How do we end child labor? Friday, Feb 12 2010 

I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?

One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.

So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.


Democracy vs. libertarianism Monday, Jan 11 2010 

One of the problems that ideologues of any persuasion probably run into is the problem of democracy. What do I mean by “the problem of democracy”? What I mean by this is that the democratic majority often does not adhere or conform perfectly to the ideology that a person or group may have. This can be a problem for the ideologue if he or she professes to be a democrat (a supporter of democracy). So, for example, the libertarian may decry the government’s role in society, despite the democratic majority wanting social programs or government regulation. Thus, any claim that we should wipe out social spending is inherently anti-democratic in this sense. My previous post on government involvement touches on this issue. Of course, the ideologue can bypass this “problem” if they do not profess to be democrats. Instead, we should simply implement the policies of our ideology, no matter how much the public is opposed to it. That is, we become authoritarians. For the libertarian or the anarchist, this is inherently paradoxical. We cannot claim to be libertarians and authoritarians at the same time—the ideas are necessarily opposed to each other. It is not possible to authoritatively implement our policies in the name of libertarianism, for example. That isn’t to say no one has tried; for example, Augusto Pinochet, in his brutal dictatorship over Chile, enacted free-market reforms in the name of “liberating.” We know that’s hypocritical, and we understand the perversity in his understanding of “liberty.” Here, “liberty” means liberty for the corporation, not for the people. Thus, the ideas of libertarianism and anti-democratic measures are incompatible.

How can the ideologue cope with “the problem of democracy”? How can we accept certain principles that the majority rejects, yet still call ourselves “champions of democracy”? I have two suggestions, and others are welcome. First, be what could be called a philosophical ideologue (cf. philosophical anarchism). That is to say, you keep your beliefs in whatever ideology you choose, but you accept the majority’s opinion as the opinion that should be adhered to. So, for example, if you’re against social spending, but the majority supports it, you continue to believe that social spending is wrong but accept the majority’s choice as the will of the people. For some, this might seem like an unpleasing solution, which I accept. It does seem contradictory to accept the choice but at the same time to not accept the choice. It would seem as if we are not truly adhering to our ideologies (that’s a common argument against anarchists who do not support the overthrow of the state—they’re not real anarchists). Do we or do we not accept that argument? The other thing I suggest is that we teach or advocate our ideology in a way that is not anti-democratic. We explain our philosophies (non-coercively) to others in the hopes that they will accept them. In this way, we can influence the outcome of the democratic choice without resorting to authoritarianism.

I accept that others may not accept this. They may say we have to cling to our ideologies, no matter what. We must reject the democratic majority. They may not say it in this way, but it is what they’re saying. I reject this argument and find it to be dangerous. Over ideology, I am a democrat.

P.S. This is a further exploration of a concept that Dr. Spagnoli explores on his blog in a post titled “What is Democracy?” In it, he explains, “Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity . . . Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. . . . France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.” The parallels to contemporary foreign affairs are obvious enough. Claims Dr. Spagnoli, “Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination).” The question being raised is, “are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way?” Likewise, I raise the question if libertarians are allowed to impose or enforce libertarianism in an authoritarian way. I say no.

The people speak Sunday, Dec 13 2009 

Sorry for the relative inactivity as of late. I’ve been busy with finals, and still am, so this will be a short post. I just got finished watching The People Speak shown on the History channel. If you have a chance to watch it, I suggest you do. It was a very moving show of what real and ordinary people have said throughout American history. It wasn’t about what politicians, the elites, or the business class have thought. It was what people who were being affected by the nation’s policies spoke about. And I think it shows just how much Americans have been anti-war, for participatory democracy, social change, equality, and solidarity. It has always been this way and it runs deep in American life, outside of the perverse culture of Washington and Wall Street.

It shows how much American history has been built on the backs of ordinary people who strove for nothing more than a better life. It shows that opposition to state violence and oppression has a long and strong history, and the struggles of people like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., J. W. Loguen, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Emma Goldman, and others to fight against it. American history is a history of dissent and resistance and activism. Society has become more civilized due to their contributions. What liberty we have is because of these people who rose up. That is to say, democracy and liberty comes from the bottom up, from the people. When you look at the activist history of the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties, you see that it has a civilizing effect on society. And it continues straight through today, and we see it in the opposition to our fundamentally wrong wars, in the fight to give rights to gays, in the advancement of environmental protection, in the anti-sweatshop movements, and the solidarity with the suppressed in Palestine. That is the source of social progress. That is message I think Howard Zinn is trying to put out in The People Speak (and his A People’s History of the United States). So when we talk about what lies ahead, well, it’s largely up to us.

Organ capitalism revisted Wednesday, Dec 2 2009 

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece supporting the sale and purchase of organs. I argued that allowing for a market for organs would get rid of the lack of supply of organs that are desperately needed to save the lives of those in need of an organ transplant (the literature tends to agree, as does empirical evidence from Iran). Every year, tens of thousands of people (about 100,000 in the U.S. alone) in need of new organs must wait because there lacks a supply of healthy organs available to them, and thousands more die because of this shortage. Every year the shortage continues to rise (demand is increasing faster than supply is). Healthy organs abound, but the shortage arises from the fact that it is a crime to sell or purchase organs. The altruistic donation of organs, while undoubtedly saving many lives, simply does not come close to supplying the necessary amount of organs. The logical conclusion seems to suggest there ought to be a market for organs.

Some people, however, detest this notion. In a recent post on his blog, Dr. Filip Spagnoli makes several nuanced arguments against free organ trade. The main arguments he makes, insofar as I understand them, are that the poor, qua the poor, will be desperate for money and therefore forced to sell their organs; the wealthy, qua the wealthy, will be able to disproportionately afford the organs and therefore be unfairly benefited; organ transplants are dangerous; solid organs donation is nonrenewable and therefore decidedly and relevantly different from blood donation; organ trade is tantamount to commodification of the body; and an opt-out system is the best solution to our problem.

King Banaian, a professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, made an argument similar to first listed above, back in 2005. The poor are desperate, goes the argument, and so it’s unfair they would end up selling organs (i.e. they lack informed consent). The basic underlying premise of this argument is that the poor are irrational, incapable of thinking for themselves. The government, therefore, knows what’s better for them than they themselves do. That is, they have to be protected from themselves (because they’re poor). I reject that argument. If the premise is true for the sale of organs, then it would be equally true of other economic decisions they make, including the sale of their labor or their purchase of goods. That doesn’t seem to be the case and, if it is, we certainly don’t restrict completely their involvement in the market (and even more certainly not the involvement of others).

So the argument seems to be that, if it weren’t for the money incentive being offered, the poor wouldn’t choose to donate their organs. But that’s true of basically all people. Economic agents would not do many things if it were not for the money incentive. Dell wouldn’t sell me computers if they weren’t being compensated for it. Is that exploitation (of their want for money)? I don’t think so. That’s called trade, and both the seller and buyer are made better off by it. So what the detractors have failed to explain is how the poor are made better off by ensuring they are not able to receive money that would help alleviate their predicament.

The second argument is that the wealthy, because they obtain more wealth, “will be able to benefit disproportionately from the market because prices will be high …” Dr. Spagnoli says this is true because society is aging, but admits prices will fall because of competition among suppliers, particularly from poor places like Africa. Still, the fact that the wealthy can disproportionately afford things does not suggest to me there ought not to be trade. So long as the distribution of wealth is unequal (which seems to always be the case), some people will be able to afford more than others. That doesn’t mean we outlaw trade. (The wealthy can afford more food and labor than the poor; do we therefore outlaw the sale of food or labor?) That seems to be punishing the rich merely by fact that they’re rich. And in this case, the punishment is death. Detractors of organ trade fail to explain how outlawing trade benefits the less-than-wealthy who are in need of an organ. It seems to me that as the wealthy begin to demand less organs, prices will begin to fall (allowing even the poor to afford to buy organs). By outlawing organ trade, detractors are (at best) disallowing some people from buying lifesaving organs merely because of their wealth.

The next argument is organ transplants are dangerous, so they should not be allowed. It’s true that all surgery, even the most benign, carry risk (including death). That reason alone is not enough to outlaw transplantation of organs. If it’s dangerous to sell organs for money, then it’s equally dangerous to donate organs altruistically. But we allow the altruistic kind. Clearly, danger is not the underlying factor here. Moreover, the dangers are overplayed, I think. The death rate for liver transplantation in Japan is at 0%, and 0.3% in the United States. These rates will continue to decline as advances in medicine continue and as surgeons progress along the learning curve. Kidney transplantation is even safer (people who donate kidneys live longer than those who don’t). Remember, it was Joseph Murray who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for completing the first kidney allograft in 1954. The patient in that case is still alive. While there is serious risk in many activities, including surgery (or timber cutting or smoking, which are both legal), that’s not enough to outlaw the practice.

Another argument is that blood (or sperm perhaps) is okay to sell because it’s renewable. The only defense here is that the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable is “relevant,” but without any further explanation. How is the distinction important? The fact that some goods are scarce doesn’t tell me a lot (other than that their price is going to be higher). Furthermore, modern liver transplantation in live patients consists of removing only a portion of the liver from the donor, which will regenerate and return to full functionality within a matter of a few weeks. Does the detractor now accept the trade of livers? (Similarly, the sale of bone marrow, which is just as renewable as blood, is a serious crime in the United States.)

A very common argument that also comes up is that the trade of organs is tantamount to the commodification of the body. I say, So what? It saves the lives of real human beings. That’s what matters. “Commodification is dehumanization,” they say. I counter that there is nothing more dehumanizing than simply letting people die, which is precisely what you do when you outlaw the trade of organs. So what is worse: that people might sell parts of their body or that hundreds of thousands of people are unable to get organs that could save their lives? Supporters of this argument also fail to explain how blood, bone marrow, sperm, ovarian eggs, or bearing children (all of which have markets) do not constitute commodification. Or, if they do, do they believe these practices ought to be outlawed? It’s also worth mentioning that even in altruistic donations, people are still profiting from it: the doctor, the nurses, the hospital, and so on. That is, everyone except the donor.

They might respond, We’re not letting them die because we have a solution, which is the op-out system. Opt-out, also called presumed consent, begins with the assumption that all people wish to donate their organs upon death. If you do not consent, you must specifically tell this to the state. (My contention is that this is akin to saying the state owns your body by assumption.) This is opposed to the opt-in system, like in the United States, where the assumption is that people do no wish to donate their organs upon death, unless it is otherwise specified. In that way, the hope of opt-out supporters is that people are not altruistic, but rather lazy or ignorant. I find that deeply unethical, but Dr. Spagnoli points to several studies from his country, Belgium, which show opt-out is providing an ample amount of organs (that is, people seem to be lazy or ignorant). (The rate of “donation” is marginally higher than that of the U.S.) A lot of the scholarly literature, however, does indeed seem to suggest opt-out provides higher rates of organ “donations” than opt-in. If this were necessarily true, though, Sweden and Israel (opt-out states) would not have such low donation rates. A study published in 2005 further shows that opt-out systems do not guarantee higher donation rates. The authors find that, when correcting for mortality rates, the apparent efficacy of opt-out disappears. Perhaps better than opt-in or opt-out, a better choice would be mandatory choice. All competent adults must choose whether or not they wish to donate their organs or not. Family decisions (which negatively affect the efficacy of both opt-in and opt-out) must not override the individual’s choice.

Still, it seems giving enough of an incentive to potential donors is the key to finally getting rid of organ shortages, which cause unnecessary deaths each year. As I explained earlier, Iran has been successful in accomplishing this. If detractors are unwavering, however, then perhaps markets are not necessarily the correct solution. Instead, I might propose a system wherein the government pays for the organs and then distributes these as equitably as possible. This removes a lot of the fears detractors have of unfair market allocations. Others, unfortunately, might reflexively bash the idea because it relies on (*moan*) the government. But I ask these people the same question as before: What is worse—that the government might be involved in the trade of organs or that thousands must die needlessly each year because they are unable to procure necessary organs?

Libertarianism. What’s in a name? Sunday, Nov 1 2009 

I just got done reading an excellent article by Kerry Howley in Reason, a libertarian magazine. I think the article raises some very thought-provoking questions concerning libertarianism.

What exactly is libertarianism, and what does it entail? Is it, as the article asks, the opposition to coercion and authority only by the state? Or does it entail opposition to other forms of coercion and authority outside of the state, such as that coming from cultural norms, societal practices, traditions, or other institutionalized structures and conventions? If libertarianism is concerned with liberty, particularly individual liberty, do we define it only as liberty from the state? Are there other ways individual liberty is restrained that libertarians ought to care about? Are there practices and norms all people calling themselves libertarians ought to fight against, “even if no one has bothered to codify the rules in an Important Book and call them ‘laws'”?

A central question for left-libertarians or leftist anarchists is whether private power is just as bad (or even worse) than state power. To them, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” This is why, for example, they oppose capitalistic economic orders that act to propagate “unaccountable private tyrannies” (corporations) and private property. Traditionally, libertarianism was associated with these leftists. Today, and most notably in the United States, “libertarianism” is associated with rightist libertarians—those who advocate free markets and the protection of private poverty. American libertarianism, most closely associated with the Libertarian Party, is very much a part of the Lockean imagination. To quote Ayn Rand:

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

These are profound remarks. According to Rand, “Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights.” Similarly, as Murray Rothbard states, “Capitalism is the fullest expression of anarchism, and anarchism is the fullest expression of capitalism.” As Howley explains, however, free markets and anti-statism are only one part of the story. “It’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty,” she writes.

According to Howley, “libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. . . . when a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content—has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians—he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state.” As I said, I think this raises many interesting questions. Particularly, if we see a social injustice that we perceive to be limiting the individual liberty of certain people, is it our moral obligation to attempt to change that? If a particular society’s mores dictate that women should be restricted to the confines of the home, is it the libertarian’s job to fight against it? Importantly, would that not entail forcing our cultural preferences and ideals on others whom we might consider “backward”? As the response by Todd Seavey to Howley’s article strongly proclaims, “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Kerry Howley’s Preferences.”

Truly, all libertarians should be concerned with the exercise of authority, in any context. As the left-anarchist Noam Chomsky posits, “The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.” To wit, it is not enough to simply confront political and economic orders that restrict individual liberty; rather, it is required of us to oppose even the social and cultural orders that act similarly, working under the basis that power is illegitimate by assumption. Writes Howley, “In turning so definitively from the left, libertarians denied themselves a powerful vocabulary with which to engage discussions of individualism.” Even those libertarians concerned with free markets and other rightist agendas ought to concern themselves with other institutionalized forms of coercion and authority. The answer to the question “Are Property Rights Enough?”, I believe, is “No.”

Your own thoughts about the nature of libertarianism are invited.

Anarchism in St. Cloud Thursday, Oct 8 2009 

Two Wednesdays ago, St. Cloud got a sort of impromptu visit from the Motorhome Diaries guys. They are essentially three guys driving around the country in a motorhome spreading the word of liberty to people they meet along the way. They stopped in on SCSU for a little while to talk to a couple of people (about a dozen or so), most of them from the Libertarian Party club and the Young Americans for Liberty organization, and few other open-minded people.

These people described themselves as voluntaryists, meaning only decisions or actions that are made voluntarily are just and moral. They therefore oppose the state, which they see as coercive and necessarily violent. They also support anarcho-capitalism, which would be a completely stateless society in which completely unfettered laissez-faire capitalism constitutes the mode of production. The gist of their argument, I think, is that any voluntary association should be allowed so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. Being forced to pay taxes, live in a statist society, follow statist regulations, and so forth are seen as involuntary and enforced only through the use of force and coercion by the state. Because the state lacks voluntary association, it is seen as illegitimate.

So the work these guys do is to oppose the state based on these premises. However, they, like most voluntaryists, wish to do so by working outside of state institutions. That is opposed to the Libertarian Party’s method of working within state institutions by, for example, electing officials into government for the purpose of reducing government. Instead, they opt for non-political means such as civil disobedience. Their stance reminded me of a discussion I had with Filip Spagnoli. While I agree the state is the largest perpetrator of violence and destruction, I think it’s helpful to try to improve the state. And I think one way you can do that is through electing officials that will help the cause of reducing government and ending state violence. It would be a more gradual change. I think that’s a noble cause. It’s certainly more realistic, in my opinion, than abolishing the state outright, especially given its current size.

I think that’s where I disagree with these guys. Nevertheless, I appreciate their visit and sharing their ideas about ideal society. It was intriguing, and I’m sure a new concept for many people at the meeting. Anarchism is often seen in a negative light, as a chaotic system, disorganized, lawless, and so on. The Motorhome Diaries help dispel these myths. I think anarchism is a legitimate political philosophy (it’s quite broad) and merits our careful attention as such.

Pornography vis-à-vis feminism and rights Wednesday, Sep 30 2009 

Pornography can be a touchy subject to deal with because many people are uncomfortable discussing sex, let alone its commercialization. I concede this fact, but will try to anyway.

I’m generalizing a bit, but I think it’s fair to say there are two broad categories of people when it comes to pornography: those who believe it should be illegal and those who believe it should not be illegal. I belong in the latter category. I’m not alone by any means, and I believe I’m in good company. But I want to make myself very clear that supporting the legality of something does not necessarily mean condoning it. For example, when I say I support the decriminalization of marijuana, I do not mean to imply that I condone the use of marijuana (recreationally) or that I would use it myself. When I say abortion is an absolute and inalienable right of women, I do not mean to imply I support women getting abortions (I prefer they don’t, but that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed). So when I support the legality of pornography, I do not mean to say porn is necessarily a good thing. I’m sure there’s a good deal of people who support the legality of pornography but do not necessarily agree with the act (and definitely a great deal that do support the act itself).

Tonight (Wednesday), however, the SCSU Women’s Center along with the Residential Life Social Justice and Diversity Committee will be hosting an anti-pornography special event at 6:00 P.M. in Ritsche Auditorium (I’m not sure that I will be able to make it, because I’m also going to a special event on Palestine). The event is titled “The Price of Pleasure” and it will show the documentary that goes by the same name followed by a presentation by Robert Jensen who is an anti-pornography activist and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin (he also appears in the documentary).

In one of the few times I’ve been impressed with the quality of a student-written opinion appearing in the University Chronicle, Neil Panchmatia writes a scathing criticism of the Women’s Center position on pornography that it takes in showing the documentary and hosting the professor, which he says is contrary to “the consensus of most feminist scholars.” Panchmatia, a graduate student in social responsibility, writes, “In feminism there is lively debate on whether porn is harmful, but through Professor Jensen the Women’s Center is promoting only Andrea Dworkin’s extreme perspective, which not only claims that porn itself embodies the violation of womens rights, but equates the term ‘porn’ with ‘gender violence,’ and even that porn ’causes’ rape and fuels violence against women.”

Indeed, arguments about pornography are nuanced, even among feminists, but there’s little doubt that the position the Women’s Center endorses is out on the extreme. A thorough survey of the American public by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman in 1986 showed 78% of people did not believe pornography should be illegal (finding reliable polling on this subject somewhat difficult). I do not deny that pornography can cause problems. I don’t think anyone doubts there can be detrimental effects in the participation, production, or consumption of pornography. There is, in fact, robust scholarly literature that deals with this important subject. But to conclude from that that pornography should be illegal is misguided.

In their 1969 ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States declared every American has the “constitutional right to keep and enjoy pornographic material in his home.” Though the court said they have the “broad power” to regulate “obscenity,” it concluded every American may “satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” That is, the court affirms, Americans have the right to free speech and privacy. (In a true perversion of the Constitution, the court later ruled in 1973 in Miller v. California that it had to right to determine what “obscenity” is and therefore declare it not a form of protected speech or expression under the First Amendment.)

So if we have the right to view pornographic material, one can infer from this that there also exists the right to participate in and produce pornography. That is, consenting adults have the right to perform sexual acts with each other and they also have the right to disseminate depictions of these acts with other consenting adults. They have these rights, but whether you want to argue that engaging in these activities is right or wrong is an entirely different thing. You may wish to educate people, inform people of risks, discuss its immorality and so forth, but we cannot deny them the right to engage in the activity. I can certainly agree, for example, that pornography can have the effect of distorting views on sex and sexuality and objectify and dehumanize women, but it doesn’t follow from that that pornography ought to be outlawed.

But proponents of outlawing pornography point to the alleged negative social effects it creates. Particularly, they argue pornography incites violence against women including through rape. “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,” goes the saying. Is it true? The Classically Liberal blog, in their post on the benefits of pornography, cites a study by Todd Kendall, a professor at Clemson University. Kendall finds, “a 10 percentage point increase in Internet access [to pornography] is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%,” among other benefits. There is a preponderance of evidence that supports this claim. (In fact, in 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress, in response to the SCOTUS ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. What the commission found was that exposure to sexual materials does not create adverse social effects, does not corrupt the individual, that restrictions on the “sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed,” and that adults believed they had the right to view pornography on their own accord. Congress rejected these findings.)

To conclude, the right to own, view, participate in, produce, and distribute pornography has been affirmed for consenting adults. We have strong and overwhelming evidence that pornography does not create adverse social effects and, in fact, may reduce violent crimes against women such as rape. Yet, the Women’s Center will dismiss these rights and ignore the research to instead advocate the idea that pornography is fundamentally and necessarily wrong and detrimental and ought to be illegal. Needless to say, I believe they are taking the extreme position and it ought to be firmly rejected.

SSDP and the War on Drugs Tuesday, Sep 22 2009 

Today, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) had it’s first ever meeting on SCSU’s campus. You can find out information about the organization, which has over 100 chapters in the U.S. and more in other countries, on its Web site. Though it might be easy to assume otherwise because it is a college organization regarding drugs, the organization does not promote the use of drugs or necessarily support the legalization of narcotics. Instead, it is focused on more sensible drug policies on the campus, city, state, or national level, namely due to the failures of the United States’ current War on Drugs. The mission statement, also available on their Web site along with other helpful information, is as follows:

Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, but who also know that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society.

SSDP mobilizes and empowers young people to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth.

Again, as per their values statement available on the Web site, SSDP “neither encourages nor condemns drug use.” Instead, it seeks “a just and compassionate society where drug abuse is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.” Furthermore, the SSDP continues, “As scholars we seek solutions to society’s drug problems through focused research, honest dialogue, and informed debate, instead of unquestioned extremism, punishment, and propaganda.”

So that’s the SSDP. Now that SCSU officially has a chapter, I hope the issue of sensible drug policy can more earnestly be discussed on campus. In fact, I’m rather optimistic that this can happen even after just the first meeting tonight. There were good ideas brought up about spreading awareness and contributing useful dialogue. We are still discussing the scope of our focus (thinking primarily the campus-level at the moment) and the types of policies we should be promoting, but I’m confident this organization has the capability of creating meaningful discourse and even implementing helpful changes because I know there are members working on this who are eager, intelligent, and devoted to the issue.

My diatribe on the issue
What is my take on the issue of drug policy? I don’t know how aligned my views are with the rest of the group’s but I think we can all definitely agree the War on Drugs has been a fantastic failure. The research and academic literature on this issue is immense, and I cannot possibly address it all. To make a seriously thorough post on this topic is probably beyond my capability, especially for the purpose of crafting a blog post (so I won’t pretend to address every or even most of the salient points, which are important and have been discussed diligently elsewhere). One thing has become abundantly clear, though: Prohibition does not cause things to go away; it makes things more dangerous among other adverse social effects. The argument in support of the War on Drugs are plentiful and nuanced (mostly coming from the conservative right), but usually fall flat when seriously scrutinized.

Of particular interest has been the issue of marijuana. Increasingly, the American public has been concerned with the government’s harsh laws on marijuana and there has been a very strong push for legalization (or at least decriminalization), even to such an extent that President Obama and his administration had to respond. The response has been less harsh than that of President Bush’s, but it still falls short.

But we cannot even begin to talk about the criminalization of marijuana without first acknowledging its purpose. There is a reason why marijuana is illegal (and alcohol is not, for example). History actually ran a show about it (Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way—I recommend everyone watch it). The reason is because it was associated with “deviants” (read: minorities). So the policy has its roots in racism. The laws are still quite racist, in fact. The only way to justify them is through bigotry.

There is no medical reason for banning marijuana (a claim strongly supported by the medical literature). Certain drugs, including marijuana, have become criminalized because they’re associated with what’s called the “dangerous classes,” meaning poor people. That’s why, for example, gin was criminalized in 19th century London and whiskey was not. Poor people drank gin. This is why the sentencing for crack is so much harsher than for powder cocaine. Poor people use crack. For marijuana, it was Mexicans bringing it in. That’s why you’ve got to criminalize it.

So, yes, it’s also quite true that there was a time when these things weren’t prohibited. Society functioned still. In fact, there are places were it’s currently not criminalized. Take Portugal for example. They’re a functioning society. In fact, since they’ve legalized marijuana, they have said it has benefited their society (teen drug use decreased, HIV from needle sharing decreased, and treatment increased). Of course, one should not be surprised by this.

As it happens, places such as the National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study and the RAND Corporation have done studies the cost effectiveness of certain approaches. Invariably, what they find is that treatment and prevention is the most cost effective (and by large margins). Law enforcement, police work, and incarceration was more expensive and less effective. Even more expensive and even less effective is border intervention. The least effective and most costly? Extra-national operations. So what approach do the United States take? We actually do it in the opposite direction. We’re spending more money on doing things like engaging in chemical warfare on Colombia’s farms. The next biggest place we spend money is on border intervention, and down the line. Why is it done this way? Because it helps corporations and the government. It’s used as a cover for counter-insurgency, clears the land of peasants so large multinational corporations can come in for resource extraction and agrobusiness, benefits the prison-industrial complex, grows the government, unconstitutionally expands their power, etc. But it doesn’t stop drug use. And this is no small amount either. We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this so-called war on drugs. And for what? For naught. (In fact, it’s making things worse.) All the while we could be making billions from the legal sale of it in taxes. On the other hand, while we’re losing hundreds of billions, drug cartels and other illegal enterprises are making billions. Does that really seem logical to anyone?

Social versus Economic rights Wednesday, Jul 22 2009 

Sorry I haven’t made the post about minimum wages yet. It’s obviously quite a complicated issue, so I’m still doing some more research on the topic, which is taking time in addition to starting a new summer session at school. However, just the other day I was having a discussion with a liberty-minded friend of mine on the issue of cap and trade. She was opposed to it and pointed to an op-ed Sarah Palin (Alaska’s governor who is soon to resign) wrote on the topic for the Washington Post. Naturally, I pointed out how stupid Governor Palin is. One simply has to go through her beliefs on social issues (among other things) to easily realize this. For (a brief) example, her positions that victims of rape who become pregnant should have to bear those children, that religiously-motivated intelligent design should be taught in science classes, or that abstinence only should be taught. My friend’s response was that now is not the time for a social debate, as the country is a bad recession. Right now, the only thing we should be focused on is the economy is her contention. She puts a precedence of economic rights over social rights.

As I rebutted, that’s pretty rubbish. Social rights issues are important regardless of how well the economy is doing. Outlawing abortions in a recession is no more moral than doing so in the heights of a bubble. It’s no more excusable to teach religion in science classes when stocks tumble than when they’re peaking. I think it would be a non sequitur to argue otherwise. It’s fine to argue for economic freedom, but it’s an entirely different thing to say it trumps all other issues.

I don’t, however, want to create a false dichotomy. Social and economic issues are not mutually exclusive. They are often interrelated. However, if forced with the decision, I would put precedence of social issues of economic issues. For example, I would much rather live in a country that was experiencing hyperinflation but still respected human rights than one where the economy was growing but systematically violated human rights.

I gave her the example of Pinochet’s Chile. Augusto Pinochet was the ruthless dictator of Chile 1974 until 1990. As a student of Latin America history, I was absolutely appalled by the horror stories that came out of Chile under Pinochet’s rule. Here is a guy, with the help of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys, who completely reformed the Chilean economy, liberalizing, deregulating, and privatizing at an astonishing rate. If there was a laissez-faire economy, it was Chile. And, you know what, some economic indicators like GDP rose. However, this came at the price of massive repression. Dissents were disappeared, tortured, murdered. Democracy did not exist. The country was ruled with an iron fist by the military and its dictator. If you dare spoke your mind, you would be brutally repressed.

Did the liberalization and expansion of the economy legitimize the loss of social rights? The answer is a resounding “no.”

I don’t want to give the impression that economic repression is not a bad thing. It very well can be. The point I want to stress though is that even if a government decides to command its economy, end trade, tax its citizens, or otherwise check markets, this is a much better alternative of restricting the social freedom of its citizens. So, through reading my blog you may find that I put a priority on social rights, even though I also agree economic freedom is very important.

Human rights and responsibilities Monday, Jun 8 2009 

A few days ago, Filip Spagnoli, who works in research and statistics at the Belgian Central Bank and who has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Brussels, wrote on his blog about the relationship between the recession and unemployment. Dr. Spagnoli’s contention is that the recession has caused unemployment, and unemployment is the violation of the human right to work. I challenged this notion of the right to work on the grounds that it is a positive right, which violates the negative rights of others, and because it is reasonably impossible to assign blame to an individual.

Today, King Banaian, the chairman of the SCSU economics department, discussed the issue about violators of human rights on his blog. Dr. Banaian, quoting William Easterly, argues that poverty cannot be a human rights violation because there is no clear violator and because the definition of poverty is not precise. Moreover, he argues poverty is largely the result of violations against property rights.

I agree with the professors here. When a person murders another, we blame the murderer for violating the other person’s right to life. When a person becomes unemployed (or impoverished) who is it that we blame, that we place responsibility on? Dr. Spagnoli’s response is that finding a single violator is “too simplistic” and that human rights violations are “often much more complex, i.e. the result of social pressures, traditions, mimetism, power structures etc. I think it’s fair to say that ‘traditions’ can cause rights violations. So why not the ‘economy’?”

This is indeed a moral question, and the question is to whom (or what) do we assign blame and responsibility. Can we say an economy or a society is immoral, or do we instead say individual actors within these structures act immorally? If the former, how do we possibly change these structures (to correct the problem of human rights violations) without taking individuals into consideration? Can we change economies or societies without changing the individuals within those structures? (And I am immoral for merely participating in the market capitalistic mode of production, which Dr. Spangnoli contends causes this humans right abuse?) The problem with Dr. Spangnoli’s argument is that he wishes to blame ways of thinking (e.g. traditions, memes, social ideals, mores). I think it is much more helpful to blame individual actions that might result from these ways of thinking. If that is the case, though, I am immoral for participating in our capitalist mode of production which propagates unemployment.

This is why I do not find it proper to think of employment or wealth as human rights. To argue one has the right to wealth or employment implies the forcing of others to distribute wealth or to employ. Some might find this perfectly acceptable. Others, like myself, see it a violations of negative rights, which implies people have the right not to be subjected to the harmful actions, interferences, or restraints of others (which is always wrong). On the other hand, positive right implies all people are entitled to things like wealth, employment, health care, social security, etc. and that the absence of these things from any person is a human rights abuse. In this sense, liberty comes from the ability and access to resources to “achieving self-realization,” which often implies it comes from above, from the state, from the allowance of some power structure. I find this to be a perversion of the definition of liberty.