Tax Choice?

While I do believe there’s a necessity for some form of social safety net, I’d still say I have libertarian leanings. Unfortunately, I don’t think the radical tax reform proposed by many libertarians is the way to go. Rapid change of any kind usually results in either backfire or ineffectiveness. I guess you could call me “conservative” when it comes to major structural changes.

I think most people, regardless of political affiliation, realize that taxes have an element of force to them. I think nearly everyone tries to pay as little tax as possible. Why are people so reluctant to pay something that (ideally) benefits society so greatly? I’d say it’s primarily a lack of salience. Corruption, inefficiency, and all the other ailments of bureaucracy are obvious factors; but I think most of all, people fail to see how their taxes translate into goods and services.

The idea of “tax choice” has been around for a long time, but I’m not sure there’s been much allusion to it in libertarian movements. I think some formulation of a tax choice system could work to make taxes more salient as well as more transparent. My suggestion would be to group taxes into categories, much like the categories you see on this pie chart (scroll down). For each category, allow taxpayers the ability to reallocate say 5% of the amount they pay in that category to a different category if they so desire.

One concern with this is that the government will change the base funding for categories that receive less, effectively mitigating any change. Fortunately, people can attempt to elect officials who won’t undo their reallocations. The funding of large organizations will actually depend directly on peoples’ decisions, meaning they’ll have incentive to be more transparent with taxpayers. Recipients of government funding would have incentive to prove their value to taxpayers as well as elected officials. It might even make it harder for elected officials to rescind policy proposed in their platforms, since tax allocation could (partially) roadblock them. I’m not suggesting this as some kind of alternative to voting, but it instead has the potential to synergize with voting to allow taxpayers a little more say in where their money goes.

If it wasn’t obvious, I’m very much in the brainstorming phase for this method of “reform”. I’ll likely have to come back to the subject. As always, I would love to hear criticism, especially if it’s harsh.

Ego, Dispassion, Cynicism

At the heart of a lot of controversy is a fundamental breakdown of communication. Inflated egos, visceral responses, and a lack of skepticism all lead to intensified conflict. I don’t think it’s necessary to elaborate much on that point, most people understand that these things interfere with discourse. Unfortunately, as with anything we’ve decided is bad, we tend to go overboard in the pursuit to eliminate it.

Ego has a purpose. Obviously an inflated ego can lead you to a number of fallacious forms of reasoning, but I think the usefulness of some egotism is actually undervalued. Some is the key word here. It can quite easily get out of control. I do think though, that having some element of self-esteem or pride (or whatever you might call it) staked in the outcome of a given argument is important. The function must be distinct though. If your ego is inextricable from the way you actually formulate thoughts, it’s become invasive. If you’re able to keep ego at bay when constructing the dialectic (investigation of truth), yet you have at least some personal investment in the outcome of the investigation, ego becomes a tool.

I can think of plenty of examples of brazen, audacious debaters that infuse egotism successfully, but I can’t think of any quite as adept as the late Christopher Hitchens. Sometimes he came across obnoxious and rude no doubt, but I think he was often able to ride that fine line that allowed him to be contemptuous without detracting from the discussion at hand. Some might attribute that ability to charm, humour, and candor or disagree with the example entirely, but his style certainly resonates with many.

Dispassion is nearly the same issue. Attempting to have discussions void of emotion will in fact, in my estimation, yield less productive results. No, I’m not saying screaming is an acceptable way to voice one’s opinion, but to attempt some kind of absolute dispassion will inherently misconstrue issues. If we’re debating physician assisted suicide, and you have a strong opinion one way or the other, don’t act as if personal feelings aren’t at play. I’m not saying that emotion should somehow trump factual information, but compassion is undeniably an agent in the vast majority of contemporary controversies.

This brings me to cynicism. It’s not hard to become cynical in a world so wrought with deception, especially in formative years (adolescence). I tend to be pretty forgiving of cynicism, pessimism, nihilism, or whatever malady stems from betrayal. But when people are proud of how cynical and distrusting they’ve become, touting it as if elevated out of naivety, it interferes with judgement. I know cynicism doesn’t imply a lack of emotion, but cynics often seem to pass themselves off as impartial, when in fact their skepticism is rooted in strong emotion. Sadly, I think cynicism of this sort can lead to an unhealthy apathy.

Not the most clearly defined topic I know, but I believe these are three areas with fairly significant roles in communication that all contain a little more nuance than advertised.

Oysters and Nutrition

I often see discussion of the ethical side of a vegan/vegetarian diet, but I rarely see the serious health concerns properly addressed. People that don’t take a slow, calculated approach to dietary change (of any sort) often end up either reverting back to their old diet, or developing mild to serious health complications. I certainly do urge people to consider the ethical arguments in terms of reducing suffering and increasing sustainability, and to subsequently phase meat out of their diet, BUT I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to consider what’s involved. Not only could the replacements you choose lead to poor health, they could in fact cause more damage to the environment (factors like shipping) or have other unintended side-effects.

Some of the possible health risks I’ve heard of are iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, blood lipid imbalances (though this study indicates possible benefits, at least as far as hyperlipidemia goes), and as the study just listed states, vegetarian diets are generally lower in sodium, zinc, vitamin A, and “especially omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids”. Vegan diets that entirely avoid animal products magnify some of these risks and introduce new ones like a lack in vitamin K2. Here’s a much more comprehensive look at vegan nutrition. The lack of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) proteins stemming from low omega-3 can be combated in various ways. Chris Kresser makes a number of suggestions including supplementing with microalgae. Another option is oysters.

Why Oysters?

Oysters don’t have a central nervous system. We have about as much tangible evidence that oysters have the capacity to feel pain as we do for plants. Bivalves having “nerve ganglia” is not a sufficient argument. Here is a post that goes into further detail on the subject. Fleischman states that oysters are sessile, not motile, meaning they can’t even react to pain; therefore there’s no “adaptive reason for them to feel pain”. She also argues that they’re not equipped with opiate receptors or endogenous opiates to inhibit pain. Not only do we have no evidence that oysters feel pain, we have evidence that they have restorative environmental impacts. They can assist with “water quality maintenance, shoreline protection and sediment stabilization, nutrient cycling and sequestration”. There’s also possible applicability in denitrification.

Here is the nutrition label for the oysters I usually get. It’s obvious from the label that they’re high in iron and protein. This article does a great job breaking down some of the other nutritional benefits. Oysters are also high in vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium, manganese and numerous other vitamins and minerals.

Of course, this topic is pretty broad, and I’ve attempted to summarize a large quantity of information here. I’m sure I’ll have to come back to nutrition in the future. My point is essentially just that oysters are a great way to supplement a vegetarian/vegan diet as they hit some of the key areas where deficiencies seem to develop. While I’m sure arguments of sentience can be made about bivalves, I wouldn’t consider it the most salient of concerns. I encourage everyone to consider including oysters in their diet, even if they’re kind of gross.

Here’s my previous post in this general subject area for anyone interested.

The Principle of Charity

A slightly different but closely related subject to steelmanning, worth a read

Examining Life

Have you had a disagreement with anyone recently? Did you feel that all participants were understood by one another? Here’s a test: Could your opponent(s) state your position in a way that you would be satisfied with how they describe it? Could you do the same for your opponent(s)? If the answer to either of those is a flat “no,” you are like most normal people having these conversations. I’ve had conversations over social media lasting weeks where I never once felt that my interlocutor wanted to understand where I was coming from. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking past one another” and it’s impeding conversations at every turn.

There are two basic facts that were very, very hard for me to recognize (and I still need to remind myself of them today). Here they are:

1. People have different positions than you do.

2. People think they have good…

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Quantum Mystics

Quantum mechanics or quantum physics is an area of study that has grown rapidly. I want to make it clear that I don’t have a background in physics. Quantum physics has always been fascinating to me, but my understanding is basic. Despite my belief that some findings in this field have definite applications in philosophy, I feel that quantum physics has become romanticized and exoticized. The lack of understanding and seeming mystery has been exploited for use in pseudoscientific claims.

New age figures like Deepak Chopra use the word “quantum” to explain just about anything. It is used in the context of claims regarding parapsychology, metaphysics, spirituality, and supernaturalism of all forms. I have no problem with people exploring the findings of quantum mechanics and contemplating philosophical implications. Where I see the problem arising is when these findings are touted as some kind of scientific support for their beliefs.

I do think it’s imperative that we have discussions of consciousness, the nature of reality, and topics of that sort. Unfortunately, I think these discussions are actually impeded rather than aided by insertions of the word “quantum” or other such mystifying words where they truly do not belong.

Abortion

Approaching the subject, I tend to be quite dismissive. At first glance it seems obvious to me that government shouldn’t be involved in what someone does with their body. My dismissive attitude might stem from the fact that many of the most vocal supporters of pro-life are dogmatic people of faith deriving their sense of morality from prescriptive doctrine. Some of these are the same people that discourage both abortions and contraceptives and think abstinence is a reasonable solution. Fortunately, there are pro-lifers who debate abortion rationally and intellectually, a good example being the author of Persuasive Pro-life Trent Horn. He’s also featured on this radio show and provides important opportunities for discussion. Hopefully I am not misunderstanding and therefore misrepresenting him or like-minded people, but I believe Trent Horn argues that a fetus has an inalienable right to life and therefore terminating a pregnancy would be forgoing that right.

I think this relates to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. This principle basically posits that people should be free to do whatever they like right up until they inflict harm on others. The extension of this principle gives us the libertarian notion that infringement on another individual’s rights is the only justification for setting limits on liberty. Deciding whether or not a fetus has these same rights is the critical juncture of this topic. If it’s merely a lump of cells then the moral quandary is voided. If it’s a human life then it has rights. I think the vast majority would agree that there is a moral difference between aborting a fetus at 1 month vs. at 8 months.

The arguments from both sides make sense. Forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy she doesn’t want greatly reduces utility. We end up with an overburdened foster care system or children being raised by parents that are financially, emotionally, and socially unprepared. I realize there are thousands of success stories about young single mothers raising children in difficult circumstances and those children going up to achieve great things. Unfortunately, I don’t think that argument holds up statistically. There are millions upon millions of stories of children born into debilitating poverty, neglect, abuse etc. that go untold.

Sometimes contraceptives fail, sometimes people make bad choices, sometimes childbirth poses risks to an expectant mother, and sometimes women are raped. Women in these situations would likely be better mothers in different circumstances, not the present one, so why not focus on discouraging/preventing the events leading up to the situation rather than the abortion itself. Women that are prevented from getting abortions lawfully sometimes seek illegal methods that are much more harmful and dangerous. Abortion shouldn’t be presented as some kind of evil and horrendous act when the root of the problem is the circumstances that put a woman in that position.

I do think there’s a fair criticism levied against this though. Many abortions happen because of unsafe sex. Is it fair to terminate a life (or at least the prospect of a life) because you don’t like the consequences of your irresponsible actions? Though it seems harsh, I think that’s a fair point. There are negative impacts to abortion that can’t be ignored. I think most women who have gone through one will attest to some of those negatives. Though it’s a bit of a departure from the main point, forcing taxpayers to support government funded abortions makes little sense to me. People vehemently disagree on the moral dimension of the topic; and I see no reason why people shouldn’t pay for their own abortions. I think charity could cover the costs for those who can’t afford it. Whether that’s feasible is yet further departure, so I’ll stick to the subject at hand.

If abortion is morally permissible during the third trimester right up until the moment of birth, it seems quite arbitrary to instantly consider the fetus a “baby” now. I don’t think the difference of inside the womb vs. outside the womb is what constitutes life (and therefore the right to life). On the other end of the spectrum, isn’t it just as arbitrary a divide to not allow extremely early term abortions? What’s the difference between that and a morning-after pill, or for that matter, contraceptives. Is there some kind of magical chime at the moment of conception that grants an inalienable right to life? I don’t think that’s any less arbitrary than the divide between inside the womb and outside the womb.

So how do we make a non-arbitrary distinction? Well, I don’t think we can make one that won’t appear at least somewhat arbitrary. But I believe a distinction of some sort is necessary. While some might see it as an insignificant factor, I think as soon as fetuses have the capacity to suffer, i.e. the ability to feel pain, the ethics change. The debate on when exactly this happens is apparently “extremely complicated“. It seems that the general consensus is at some point after 20 weeks. I’d say that’s a sensible cut off.

Abortion is not as simple an issue as many make it out to be. I think denying that there’s an ethical dilemma is intellectually dishonest. Disallowing abortions after 20 weeks still provides people who aren’t ready for parenthood an option while harmonizing fairly well with the harm principle.

A Marathon in Futility; The War on Drugs

I’ll start off by saying I don’t personally do any illegal drugs. I say that not to save face but to make it clear that I don’t have a vested interest in legalization. I’ll also clarify that I think there are harmful effects of these substances. Even marijuana has consequences that are often massively downplayed by proponents of legalization. I haven’t done enough in-depth research on the neurological impacts, but I have learned that there may be some link between marijuana and earlier onset of schizophrenia. It does seem like there’s a fair amount of consensus in terms of marijuana having adverse effects on young users. Regardless, prohibition of drugs does not, in my opinion, hinge on the question of harmfulness of these drugs.

The War on Drugs was a well-intentioned program initiated by Richard Nixon in the early 70s. Unfortunately, as stated here, there have been “devastating unintended consequences” such as “mass incarceration… corruption, political destabilization, and violence”. These consequences have largely been the result of an unregulated black market taking control. I’m not normally one to encourage government regulation, especially in the realm of business, but I think taking control of this market is a necessity.

Prohibition of drugs does not eliminate use. Drugs are accessible to anyone. As Peter Christ says here “we do not have one drug-free prison in America”. If the black market is saturated to the point where even prisoners have little problem with supply, the war on drugs has failed. To echo some of Peter Christ’s arguments, law enforcement is not meant to protect people from themselves. Drug addiction needs to be addressed instead on the level of education and healthcare. Harm reduction programs and strategies have been implemented in a variety of areas globally. These strategies haven’t had perfect results, but from what I’ve seen, they’ve generally produced overwhelmingly positive results.

Obviously a practical concern of legalizing drugs is that it might lead to increased use. When we’re discussing something like marijuana, increased use might not be viewed as a great thing, but the problems are minimal. If we’re talking crack cocaine or methamphetamine, the concerns are more evident. I think legalization of more addictive drugs would need to be coupled with a barrage of education and an increase in healthcare access. Some of the funding currently used on the war on drugs could be transferred to education and healthcare to help with the transition. I would say this change needs to be slow and calculated or the risks will be magnified. Legalization does not mean condoning the substances. I think the tobacco market is a great example of one successfully undermined by education. Illegal drugs are already quite taboo, I don’t imagine legalization would change that status too much.

Milton Friedman discusses the role of government in drug policy here. He argues, just as Peter Christ does about law enforcement, that government should not have a role in preventing people from harming themselves. This area is complicated because some people see drug addiction as having the potential to harm others as well. I agree, it has that potential, but I think prohibiting drugs actually has the effect of increasing that potential for harm, rather than decreasing. If addicts are able to purchase drugs from a regulated supplier, they are less likely to run into AND less likely to engage in activities associated with a black market: violence, impurities, disease, imprisonment, corruption etc.

This subject is so multifaceted that I’ve covered only a sliver of it and I’m afraid I’ve already failed at brevity. Thanks for reading, here are a few other discussions I found interesting:
Versus Debate
Stanford Article
TED talk – Ethan Nadelmann
Ex-cop Michael Wood on JRE