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Global Cancer Scare – Article by Bradley Doucet

Global Cancer Scare – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
December 29, 2013
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The coverage of the World Health Organization’s latest data on global cancer rates in today’s Globe and Mail was typical of the media in general: “the disease tightened its grip in developing nations struggling to treat an illness driven by Western lifestyles.” And a glance at the WHO’s GLOBOCAN Cancer Fact Sheet maps seems to confirm that “Western lifestyles” are the culprit, since living in a wealthier part of the world increases your risk of getting cancer. But what’s wrong with this picture?
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The main problem is that it makes it sound as if life in developing nations is getting worse as it becomes more like life in the wealthier parts of the world. This is pure hogwash. The WHO’s own data shows that life expectancy at birth rose from 2000 to 2011 in all regions of the world. Globally, it rose from 66 to 70 years; in Africa, from 50 to 56. People may be dying more than they used to from various cancers, but they’re clearly dying less from other causes, and the one more than makes up for the other.

Don’t get me wrong: Helping people afflicted with cancer in poorer parts of the world is a fine thing to do. But the best way to help in the long run is to help them get richer so they can help themselves. This undoubtedly would make them even more like us in terms of “lifestyle” and would undoubtedly lead to even higher rates of cancer. But it would also lead to less dying from other causes, and longer life expectancy overall. I’m willing to bet that’s a trade every person living in the developing world would be happy to make.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

Price Fixers of the World, Unite! – Article by Bradley Doucet

Price Fixers of the World, Unite! – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
December 4, 2013
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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has never met a price control he didn’t like. The latest news is that he will regulate the price of new and used cars in order to fight inflation, which hit 54% in October. This is a lot like using leeches to balance the four humours: It’s discredited nonsense that does more harm than good (and shame on Bloomberg.com for its uncritical report on the matter, though I’m sure many other news outlets are just as bad).

As Matt McCaffrey and Carmen Dorobat pointed out in the International Business Times last month, inflation in Venezuela (and elsewhere) is quite simply the result of monetary expansion. The government prints money like a lunatic, which makes each single unit of currency worth less (and eventually worthless). More units of the debased currency are therefore needed to purchase goods and services, which is just another way of saying that prices go up.

Imposing controls to stop nominal prices from rising therefore actually lowers real prices below market rates. This leads to shortages, something long-suffering Venezuelans know a thing or two about. Their country is tragically being gutted of its accumulated capital by disastrously wrongheaded economic policies.

Equally mistaken, though not quite as harmful, is the Quebec government’s plan to control the price of books in order to keep sellers from selling them too cheaply. Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois wants to cap discounts on new books at 10% to protect small booksellers from competition from online and big-box retailers. Whereas Maduro imposes price ceilings, Marois wants to impose a price floor, which will keep books above their market rate. As my Québécois Libre colleague Larry Deck quipped, “Surely nobody would buy fewer books just because they cost more, right?”

Ceilings or floors, fixing prices by diktat distorts market signals and makes most everyone worse off. Depending on their pervasiveness, price controls can lead to a little—or a lot—of hardship. Quebec’s politicians would do well to think twice before emulating an economic basket case like Venezuela.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

What Does Greenpeace Have Against Golden Rice? – Article by Bradley Doucet

What Does Greenpeace Have Against Golden Rice? – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
November 17, 2013
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Imagine if you stumbled across a naturally-occurring variety of rice that was rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A found in carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. A lack of vitamin A in the body leads to an increased risk of blindness and increased susceptibility to disease, which can in turn lead to premature death in small children. If you could get people in poor rice-based societies to substitute this newfound variety of rice for the kind of rice they normally eat, then you could help them dramatically improve their health.Well, no such naturally-occurring variety of rice exists on Earth. Fortunately, though, some very intelligent human beings have created such a variety through genetic modification or genetic engineering (GE). It is called “Golden Rice” because of its golden colour. But far from celebrating this life-saving invention, groups like Greenpeace are fighting to stop it from being accepted and implemented. My first reaction to this was that the good people at Greenpeace and similar groups are out of their gourds. But skeptical though I was, I wanted to give them a chance to change my mind, to prove me wrong. What I found was not very impressive. Here are some of the reasons the organization gives [1] for claiming that “Golden Rice is environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and could compromise food, nutrition and financial security.” 1) “The tens of millions of dollars invested in Golden Rice would have been better spent on VAD [vitamin A deficiency] solutions that are already available and working, such as food supplements, food fortification and home gardening.” Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But who is to decide where money is better spent? I personally would rather have lots of people trying lots of different things. The best solutions will win out in the marketplace if people are free to choose. Oh, and Golden Rice is a form of food fortification. It just takes place at the genetic level.

2) “If cross-pollination or seed mix-up causes Golden Rice contamination, it could prove difficult, if not impossible to eradicate.” The use of words like ‘contamination’ and ‘eradicate’ are clearly meant to poison the debate, to get people to equate Golden Rice with dangerous diseases and harmful radiation. Rhetoric aside, is there any reason to expect more cross-pollination or seed mix-ups with Golden Rice than with other varieties? Are we afraid that basmati might cross-pollinate jasmine rice?

3) “If any hazardous, unexpected effects would develop from Golden Rice, the GE contamination would affect countries where rice is an essential staple and put people and food security at risk.” The reason they have to imagine hypothetical hazardous effects is that as far as anyone can tell, Golden Rice has no actual hazardous effects. It’s safe. It’s been tested. In the absence of any indication that it is harmful, we should go ahead and consume it. Or at least let other people consume it if we ourselves are filled with irrational fear.

4) “It is irresponsible to impose Golden Rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it.” Uh, no argument here. It’s not just irresponsible, it’s completely immoral. But who, exactly, is talking about imposing anything on anyone? Groups like Greenpeace are the ones that want to prevent people from being able to choose Golden Rice. I’m unaware of anyone who wants to force people to eat it, or farmers to grow it.

5) “Golden Rice does not address the underlying causes of VAD, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a healthy and varied diet.” So what? An artificial knee doesn’t address the underlying causes of bone density loss, but it sure makes life better for people whose natural knees are worn out. Getting at underlying causes is great, and I am certainly all for the economic freedom that will help the poor escape poverty. But in the meantime, treating some of the more dire symptoms of poverty also seems like a good idea.

6) “[T]he single-crop approach of Golden Rice could make malnutrition worse because it encourages a diet based solely on rice, rather than increasing access to a diverse diet of fruits and vegetables, considered crucial to combatting VAD and other nutrient deficiencies.” Golden Rice is a food, not an approach. The sooner the people in poor rice-based societies can get access to a diverse diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, the better, but again, in the meantime, Golden Rice can help. To forbid this option while holding out for a better one is perverse.

7) “Despite all the hype surrounding Golden Rice, it still remains unproven whether daily consumption of Golden Rice would actually improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient.” This is patently false. Scientific studies have shown that the beta-carotene contained in Golden Rice is “highly available and easily taken up into the bloodstream by the human digestive system.” There is no reason to believe that Golden Rice would not improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient, and every reason to believe that it would.

Since the reasons Greenpeace gives for opposing Golden Rice are so transparently inadequate, I have to wonder what the real, unstated reasons are. I can’t help but think that the people in charge of this campaign are unscientifically opposed to the transformative technology of genetic engineering itself, despite all of its potential to improve human lives. It really seems to me that they are motivated by an ecological religion whose goal is not to make human life better, but to preserve the non-human natural world for its own sake, and to stop us from altering it in any way unless it is to return it to a previous state before humans started altering it, which was somehow a better state despite being less suited to human survival and flourishing.

I’m all for reducing pollution and dealing with other environmental problems to the extent that doing so actually improves the human condition. Prioritizing the environment to the detriment of human well-being, though, I can’t get behind. And preventing the deployment of beneficial technologies that we have no reason to think would have any harmful effects on people or the environment? That is simply indefensible. Greenpeace should cease its harmful campaign against Golden Rice and get behind this life-saving technology.

1. Greenpeace refers to Golden Rice as “GE ‘Golden’ rice,” which I find clunky. For the sake of readability, I have replaced every instance of “GE ‘Golden’ rice” with “Golden Rice” in quotations from the Greenpeace website.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.
Remembrance Day 2038 – Short Story by Bradley Doucet

Remembrance Day 2038 – Short Story by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
November 11, 2013
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One hundred years ago, humanity was on the verge of global war. Hitler’s Germany had already annexed Austria, and Hirohito’s Japan had invaded China, Mongolia, and the USSR. Tens of millions of people would die in the ensuing Second World War, the deadliest conflict in human history. Today, we remember the fallen, both military and civilian, in this and other wars. We remember, and we give thanks for the current peace, which we have good grounds for believing will be an enduring one.

As recently as 25 years ago, such optimism would have seemed naïve. Though the world was already becoming much less violent in general, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were still an open psychic wound for many Americans, and isolated wars raged on in many regions. Fears of nuclear proliferation threatened to spark further conflicts in the already volatile Middle East.

But parallel to these political events and tensions, the global economy kept growing, spreading the benefits of industrialization and trade to more and more people in more and more countries. The more obvious the connection became between basic economic freedom and rising standards of living, the harder it became for even the most authoritarian regimes to resist the push for freer markets. Dire poverty has now been all but eradicated and real economic security is commonplace. And as people have more to live for, they are less willing to die for their countries. Pragmatic negotiations have become more attractive, and violent conflict less so.

The change that humanity has undergone can be summed up by a simple but profound slogan: Make trade, not war. As we have become more accustomed to seeing our neighbours as potential trading partners in positive-sum exchanges, killing them no longer seems to make a lot of sense. We remember today the wars of the past, that we might better appreciate our present peace and extend it indefinitely into the future.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

Illiberal Belief #22: Persuasion is Force – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #22: Persuasion is Force – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
October 13, 2013
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I must admit, I love a good television commercial. The creativity that goes into the best TV ad is as impressive and enjoyable to me as a quality drama, comedy, or documentary. “You feel sad for the Moo Cow Milker? That is because you are crazy. Tacky items can easily be replaced with better IKEA.” But damn those clever Swedes! They have, through the alchemy of advertising, forced me into outfitting my entire apartment with their stylish yet affordable household items.I kid, of course; but there is a certain line of thought out there that cannot abide advertising, and that credits it with all manner of evil. Advertising, they say, makes us fat by brainwashing us into wanting fast food and sugary cereal. It makes men want to buy beer, fancy cars, or anything else associated with hot women. (A current TV commercial makes fun of the “scantily-clad women washing car” cliché by having a group of sumo wrestlers wash a new Subaru.) Advertising makes women dissatisfied with their appearance and hence creates a need for fashion and beauty products that would not otherwise exist. Yes, because as we all know, humans do not naturally enjoy fatty, sugary foods, men would not drink beer or drive fancy cars in the absence of advertising, and women need corporations to teach them to care about their looks. Puh-lease.

Think of the Children

Advertising is about the transmission of information, and it is also about convincing people to buy something. In other words, it is a form of persuasion, but this use of persuasion is implicitly equated with the use of force by its detractors. Sometimes, as in the case of the French website RAP (“Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire” or “Resistance to Advertising Aggression”), the equating of persuasion and force is explicit. The site features an illustration of a police officer brandishing a billy club accompanied by the slogan, “Ne vous laissez pas matraquer par la pub,” which translates, “Don’t let yourself be bludgeoned by advertising.”

Usually, though, the message is less overt, as it is on Commercial Alert’s website, whose slogan is “Protecting communities from commercialism.” The site complains about the psychology profession “helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them.” Here, the word “influence” seems none too menacing, but its effect is quickly bolstered by the words “crisis,” “epidemic,” “complicity,” and “onslaught.” Force may not be explicitly mentioned, but these words bring to mind infectious disease, crime, and violent conquest. Without coming right out and saying it, the implication is clear―although one could argue, ironically enough, that this effect was meant to be subliminal.

Now, are children more vulnerable than adults to the persuasive nature of advertising? Of course they are, especially when very young. But it is part of the job of parents (and later, teachers) to equip children with the tools necessary to judge competing claims and see through manipulative techniques. I’ll be the first to admit that there is room for improvement in this area―and a free market in education would go a long way toward providing that improvement―but as far as advertising goes, most kids are savvy to the more outlandish claims well before they even reach adolescence. As people grow up, they learn through experience that beer doesn’t bring babes (though a little may beneficially lower one’s own inhibitions) and that makeup will only get you so far. At any rate, treating all adults like children is hardly a fair way to deal with the fact that some minority of people will remain gullible their entire lives.

Of Words and Bullets

Many of those who really hate advertising share a worldview that involves rich, powerful corporations controlling everything. In fact, there is a sense in which this view has some merit, for it is true that large corporations often gain unfair advantage over their competitors, suppliers, and customers. When this happens, though, it happens through the gaining of political influence, which means the use of actual, legally sanctioned force to hogtie the competition, restrict consumers’ choices, or extract taxpayers’ hard-earned income. In a truly free market, the government would not have the authority to dole out special privileges, as it does in our mixed economies. Without any goodies to fight over, corporations would have no legal means of squashing competitors and could only succeed by being as efficient as possible and persuading customers to buy their products (and if their products do not satisfy, they will not get many repeat customers). To target this persuasion as a serious problem when actual, legal force is being used surely reveals an inverted sense of priorities, or at least a serious misunderstanding about the sources of society’s woes.

Another example of the implicit equating of persuasion with force is the thinking behind legislated limits on the amounts individuals can spend expressing their political views during an election―in essence, limits on political advertising. Here, as in commercial advertising, the purpose is clear: if persuasion is force, then the government is perfectly justified in countering that initiation of force with retaliatory force. If words are bullets, then words can be met with bullets. But it is clear what happens to free speech in such a scenario. Instead of competing voices clamouring for your attention, one monolithic government propaganda machine decides what can and cannot be said. In the political realm, this works against new or historically small parties trying to break through since they have a disproportionately hard time attracting many small contributions in order to pay for ads to get their message out. This leads to a situation in which a couple of largely indistinguishable parties become more and more firmly entrenched.

In fact, the notion that persuasion is force brings to mind nothing so much as George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which the government has destroyed the precision of words by continually reinforcing its contradictory slogans: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power, and love is hate. It is shocking to observe the smug self-righteousness of those who hold forth on the enormous manipulative power of advertising and who are so sure that they, of all people, have not been brainwashed. But in fact, it is they who have been, if not brainwashed, then at least misled about the relative power of advertising versus the average Joe’s ability to think and judge for himself. They have bought, hook, line, and sinker, the most superficial critique of capitalism, when our mixed form of capitalism has plenty of real abuses crying out for correction.

The Power of Persuasion

The point is not that persuasion is powerless. I am engaged in trying to persuade you of something right now, and if I didn’t think I had a chance of succeeding, I wouldn’t waste my time. The point, rather, is that persuasion must be met with persuasion, words and rhetorical techniques must be answered with more words and more rhetoric. If free competition is allowed in the marketplace of ideas, no one’s victory is assured, and we needn’t fret too much over the use of psychological tricks, because the trickster’s competitors can use them too, or overtly challenge them instead. (See Gennady Stolyarov II’s article “The Victory of Truth Is Never Assured!” for a related call to action.)

If we are still worried, though, it is undeniable that better education―freer education―would produce a less pliant population, especially important for the issue of political persuasion. The other thing that would help is fighting for full freedom of competition, in both commerce (no special government privileges) and politics (no limits on political speech). In other words, we need to eliminate the government’s use of force in the realms of education, commerce, and political campaigning. Agitating for the government to solve our problems for us with the use of more force will only make matters worse, and further infantilize us in the process.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.
Illiberal Belief #25: Immigration Must Be Restricted – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #25: Immigration Must Be Restricted – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
September 15, 2013
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Those of us who believe in the rightness and the benefits of free markets spend a good deal of time defending free trade between countries. But aside from the free movement of goods and services across international borders, augmenting the free movement of people across those borders would, I believe, greatly increase the peace and prosperity of people the world over. Opening up our borders to increased immigration is in fact demanded both by considerations of economics and of justice.Unfortunately, immigration is not very popular. The Economist reported in 2008 on a November 2007 poll of Europeans showing that only 55% of Spaniards and 50% of Italians considered migrants a boon to their economies—and that’s the good news. The number for Brits and Germans was only 42%, and for the French it was a dismal 30%.

One reason we fail to appreciate the economic benefits of immigration is that we are predisposed to see the world in zero-sum terms. We assume, for instance, that there are a limited number of jobs available. Immigrants, we worry, will steal “our” jobs and depress the wages of those who manage to hang on to theirs. This worry is especially prevalent with regard to the poorest, least-skilled workers. In fact, there is little evidence to support this worry. Even the least-skilled migrants do not just suck up jobs; they also help create jobs, since as consumers they raise demand which itself gets translated into more jobs. They can also free up skilled workers to re-enter the workforce by providing childcare, for instance. According to The Economist, the numbers tell a similar story: “Studies comparing wages in American cities with and without lots of foreigners suggest that they make little difference to the income of the poorest.”

Fear of Foreigners

We humans also seem predisposed to fear those who are different from us, and events in recent years have not exactly been reassuring. From riots in France to devastating terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere causing massive damage and loss of life, we see people from different cultures causing various levels of mayhem, and our natural xenophobia is reinforced.

But the unrest in France is not so much evidence of a deep cultural divide between Western hosts and Eastern immigrants. There do exist important cultural differences, but it is also the case that France’s sclerotic employment regulations deserve much of the blame for recent unrest. By making it extremely difficult to fire employees, those regulations discourage the hiring of employees— especially the hiring of foreigners of whom one might already be suspicious. Sky-high rates of unemployment in an immigrant population, while not excusing violent demonstration, surely help to explain it.

As for terrorism, it is clearly just a fanatical fringe of Islamists who are so fervent in their beliefs that they would commit suicide and murder hundreds or thousands of innocents for their cause. There is no reason for a free society to fear the average Muslim immigrant. Nevertheless, the War on Terror will continue to be used to justify such projects as the building of fences along the Mexican border, despite the lack of Hispanic suicide bombers and fact that the September 11 terrorists did not sneak across the Rio Grande. And while fences will not keep many out, they might keep many in. As The Economist points out, “After all, the more costly and dangerous it is to cross, the less people will feel like leaving. Migrants quite often return home for a while—but only if they know it will be relatively easy to get back in. The tougher the border, the more incentive migrants have to stay and perhaps to get their families to join them instead.”

Be Our Guest

If there is little chance that developed countries will just throw their borders open anytime soon, guest-worker plans seem like a practical compromise. For one thing, our Ponzi-style welfare schemes, to which we are still very much attached, cannot support the whole world. Temporary migration, in which foreign workers come for a limited time just to work without drawing on government benefits, would still be appealing to those workers while alleviating concerns about breaking the welfare bank. So why are they not more popular?

Well, there is the concern that some guests might overstay their welcome. As The Economist Report reminds us, “The old joke that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migrant has more than a grain of truth in it.” The historical record is mixed, with some countries running guest worker programs that function smoothly, and others failing to enforce the temporary nature of their arrangements.

The more serious problem is that even supporters of more open immigration, especially those to be found among well-intentioned elites, as often as not oppose guest worker programs. These critics lament the creation of a second-class of citizens. It is not right, they argue, to withhold welfare benefits from guest workers. They worry also about the possibility of those second-class citizens being taken advantage of and abused by unscrupulous employers. But is the answer to keep people out altogether, holding out for true open borders some day?

Harvard economist Lant Pritchett is the author of Let Their People Come. In an interview with Kerry Howley in the February 2008 issue of Reason magazine, he addresses concerns about second-class citizens: “The world now is divided into first-class citizens of the world and fifth-class citizens of the world.” He adds that, ironically, in places like the Middle East where people are not so concerned about denying migrant workers all the benefits of citizenship, immigration is high but far less controversial. “One of the awkward paradoxes of the world is that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Nepalis are enormously better off precisely because the Persian Gulf states don’t endow them with political rights.” [Emphasis in original.]

Internal Dissent

There are in fact some libertarians, most notably Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who argue against opening the borders to greater immigration. Hoppe has a case to make, but I don’t think it gets him nearly as far as he thinks it does. First, he points out that a truly free society would have no single, national immigration policy. Rather, the many private owners of land along the “border” would decide whom to allow onto their land, resulting in a patchwork system in which some areas would tend to restrict entry and others would throw their gates wide open. Under current conditions, though, Hoppe sees immigration as “forced integration” because, given existing anti-discrimination laws, people are forced to associate with others they might not wish to associate with. In a truly free society, people would be free to choose with whom they wanted to associate.

Until they are, however, governments should come up with second-best, least-bad national immigration policies. Hoppe argues that in order to minimize the harm to the rightful owners of the land in America (i.e., the current American population) the American government should follow a policy “of strict discrimination.” Immigrants should have “an existing employment contract with a resident citizen” and demonstrate “not only (English) language proficiency, but all-around superior (above-average) intellectual performance and character structure as well as a compatible system of values—with the predictable result of a systematic pro-European immigration bias.”

Of course, we all have an interest in keeping out hardened criminals and terrorists. The main problem I see with Hoppe’s logic, though, is that if America (or Canada) were a truly free society, many hard-working foreigners (and not necessarily Europeans or those of above-average intellect, either) would have bought into ownership of some of the land in North America. A system that tries to minimize harm to the rightful owners of the land should also minimize harm to these multitudes who would have been owners if the society were truly free. This suggests to me far more immigration than Hoppe envisions, and far more than is currently allowed into sparsely populated North America.

Slow But Sure

Lant Pritchett asserts that holding out for more sweeping change is the wrong way to go. “I think we’re going to move ahead on migration; people are going to become more and more exposed to the fact that people from other places in the world are, in very deep ways, human beings exactly like us; and eventually, in an unpredictable way, the attitude toward this will shift.” Small changes will beget more changes—with the added benefit of slower change being less disruptive for host countries.

Removing immigration restrictions, even if only a little at a time, is an excellent way to help the world’s poor. Immigrants themselves benefit, of course, but so do their families back home, through remittances. Says The Economist, “For most poor countries remittances are more valuable than aid. For many they provide more than aid and foreign direct investment combined.” And because money is remitted directly to families, it neatly sidesteps the problem of corrupt government officials siphoning off aid money to enrich themselves.

In the end, those who oppose more open borders must ask themselves by what right they would deny the freedom of movement of others? Put differently, by what right would they deny the freedom of association of those of us who want more open borders? Increased immigration would help the world’s hard-working poor, and without entailing the negative consequences we fear. But most of all, it’s just the right thing to do.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.
Illiberal Belief #24: The World is a Scary Place – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #24: The World is a Scary Place – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
June 9, 2013
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Will the world end with a bang or with a whimper? Will terrorists shake the very foundations of civilization by setting off suitcase nukes in major world cities, or will the continuing contamination of the environment with toxic man-made chemicals give everyone on the planet terminal cancer? One way or another, the apocalypse, it seems, is just around the corner. Or is it?
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In fact, neither of these fears is anywhere near as threatening as many people believe them to be. Dan Gardner, columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, has written a book called Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, published last year and newly available in paperback, in which he tries to put such fears in perspective. According to Gardner, even factoring in the 3000 deaths from the unprecedented destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, Americans are more likely in any given year to be unintentionally electrocuted than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Of course, the real fear is that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. But while this risk does exist, there are also very substantial obstacles that make such a scenario extremely unlikely. Even if, against all odds, a terrorist organization managed to detonate a nuclear bomb in a major American city, killing on the order of 100,000 people, this would be roughly equivalent to the number of Americans killed each year by diabetes, or by accidents, or by infections contracted in hospitals.As for the fear that toxic man-made chemicals are responsible for increasing incidences of cancer, it hides several misconceptions. For one, it implies that the natural is good and that the man-made is bad. In fact, most pesticides, for instance, are not man-made but occur naturally in the foods we eat. Our fear of toxic chemicals also tends to ignore any consideration of dose, since we tend to panic over insignificant parts per billion that are far below the thresholds found to kill lab rats. As toxicologists are fond of repeating, even water is poisonous in large enough quantities. The fear of environmental chemicals, natural or man-made, is also misplaced in that the American Cancer Society estimates they are responsible for only 2 percent of all cancers, as compared to lifestyle factors (smoking, drinking, diet, obesity, and exercise) that account for a whopping 65 percent. Finally, when adjusted for age and improved screening procedures, incidence rates for all cancers except lung cancer are actually declining, not increasing.
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The Great Riddle

Why are we so much more afraid of terrorism than diabetes? Why do we pay so much attention to minuscule environmental hazards while essentially ignoring much larger lifestyle risks? Contrasting Europeans’ blasé smoking habits with their outsized fear of genetically modified organisms, Gardner writes, “Surely one of the great riddles to be answered by science is how the same person who doesn’t think twice about lighting a Gauloise will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion.” To take just one more example, we fear statistically non-existent threats like child abduction and therefore keep our kids indoors, depriving them of exercise and contributing to sedentary lifestyles that have a very real chance of cutting years off of their lives.

The answers to this “great riddle” are partly to be found in human nature. We have gut reactions to dangers that are more dramatic, like terrorist attacks and plane crashes. These rare events also are more likely to make the news, both because of their drama and because of their rarity. Another thousand people died today from heart disease? Ho-hum. Fifty people died in a plane crash? That hasn’t happened in months or years, and the visuals are exciting, so that’s news!

Be Afraid… Be Very Afraid

Irrational fears not only lead us to make bad choices, like driving instead of flying, which place us in greater danger. They also allow government officials to manipulate us more effectively and insinuate themselves more deeply into more and more areas of our lives. The disproportionate fear of terrorism has been nurtured and used to justify a protocol of time-consuming security checks at airports, the warrantless wiretapping of phone calls, the tightening of international borders, and of course, two ongoing wars with huge costs both in terms of lives and money. The exaggerated fear of environmental dangers, for its part, has led to increased taxation and regulation of production, empowering bureaucrats and lobbyists while acting as a drag on innovations and economic growth that could be of even greater benefit to human life and flourishing. (See Gennady Stolyarov II’s “Eden Is an Illusion”.)

We are prone to fear all kinds of things we really shouldn’t, fears that can be and are reinforced by the media out to tell an entertaining story; by companies out to sell us an alarm system or a new drug; by activists or non-governmental organizations out to elicit donations and support; and by politicians out to win elections and accumulate power. The only way to counteract this is to inform ourselves about relative risks and becoming comfortable dealing with numbers and statistics in general.

There is no such thing as a risk-free world, but despite the real dangers that exist, we in the developed world in the twenty-first century are better off than any other people who have ever lived. We have our human ingenuity to thank for the startling advances in fighting diseases and increasing lifespans that characterize our time. We shouldn’t let our equally human irrational fears get the better of us and push us into giving up our freedom in exchange for ersatz safety.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.

Illiberal Belief #17: Democracy is a Cure-All – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #17: Democracy is a Cure-All – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
May 14, 2013
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I know it is sacrilege, but that is all the more reason to say it, and say it loud: Democracy is not the be-all, end-all, Holy Grail of politics that many imagine it to be. It is one, but only one, of the ingredients that make for good societies, and it is far from the most important one. Why point this out? If democracy is a good thing, why stir controversy by questioning just how good? Because the widespread, quasi-religious devotion to democracy in evidence today has some very nasty consequences. Democracy means “rule by the people.” The people usually rule by electing representatives, a process which is called, simply enough, representative democracy. Sometimes, as in the case of a referendum on a specific question, the people rule more directly, and this is known as direct democracy. Actually, though, “rule by the people” is a bit misleading, since “the people” are never unanimous on any given question, and neither are their chosen representatives. In practice, democracy is rule by majority (i.e., 50% + 1), or even mere plurality (i.e., more than any one other candidate but less than half) when three or more candidates compete.
***

Long before any nation had experienced anything even approaching universal suffrage, people concerned with human liberty—thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill—expressed concerns that the fading tyranny of kings might merely be replaced by a “tyranny of the majority.” They worried that majorities might vote away minorities’ hard-won rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. Majorities with a hate on for certain minorities might even vote away their very right to life.

History has given these worries ample justification. Democracy by itself is no guarantee of peace and freedom. Adolf Hitler’s victory in democratic 1930s Germany is only the most glaring example of popular support for an illiberal, anti-human regime. The people of Latin America have a long and hallowed tradition of rallying behind populist strongmen who repay their fealty by grinding them (or sometimes their neighbours) beneath their boot heels, all the while running their economies into the ground. Their counterparts in post-colonial Africa and certain parts of Asia have shown similarly stellar political acumen.

As writers like Fareed Zakaria (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad) point out, in those parts of the world that have successfully achieved a respectable degree of freedom and prosperity (basically Europe, the Anglosphere, and Japan and the Asian Tigers), sheer democracy has been supplemented—and preceded—by institutions like the rule of law, including an independent judiciary; secure property rights; the separation of church and state; freedom of the press; and an educated middle class. Indeed, instead of supplementing democracy, it is more accurate to say that these institutions limit the things over which the people can rule. It is enshrined in law and tradition that neither the people nor their representatives shall be above the law, violate the lives or property of others, impose their religious beliefs on others, or censor the freedom of the press. These checks on the power of the people have created, in the most successful parts of the world, not just democracies but liberal democracies.

According to Zakaria, societies that democratize before having built up these liberal institutions and the prosperity they engender are practically doomed to see their situations deteriorate instead of improve, often to the detriment of neighbouring countries, too. Liberty is simply more important than democracy, and must come first. We who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies would do well to remember this when judging other nations, like China, and urging them to democratize faster.

We would do well to remember it when thinking about our own societies, too. Thinkers like economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, argue that even in the most liberal countries, democracy often works against liberty. Economists have been saying for a few decades now that political ignorance is an intractable problem that undermines the beneficial effects of democracy. The argument is that since a single vote has practically no chance of affecting the outcome of an election (or a referendum), the average voter has no incentive to become informed. Defenders of democracy have replied that ignorance doesn’t matter, since the ignorant essentially vote randomly, and random ignorant votes in one direction will be cancelled out by random ignorant votes in the opposite direction, leaving the well-informed in the driver’s seat.

Caplan agrees that if average voters were merely ignorant, their votes would cancel each other out, and the well-informed would be in charge and make good decisions. His central insight, though, is that voters are not merely ignorant, but irrational to boot. Voters have systematically biased beliefs, to which they are deeply attached, and those biases do not cancel each other out. Specifically, the average voter underestimates how well markets work; underestimates the benefits of dealing with foreigners; focuses on the short-term pain of job losses instead of the long-term gain of productivity increases; and tends at any given time to be overly pessimistic about the economy. These biases lead voters to support candidates and policies that undermine their own best interests.

The alternative to democracy, Caplan emphasizes, is not dictatorship, but markets. The market is not perfect, but it works a lot better than politics, because in my daily life as a producer and a consumer, I have an obvious incentive to be rational: my pocketbook. This incentive is lacking when it comes time to go to the polls, because of the aforementioned near-impossibility that my vote will determine the outcome. Given this asymmetry, we should favour markets over politics whenever possible. For those things that must be decided collectively, democracy may be the best we can do, but we should strive to decide as many things as possible privately, resorting to politics only when no other option is feasible. In other words, we should recapture the wisdom of the American Founding Fathers, rediscover the genius of constitutionally limited democracy, and reclaim some of the liberty previous generations fought so valiantly to secure. If we don’t, it might not be too much longer, in the grand scheme of things, before the Western world ceases to be a model worth emulating.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.
The Unplanned Order of Houston, TX – Article by Bradley Doucet

The Unplanned Order of Houston, TX – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
May 1, 2013
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“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
***

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the great American city of Houston, Texas. I was only there for two days, and so only saw a tiny fraction of what there was to see. But I was able to spot some evidence and hear some firsthand accounts of one of the city’s important peculiarities: its lack of zoning laws. With a population of 2.1 million (6 million in the metro area), Houston is the largest city in America without zoning laws—and it gets along just fine without them, thank you very much.

In the Zone

If there’s one thing that seems certain in this world besides death and taxes, it’s that cities have zoning laws. These laws determine what kinds and sizes of homes and commercial buildings can be built where, the densities of neighbourhoods, the outward appearances of structures, and so on. But as much as we have come to take these minute regulations of city life for granted, it wasn’t always so. According to Samuel R. Staley, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics at Florida State University in Tallahassee, “Before the twentieth century land-use and housing disputes were largely dealt with through courts using the common-law principle of nuisance.” If a smelly pig farm set up shop in a residential area, for instance, residents could go to court and either be compensated for the harm caused by the noxious fumes or get the pig farmer to cease operations or move elsewhere.

As Staley explains, that all changed with the ascendancy of the Progressive movement in the early years of the last century. Progressives argued that the common-law approach to nuisance was too expensive, time-consuming, and complicated, making it a difficult avenue for the less fortunate members of society to use. Zoning would be more efficient and fair, they claimed. Yet whatever the good intentions behind it, its effect, writes Staley, “was to fully politicize land-use decisions,” often in favour of the politically powerful.

Houstonians, unique among the residents of large American cities, rejected zoning in popular referendums on three separate occasions: in 1948, in 1962, and again in 1993. Despite pleas before the 1993 vote from the Houston Homeowner’s Association about the need “to stop the cancerous erosion of the quality of life in many of our neighborhoods,” the city’s registered voters did not seem overly concerned about their quality of life, as few of them even bothered to come out for the vote.

How Can People Live This Way?

So, does chaos reign in The Big Heart (a nickname earned when Houstonians pitched in to help many tens of thousands of refugees from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina)? Hardly. There were no slaughterhouses or pulp and paper mills in the residential neighbourhood I was staying in. There was a charming Mexican restaurant, though, with parking for maybe twenty vehicles, a small bridge crossing a little creek, and an expansive patio bordered by tall shade trees.

CB Richard Ellis, a big property company, explains how the city manages to avoid “a disjointed landscape where oil derricks sit next to mansions and auto salvage yards abut churches” without recourse to zoning laws: “What is unique about Houston is that the separation of land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning. While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen.” The spontaneous order of the market encourages charming restaurants in among private homes, but discourages incompatible uses. As author James D. Saltzman has written, “heavy industry voluntarily locates on large tracts near rail lines or highways; apartments and stores seek thoroughfares; gas stations vie for busy intersections.”

It is not the case, however, that Houston is completely bereft of regulation. Developers commonly employ private covenants and deed restrictions to limit the uses of land in a given development. These can keep businesses or apartments out of the neighborhood, or even stipulate lawn care and acceptable house paint colours. But importantly, as Saltzman points out, “However detailed, deed restrictions contain rules voluntarily accepted by home buyers, unlike the edicts issued to property owners by a zoning commission.”

In addition to these voluntary restrictions, though, there are also some land-use ordinances regulating things like trailer parks, rendering plants, and commercial landscaping. And in fact, these city regulations have not all had positive effects, either. Michael Lewyn, associate professor at the Touro Law Center, points out that rules regarding minimum lot sizes for single-family homes, minimum street widths, and mandatory parking space requirements for both residential and commercial buildings have made Houston less dense than it would have been if its development had been left entirely to market forces. This means the sprawling city is more dependent on cars and less pedestrian friendly than it could be.

Reaping the Benefits

Despite such laws, however, Houston still regulates land use to a significantly lesser degree than other cities. The payoff, in addition to a welcome, convenient, eclectic mix of uses, is more affordable housing. As prices were soaring across the country in the inflation-fueled housing bubble a few years back, they remained relatively stable in Houston. And not having soared, they did not plummet when that bubble inevitably burst. According to Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas senior economist Bill Gilmer, lack of zoning deserves a lot of the credit.

As Jane Jacobs wrote about in her classic 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, city planners often behave as if the rest of us who live in a city had no plans of our own. In Houston, more than in most cities, people can pursue their own plans. Rather than leading to chaos, this leads to a more spontaneous, more organic kind of order. If residents of other cities could move away from imposed, top-down order, we too could be freer to pursue more of our own plans without the hassle and added cost of zoning laws.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.
Dynamists vs. Stasists: Virginia Postrel’s “The Future and Its Enemies”, 15 Years Later – Article by Bradley Doucet

Dynamists vs. Stasists: Virginia Postrel’s “The Future and Its Enemies”, 15 Years Later – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
February 18, 2013
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This article was originally published as part of the 15th anniversary issue of Le Québécois Libre.
***
Fifteen years ago, in 1998, Le Québécois Libre was launched by Martin Masse and Gilles Guénette. I did not know them at the time. I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree that year, and only met them seven years later, in 2005, shortly after submitting my first article to them. I quickly became a regular contributor, and three years after that, in 2008, English Editor. To date, I have written 64 articles and reviews for the QL, along with 34 shorter Illiberal Beliefs, and a handful of blog entries in French. I’m proud of this work, and proud to have been a part of this web magazine for the past eight years, and I look forward to many more.
***

For this 15th anniversary edition, then, I thought I would look back at a book that was published way back in 1998. I did a little sleuthing and found an excellent one in my library, one that appropriately enough has its gaze firmly fixed forward: Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. On one level, Postrel’s book is a celebration of the technological wonders of the modern world. She writes eloquently about the benefits of everything from biotechnology to computers, from tampons to contact lenses. But on a deeper level, she is celebrating the creativity and enterprise that generate open-ended, unpredictable progress—and warning us against those who would stifle it or stop it altogether.

Pro vs. Con

Postrel refers to those who embrace the idea of an open-ended future as “dynamists.” Although they are a diverse group and certainly not a proper coalition, dynamists “share beliefs in spontaneous order, in experiments and feedback, in evolved solutions to complex problems, in the limits of centralized knowledge, and in the possibilities of progress.” While many libertarians will recognize themselves in such attitudes (Postrel herself was the editor of the libertarian Reason magazine from July 1989 to January 2000), so will others who consider themselves progressives, liberals, or conservatives, or who are frankly apolitical. Dynamism is a broad category, and it cuts across party lines.

So, too, is its opposite. People who are opposed to the idea of an open-ended future, Postrel dubs “stasists,” and they in turn fall into two broad subcategories: “reactionaries, whose central value is stability, and technocrats, whose central value is control.” Certain types of conservatives who long for the way they imagine the world to have been in the 1950s (or the 1850s) are examples of reactionaries, but so are certain environmentalists who long for the way they imagine the world to have been before the Industrial Revolution, or before agriculture, or before man. Technocrats, for their part, do not want to stop or reverse change; they just want to tame it, to bring it under centralized, expert control by subsidizing and regulating businesses, controlling international trade and immigration, and requiring their stamp of approval before anything new can be allowed to flourish.

In countering reactionaries, dynamists need to emphasize the great benefits that have accrued to humankind from things like penicillin, modern dentistry, and electric motors, which have eliminated many early deaths and much pain and backbreaking toil. In responding to the siren call of technocrats, dynamists need to explain why the future cannot be effectively controlled without crippling it, that in order for there to be much technological innovation and material progress, people need the freedom to experiment.

Reactionaries, says Postrel, used to be opposed to technocrats, but now “they attack dynamism, often in alliance with their former adversaries.” In response, one of her tacks is to celebrate dynamism as being, in fact, more truly natural than either stability or centralized control. She also cleverly counters the charge that people who value freedom are “atomistic” by pointing out that atoms are rarely found alone in nature; they form molecular bonds, and free people form social bonds without having to be coerced into doing so. In closing, she calls on dynamists to start seeing themselves as a real coalition, a coalition not based primarily on fear or self-interest, but rather “bound by love: love of knowledge, love of exploration, love of adventure, and, just as much, love of small dreams, of the textures of life.”

The World Today

A lot can change in fifteen years. In celebrating the gradual development of contact lenses through the messy, undirected process of trial and error, Postrel imagines what the future of this technology might be: “Someday we may expect our contact lenses to function as computer screens and navigation guides, to see infrared or enhance night vision. Or we may displace them altogether with laser surgery or other procedures, as yet undiscovered.” Laser eye surgery, which was still very new in 1998, has more than come into its own in 2013, as my friend and QL colleague Adam Allouba personally experienced just recently.

But if technology has not stopped evolving, the dynamist coalition Postrel envisioned to defend the future does not yet appear to have become a significant player on the political scene. Part of the reason is surely the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, which breathed new life into old Cold War, hawk-dove political divisions that had up until then been fading, and thereby forestalled any restructuring along dynamist-stasist lines. It also gave technocratic peddlers of fear on the right another excuse to exert more centralized control, as the 2008 financial crisis did for technocratic peddlers of fear on the left.

Part of the challenge for libertarians has been to show that both of these traumatic events were failures of rigid, centralized, bureaucratic control—and that flexible, spontaneous order can do better. Hopefully, given the work we do here at Le Québécois Libre, and the work done by Postrel and many others around the world, in another fifteen years, the kinds of lessons contained in The Future and Its Enemies will be more widely appreciated, and that dynamist coalition for an open-ended future will be a burgeoning reality.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.