Do Vile Views Matter?

This morning, Bryan Caplan favorably quotes H. L. Mencken at EconLog. This is hardly the first time an EconLog author has done so, so we shouldn't be too hard on Caplan in this one case. Here's an example of the late Murray Rothbard writing glowing praise of Mencken. Here is Jeffrey Tucker doing the same. Here is Donald Boudreaux calling Mencken "great." Here is Peter Boettke. Here's Thomas DiLorenzo quoting Mencken to make a case against democracy.

This is a who's-who list of notable libertarians. I could cite additional examples, but I think I've made my point. One seemingly hasn't proven one's libertarian bona fides until one has read and quoted H. L. Mencken.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia.org attributes the following H.L. Mencken quote to a work entitled Men Versus the Man: A Correspondence Between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist.
I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.
Have any libertarians out there considered the possibility that no one who is capable of such thoughts ought to be considered a libertarian if the word "libertarian" is to mean anything at all?

In refreshing contrast to the above, this laudable take-down of Stefan Molyneaux at Buzzfeed.com (of all places) uses direct quotes and first-hand accounts to make clear the fact that there are people out there who might be despicable people despite the fact that they nominally share one's policy preferences.

The question is, does it ultimately matter that key libertarian thinkers are ultimately revealed to be racists, sexists, megalomaniacs, etc.? On the one hand, we can take the position that no men are angels, including those who wrote a lot about libertarianism. On the other hand, we can define libertarianism in such a way that it excludes jerks from qualifying.

What I mean is, racism is perhaps the most un-libertarian mode of thinking I can imagine. It's tribalistic, primitive, unscientific, and cruel. It's opportunistic and tyrannical. It is a blight on the human psyche. The way I think about libertarianism is that libertarianism is the opposite of all of that; it's the solution to all of that. So what does it mean to know that many high-profile libertarians are also racist? Does it matter?

On a related note, we are told ad nauseum that Ayn Rand turned her inner circle into a cult. Assuming that claim is true, and applying equivalent reasoning to the the Buzzfeed account of Molyneaux, and observing the cultish fervor that some libertarians apply to Murray Rothbard, we start to run into problems here. Libertarians are traditionally the rebels, the individualists. What does it say about this great collection of individualist free-thinkers that they tend to be so susceptible to cults of personality?

Perhaps this is the dawn of my de-coupling with libertarianism. After all, how comfortable can a person be with an association that puts one in the same camp as a racist like Mencken or a sexist like Molyneaux? I'm tolerant of a wide array of opinions, but at a certain point, don't we have to stop and think about whose side we're on?

Eradicating bigotry would be a huge win for liberty. Writers can serve this goal by finding non-racists and non-sexists to quote when they're making their points. One needn't quote Mencken to make a good point, so why tarnish a good idea by attaching it to a vile racist? If we don't hold ourselves to this standard, no one else will. But more importantly, what is liberty to you if it does not include an unequivocal damnation of bigotry? Hollow rhetoric!


Why Are Americans So Filthy?

Rebecca Schuman's review of the new German movie Wetlands contains the following quote:
The film is one that even the sexually laid-back Germans watch with half-covered eyes (“Nothing was spared,” said one of my German friends who’s seen it). So I’ll be interested to see how American audiences—stereotypically both prudish and hygiene-obsessed—receive it.
Reading this, I couldn't help but remember a passage from Jack Kerouac's Big Sur:
But Dave Wain that lean rangy red head Welchman with his penchant for going off in Willie to fish in the Rogue River up in Oregon where he knows an abandoned mining camp, or for blattin around the desert roads, for suddenly reappearing in town to get drunk, and a marvelous poet himself, has that certain something that young hip teenagers probably wanta imitate -- For one thing is one of the world's best talkers, and funny too -- As I'll show -- It was he and George Baso who hit on the fantastically simple truth that everybody in America was walking around with a dirty behind, but everybody, because the ancient ritual of washing with water after the toilet had not occurred in all the modern antisepticism -- Says Dave "People in America have all these racks of dry-cleaned clothes like you say on their trips, they spatter Eau de Cologne all over themselves, they wear Ban and Aid or whatever it is under their armpits, they get aghast to see a spot on a shirt or a dress, they probably change underwear and socks maybe even twice a day, they go around all puffed up and insolent thinking themselves the cleanest people on earth and they're walkin around with dirty azzoles -- Isnt that amazing? 
give me a little nip on that tit" he says reaching for my drink so I order two more, I've been engrossed, Dave can order all the drinks he wants anytime, "The President of the United States, the big ministers of state, the great bishops and shmishops and big shots everywhere, down to the lowest factory worker with all his fierce pride, movie stars, executives and great engineers and presidents of law firms and advertising firms with silk shirts and neckties and great expensive traveling cases in which they place these various expensive English imported hair brushes and shaving gear and pomades and perfumes are all walking around with dirty azzoles! All you gotta do is simply wash yourself with soap and water! it hasnt occurred to anybody in America at all! it's one of the funniest things I've ever heard of! dont you think it's marvelous that we're being called filthy unwashed beatniks but we're the only ones walkin around with clean azzoles? " -- The whole azzole shot in fact had spread swiftly and everybody I knew and Dave knew from coast to coast had embarked on this great crusade which I must say is a good one -- In fact in Big Sur I'd instituted a shelf in Monsanto's outhouse where the soap must be kept and everyone had to bring a can of water there on each trip -- Monsanto hadn't heard about it yet, "Do you realize that until we tell poor Lorenzo Monsanto the famous writer that he is walking around with a dirty azzole he will be doing just that? " -- "Let's go tell him right now! " -- "Why of course if we wait another minute
    ... and besides do you know what it does to people to walk around with a dirty azzole? it leaves a great yawning guilt that they cant understand all day, they go to work all cleaned up in the morning and you can smell all that freshly laundered clothes and Eau de Cologne in the commute train yet there's something gnawing at them, something's wrong, they know something's wrong they don't know just what! "
Now, I was born and raised here in America, so I can sympathize with my shocked American readers who shift a little bit in their (now filthy) seats at the prospect of washing yourself after using the toilet. But one day while we were dating, my wife - who is from Bangladesh - gently suggested that the next time I use the toilet, I ought to wash myself with the little pot she kept in the bathroom specifically for that purpose.

The suggestion was mildly embarrassing, but it only took one experience to learn that using the pot is much more hygienic than not using it. When I visited Bangladesh, I discovered that there they use a separate hose and spigot. Using the hose and spigot is more hygienic than using the pot

Of course, as my income has risen over time and I've had the opportunity to do even more world travelling, I have been exposed to facilities that included a separate bidet. This is the most hygienic option of all.

A couple of months ago, I installed bidets in every bathroom in my household. If this sounds luxurious to you, you're wrong. The total cost was $60 USD. Each individual bidet unit was about twenty dollars and installed on my existing toilet in minutes, using only a wrench. My bathrooms are now the most hygienic bathrooms in the entire neighborhood.

Once you've come over to the clean side on this issue, if you're anything like me, then you start to get a little squeamish. I have to consciously put the matter out of my mind when I shake hands with people. I know they wash their hands, but their hands still get dirtier than they need to. And all it costs to prevent this from happening is $20-$40 and a little swallowed pride.

My question is the same as that of Jack Kerouac's friend, Dave Wain. The United States of America is the largest economy in the world. We have some of the world's highest incomes, not by a little, but by leaps and bounds. Compared specifically to Bangladesh, we Americans live like kings. So, the question is why are bidets not installed in every bathroom in the entire country?

But if cultural biases prevent you from driving over to Home Depot to spend less on a device that will keep you clean than you likely spend on beer in a week, then I will make the question slightly weaker: Why are bidets not standard-equipment in every hospital in America? How about standard-issue for the staff bathrooms only? Why are our medical professionals walking around in a state of compromised hygienics?


Time Is Money

One quibble with his piece. Madrigal writes, “No policy solution could have intervened in our situation. The variables were few and personal: two parents, two jobs, one sick kid.” But in fact, there’s one policy solution that would help in the U.S., which is paid sick days for everyone. I assume that Madrigal gets paid sick days, but nearly 40 million Americans don’t. And if you don’t have paid sick days, a sick kid and two working parents doesn’t just mean a few days of stress; it means you might have to choose between caring for your kid and keeping your job.
That is from a Slate.com article entitled "When A Kid Is Sick, Why Is It Mom Who Stays Home?"

I agree that paid sick leave is a wonderful fringe benefit. It's a fringe benefit that carries a real and demonstrable economic price tag for the employer. That is to say, your "compensation package" as an employee of any firm consists of (1) your salary, (2) your bonus, (3) your paid time off, (4) your insurance, and (5) your additional perks. Adding up the monetary value of all of these things arrives at a bottom-line value that you are paid for performing services for the company.

Of course, compelling employers to provide (3) to all their employees would likely mean a decrease in salaries, or bonuses, or the frequency of raises, or etc.

There's a flip side to this. Some people - especially young workers and very poor workers - would rather have the cash than the time off. If they choose to work for companies with cash-heavy compensation packages rather than expansive PTO policies, who could blame them? After all, time is money, and the way one likes to get paid is a personal preference.

In short, I don't think the author of the piece, one Jessica Grose, has ever taken the time to fully understand that time is money.


Suspicious Activity

Overnight I received some 1000 hits from Venezuela.

I welcome my genuine Venezuelan readers, but this activity is suspicious.

Previously, I have had suspicious activity from China, Russia, Israel, and Indonesia.

When I say the activity is "suspicious," what I mean is that my blog gets a big boost in hits, but not to any post in particular. That is, lots of "people" suddenly "reading" the blog, but they do not appear to be interested in any particular post.

I assume these are either adbot/spam algorithms or some sort of hack-type-thing. But who knows?


My Fantasy Is More Realistic Than Yours

Matt Zwolinski writes:
Not only does the U.S. welfare state spend a lot; it spends it badly. Poor Americans receiving assistance face a bewildering variety of phase-outs and benefit cliffs that combine to create extremely high effective marginal tax rates on their labor. As a result, poor families often find that working more (or having a second adult work) simply doesn’t pay. And still, despite massive expenditures by the welfare state, some 16% of Americans are left living in poverty
Wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole system and write the poor a check?
Later, Zwolinksi outlines an imaginary political deal in which the pro-welfare crowd agreed to scrap existing welfare programs in favor of the "Basic Income Guarantee." Then he askes, "Suppose, to indulge in a bit of speculative fancy, that this deal was actually on the political table. Should libertarians take it?" (emphasis mine)

After outlining the major benefits of "B.I.G." over the status quo, Zwolinski takes pains to say that "utopia is not an option."

I completely agree with that last part. My question for Zwolinski is: What makes him think that the "speculative fancy" he is currently indulging in is any more realistic than a "libertarian utopia?"

No, really - what makes him think so? I don't see a giant, let's-completely-redesign-the-welfare-state plan on the horizon any time soon. Why, then, does Zwolinski fantasize about coming up with an awesome compromise to a situation that will never occur while simultaneously critiquing others for demanding an equally imaginary libertarian utopia?

It's silly. An imaginary situation is exactly that. There's no special reason to be won-over to Zwolinski's position, given that it requires a situation that will never exist in reality.


Don't Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes

Consider if you will, the case of Wendy, who recently asked her friend Penny to help her plan a dinner party. Penny declined, explaining that she wanted instead to go to a big concert with another group of friends, without Wendy. Wendy explained  that she really needed Penny's help with the dinner party - she was in a big pickle and needed a helping hand! Penny, however, had a once-off chance to see a favorite musician, and that meant a lot to her. Ultimately, Penny went to the show and Wendy planned her dinner party alone, but Wendy was so upset about it that she uninvited Penny to the party itself. Penny didn't understand why Wendy was so upset; Wendy didn't understand why Penny didn't understand. It was a big mess.

Complex ethical systems might help us arrive at the best decisions in our lives, but they seldom offer deep insight into the every-day disputes we're most likely to face. Knowing that Penny is a consequentialist utilitarian offers no deeper insight into whether Penny made a good utilitarian decision or a selfish and unhelpful one.

Penny's actions may be justified or unjustified. Wendy's anger may be justified or unjustified. The question is, how do we know? How could Wendy and Penny sort it out?

For as long as we've been introspecting, human beings in every known culture have chosen to differentiate between "the heart" and "the mind." Today, we tend to view the dichotomy as being one between the "emotional centers in the brain" and the "regions of the brain associated with abstract reasoning." Our language is getting more precise, but the situation remains the same.

Strong proponents of logic and reason, among which I count myself, often like to argue that coming to the correct conclusions means preventing one's emotions from getting the best of one. They suggest that we try hard to follow our most stoic logical heuristics to prevent momentary passions from interrupting our good sense. One can hardly find fault with their suggestions.

Still, even at our most logical it's impossible to ignore our emotions. You don't decorate your house, for example, based on which furnishings have the highest probability of appealing to people in general. Instead, you only look at things that have the highest probability of appealing to you, personally. From that array, you select those furnishings which you like best. Logic has precious little to do with it.

While one might argue that matters of taste fall outside the purview of logic and reason, I would defy anyone to be able to draw a line between matters of taste and "other matters" reliably and predictably. Our ideas about fairness are matters of taste, as are our ideas about moral responsibility. Our obligations to other people - even those closest to us - are subjective value judgments. We can use logic to determine what we feel is the best course of action in light of value preferences, but we must always remember that our starting point is a subjective one.

In short, even the most logical approach to decision-making is couched on a set of assumptions that are based on personal, emotional values. The danger here is that if one is especially dedicated to reasoning, then one will be inclined to gloss-over the fact that the emotional inputs are driving the whole decision-making process.

This is easy to see when considering matters of pure taste. Suppose there were an argument between Tom and Faye about which movie to see that night. Tom prefers comedies and Faye prefers action films. Tom might reason that all of Faye's suggestions are worse movies than his suggestions based on an analysis of how many good jokes Faye's suggestions have in them. He'd be correct, assuming Faye places as high a (subjective) value on good jokes in movies as Tom himself does; unfortunately for Tom, Faye has other criteria on which she forms judgments about movies.

"Duh, Ryan," you might be thinking, "Movie taste is subjective." I agree.

But so are arguments between friends.

Here's what definitely will not help sort things out between Penny and Wendy: Putting themselves in the other's shoes.

Why not? Because the only thing that accomplishes is to reiterate that both Penny and Wendy made the right decision. Penny, based on Penny's values, decided that going to the concert was the best choice. Wendy, based on Wendy's values, thought the Penny should have helped her plan the party. There is no reason to believe that either would feel differently in the other's shoes. In fact, such an exercise might actually make things worse.

Musician Ian Thornley once wrote, "I've never been played as the villain in the stories I've told." This is a nice, poetic way of saying that we have a tendency to excuse our own actions through rationalization. I'm not a bad person, you might say, I was completely justified in making the decision I made.

The risk here is that Penny, in putting herself in Wendy's shoes, will still come to the same conclusion: "If I were Wendy, I'd be more understanding about the concert!" And Wendy could certainly do the same: "If I had a friend in need like me, I'd gladly miss a concert to give her a helping hand!"

What good does that do?

Instead, Wendy and Penny need to assess their own behavior, based on the other's value system. Only then will either stand a chance of seeing where the other is coming from. Penny will start to understand how important the dinner party was to Wendy, and will begin to understand the pain Wendy felt when Penny went to a concert instead of helping out. Wendy will start to understand how important the concert was to Penny, and will begin to understand the surprise Penny experienced when Wendy reacted poorly over Penny's decision.

Even this has no guarantee of solving the argument, but at least it's a start. It's a start that many arguments, unfortunately, never reach.

The next step is even more difficult: Wendy and Penny must agree to negotiate with each other in good faith. Penny needs to know exactly what Wendy's expectations are. Wendy needs to know exactly when Penny is willing to help plan dinner parties.

In the end, it may be that Penny is simply never willing to help Wendy plan dinner parties. Penny is entitled to set that boundary, and Wendy must respect it; but Wendy, too, is entitled to decide whether Penny's unwillingness to help means that Wendy no longer feels close enough to her to invite her to parties.

Realistically, when the true parameters are known, Penny has a strong incentive to do more helping, and Wendy has a strong incentive to be more forgiving. It's likely that, through negotiation, they could find the point that makes the most sense. Since nobody can turn back time, what likely happens next is that Penny expresses deep and heartfelt empathy toward Wendy's feelings about the party, and probably apologizes for not being there when she was needed. Wendy, for her part, will ideally learn that her plans and the feelings attached to them are not necessarily foremost in the minds of her friends, and that she should forgive friends who occasionally fail to realize the significance of the requests she makes.

In the future, it's likely that Penny will be more attentive to Wendy's feelings when Wendy makes a special request of Penny; and it's likely that Wendy will make more effort to make her feelings clear, and to understand how those feelings relate to Penny's needs and desires.

But neither Wendy nor Penny will ever reach that point by merely placing themselves in the other's shoes, by merely swapping circumstances. Resolving this kind of conflict requires more than swapping footwear. One has to swap values.