m2 and for females it’s f1+f2. Since I think it’s fair to assume that m1>m2, this is better for the males than 2m1. And, the burden is similar for the females (compared to males) assuming that they use the toilet approximately the same number of times throughout the day. Admittedly, under CWN, the total number of rememberings will be more than under AD if 2m1<(m1 + m2 + f1 + f2), which will probably happen whenever there are more females than males, but the burden will be shared and it will be better for each person under CWN than for the average male under AD.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear to me that CWN is superior, in terms of both efficiency and burden-equity, to AD.

So, ladies, will you do the reasonable thing and agree to a CWN policy?

Or, will you stubbornly insist on AD?

UPDATE: Glen Whitman applies some Coasean analysis to the problem…

Religion and Reason

This is not a topic that can be comprehensively analyzed in a single blog post that anybody is likely to ever read. But I thought that since I’m trying to represent myself as somebody with a commitment to reason, I should at least address the subject.

So, here are a few semi-random thoughts:

First of all, I don’t hate religion or think all religious people are stupid. I have good, smart, friends who are religious to some extent, and I think I have some understanding why. I have respect for these people, but on this issue I think they’re mistaken.

I don’t want to discuss the logical arguments for God here. They are all invalid and have been discussed well elsewhere. One book on the subject I remember enjoying years ago is George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God . I think most serious people don’t think that they can defend their religious beliefs logically, but they believe for other reasons, and it’s these I want to comment on. I also don’t want to get into the merits and problems with any particular organized religions; nothing good can come from that.

Several people have told me that the main reason that they believe in God is because they have personally experienced something so powerful and profound that it left them with no doubt about God’s existence. Well, I understand the desire to take your experiences seriously, but it seems to me that we know that our brains are not perfect reality receptors. They are subject to various influences including fatigue, illness, stress, etc. If we experience something that seems implausible, we should subject it to criticism before accepting it. Today I came across this essay that addresses some materialistic explanations for some of these experiences. I’m not saying that these are the exact explanations, but it seems to me that it’s more reasonable to attribute these phenomena to natural rather than supernatural events when possible.

There are other psychological reasons for religion’s appeal. One is the pressure to conform to one’s family and peers. Another is that some of life’s questions are difficult and there’s a common desire for easy answers that can come from an authority. These questions include issues of life’s meaning, ethics, explanation of events, death, etc. Again, I understand the appeal of these pressures, but I think we should prefer the truth to convenient lies; even if the truth is that we just don’t know the answer right now.

When my mother died, I thought about these issues (briefly, I admit). I decided that it would be a dishonor to her (and me) to appeal to mysticism to help myself deal with her death. She was a human being. Human beings are special among the creatures we know of because they can independently understand aspects of the world, choose their values and create new knowledge. To reduce them to the status of pets who get their direction and purpose from a higher-level creature is to strip them of much of their nobility. So, I decided that this appeal to mysticism would create new problems for me and solve none.

Ok, I’ll talk about one logical argument, only because it’s so annoying: Pascal’s Wager (basically that we should believe in God because the benefits of being right and costs of being wrong are infinite if He exists, and negligible if He doesn’t). I have never understood why this argument seemed persuasive to people. To me it seems both unhelpful and incoherent.

It’s unhelpful because, even if we accepted its premises, it doesn’t tell us anything about God or what he wants us to do. Pascal may have assumed that the choice was between Roman Catholicism and atheism, but there are many other theological possibilities. How are we to know what God wants us to do? Can I eat pork, or not?

On the other hand it’s incoherent because it doesn’t make sense to believe in the fact of God because of the costs and benefits if he happens to exist. Even if I were persuaded that it made sense, it wouldn’t help me actually believe that he exists. It would only motivate me to pretend to believe. And I suspect that an omniscient God would be able to tell.

On the third hand, it’s not true that the benefits and costs are negligible if He doesn’t exist. If we don’t believe, then we’ll spend our lives trying to make the most of them, because this life is all we expect to get. If we believe in God and an afterlife, we’ll spend our time trying to conform to rules that promise to help us do better in the afterlife; and may have wasted much of the precious life that we had. This seems to be a huge cost to me.

Finally, if there is a God, and he set things up so that unless I reject the epistemological tools that serve me best in every other aspect of my life, He’ll punish me with eternal damnation; then I refuse to respect him anyway. I’ll go with the wrench.

UPDATE: Those who find the Pascal’s Wager argument persuasive should probably send money to Alex Tabarrok, too.


Is voting reasonable?

I think that the correct answer is: it depends.

If the reason you’re voting is to affect the outcome of the current election, then it seems pretty unreasonable to me. As the number of voters grows, the probability of your individual vote swaying the election approaches zero. As the article I refer to later says:

Since the chance of one’s own vote proving decisive is less by several orders of magnitude than the likelihood of being maimed in an auto accident while on the way to the polls, it would seem that a truly rational person will instead devote the half hour in question to reading a good book, drinking whiskey sours, or pursuing some other end that yields a perceptible positive return.

But is there another, rational, reason to vote?

Yes, I think so. In 1992, I read an article by Loren Lomasky in Reason Magazine that still affects my thinking on this issue.

In it, Lomasky argues that rational people vote for expressive reasons rather than the instrumental reason of deciding the outcome of the election. He gives the analogies of cheering at a football game or giving a “Get Well Quick!” card to a sick friend. We don’t do these things because we expect to change the outcome (or, more precisely, that the probability of changing the outcome multiplied by the value to us of that change exceeds the cost of the action). We do them because we want to express our support. We want other people to know what we support, and to just feel good about doing something that expresses that support. If you value the returns from this expression more than the expected costs to you, then it makes sense for you to do it.

So, suppose that you favor libertarian policies, but would prefer that a Republican candidate win vs. the Democrat candidate. This election has a Libertarian candidate as well. What should you do? It seems to me that the reasonable thing to do depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re trying to sway the election, you should forget about it and go read a good book or something.

But, if you’re voting for expressive reasons, then I think you should vote for the candidate who best represents your preferences. And that candidate is the Libertarian. I think you should do this even if you don’t really want this particular candidate to win (let’s say his approach to how to transition to libertarianism is different from yours). You should want people who analyze the results of the election to get the right message from your vote. You should want them to know that there was one more voter who favors libertarian policies, and hopefully they’ll modify their behavior to try to accomodate libertarians a bit more. But if you vote for the Republican, you’ll be sending the wrong message (or at least an ambiguous one).

So, if you want to send a libertarian message you should vote Libertarian. If you want to send a Republican message, you should vote Republican.

If you want to send a Democrat or Green message, you shouldn’t bother voting. Your vote won’t affect the outcome.


What makes things funny?

It seems like such a simple question that it must have a simple answer. But, I don’t think that there is one simple answer. I’ve always been considered funny. I’ve been good at coming up with a funny quip, telling jokes, predicting the punch lines of new jokes. I have a good internal sense of what I find funny, and what others will find funny; but I’ve never been satisfied with any explicit theory about what makes things funny.

Here are some tentative thoughts.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between things that are funny and reasons we laugh. I think we laugh for other reasons in addition to finding things funny. We often laugh to communicate things to people; that we share values, that we’re not threatening (or that we are), etc. I’m sure there are lots of evolutionary sociological reasons that explain laughter. I’m not very interested in these.

But, what makes something funny?

The only thing that I can say that all funny things have in common is that they “tickle” our minds in an interesting way that pleases us.

I’ve heard it said that all humor is happiness at the misfortune of others. That’s not quite true, but it does seem to be the case that a lot of humor removes the dignity of somebody. Sometimes we’re being cruel to some group that’s out of favor in our local culture; but this might be more about the social aspect, like laughing, than about the pure humor. Also, we seem to like bursting the bubble of people who have a level of undeserved dignity, or superiority. That’s why bosses, teachers, politicians, priests, prudes, etc. are often the target of jokes. We are amused when they are shown to have human frailty and there’s nothing they can do to us about it. Also, slapstick seems to involve a quick transition from a noble, thinking, human to a lump of matter subjected to uncaring natural forces. We’re also amused by things that violate taboos because it’s fun to bring down those who think that some things should be off-limits to jokes. We don’t feel really threatened because humor keeps us safe from serious social attack; we were only joking, we’re not serious, etc. But being able to play with forbidden ideas is serious, and we like it.

But not all humor is like that. Some humor is just a clever turn of phrase, or double meaning, or surprise, or outrageous idea. While you might be able to find some imagined person whose dignity was diminished by the joke, I don’t think that’s what makes it funny.

I think we like to have our minds stimulated in interesting ways. We like to have to make or recognize a clever association. We like to be surprised; to have to switch contexts to see things in a new way. I think this is partially because this “cleverness” triggers a positive response. We like cleverness. We solved problems as children by changing our perspective, making new associations, etc. And we drew squeals of joy and other indications of approval from our mothers and other adults when we performed these feats. It makes sense that they would stay pleasing to us.

By the way, I realize that most funny things comprise both elements: context switch AND dignity reduction. I just wanted to make it clear that the dignity reduction wasn’t an essential part of all humor.

Anyway, these are my tentative thoughts. Criticisms are welcome.

Especially funny ones.

UPDATE 3: The book described in this post, now represents my best theory of humor.

UPDATE 2: This post is relevant.

UPDATE 1: I just heard that it’s Bob Hope’s 100th birthday today. Seems appropriate. Happy Birthday, Bob!


Are ethical hedonists right? Is happiness the only important thing about life; the thing we should be exclusively interested in maximizing?

Robert Nozick presented an interesting thought-experiment in The Examined Life (and also discussed this in Anarchy, State, and Utopia):

Imagine a machine that could give you any experience (or sequence of experiences) you might desire. When connected to this experience
machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel “from the inside.” You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. If your imagination is impoverished, you can use the library of suggestions extracted from biographies and enhanced by novelists and psychologists. You can live your fondest dreams “from the inside.”

Would you choose to do this for the rest of your life? If not, why not? (Other people also have the same option of using these machines which, let us suppose, are provided by friendly and trustworthy beings from another galaxy, so you need not refuse connecting in order to help others.) The question is not whether to try the machine temporarily, but whether to enter it for the rest of your life. Upon entering, you will not remember having done this; so no pleasures will get ruined by realizing that they are machine-produced. Uncertainty too might be programmed by using the machine’s optional random device (upon which various preselected alternatives can depend).

Would you connect for the rest of your life?

Please ignore any issues you may have about whether such a machine is possible (assume that it is). The point is to test whether you really believe that all that matters, ultimately, is your internal feeling of happiness.

I think most people would not permanently connect to such a machine, and they’d be correct to make that choice. Happiness is good because it is a signal that things are going well; that our values are being furthered. But, what’s important are the things, not the signal. Focusing exclusively on happiness is like focusing on the symptom rather than the disease.

For most of us, our values involve real things in the real world. This connection with reality is very important to us; it gives our lives meaning. Responding to a simulation, while useful for providing fun and knowledge, is not what we most want.

I think Nozick sums up very well:

We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to—and then to give it that response.


Ok, so I claim to strive to be reasonable. What do I mean by reasonable?

To me, being reasonable means having a commitment to using reason to determine what makes sense, what’s appropriate, what’s true, and what’s good; and then acting in accordance with those judgments. The uniquely human abilities to understand the world, to create knowledge, to teach and learn from others seem so precious to me that it strikes me as clear that these are things to value and pursue.

Being reasonable requires being rational. This entails accepting fallibility; that none of our knowledge is certain, and is all subject to criticism. We don’t know things because the beliefs are justified in the sense of being provably true, but we should hold those theories that are the best (meaning they conform with the facts as we can observe them, have great explanatory power without unhelpful complexity, have survived the severest criticism, etc.) that we know of. We should prefer the truth to comfortable fantasies. This doesn’t mean that fantasies can’t be valuable; they can. But we shouldn’t confuse them with reality.

Being reasonable requires perspective. We should consider which factors are more important, and which are less important before we take actions. Perspective is easy to lose after spending time focusing on some aspect of a situation, or when strong emotions are involved, so we should be careful to re-evaluate how important things are as we proceed. We often need to trade-off some things in order to get others and shouldn’t let the unattainable perfection prevent us from pursuing the attainable good.

Being reasonable requires a healthy skepticism. We shouldn’t accept things as true just because they are common knowledge. Memes don’t become successful by being true and good for people; they become successful by being effective at propagating themselves. This success can happen many ways, but some of them are by exploiting mental laziness and irrationality. So, we can improve the meme pool by trying to not be mentally passive hosts and transmitters of bad ideas, but subject theories to the tests of rationality discussed above, and accept and transmit only the best theories we know of.

Being reasonable requires a good attitude towards change. Many people are overly pessimistic with respect to change. Change carries risks, but also opportunities. All progress requires change. We can try to resist it at every turn and suffer the consequences; or we can embrace it and deal with it rationally. For an amusing treatment of how to deal with change personally, see this book. For an excellent treatment of the larger societal issues related to how we deal with change, see the book promoted here.

Relationships are very important in life. Being reasonable socially entails being flexible, kind, humorous, generous (but not self-sacrificial) because acting this way makes life more pleasant, helps people reap the synergistic benefits of cooperation, overcoming initial differences in plans and expectations. We often gain by being open to pursuing a common preference rather than by stubbornly standing on our rights.

There’s a lot more to being reasonable than I’ve sketched here, but it’s a start.

The Toilet Paper Question

You’re using a reasonably well-maintained public restroom and there are two rolls of toilet paper available for use, with differing amounts of paper left on each roll. Which one should you use: the roll with more paper, or the roll with less paper?

Of course, if you’re a selfish bastard then it doesn’t matter as long as there’s enough for you. But, is there any good reason that a decent person with concern for his fellow restroom user should choose one roll over the other? The answer is yes, and it’s pretty obvious if you think about it. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people have thought about it.

You should choose the roll with less paper on it.

Why? Because that way, if most people followed this rule, one of the rolls will empty faster and be available for replacement with a full roll when the maintenance person next checks. That will make it less likely that some unfortunate soul will be stranded with two empty rolls.

The world would be more pleasant if everyone followed this simple rule, but it’s clear that they don’t because I often see two rolls with roughly the same low amount of paper left. This is one of many cases where a misguided egalitarian tendency (“I think I’ll use the roll with more paper because then they’ll be more equal…”) leads to unintended bad consequences.

UPDATE: An anonymous reader entered this comment:

A valid point, from an altruistic perspective. However, call me a “selfish bastard,” but I always choose the roll with more paper. Why? More paper means fewer people have used it before, which in turn means that there is a lower probability that someone has contaminated the roll. So from a strictly personal standpoint, it may make more sense to use the full roll for hygienic reasons.

This is my response:

This is invalid. Only a brand new roll will be more hygienic (if the maintenance person who installed it is cleaner than the average user). But, after that they’re equal. The inward-facing side of the paper is still as clean as the machine that rolled it. And only one circumference (plus a little) of a non-new roll may have been touched by others regardless of how much paper is left. I guess the edge may have been handled a bit more, but I suspect this difference is negligible. In fact, the smaller surface area of the roll with less paper probably more than compensates for any extra handling. So, be nice. OK? I don’t think there’s a real cost in this case.

UPDATE 2: Here is a nice design that implements my solution.