28 November 2007

For Voting

The Theist
Durkirk-Fredonia Observer

The Objectivist argues that voting is, for most people, and at least in national elections, a waste of time. He should be commended for his bravery – after all, he’s risking a serious caning from the civic-minded senior citizens who staff our local voting stations! If he changes his mind and goes out to vote next November, he’d better show up dressed like a baseball catcher.

His main line of argument is as follows. In most elections, unless I have a large throng of followers who will vote as I do, the probability of my vote being the deciding vote is mind-bogglingly small. Hence, unless voting gives me some pleasure or fulfills some deep desire of mine (which it usually doesn’t), going to the polls is a waste of time.

It seems to me there’s a fallacy here, one which could make kindergardeners cry. Suppose that one day, The Objectivist hears a knock on his office door. Answering, he finds a group of bright-faced kindergarden students, accompanied by their teacher. One holds out a coffee can with a slit cut in the top, marked “NIAGARA FALLS.”

“Please, mister,” says the little girl with the can, “we need to raise $50 to go to see the Falls tomorrow. Can you help us? We only have $40 so far.”

The Objectivist, fingering the dollar in his pants pocket, replies, “Sorry, little missy, but I only contribute when I’m the ‘deciding contributor’ - when the thing I’m contributing most likely won’t happen unless I pitch in. But I can see that you’re near your goal, and there are many willing contributors on this campus, especially with your goal being so near. You’ll get your $50 even if I don’t give you this buck. Further, I don’t particularly enjoy encouraging juvenile panhandling, so be gone!” He closes his office door, and feeling a surge of pride in his own rationality, he returns to his work, ignoring the sobbing sounds emanating from the hallway.

Let’s suppose that The Objectivist does little harm in all this – the students get their last $10 at the next door – and that he has no moral obligation to fork over the buck in his pocket. Still, it seems to me that there was a failure of rationality on his part. From the fact that he was unlikely to be the deciding contributor, he inferred that he stood to gain or lose nothing in the matter. But to the contrary, he had an opportunity to be one of the people who sent the kindergardeners on a field trip. This opportunity, in my example, he turns down. The trip may have been inevitable, but what was up to him was whether or not it would happen partly due to him.

It must be admitted that in many elections, your vote is incredibly unlikely to be the scale-tipping one. That doesn’t seem too relevant, though, to the value of voting. Every presidential election cycle, pundits gas about the current election being the most important one in memory. But suppose that our country took a sharp xenophobic turn, and that an openly racist and fascist political party became the heavy favorite to win the presidency and congress. (Hey Democrats – pipe down out there – I’m talking about a merely hypothetical case here.) What would you, the non-racist, non-fascist voter do on election day? You have only three options. Let’s suppose that the evil Nationalist party is destined to win no matter how you vote, as they’re riding a tidal-wave of support.

Option 1: You show up, and vote Nationalist. If you do this, you take measure of responsibility for the resulting administration. It is with your will and support that they take power. Jerk.

Option 2: You show up, and vote against the Nationalists. And they proceed to win anyway. In voting against them, you accomplish at least three things. First, you publicly make a (tiny) statement against them – your vote is one among millions of others which constitute a repudiation of Nationalist policies. Maybe this will in some small way contribute to an effective anti-Nationalist movement, or maybe it won’t. Second, you make yourself the kind of person who stands up against significant evil when given the opportunity. While in this election, your efforts fail, this character trait of yours that you’re forming or reinforcing may greatly matter later, in other situations. Finally, you’re absolving yourself of (part of the) responsibility for the ensuing administration – they do what they do not because of your vote, but despite it. God approves of this action, and even if you’re an atheist, at least you, your friends and relations will be proud of your anti-evil stance and action later on.

Option 3: You stay at home, declining to vote because yours won’t be the ‘deciding’, balance-tipping one. Here, you decline to have any influence – you stand aside, squandering the opportunities spelled out in Option 2 above. You don’t help to put them in power, but you do nothing to oppose their rise. God says, “Sheesh... I should’ve made this guy be born in Stalin’s regime. Democracy is wasted on him.” And it is.

The consequences of your taking Option 2 may vary greatly. You may be a part of a mass movement which quickly votes down or even overthrows the Nationalists, or you may simply be killed by the new regime. But lay the consequences aside - I think it’s a mistake to evaluate actions solely in terms of their consequences. It just seems fitting that I should “speak out” for justice and against injustice, as I see them, in the act of voting. If my actions would matter in the imagined Nationalist scenario, they seem to also matter in real life, even though, it seems, less is at stake. What is at stake is a lot – the policies of the two major parties differ quite a bit.

The Objectivist mentions an interesting, and I imagine fairly common case, where a couple, say Republican Ron and Democrat Dana decide not to vote, as their votes will “cancel each other out”. In truth, neither vote is canceled out – both contribute equally to the final tally, and both Ron and Dana act admirably when they vote thoughtfully and according to their consciences. The Objectivist asserts that “most of us don’t enjoy voting.” To the contrary, both Ron and Dana enjoy exercising the valuable right to vote in a fair election, in which each vote counts. I hope to see them both at the polls. And also, The Objectivist in a catcher’s get-up.

24 November 2007

Against Voting

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

It makes no sense for an individual to vote in national elections. In fact, voting in national elections often makes the world worse. Voting is not valuable in itself. Rather, it is valuable only if it makes the world a better place. This observation is common to every couple with different preferences who agree to skip voting because they will just cancel each other out.

In national elections the chance of one person’s vote affecting the outcome or sending a message that a leader notices is infinitesimally small. Steven Landsburg of Slate points out that in the last election 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York and 63% went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, he notes that the chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. He notes that an individual would be more likely to win the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than determine who wins the election.

The problem arises in that most of us don’t enjoy voting. In Fredonia, it is quick and convenient but in plenty of places, for example Detroit, it is a real pain. If a person votes he makes his life go worse and doesn’t make anyone else’s go better. If an action makes at least one person’s life go worse and no one else’s life go better then it makes the world worse. It is hard to see why someone would have a duty to make things worse.

This does not hold for those who enjoy voting. However, it’s hard to see what they could enjoy about it that doesn’t rest on the mistaken assumption that they can affect the outcome. The case is something like a person watching a field goal attempt on television who tries to affect the outcome by leaning his body in one direction or waving his hands. Also, this argument doesn’t hold for local elections or voters who have many followers. Here it is more likely that a person’s vote will affect the outcome.

A frequent comment is that voting for a third party, for example the Libertarian Party or Green Party, rather than a major party is wasting your vote. This comment is mystifying. A vote in a national election is a waste regardless of the party for whom it is cast.

There are several arguments given in support of voting in national elections. One common argument is that a person can complain only if he voted. This makes no sense. If an individual voter can’t affect the outcome, it is hard to see why his voting should be necessary in order for him to complain. In addition, it is hard to see why a person needs control over something in order to have permission to complain. I wrong no one if I complain about the Bills’s passing game even though I have no say in the matter.

A second argument is that this is selfish because soldiers died for our right to vote. This is a mistake. Because an individual’s vote makes no difference, dying for it makes even less sense. It’s just a tragic waste of life.

A third argument is that because we enjoy the benefits of democracy, it is only fair that we shoulder the burdens of it. The background idea is that voting in one of those burdens; serving in the military might be another. However, it is hard to see how an individual’s casting a vote supports democracy. In addition, it is not clear why the enjoyment of the benefits of some institution entails a duty to support it. For example, imagine someone who benefited from going to Cornell University, it doesn’t follow that he has a duty to support it.

A fourth argument comes from Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century German philosopher. He argues that we should only act according to a principle on which everyone could act. For example, as a way of getting money, Alice shouldn’t make a false promise to pay it back, because if everyone did this then no one would accept such promises. If this happened, Alice would then be unable to get money via this route. It might be argued that this concern for universal application applies to the following principle: if I am in a democracy, then I will not vote. If everyone did this, then there would be no democracy. However, Kant’s idea (an act is right only if it is universally applicable) is dubious. There are many things an individual may do that we would not want everyone doing (for example, marrying Pam Anderson). In addition, if we narrow the principle, then it is possible that everyone could do it. This is true if we adopt the following principle: if I live in a democracy and my voting affects no one else but me, then I should not vote.

The irrationality of voting is in stark contrast to the free market. Here when an individual purchases something he can register his vote and affect the distribution of goods, because firms can offer different goods for different consumers. Also, in purchasing large amounts of goods, he can register the intensity of his preferences. Voting does not allow for this.

Voting in national elections is not merely a waste of time, it often makes the world a worse place. That’s why when I see the “I voted” red sticker, I chuckle about whether it would look good on a dunce cap.

14 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #4

The Theist
How to Choose Peace in Iraq
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

A war is an event in which two or more political entities duke it out, employing their military might, their economies, and most fundamentally, their unyielding wills against one another, until one of them gives. In the normal sense of the word, we are not at war in Iraq. Rather, we have won the war in Iraq. We quickly destroyed Saddam Hussein's tyrannical government and rendered its military forces non-existent. If you think there's a war in Iraq, just ask yourself what the chance is of us being beaten there, of our military actually suffering defeat on the battlefield. The answer, so long as our enemy is a rag-tag bunch of foreign-funded bomb-and-run-like-heck jihadis, is zero.

Of course, there is considerable violent resistance in Iraq, and it sure feels like a war to the brave men who must run the gauntlet of roadside bombs and patrol the dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad. Getting killed or maimed is very bad, whether one is in a true "war" or not. But this violence is a last-ditch attempt by the losers of the real war to break our will to stay and, as they say in the military, mop them up. Amazingly, due to relentless media propaganda, they have a chance of succeeding at this. Images have an amazing power to produce emotion and to obscure the all-important context of these countless small-scale tragedies. Consequently, the will of the American people as whole has been broken, or nearly so, although the will of our administration and the military remains firm.

This get-out-of-Iraq-mania sweeping our culture is terribly short-sighted. The real question isn't "Should we end this war?" but rather, "Should we stop our military occupation of this conquered country before it has been stabilized?" The clear answer is no. We have a moral duty to the civilians of Iraq, to not abandon them in a hopeless chaos after literally wrecking their country. They are still learning how to self-police and how to avoid civil war.

Further, as many commentators have noted, President Bush's troop surge is working, and violence is sharply down in Iraq. People are starting to pay attention to these facts, although not all people. Many of us, as Joe Lieberman recently said about the Democratic congressional leadership, remain "emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq, [and are] reluctant to acknowledge the progress we are now achieving." People, handing Bush a defeat isn't worth a disastrous premature withdrawal from Iraq. Just grit your teeth for another year, until Bush's successor takes office. If it makes you feel better, repeat the words "President Obama" until your blood pressure returns to normal.

Our goal is not to defeat Al Qaeda, but rather to demoralize the global America-hating and West-hating jihadi movement as a whole, by means of an unequivocal and complete defeat, mop-up included. The Objectivist continues to inhabit a fantasy-land, also inhabited by Democratic presidential candidates, in which the bad guys are attacking us simply because we trespassed on their soil, and if we just go away, they'll leave us alone. For us to hightail it out of Iraq is for jihadis everywhere to win. That is how they see it, and it doesn't matter if we don't see it that way, patting ourselves on the back as we run, while singing a round of "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." The consequences will be the same no matter how we choose to think about it.

If you think a hasty withdrawal would take the wind out of their sails, then you have a poor understanding of how they think. A likely outcome is that they'd turn their attention from Iraq towards us, and put more energy into a WMD attack on American soil, which if it occurred would have catastrophic consequences for our economy and culture. But suppose, as The Objectivist fantasizes, they would lose interest in us. The jihadi crowd, along with their enablers in Iran and Syria, would nonetheless turn their attention to the Israel-Palestine issue, their prime example of how the West is allegedly viciously persecuting Muslims. That fire has died down to some warm coals, due to the resolve of our ally Israel. It may not remain so, should gasoline be poured on it.

The Objectivist argues that winning isn't worth it in terms of federal spending. I'm sure you all have noticed how this war has impoverished you.... oh, wait -- it hasn't. True, this is increasing our national debt at an alarming rate, and this will have to be paid in one way or the other. But try paying it with a crippled economy resulting from a terrorist attack, or from a multi-sided mideast war in which we're drawn into heavily supporting or fighting alongside Israel.

In sum, it isn't solely up to us what our available options are -- our enemies have a lot to say about it. We would all, if we could, simply choose peace. But as it stands, we must choose (our best chance at) peace, by first choosing to make our win in Iraq permanent.

07 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #3

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 4, 2007

The Theist presents a clear case for continuing the Iraq War. He notes that even if our initial reasons for going to war were mistaken, we should still continue the war because doing so is now in our interests. He argues that the incredible costs should not dissuade us from continuing the war because we need to destroy Al Qaeda. If we don’t, he claims, we make it more likely that we’ll be hit with future terrorist attacks, particular catastrophic nuclear ones. The Theist probably would broaden this claim to include attacks involving other weapons of mass destruction, but for simplicity we’ll focus on a nuclear attack.

Continuing the Iraq War actually makes such an attack more likely. Occupying an ethnic-terrorist organization’s homeland (view homeland broadly here) makes it more likely that the organization will attack you. By “ethnic-terrorist organization,” I mean a terrorist organization that is tied to an ethnic or religious group rather than pure ideology. A Marxist terrorist group is an example of an ideological one. Don’t believe me? Try to come up with more than a handful ethnic-terrorist attacks when the target wasn’t occupying or helping to occupy the terrorist’s homeland. If you can’t, you haven’t thought this through.

This pattern has certainly characterized recent Middle Eastern terrorism against the U.S. Al Qaeda’s various attacks included its attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia in 1995, the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and the 9-11 attacks. All occurred when we had a major military presence in Saudi Arabia and vast influence in Iraq. An earlier attack, a suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen. Again, there was a significant U.S. military presence in Lebanon. Thankfully, in roughly four months, President Reagan withdrew the Marines from Lebanon.

In addition, the war makes Al Qaeda’s continuing existence more likely. The war continues to poison our relations with Iran and Syria and strains it with Pakistan. All this makes it more likely that other countries will tolerate Al Qaeda as a means of putting pressure on us to get out of the Middle East and playing to crowds who are increasingly hostile to the U.S. As a side note, we need not even stop giving Israel $2.5 billion plus a year in welfare because by itself this is unlikely to trigger a catastrophic terrorist attack. Whether there are other reasons to do so is a discussion for another time.

Even if continuing the war lessened the risk of attack, although only to a small degree, the expected benefits are swamped by the costs. A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate puts the costs of the Iraq war at roughly $1.92 trillion dollars. Remember that in this country the poor and lower middle class suckle on others’ taxes. In 2005, the bottom 50% of taxpayers paid roughly 3% of the income taxes. That is not a typo. In 2004 the bottom fifth of households got roughly $31,000 in benefits above what they paid in taxes and the next fifth got roughly $18,000. As a result, if the war is paid for by 50% of the citizens, then it costs each of these taxpayers $13,000. It costs dual-income couples $26,000. Would you vote for a plan in which Bush and company lessened the chance of a catastrophic attack, although only to a small degree, if you had to write a check for $26,000 to pay for it? Even if the check is less because some of the bill has already been paid, the cost is still outrageous.

In addition, The Theist ignores other dangers that the continuing war poses. Money spent on the war might be better spent securing our borders against illegal aliens and tracking down the roughly 20 million already here. Given that four of the 9-11 terrorists were illegal aliens, one might think this is a good step.

In addition, our continuing presence makes it likely that we’ll get caught between the Shiites and Sunnis and perhaps also between the Turks and Kurds. If we use a heavy hand to stop these conflicts, we’ll create fertile grounds for terrorist groups to recruit. In addition, the combination of Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq and their attempt to develop a nuclear weapon results in our creeping ever closer to a bloody and expensive war against them. Our withdrawal reduces these various risks.

The decision to pour money and lives into Iraq makes us less safe. Even if the war made us slightly safer, the expected benefit is swamped by the massive costs. The war also runs the risk of getting us caught between sides in a civil war and a war between neighbors. It also makes a bloody and expensive war with Iran more likely.

01 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #2

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 23, 2007

Shouldn’t we leave Iraq as soon as possible? The Objectivist presents a litany of familiar reasons – in short, it costs too much, and we allegedly get too little for this cost. Here I’ll only address a couple of his central points. He forgets the terrible price we paid on and after 9/11. Lay aside the fact that we lost more people than at the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was an effective piece of terrorism, as a tidal wave of terror swept over us. Remember? That terror alone took a large chunk out of our economy over the next several years. It has since rebounded, and no further attacks have occurred. (Think President Bush’s policies had anything to do with that? If not, partisan hatred may be blinding you to the obvious.)

The Objectivist is thinking too small; he imagines that further attacks on our soil would be lesser than, or about the same size as that on 9/11. Al Qaeda has bigger plans. If Al Qaeda had access to a nuclear device which they could get into our country, they would gladly use it. They are drunk with the delusion that the U.S. is on some kind of global crusade against the religion of Islam, and if they got a nuclear device, they’d feel sure that God Almighty had delivered us into their hands for a severe beating. And it would be severe. Again, lay aside the immediate losses, the thousands or tens of thousands of deaths. Can you imagine the wave of terror that would sweep over us, if, say, Baltimore were nuked, even with a very small device? It would probably cripple our economy for years, as well as ramp up our military and intelligence spending. And Patriot Act III would be a real doozie. When we spend an unimaginable sum of money on the Iraq war now, we have to compare it to the costs of losing the fight there.

What? You don’t think a withdrawal would be a loss? That’s not how our enemies view it. As we wear them down, they’re just hanging on and fighting what amounts to a propaganda battle, through miscellaneous roadside bombs, civilian massacres (e.g. bombing police recruits or crowded markets) and, most importantly, the media, from Al Jazeera to National Public Radio news. A war is essentially a battle of wills. Who will lose the will to fight first? Either we break theirs, or they break ours. Many of us have lost the will already. This killing and being killed seems worse than pointless. Doesn’t violence only beget violence?

To the contrary, everyone knows that slogan is false. Ever heard of Germany and Japan? Decisive, victorious violence which removes the other side’s will to fight, is a major cause of lasting peace, not of unending war. Of course, before the will to fight is broken, violence stirs up the hornet’s nest. Now let’s grant for the sake of argument that we never should have gone to war in Iraq. Doesn’t that mean we should end this wrong-headed war immediately? No.

Someone comes up to little Billy on the playground, and tells him that bully Bob has just punched Billy’s little sister Becky. Billy proceeds to punch Bob in the nose. Soon thereafter, Billy finds out that it wasn’t Bob at all, but rather Ben who punched little Becky. Now, what should Billy do next? I submit, it depends on how rational Bob (the kid with the bloody nose) currently is. If he’s in a rage, and out for blood, Billy had better fight him, unless he wants to lose his teeth. Of course, we’d all like to see Billy apologize to Bob, explain his mistake, and shake hands with him. But Billy has to deal with reality. He can have all the good intentions in the world, but if Bob is hell bent on hurting him, he had better fight. It would be delusional, when Bob’s in fighting mode, for Billy to declare his love of peace, and try to present him with a flower. It may be that if Billy had never punched bully Bob, Bob would have left Billy and Becky alone. But that’s simply irrelevant after the punch has been thrown.

The Objectivist is not a Democrat, but like most in the current Democratic Party, he’s under the delusion that quitting the fight would likely result in Al Qaeda and a host of would be jihadis losing interest in fighting us. This is delusional; it supposes that these Islamo-Fascists are like Americans, just waiting for the war to go away so they can get back to t.v. watching unimpeded by unpleasant war images. To the contrary, an American retreat would only embolden them in their dream of bringing down America. They’re in the grip of a warped view of the world, and nothing will shake them out of it short of being beaten. Unlike a punched bully, they’re not simply mad. Waiting for their anger to cool won’t accomplish much. They’re nursing a bunch of long-term grudges, resulting in a white-hot self-righteous zeal to fight us all by all available means. Only the heartbreak of unequivocal defeat will convince them that God doesn’t endorse their murderous zeal.

We’ve seen this kind of isolationist ignorance before. Hitler wrote three books in the 1920s detailing his loony view of the world, complete with “the Jewish peril” and his plans to lead Germany to world domination. Few paid attention, until Hitler’s bloody plans actually came to fruition. Back in 1998, when he was much less famous, Osama bin Laden was interviewed by Time magazine. When asked if he was seeking chemical and nuclear weapons, he replied “Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.” Don’t be fooled by his poisonous rhetoric – peaceful Muslims worldwide will celebrate with us whenever the Islamo-fascist movement breathes its last. As things stand, though, it’s neither dead nor mortally wounded. It’s hurt, but has plenty of fight left in its eager teeth and bloody claws. Will we make the mistake of turning away from it?