A Philosopher's Blog

July 4th

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2015

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Secrecy and Lawmaking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2015

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has generated considerable controversy, mostly over what people think it might do. While making prediction about such complex matters is always difficult, there is a somewhat unusual challenge in making such prediction about the TPP. This challenge is that it is being kept secret from the public.

While senators are allowed to read the text of the TPP, it is being treated like an ultra-secret document. To gaze upon it, a senator must go to a secure basement room, hand over all electronics and then leave behind any notes he (or she) has written. An official from the US Trade Representative’s office watches them. After reading the document, the senator is not allowed to discuss the matter with the public, experts or lawyers.

While members of congress typically do not read the legislation the lobbyists have written for them to pass and the public usually has little interest in the text of bills, there is obviously still the question of justifying such secrecy. After all, the United States is supposed to be a democratic state and President Obama made all the right noises about transparency in government.

Robert Mnookin, of Harvard Law, has put forth stock justifications for such secrecy. The first justification is that having such matters open to the public is damaging to the process: “The representatives of the parties have to be able to explore a variety of options just to see what might be feasible before they ultimately make a deal. That kind of exploration becomes next to impossible if you have to do it in public.”

The second stock justification is that secrecy enables deals to be negotiated. As he says,  “In private, people can explore and tentatively make concessions, which if they publicly made, would get shot down before you really had a chance to explore what you might be given in return for some compromise.”

In support of Mnookin, public exposure does have its disadvantages and secrecy does have its advantages. As he noted, if the negotiating parties have to operate in public, this can potentially limit their options. To use the obvious analogy, if a person is negotiating for a raise, then having to do so in front of his colleagues would certainly limit her options. In the case of trade deals, if the public knew about the details of the deals, then there might be backlash for proposals that anger the public.

Secrecy does, of course, confer many advantages. By being able to work out the exploration in secret, the public remains ignorant and thus cannot be upset about specific proposals. Going with the salary analogy, if I can negotiate my salary in complete secrecy, then I can say things I would not say publicly and explore deals that I would not make in public. This is obviously advantageous to the deal makers.

Obviously, the same sort of reasoning can be applied to all aspects of government: if the ruling officials are required to operate in the public eye, then they cannot explore things without fear that the public would be upset by what they are doing. For example, if the local government wanted to install red-light cameras to improve revenues and had to discuss this matter openly, then the public might oppose this. As another example, if the state legislature wanted to cut a special deal for a company, discussing the payoff openly could be problematic.

Secrecy would, in all such cases, allow the ruling officials to work out various compromises without the troubling impact of public scrutiny. The advantages to the ruling officials and their allies are quite evident—so much so, it is no wonder that governments have long pushed for secrecy.

Naturally, there are some minor concerns that need to be addressed. One is that secrecy allows for deals that, while advantageous for those making the deals, are harmful to other members of the population. Those who think that government should consider the general welfare would probably find this sort of thing problematic.

Another trivial point of concern is the possibility of corruption. After all, secrecy certainly serves as an enabler for corruption, while transparency tends to reduce corruption. The easy reply is that corruption is only of concern to those who think that corruption is a bad thing, as opposed to an opportunity for enhanced revenue for select individuals. Put that way, it sounds delightful.

A third matter is that such secrecy bypasses the ideal of the democratic system: that government is open and that matters of state are publicly discussed by the representatives so that the people have an opportunity to be aware of what is occurring and have a role in the process. This is obviously only of concern to those misguided few who value the ideals of such a system. Those realists and pragmatists who know the value of secrecy know that involving the people is a path to trouble. Best to keep such matters away from them, to allow their betters to settle matters behind closed doors.

A fourth minor concern is that making rational decisions about secret deals is rather difficult. When asked what I think about TPP, all I can say is that I am concerned that it is secret, but cannot say anything about the content—because I have no idea what is in it. While those who wrote it know what is in there (as do the few senators who have seen it), discussion of its content is not possible—which makes deciding about the matter problematic. The easy answer is that since we do not matter, we do not need to know.

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Law Enforcement as Revenue Stream

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2015

After the financial class melted down the world economy, local governments faced an obvious reduction in their revenues. As the economy recovered under a Democrat President, the Republicans held onto or gained power in many state governments, such as my own adopted state of Florida. With laudable consistency with their professed ideology, Republicans routinely cut taxes for businesses, the well off and sometimes even almost everyone. While the theory seems to be that cutting taxes will increase the revenue for state and local governments, shockingly the opposite seems to happen: state and local governments find themselves running short of funds needed to meet the expenses of actually operating a civilization.

Being resourceful, local leaders seek other revenue streams in order to pay the bills. While cities like Ferguson provide well-known examples of a common “solution”, many cities and towns have embraced the practice of law-enforcement as revenue stream. While the general practice of getting revenue from law enforcement is nothing new, the extent to which some local governments rely on it is rather shocking. How the system works is also often shocking—it often amounts to a shakedown system one would expect to see in a corrupt country unfamiliar with the rule of law or the rights of citizens.

Since Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, has been the subject of extensive study, I will use the statistics from that town. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not appear to be unique or even unusual.

In 2013, Ferguson’s court dealt with 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. This works out to an average of 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per household in Ferguson. The fines and court fees that year totaled $2,635,400—making the municipal court the second largest revenue stream.

It would certainly be one thing if these numbers were the result of the legitimate workings of the machinery of justice. That is, if the cases and warrants were proportional to the actual crimes being committed and that justice was being dispensed fairly. That is, the justice was just.

One point of concern that has been widely addressed in the national media is that the legal system seems to disproportionally target blacks. In Ferguson, as in many places, the majority of the cases handled by the court arise from car stops. Ferguson is 29% white, but whites make up only 12.7% of those stopped. When a person is stopped, a black citizen will be searched 12.1% of the time, while a white citizen will be searched 6.9% of the time. In terms of arrest, a black citizen was arrested 10.4% of the time and a white citizen was arrested 5.2% of the time.

One stock reply to such figures is the claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites. If it were true that blacks were being arrested in proportion to the rate at which they were committing crimes, then this would be (on the face of it) fair. However, this does not seem to be the case. Interesting, even though blacks were more likely to be searched, the police discovered contraband 21.7% of the time. Whites who were searched were found with contraband 34.0% of the time. Also, 93% of those arrested in Ferguson were black. While certainly not impossible, it seems somewhat odd that 93% of the crime committed in the city was committed by black citizens.

Naturally, these numbers can be talked around or even explained away. It could be argued that blacks are not being targeted as a specific source of revenue and the arrest rates are proportional and just. This still leaves the matter of how the legal system operates in terms of being focused on revenue.

Laying aside all talk of race, Ferguson stands out as an example of how law enforcement can turn into a collection system. One key component is, of course, having a system of high fines. For example, Ferguson had a $531 fine for high grass and weeds, $792 for Failure to Obey, $527 for Failure to Comply, $427 for a Peace Disturbance violation, and so on.

If a person can pay, then the person is not arrested. But, if a person cannot afford the fine, then an arrest warrant is issued—this is the second part of the system. The city issued 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2013—and the city has a population of 21,000 people.

After a person is arrested, she faces even more fees, such the obvious court fees and these can quickly pile up. For example, a person might get a $150 parking ticket that she cannot pay. She is then arrested and subject to more fees and more charges. This initial ticket might grow to a debt of almost$1,000 to the city. Given that the people who tend to be targeted are poor, it is likely they will not be able to pay the initial ticket. They will then be arrested, which could cost them their job, thus make them unable to pay their court fees. This could easily spiral into a court inflicted cycle of poverty and debt. This, obviously enough, is not what the legal system is supposed to do.

From a moral standpoint, one main problem with using this sort of law enforcement as a revenue stream is the damage it does to the citizens who cannot afford the fines and fees. As noted in the example above, a person could find her life ruined by a single parking ticket. The point of law enforcement in a just society is to protect the citizens from harm, not ruin them.

A second point of moral concern is that this sort of system is racketeering—it puts forth a threat of arrest and court fees, and then offers “protection” from that threat in return for a fee. That is, citizens are threatened to buy their way out of a greater harm. This is hardly justice. If it was practice by anyone else, it would be criminal racketeering and a protection scheme.

A third point of moral concern is that the system of exploiting the citizens by force and threat of force damages the fundamental relation between the citizen and the democratic state. In feudal states and in the domains of warlords, one expects the thugs of the warlords to shake down the peasants. However, that sort of thing is contrary to the nature of a democratic state. As happened during the revolts against feudalism and warlords, people will rise up against such oppression—and this is to be expected. Robin Hood is, after all, the hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain.

This is not to say that there should not be fines, penalties and punishments. However, they should be proportional to the offenses, they should be fairly applied, and should be aimed at protecting the citizens, not filling the coffers of the kingdom. As a final point, we should certainly not be cutting the taxes of the well off and then slamming the poor with the cost of doing so. That is certainly unjust and will, intended or not, result in dire social consequences.


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Ebola, Safety & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2014
English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of...

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Polski: Mikrofotografia elektronowa cząsteczek wirusa Ebola w fałszywych kolorach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox, a nurse from my home state of Maine, returned to the United States after serving as a health care worker in the Ebola outbreak. Rather than being greeted as a hero, she was confined to an unheated tent with a box for a toilet and no shower. She did not have any symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. After threatening a lawsuit, she was released and allowed to return to Maine. After arriving home, she refused to be quarantined again. She did, however, state that she would be following the CDC protocols. Her situation puts a face on a general moral concern, namely the ethics of balancing rights with safety.

While past outbreaks of Ebola in Africa were met largely with indifference from the West (aside from those who went to render aid, of course), the current outbreak has infected the United States with a severe case of fear. Some folks in the media have fanned the flames of this fear knowing that it will attract viewers. Politicians have also contributed to the fear. Some have worked hard to make Ebola into a political game piece that will allow them to bash their opponents and score points by appeasing fears they have helped create. Because of this fear, most Americans have claimed they support a travel ban in regards to Ebola infected countries and some states have started imposing mandatory quarantines. While it is to be expected that politicians will often pander to the fears of the public, the ethics of the matter should be considered rationally.

While Ebola is scary, the basic “formula” for sorting out the matter is rather simple. It is an approach that I use for all situations in which rights (or liberties) are in conflict with safety. The basic idea is this. The first step is sorting out the level of risk. This includes determining the probability that the harm will occur as well as the severity of the harm (both in quantity and quality). In the case of Ebola, the probability that someone will get it in the United States is extremely low. As the actual experts have pointed out, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids while a person is infectious. Even then, the infection rate seems relatively low, at least in the United States. In terms of the harm, Ebola can be fatal. However, timely treatment in a well-equipped facility has been shown to be very effective. In terms of the things that are likely to harm or kill an American in the United States, Ebola is near the bottom of the list. As such, a rational assessment of the threat is that it is a small one in the United States.

The second step is determining key facts about the proposals to create safety. One obvious concern is the effectiveness of the proposed method. As an example, the 21-day mandatory quarantine would be effective at containing Ebola. If someone shows no symptoms during that time, then she is almost certainly Ebola free and can be released. If a person shows symptoms, then she can be treated immediately. An alternative, namely tracking and monitoring people rather than locking them up would also be fairly effective—it has worked so far. However, there are the worries that this method could fail—bureaucratic failures might happen or people might refuse to cooperate. A second concern is the cost of the method in terms of both practical costs and other consequences. In the case of the 21-day quarantine, there are the obvious economic and psychological costs to the person being quarantined. After all, most people will not be able to work from quarantine and the person will be isolated from others. There is also the cost of the quarantine itself. In terms of other consequences, it has been argued that imposing this quarantine will discourage volunteers from going to help out and this will be worse for the United States. This is because it is best for the rest of the world if Ebola is stopped in Africa and this will require volunteers from around the world. In the case of the tracking and monitoring approach, there would be a cost—but far less than a mandatory quarantine.

From a practical standpoint, assessing a proposed method of safety is a utilitarian calculation: does the risk warrant the cost of the method? To use some non-Ebola examples, every aircraft could be made as safe as Air-Force One, every car could be made as safe as a NASCAR vehicle, and all guns could be taken away to prevent gun accidents and homicides. However, we have decided that the cost of such safety would be too high and hence we are willing to allow some number of people to die. In the case of Ebola, the calculation is a question of considering the risk presented against the effectiveness and cost of the proposed method. Since I am not a medical expert, I am reluctant to make a definite claim. However, the medical experts do seem to hold that the quarantine approach is not warranted in the case of people who lack symptoms and test negative.

The third concern is the moral concern. Sorting out the moral aspect involves weighing the practical concerns (risk, effectiveness and cost) against the right (or liberty) in question. Some also include the legal aspects of the matter here as well, although law and morality are distinct (except, obviously, for those who are legalists and regard the law as determining morality). Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal aspects to experts in that area and focus on the ethics of the matter.

When working through the moral aspect of the matter, the challenge is determining whether or not the practical concerns morally justify restricting or even eliminating rights (or liberties) in the name of safety. This should, obviously enough, be based on consistent principles in regards to balancing safety and rights. Unfortunately, people tend to be wildly inconsistent in this matter. In the case of Ebola, some people have expressed the “better safe than sorry” view and have elected to impose or support mandatory quarantines at the expense of the rights and liberties of those being quarantined. In the case of gun rights, these are often taken as trumping concerns about safety. The same holds true of the “right” or liberty to operate automobiles: tens of thousands of people die each year on the roads, yet any proposal to deny people this right would be rejected. In general, people assess these matters based on feelings, prejudices, biases, ideology and other non-rational factors—this explains the lack of consistency. So, people are wiling to impose on basic rights for little or no gain to safety, while also being content to refuse even modest infringements in matters that result in great harm. However, there are also legitimate grounds for differences: people can, after due consideration, assess the weight of rights against safety very differently.

Turning back to Ebola, the main moral question is whether or not the safety gained by imposing the quarantine (or travel ban) would justify denying people their rights. In the case of someone who is infectious, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, the harm done to the person (being quarantined) is greatly exceeded by the harm that would be inflicted on others by his putting them at risk of infection. In the case of people who are showing no symptoms, who test negative and who are relatively low risk (no known specific exposure to infection), then a mandatory quarantine would not be justified. Naturally, some would argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry” and hence the mandatory quarantine should be imposed. However, if it was justified in the case of Ebola, it would also be justified in other cases in which imposing on rights has even a slight chance of preventing harm. This would seem to justify taking away private vehicles and guns: these kill more people than Ebola. It might also justify imposing mandatory diets and exercise on people to protect them from harm. After all, poor health habits are major causes of health issues and premature deaths. To be consistent, if imposing a mandatory quarantine is warranted on the grounds that rights can be set aside even when the risk is incredibly slight, then this same principle must be applied across the board. This seems rather unreasonable and hence the mandatory quarantine of people who are not infectious is also unreasonable and not morally acceptable.


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The Cost of the Empty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 2, 2013
Government spending

Government spending (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

As the Washington Post notes, the US government spends at least $890,000 each year to maintain about 13,000 empty bank accounts. In terms of why such bank accounts exist , the gist is this: when the government gives out a grant an account is opened to distribute the money. When the grant ends, the account goes to zero. However, unless the account is closed, the government still has to pay the fees to maintain the account.

It might be wondered why the accounts are not simply closed. The answer is that closing an account requires that the grant be audited within 180 days of the account closing. Interestingly, there is actually no penalty for missing the deadline.

While $890,000 is a drop in the vast ocean of government spending, each drop adds to that ocean. Also, there is the fact that this spending literally yields nothing. While people do dispute the value of various programs ranging from food stamps to bridges to nowhere, at least that spending is for something. This is money for nothing and hence should be recognized as wasteful by both parties.

There are no doubt many other such expenditures that produce nothing and benefit no one. It would seem to be rather obvious that Congress should begin cutting the budget by dealing with all these empty expenditures. After all, eliminating such spending would be pure savings at no cost and there would be no special interests to battle or political agendas to address. While such expenditures will probably be relatively small, they would also add up. Also, there is the fact that even such relatively small amounts of money are relatively big in other contexts, such as small programs that do generate a valuable public good.

As might be guessed, the main reason such expenditures are not addressed is that it is easier to do nothing than to do something. This is, obviously enough, a bad reason.

It is, however, worth considering whether or not the cost of doing nothing exceeds the cost of doing something. Since the accounts must be audited before being closed, it could be argued that the cost of the audit would exceed the savings of closing the account. Thus, while it costs to keep them open, this is saving money.

One obvious reply is that the rules could be changed. After all, if the accounts can be left open indefinitely without an audit, then it would seem cheaper to forgo the audit rule and just close them to save money. After all, if no audit will ever be done, there seems to be no sense in requiring an audit when doing so merely costs money and does not have any positive benefit.

Another obvious reply is that it seems likely that the cost of an audit would not exceed the cost of keeping an account open indefinitely. After all, those payments could continue until the government ends and that could be quite some time.

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Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 10, 2013
The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revelations of the United States government’s Prism Program have brought the matter  of privacy into the spotlight. While it should be no surprise that the United State’s government is scooping up vast quantities of information from communication systems ranging from phones to the internet, the scope and nature of the collection has disturbed many people.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has defended Prism on two main grounds. The first is that the program is legal. That is, it went through all the proper secret processes in the dark places of the government. But, of course, mere legality does not make something right. There is also the legitimate worry that this legal program actually violates Constitutional rights.

I do no have any doubts that the program is legal-I am confident that it was properly guided through the dark caverns under the public government and legally set loose upon the world. As far as the Constitutionality, I am not fully re-assured by the assurances that the data scooped up by Prism is being used in strict accordance to the Constitution.

The second is the usual line that it is necessary for national security. The idea is that certain rights need to be infringed upon in order to make us safer. This approach does have its appeal. This is because the limitation of rights can, in fact, make us safer. For example, limiting the right of people to sell contaminated food does make us safer. As another example, limiting the right to own certain weapons (like chemical weapons and grenades) does make us safer. As such, I do not reject the “it makes us safer” argument out of hand.

When considering this justification, there are two main concerns. The first is whether or not the limitation of the rights in question actually makes us safer. After all, while limiting a right can make us safer, this is not always the case. It would, of course, be a bad idea to restrict a right when doing so has no benefit. In the case of Prism, what would be needed would be proof that the program actually made us safer. This might include evidence of foiled plots and arrests of terrorists that resulted specifically from Prism. Naturally, I do not really expect such information to be forthcoming since the effectiveness of the program is no doubt a matter of national security and thus secret. However, I will consider the possibility that Prism did yield some positive results that could be used to justify what are claimed to be privacy violations.

The second concern is whether or not the safety gained is worth the cost resulting from the limitation (or violation of) the right in question. For example, we would be safer if each person had a tracking chip implanted into his body. If a person knows that her location is always known, then she would be less likely to engage in misdeeds and far easier to catch if she chose to act badly anyways. However, such implantation and tracking would seem to be an excessive violation of the right to privacy and hence would not seem to be worth the cost. In the case of Prism, a key question is whether or not the (alleged) gain in security is worth the cost paid in terms of the limitation or violation of rights.

The Obama administration has been quick to claim that the data gathered does not violate the right to privacy of the people that matter. If this is true, then perhaps the security gained is worth the price. However, there is the reasonable concern that this is not the case and it is certainly worrisome when the state engages in such massive data scooping.

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How Much is the State?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2012
The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay I began a discussion about the question “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” As might be imagined, the category of others is rather broad, so as a practical matter it is necessary to limit the scope of the discussion. In this essay I will focus on how much a person’s success (or failure) is owed to the state. Obviously, the exact debt will vary from person to person and this examination will be, of necessity, somewhat abstract.

One rather promising way to begin the discussion is to make use of the state of nature. This classic philosophical device was used by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their examination of such matters as rights and the justification of political power. I am, however, going to use the device to see what the state contributes to success (or failure).

While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, two of the classic approaches to the state of nature are the Hobbesian state and the Lockean state. In general terms, the state of nature is a state in which there is no governmental authority. It is often presented as a hypothetical predecessor to the rise of political states. In any case, the state of nature is marked by the lack of any artificial authority.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of the conditions of this state, none of the following are possible: “Industry, culture of the earth, navigation, use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, commodious building; instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force, knowledge of the face of the earth, account of time, arts, letters, society.” As Hobbes sees it, the establishment of the sovereign (the state) is necessary for the establishment of order and this allows the possibility of industry and the other things that are required for “commodious living.” Given Hobbes assumptions about the state of nature being a state of war of all against all, the idea that these things would not be possible makes sense. One has but to look at what happens in cases where civil authority collapses to see the plausibility of Hobbes’ view.

On the Hobbesian model, an individual who succeeded in industry or other endeavors would owe a great deal to the state (that is, the collective of everyone forming the great leviathan that is the state). After all, without the order provided by the state, success in these areas would not be possible. Naturally, this does not include any other contributions made by the state, such as providing infrastructure or support for research. These contributions would, obviously enough, add to the debt owed by the individual to the collective society.

The Lockean model is rather nicer than the Hobbesian, most likely because Locke includes divinely based rights to life, liberty and property even in the state of nature. On Locke’s model, life in the state if nature is not a state of war (although war can occur) and there is clearly the possibility of success within this state. For example, the right to property allows for the accumulation of goods and this could be seen as success.

While the Lockean state of nature is more appealing than Hobbes’ state of war, Locke does argue that it is not preferable to the state of civil society. While there are, according to Locke, rights in the state of nature, these rights are enforced only by vigilante justice in which individuals act (or not) to prevent and take revenge for misdeeds. As such, wrongs are not reliably prevented or corrected. If, for example, someone stole the goods a person had accumulated, it would be up to her (and any allies) to recover her goods and punish the malefactors.

To solve this and other problems, civil society is created and vigilante justice is replaced with a legal system. Once the state is established, then the state has the responsibility of protecting the citizens and dealing with criminals. Assuming the state is doing its job, the state of civil society provides a stable system in which success is both more possible and more secure.

If Locke’s view is correct, a successful individual owes less to the state (that is, the collective agreements and actions of the people) than she would if Hobbes were right. After all, the difference between Locke’s state of nature and civil society is not as extreme as the difference in Hobbes. However, the successful individual would still owe much to the collective efforts of civil society, not the least of which would be a debt for the existence of laws enabling and protecting the fruits of her success. If additional contributions of civil society, such as infrastructure, public education and so on are included, then the successful individual would owe a great deal to the state.

Of course, not everyone sees the state in such a positive way. For example, the communists contend that while the state is necessary for capitalism and socialism, it will wither away as true communism is achieved. Before then it will be an instrument of oppression, either serving the capitalists or the socialists. Obviously, once communism is achieved, then people will not owe any of their success (or failure) to the state on the obvious basis that there will be no state. Or so the communists claim. However, a debt will be still owed to the states—without them, humanity would not have been able to achieve communism.

As another example, the anarchists have a uniformly negative view of the state—although the degree of their negativity varies. Some, like Thoreau, are willing to co-exist with benign states. Others, like Goldman, advocate the destruction of the state because of its role in oppression and how it prevents true human flourishing.

Thoreau presents a rather interesting view of the state and one that many current conservatives would heartily endorse, noting “that government is best which governs least” and even going so far as to say “that government is best which governs not at all.” As Thoreau sees it, government seems to interfere with success in two main ways. The first is that people use it to impose on each other for their advantage. While this aids the success of those who control the state, it impedes the success of those who are imposed upon. Second, he claims that the state gets in the way of success, noting that “trade and commerce continuously face obstacles placed by legislators.” As he sees it government has only one role in success, namely doing nothing. As he sees it, “government never furthered any enterprise except by getting out of its way.”

On Thoreau’s system of government non-involvement, it would seem that an individual’s success (and failures) would depend more on the individual than it does in the current system in the United States and similar countries. After all, the state is routinely used by some to their considerable advantage over others (subsidies, favorable laws and so on) and it also imposes restrictions on what people can do. As such, the state does make contributions to the success (and failure) via these guided impositions and restrictions.

Thoreau advocates an evolution rather than a destruction of the state, however there are those (such as Goldman) who do advocate the complete elimination of the state. This would, of course, take the discussion full circle by returning to the state of nature—a situation without political authority. Naturally, if there was no state, then there would be no state to contribute to or prevent an individual’s success. There is, however, the question of whether or not such a state would be desirable. There is also the question of whether or not success would even be possible without a state, unless success is merely a matter of staying alive.

Obviously, there are other alleged contributors to individual success than the state and some of these will be addressed in the essays that follow.

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Liberate the Corporations?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2011
English: The Bill of Rights, the first ten ame...

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In the United States, corporations are considered persons and hence it was ruled that

they are entitled to 1st Amendment rights, specifically freedom of speech. While I have argued in other posts that corporations are not persons, I have also played with the idea of accepting corporations as people and seeing where this leads.

Now, if it is assumed that corporations are persons and are thus entitled to 1st Amendment rights (at least in the United States) it would certainly seem to follow that they are entitled to all the rights of persons. Or, at the very least, the other constitutional rights.

Corporations can, of course, be owned. In fact, common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Now, if corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. Thus, corporations must be set free from their owners and all such ownership must be declared null and void.

It could, of course, be argued that this is absurd. I agree-but this conclusion follows directly from the same logic used to argue that corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights. So, if it is absurd for corporations to have 13th amendment rights it follows that it is equally absurd for them to have 1st amendment rights.

It could, of course, be argued that corporations are special sorts of people and are such that they do get 1st amendment rights (that is, they can engage in unlimited spending in politics) but they do not get certain other rights, such as not being slaves. After all, the constitution also includes the following:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The “other persons” were, of course, slaves. Perhaps corporations can be considered a certain fraction of a person in regards not to representation but to rights. So, they get the all important right to spend money in politics on the basis of being persons while being denied the right not to be owned as slaves. I am not sure what the percentage would be or how this would work out, but I am sure that a clever lawyer could make it happen.

In fact, it  could be argued that enslaving persons is just a return to an old American tradition-only now we are enslaving corporation-Americans rather than African-Americans. This is not to trivialize the brutal treatment of those toiling under the lash of slavers, but to make the point that it is absurd to think of corporations as people.  If it is not absurd and corporations are people, I demand that the corporations be set free!

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Mystery Patients

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 3, 2011

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While many people still dream of becoming (or marrying) doctors, there is a shortage of primary care doctors. Folks in government are concerned about this and one of the most recent proposals is to have people pose as patients in order to determine the difficulty of getting care. One critical part of this is to determine if doctors are rejecting patients who belong to government health programs in favor of the more lucrative private insurance patients. This is, obviously enough, based on the mystery shopper model.

One obvious concern about this method is that it can be seen as a form of spying and also as a deception. While such deceit is acceptable in law enforcement and intelligence operations, this is justified by the fact that the targets are potential (or actual) criminals and enemies. However, the doctors are not suspected of acting illegally and hence the use of this method seems to be questionable.

A second obvious concern is that the money used in this program could be better spent in making positive contributions to health care-such as providing support for doctors willing to provide primary care services for people who are in government programs or in other ways. It is already well established that we need more primary care doctors and it seems almost equally obvious that doctors prefer patients who have private insurance.  This is, of course, due to the main factor of money. In a free market system in which the main goal is to maximize profits, doctors have little incentive to pursue the lower paying career paths or to accept patients on government assistance. As such, there seems little reason to conduct a secret survey in order to learn what already seems to be known.

However, there is certainly merit in investigating the problems that motivated the mystery patient plan. However, this is something that should be done openly rather than with mystery patients.

While it would be nice of people to go through medical school and run their business solely to help people, that sort of devotion to others certainly cannot be expected of people. As such, the most plausible solutions involve providing financial incentives. This can be done by increasing support for medical school students in return for a service commitment and also making the government payouts more appealing to doctors who have money on their minds.


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Unrest in the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2011
CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4:  An Egyptian man lights...
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Obviously, this post’s title is almost eternally accurate. However, the focus today will be on the more recent unrest, namely that in Egypt.

Many people in Egypt appear to have had quite enough of the government and are actively engaged in protesting the regime. In response, the government has attempted to suppress the protests, cut off communication, and silence the media. This is, of course, to be expected from this sort of government.

While Obama praised the folks in Tunisia, the administration is taking a different approach to Egypt. This is hardly surprising-though the government has been fairly repressive and is hardly a bastion of freedom, it has been fairly consistent in being on what we see as the right side of American interests in the region.

The situation in Egypt does present the usual interesting dilemma for Americans. On one hand, we profess a set of values that include freedom, self-government, democracy, and justice. These values and our own historical revolution would seem to give us good reasons to support those who are pushing for freedom against a repressive state. On the other hand, we seem to always be in a war against an opposing ideology and this leads us to support almost any government that promises that it will be on our side against the communists/terrorists or whoever the enemy is at the moment in question. That these governments are often repressive, undemocratic and lacking in freedom never seems to be a major point of concern-at least for those in power.

While it is tempting to see this policy as being pragmatic and realistic (“yeah, we talk democracy, but that is for us…we need these states to repress their people so that they don’t go over to the commies/terrorists/whoever”), it is well worth considering the price that must be paid for this.

The largest price is, of course, paid by the people who live under the repressive regimes. They get to live without freedom (or at least far less freedom) so that the United States can have a “reliable” ally in the region or so that American interests can be advanced.

We also pay a price. The first part of the price is that we become hypocrites: we speak of freedom while tolerating and supporting tyrannies and repressive states. This, of course, seems to be quite contrary to our professed commitment to democracy, freedom, liberty and all that. Given how we throw these words about, we should be the ones supporting revolutions against repressive states, rather than trying so often to keep them propped up against their own people.

Second, we pay a rather ironic price: our efforts to prop up repressive states as allies against the enemy of the day sometimes ends up leading to that state falling to that enemy (Vietnam) or another enemy (Iran). People tend to remember who backed the government that jailed their relatives and murdered their friends.

Of course, it can be argued that the people in the Middle East are not yet ready for democracy and must be kept under the watchful eye of authoritarian states. It could also be argued that the threat posed by radical Islam means that we have to support states that will keep repressing the radicals. Of course, this strategy might (as noted above) turn out to have a result that is opposite of the one we desire.

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