Monday, 28 October 2019

The Answer To My Cave Riddle....

Recently on Facebook I presented the following poser:

10 people are trapped in a remote cave in a storm, with rising water that looks certain to drown them all. You have some budget in your department for a rescue mission, and there are two types of operation available within your budget.

Operation 1) You are guaranteed to save 5 of them, but the other 5 will drown.

Operation 2) You have a 60% chance of saving all of them, but a 40% chance that the mission fails and all of them drown.

You can only afford one Operation. If you only care about the 10 people trapped in the cave, do you go for Operation 1 or 2?

If you found the question difficult, or found it easy and answered Operation 1, you're missing a no-brainer - you should definitely choose Operation 2. Here's why. Imagine you're one of the individuals trapped in the cave. With Operation 1 you have a 50% chance of surviving; with Operation 2 you have a 60% chance of surviving. If you are an individual person trapped in that cave, then survival is the most important thing to you, and it's better to pick the option that gives you an extra 10% chance of survival.

Now consider the cave problem as an illustration for how politics often works. Imagine if you're someone like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, who cares primarily about slogans and left wing adulation - you might be tempted to choose operation 1, so you can have a guaranteed photo shot of you standing with the five survivors, even if you've chosen the option that's the least good for the collective.

We've seen this time and time again with calls to use taxpayers' money to subsidise the failing steel industry, or failing holiday firms, or increase the minimum wage law above the marginal product. The people who benefit from those policies are a small subsection of society (like the steelworkers who make the news: "Corbyn saves 5000 steelworkers' jobs" as the headline might be), whereas the people who bear the much larger costs are the wider population who have to pay more for their steel because foreign competition is being starved.

In a Rawlsian ' veil of ignorance' system of ethics, political policies would be implemented through conditions under which "No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like." So if we pretend that prior to being born we could all partake in a committee meeting to decide upon the fairest and most just society, not knowing where we'd be in that society in terms of environment, background, and natural talents, we'd (try to) pick the most objectively good one (Operation 2 in the cave problem), not the most subjectively good one for our own reputation (Operation 1 in the cave problem). What a shame that so many political gimmicks and superficially alluring policies are built on the squalid tactis of the latter, and not the more prudent measures of the former.

Monday, 21 October 2019

On Obeying & Not Obeying Laws

Which laws should we abide by and which should we not? There are three main categories of belief one could have on this matter.

1) We should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it, because we should respect the law, and no one should be above it

2) We should only abide by the laws we agree with, and we should ignore the ones we disagree with (see my blog on rational crimes)

3) We should not abide by any laws at all

I’m going to assume that pretty much everyone claims to fall in either category 1 or 2, and that no one reading this thinks we should not abide by any laws at all. Incidentally, I did once meet a guy at a festival who claimed to be an authority-hating anarchist who thinks everyone should be entirely free to do exactly what they want at all times; but then literally one minute after declaring this he became vociferously annoyed at the sight of some newly-arrived campers pitching their tents in the wrong zone of the campsite. A few moments after I experienced that, I knew I would have a funny story for life.

Anyway, this faux-anarchist festival goer aside, I think if you asked the UK population whether they subscribe to category 1 or 2, most would say they belong in category 1, with a minority claiming to be in category 2. I want to contend that despite what many people claim, I think pretty much everyone actually belongs in category 2, and believes that we should only abide by the laws we agree with, and ignore the ones we disagree with. To argue to the contrary would be to claim that there are no laws that could be invented that we wouldn’t choose to ignore - and I don’t think that is true. Suppose a new law came in banning Bibles on the ground of imposing an Islamic theocracy, I don’t think many people would support it. Or suppose chocolate was outlawed by a nanny state that wanted to smother our every temptation, most would claim that’s a step too far.

The point is not that I think these laws are very likely. It’s that everyone has their limit: so anyone who claims to support number 1 - that we should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it - actually has their limit in where they betray that principle. In other words, no one really believes that we should abide by every law, even if we don’t agree with it – they simply follow laws they disagree with out of convenience and social pressure, or there aren’t yet any laws they find particularly objectionable enough to disobey. There is also, as Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics, little virtue in obeying laws merely because we are legally compelled to. Real virtue comes from a desire to be virtuous, irrespective of the law.

Given the foregoing, then, which laws could we reasonably disobey? As you may know, the things that the state deems illegal boil down to two distinct categories: malum in se laws (wrong in itself), which are prohibitions (like rape and murder) that are wrong by their very nature; and malum prohibitum laws (wrong because prohibited), which are prohibitions (like regulations and price controls) that are not wrong by their very nature, but are wrong because the state says so.

Politicians, therefore, impose lots of restrictions on us merely on the basis that politicians say they should be prohibited. Malum in se prohibitions like rape and murder are things we all should obey, because we want them to be prohibited, and would choose them as laws ourselves anyway if we were in charge. The malum prohibitum restrictions, on the other hand, are not necessarily prohibitions we would choose for ourselves - they are chosen for us by people that don't know our preferences better than we do (taken to extreme, things like illegality of homosexual practice, fewer black rights, lack of free press against the dictator, illegality of abortion, and many more have been strictures of the state against its citizens).

If there are any laws we should be free to disobey, they are likely to be malum prohibitum laws - things that many of us may not think are wrong, but that are deemed wrong merely on the basis that the state says so for no apparent good reason. As any good dictator or authoritarian planner knows, the best way to wield ultimate control over people is to gradually erode away their freedoms until they reach a state of voluntary servility, where they will do pretty much anything you tell them. That is why it's essential to ask yourself which laws you should obey - otherwise you become an intellectual serf, like dead salmon floating down the stream.

But we needn't stop at the observation that pretty much everyone thinks we should only abide by the laws we agree with, and ignore the ones we disagree with - we can observe too that that principle is nested in a higher market-based wisdom that plays out more subtly. If we felt the full costs of many of the malum prohibitum laws, we probably would not support them. It is unlikely that the average Jill would be willing to pay as much to prevent the average Jack from using cannabis as he himself would pay to use it, therefore it is unlikely that a market based system would create an anti-cannabis law. It is unlikely that the total enforcement cost of the speeding laws would be willingly picked up by the citizens of the UK if it was spread evenly throughout the population, therefore it is unlikely that a market based system would create any speeding laws.

Consider an illustration. 500 million people are about to experience a quite discomforting but not too serious earache for the next hour. However if one innocent person is killed the 500 million won't have to go through with the earache for an hour. Should we kill the innocent person or let the 500 million people go through with the earache? I tried out this question on Facebook about seven years ago, and unsurprisingly everybody on my friends list said we should spare the one innocent life for the sake of 500 million earaches. That’s because, presumably, people want to minimise suffering, but yet at the same time they thought that the death of one innocent person was worse than 500 million earaches.

Fair enough, but this only goes to show that humans are weirdly inconsistent. Here’s why. I'll bet most of my Facebook friends insure their domestic goods. Then I asked them the following question:

Would you choose a certain earache for an hour or a 1 in 500 million chance of being the innocent person of dying?

Roughly 50% of people said they would choose the certain earache for an hour – which I found to be absolutely barmy. I take it that they are having trouble envisaging just how much 500 million is. How do I know that most rational people would rather have a 1 in 500 million chance of being the innocent person of dying than a certain earache? It’s not just because the probability is so heavily in their favour of surviving; it’s because in everyday life humans have multiple opportunities to buy all kinds of safety devices for their modes of travel, for their DIY, for their mowing the lawn, for climbing ladders, or whatever, each with a much less than 1 in 500 million chance of death or serious injury, and they prefer to take the chance. That’s how I know: people show me with their revealed preferences. 

When considered with proper rationality, the observation of people’s general day to day behaviour shows that most people would not pay one pound coin to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death, but most people would pay a pound coin to get rid of an earache that was going to go on for another hour. This is why the insurance issue is relevant – we choose an optimal deal because probability is hugely in our favour. We should do the same with the earache conundrum, because given that most people would not pay one pound coin to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death, but most people would pay a pound coin to get rid of an earache that was going to go on for another hour, this means that most people think an earache for an hour is worse that a 1 in 500 million chance of death, even though they claim to believe the opposite when the question was asked more abstractly. We know that rational people will pay £1 to cure an earache, but not to avoid a 1 in 500 million chance of death - therefore if you approach 500 million earache sufferers and offer to rid them all of their earache at the cost of killing 1 of them through a random draw, their revealed preferences in everyday life indicate that they should thank you.

This is very relevant to many of the malum prohibitum laws we see instituted in our statute. Recently I asked my Facebook friends, apart from speeding, which other current UK law(s) do you feel it's morally ok to break? Some of the answers they gave were streaming, having a wee behind a hedge, parking on yellow lines, drug use, skipping fares and not paying taxes. There is wisdom behind these answers, because what they are expressing is the revealed preference that they don't feel that the cost of those law enforcements are worth the price of having those laws, especially as there are so many deadweight costs associated with taxes, regulations and government spending.  

It's like the old joke about Tom and Pete stumbling upon a bear in the woods. Tom reasons that he doesn't have to run faster than the bear to survive, he only has to run faster than Pete. But the bear has a stake in this too, and wants the most efficient outcome - he doesn't want to waste resources chasing Tom when it would be easier chasing Pete. Most humans act as though they feel that way about most malum prohibitum laws, while at the same time speaking as though they don't.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Four Major Scams Of Humanity: What Our Descendants Will Remember Most About This Generation

There are four major scams that have duped humanity more than any others three long standing ones, and now a new fourth one:

1) Atheism (the Promethean fantasy that God doesn’t exist, and the narrow Dawkins-esque scientism that often accompanies it)

2) False Religions (all the little ones, and the massive ones like Hinduism, and especially Islam, which is the worst of all by a long way)

3) Socialism (the mass economic delusion - until it extends to Communism, when it becomes the mass catastrophic economic delusion)

4) Climate Change Alarmism (the Gaia-worshipping cult of mother earth, and the absurd beliefs that accompany it)

Numbers 1-3 have been standard on my list for most of my post-teenage life; and I’ve always been suspicious of, and sceptical about, environmentalism. But for most of my life the environmentalist movement has been a fringe cult, consisting of a few odd ducks who dress scruffily, ride bicycles and eat root vegetables. But these days things are very different: such is the proliferation in numbers, enhanced capability for widespread communication, and the mass-politicisation of climate change alarmism that I feel even more able to declare it is now deserving of its place in the ignominious list of major scams that have duped humanity.

The delusion, of course, is not most of the science behind the climate change, and the data showing temperature increases over the years; nor is it delusion to accept that climate change has a negative effect on a proportion of the population. The delusion is that the environmentalists currently causing havoc in London, wasting police time and damaging people’s livelihoods actually have the first clue about the right questions, the right answers and their meagre understanding of highly complex phenomena. On that, I’ll not say much more here (you can read more on the scale of delusion in my 30+ articles on this subject, see subject tab on my sidebar)

The main purpose of this article - something on which I do think most readers will agree with me, is this. You know how we look back on the slave trade and on the 19th century periods of industrial slog, smog and poverty with despair, and how we are thankful that we’ve made so many advances. Well, it got me thinking again about what comparable analysis our descendants will have about us; about this generation and the two generations that bookend this one.

A lot of our life will strike them as unfortunate even many of our modern technological advancements will be seen as limited by our descendants. But the big impression I think they will have about this generation is that never before have such a large number of people been so quick to believe so many foolish things and act on those beliefs in such a socially detrimental way, with such a toxic combination of self-confidence and meagre intellectual accountability.

This generation has been unprecedented in its quick rise of technology, material progression, connectivity, capacity for information and rapid exposure to everyone else’s ideas and opinions and they just haven’t been able to handle the requirements associated with such an explosion of thoughts, ideas, gimmicks, spin, memes and tribal identikit ideologies all gushing through in a stormy reservoir of analytical complacency and the insecurity-driven search for meaning and belonging.

It’s been rather like a mass flurry of ten thousand butterflies released into the wild alongside ten million bees it’s all happened so quickly and so chaotically that folk can hardly get to grips with whether the things flying past their eyes are butterflies or bees; and perhaps even worse, they are surrounded by people who confuse them about when to prefer butterflies and when to prefer bees.

There is just too much information, too many competing ideas, too much manipulation, too many charlatans, too much agenda-driven dogma, too much distortion of language and too much virtue signalling and more young people than ever before are struggling to resist the allure or comfort of dodgy, over-simplistic belief systems. And that, I think, will be one of the most historically noteworthy facts about these few generations that our descendants will look back on with incredulity. They won't be able to believe that so many people could be taken in by so much nonsense in such a short space of time.