Friday, March 10, 2006

Take Home Exam

1. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson write: “To get the benefits of social learning, human beings have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper, but such credulity opens human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. The problem is one of information costs. The advantage of culture is that individuals don’t have to invent everything for themselves. We get wondrous adaptations like kayaks and blowguns on the cheap. The trouble is that a greed for easy adaptive traditions easily leads to perpetuating maladaptions that somehow arise.” Discuss.

2. It has been suggested* that dada is to Surrealism what Theravada is Mahayana. To what extent is this analogy accurate? Your answer can be in either Pali or Sanskrit.

*In this sentence.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reaction Norms

Biologists know that a given gene can only be said to be adaptive or maladaptive in the context of the other genes and in a particular environment. In the absence of malaria, the sickle cell trait, even in the heterozygous case, is a drag on the organism. Similarly, the mutation responsible for the paleness of Caucasians is simply a genetic defect in Australia where everybody’s hide is menaced by too much sun. The value of political principles is similarly situational. It isn’t just cases that are altered by circumstances.

If a presumptive prejudice in favor of civil rights made sense in the era of breeches and wigs and was even more important when bureaucrats and cops keep track of dissidents with human informants and file cabinets full of manila folders, it stands to reason that the advent of computers and omnipresent electronic surveillance makes such quaint taboos absolutely critical. Everybody talks about the Internet as if it were obviously an invention that promotes individual freedom, but it is actually the answer to the secret policeman’s dearest dream, the nearest thing yet to the TV’s in Orwell’s 1984 that watch the watchers. Every intemperate word written on every blog, every irritated comment typed into a comment section in the dead of night, every visit to a racy website gives the prosecutor and the political publicist another way to control the citizenry through the traditional combination of extortion and selective prosecution. In the face of such a drastic increase in the technical capability of oppression, a correspondingly absolute and uncompromising defense of individual rights is critical. The ACLU needs the bomb.
Generosity and Spite: A Linear Programming Problem

As an ideal, equality has little appeal for me. I’m not morally offended if some people are better off than others, at least if everyone can live decently. I don’t doubt that measures that artificially level wealth tend to result in lower or negative growth rates since it is the prospect of doing better than the others that fuels effort and enterprise. Insisting on equality of outcome amounts to adding an expensive constraint to the problem of maximizing the performance of an economy. The point is often missed, however, that an ideological insistence on a high level of inequality is just as artificial and perhaps just as likely to lower the overall outcome. In this connection, I note that the wealthiest Americans are currently rich beyond all measure, but the economy isn’t performing very well. With this much inequality, everybody–not just the contemporary Croesuses–should be rich as Croesus.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Divine Right Monarchy, the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others

Does anybody actually believe in democracy? It’s easy to make fun of the Bush administration’s version of popular sovereignty, the Breshnevian doctrine that people have the absolute right to vote for candidates of the government’s choosing; but American politicians of all stripes have repeatedly found democracy inconvenient and have repeatedly amended the people’s errors by invasions, coups, and assassinations—recall Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Iran, Chile, and Cuba. When you bring up this track record, people regularly respond not by admitting that they don’t seriously believe in democracy, but by explaining why it was such a good idea to bump off Allende or prevent the Algerians from voting in an Islamic government. This is an evasion that becomes all the more problematic as the real power of voters declines at home as well as abroad. It isn’t just third-world wogs who are bombed if they do something foolish that hurts American interests, after all. Our domestic political arrangements, the contrivance of both Republicans and Democrats, are mostly a series of barricades and fortifications against the public will. In the first hundred or so years of our national history, government became more democratic in this country with the expansion of the franchise, the deepening of civil rights, and the direct election of senators. For a hundred years or more, however, the tide has been flowing in the other direction.

I’m not suggesting that the majority rule ought to be absolute. I directed my initial question as much at myself as at anybody else because I’m as distrustful of the people as any Conservative. Anybody who reads these pages knows that I could care less what the man in the street thinks about scientific or philosophical issues. Indeed, I don’t think that anybody has a right to an opinion about matters they know nothing about. What offends me is the Orwellian doublespeak of politicians who claim to promote democracy with high tech terror weapons while working tirelessly to ensure that the liberated masses, appropriately grateful, shut the fuck up and do what we want. And I have also come to believe as a matter of prudence that states in which the people have a real ability to influence policy are likely to be more stable, less corrupt, and less dangerous to the peace of the world than oligarchic republics like the contemporary United States. I got to thinking. Since democracy isn’t sacred, maybe it’s sometimes worthwhile.