Friday, June 11, 2004

The Two Things about Being a Public Intellectual

1. You’ll work your ass off trying to devise new, exciting, and sophisticated ideas.
2. You’ll be remembered for some silly piece of fluff you threw together based on a bar conversation.

Every three months or so, in a fit of narcissism, I’ll Google myself or my website to see who’s been linking to me. Here’s what I discovered the last time I did it: I’ve gotten more publicity for The Two Things than anything else I’ve done, casually or professionally. Periodically, someone new will discover The Two Things page and link it, and I’ll only know because of the unexpected deluge of emails with more submissions. Today it was MetaFilter. I’m not annoyed, just amused. Keep those submissions coming.


Thursday, June 10, 2004

If You Multiply Two Negative Rights, Do You Get One Positive Right?

Lots of people are still talking about this negative-versus-positive rights thing, so I guess they (the writers, not the readers) must not be bored yet. So I’ll just make one more observation that I hope will clear up some confusion. I’ll try to keep it short. Consider two hypothetical rights claims:

(1) I have a right not to be punched without my consent.

(2) I have a right to police assistance in enforcing claim (1).

These claims are not identical. Claim (1) is only a claim to the non-interference of others (they should refrain from punching me). It is therefore a negative right, assuming that I have an underlying property right in my own body. Claim (2), on the other hand, is a claim to the provision of specific services by other people – police officers and, by extension, the taxpayers who fund them. It is therefore a positive right, unless we assume that I own the labor of the police or a fraction of the wealth of the taxpayers.

By merging claims (1) and (2), Eugene and some others reach the conclusion that some allegedly negative rights are actually positive. It is a natural merger (though not a necessary one, as anarchists will emphasize), because claim (1) does not seem terribly useful unless backed up by claim (2). Libertarians who support both claims are indeed supporting some positive rights, albeit only those used to back up negative rights. But nonetheless, the two claims are conceptually distinct, and dehomogenizing them will clear up much confusion.


Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Atom Enabled

At the request of a reader, I have enabled Atom, which is some kind of syndication device. I don't know much about this, but if it makes the site easier to read for some people, I'm in favor (although it apparently strips out all paragraph breaks and text formatting). The link is to the right.


Is the Square Root of a Negative Right an Imaginary Right?

Good lord, what a lot of confusion on the topic of negative and positive rights. Eugene Volokh. Stephen Bainbridge. Jane Galt. Jonathan Wilde.

Here’s why everyone is confused: They are working under the mistaken notion that negative rights and positive rights are fundamental concepts, which can be defined by reference to specific kinds of actions and behavior. But negative and positive rights are in fact derivative concepts: they have no particular meaning without reference to some more fundamental notion of rights, specifically, of property rights.

Example: I have a negative right not to be punched in the nose. This accords with the standard definition of a negative right, inasmuch as it requires someone else to refrain from something rather than doing something. But what about that other fellow’s negative right to swing his arms around without interference, perhaps as part of a funky dance? These two rights, both seemingly negative, seem to be in conflict, and the conflict is resolved in my favor only by the presumption that I own my nose. If I did not – say, if I had signed a contract giving someone else the right to make decisions regarding my nose – then the conflict would be resolved in the arm-swinger’s favor.

This is exactly equivalent to Eugene’s point about private property: that my negative right not to have strangers walking around on my land entails a restriction of the negative right of other people to walk wherever they please. To assume that other people have such a right is to assume an underlying regime (moral or legal) in which land is communal. And if that is the case, then I have no negative right to exclude others at all. Once again, the conflict between seemingly negative rights is resolved by an assignment of underlying property rights.

Any positive right can be recast in negative terms, if you’re willing to jigger with the underlying property rights distribution. For instance, a right to food and shelter is usually treated as a positive right, but we can cast it as a negative right if we are also willing to say that those who must provide these things do not own the labor and resources needed to do so. And indeed, that’s essentially what we say in cases where the initial owners have specifically agreed to provide the goods or services in question, such as through a grain futures contract. The contractual arrangement changes the distribution of property rights.

So are libertarians wrong to say their position supports negative rights and eschews positive ones, and that this distinguishes libertarianism from other points of view? If they intend those terms to carry much philosophical weight, then yes, they’re wrong. But the language of positive and negative rights is better understood as a shorthand summary of the libertarian point of view, given a context in which the basic elements of the libertarian understanding of property rights – one of self-ownership and private ownership of external resources such as land – happen to be pretty well accepted. Very few Americans, at least, would be willing to admit that you don’t own your labor or your private home. Libertarians can thus use the language of positive and negative rights to explain how their vision builds on (though is not identical to) commonly understood conceptions of self- and world-ownership.


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Everything Must Be Banned or Required Department

The usual justification for ratings systems is that they allow parents greater control over their children’s viewing habits. But every now and then, the nannies betray their real agenda: they want to do the parenting themselves.

Example: According to an article in today’s L.A. Times (not available without registration), a movie theater chain has started created special IDs for kids under 17, by which parents can give permission for their kids to see R-rated movies without parental accompaniment. Parents have to accompany their kid to the movie theater just once, for the purpose of creating the ID. Great idea, right? Not according to the hand-wringing set:

Critics argue that the cards amount to parents handing to their kids the delicate decision about what movies are appropriate, a shift they say violates the intent of the motion picture industry's voluntary rating system.

"All R-rated films are not alike. It is the parents' responsibility to make specific judgments about R films — and wrong to give a blanket endorsement to all," said Jack Valenti, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which issues movie ratings.

Some opponents fear that leaving movie choices to teens could taint the ratings system, voluntarily enforced by theaters since 1968. They say that could open the door to government regulation that would stifle creativity and experimentation in filmmaking.

“If parents lose faith in the system, the first thing they'll ask is ‘What are our recourses?’ Then, we could start hearing from every politician that wants to make a name for himself in the name of family values,” said Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn.
Now, why in the world would giving parents greater choice undermine their faith in the system? The parents signing the ID cards obviously don’t mind. So the real concern here is that other parents will get annoyed at the permissive parenting of their neighbors and demand government intervention to set them straight. And the threat of regulation is, of course, what motivates industry spokesmen like Jack Valenti to oppose what is clearly a great concept.


Head of the Class

Some people are upset about the phenomenon reported in this NYT Magazine article. It seems that teenagers are having a lot more oral sex these days, presumably as a means of avoiding HIV transmission.

Amy blames the phenomenon on abstinence-only education:

And yet, it seems not to have occurred to people that teenagers are having unprotected oral sex because their teachers have told them that having protected intercourse is too dangerous. No one is talking about the fact that preaching abstinence and telling kids that pre-marriage romantic relationships can hurt them may be encouraging promiscuity.
I agree with Amy that abstinence-only education is pretty stupid (read the rest of her otherwise excellent post for more details). But is the shift to oral sex one of its ill effects? Are the abstinence-only classes really telling kids to avoid having sex and just failing to mention that oral sex counts as sex? Given the right-wing origins of abstinence-only education, I figure the classes probably tell students not to have any form of sex, especially not the crime-against-nature variety.

So why the shift to oral? It sounds to me like a fairly rational response to the risks involved. I’m inclined to present it to my students as an example of how people respond to changes in relative costs by substituting in favor of less costly activities. The fact is that while both oral and vaginal anal sex can transmit HIV (and other STDs), the risk is a good bit lower for oral sex. Comparing unprotected oral to unprotected vaginal or anal, the evidence, such as it is, indicates that oral is much safer. I assume the same goes for the comparison between protected oral and protected vaginal or anal. I have not seen any comparisons of risk for unprotected oral versus protected vaginal or anal. But even if the former is riskier than the latter, they are both safer than unprotected vaginal or anal, so it makes perfect sense that both would increase in frequency relative to unprotected vaginal or anal, once people became aware of the risk differential. The fact that vaginal sex can lead to pregnancy shifts the balance even further toward oral.

Yes, the kids are still engaging in a risky activity. Then again, they’re engaging in a risky activity every time they cross the street. People take calculated risks all the time. Indeed, the most salient point raised by the opponents of abstinence-only education is that teenagers will take some sexual risks, so it’s foolish to just exhort them not to have sex at all. But by the same token, it’s also foolish to think that teenagers will always minimize risk by using protection even for the lowest-risk activities. Instead, they probably perceive condom use and oral sex as two different modes of reducing their risk, and they figure doubling up is overkill. After all – they might reason – if you’re going to reduce your sensitivity by using a condom, you might as well skip the oral and go for the vaginal.

Belle Waring and Eszter Hargittai have a different objection. They’re disturbed by the fact that boys are receiving oral sex without returning the favor. Well, okay, they should return the favor. But most high school boys are socially maladroit asses – that’s old news – so I’m betting that the girls weren’t getting much out of the vaginal sex in the old days, either. Are the girls being pressured into doing it? Sometimes, I assume, and that’s bad but hardly new, either. So it seems to me that girls are probably getting a better deal than they used to, because they can satisfy their horny boyfriends with less chance of getting infected and no chance of getting knocked up. In fact, my reading of the NYT Magazine article is that girls are playing a key role in negotiating the shift in behavior: “According to Jesse, Caity set the ground rules. ''Caity told me, ‘Adam knows he's not going to get in my pants, but I might get into his.’” That doesn’t sound to me like a girl getting pressured into an unequal relationship; it sounds like a girl deciding what kind of risk she’s willing to take.


What He Said

Lots of eulogies for Reagan. Lots of execrations of Reagan. I feel almost an obligation to add something. But over the last 15 years, I’ve gradually realized two things about Reagan’s legacy: (1) It is a profoundly mixed bag, filled with substantial chunks of both good and bad. (2) It’s hard to even distinguish the good chunks from the bad ones.

Anything else I added would just be a repeat of Will’s post, so I’ll quote him in full, with emphasis added:

I am fairly nauseated by the Reagan retrospectives, left and right. It's dispiriting to see that it [is] apparently next-to-impossible for human beings to go beyond their ideological commitments and make a more or less objective assessment of a man's accomplishments. We see all the usual mechanisms of ideological insulation. Any good during Reagan's reign would have happened anyway. Reagan's scandals are justified by his larger visionary struggle against unfreedom. All our ills are directly traceable to Reagan's malign influence. All good is directly traceable to Reagan's forward-thinking moral clarity. It's really just too, too much. Why do we not see that there is no need to make devils or gods of men?


Sunday, June 06, 2004

Public Education: Where Markets Dare Not Tread

At Marginal Revolution, Fabio Rojas takes on the tired old claim that paying low salaries for teachers means we don’t consider education important.

The salary one makes is determined by supply and demand. A price doesn't indicate how important the job is, or even if people think it is important. Take a simple example: water - it's cheap because there is plenty of it, not because we don't think it is important!

…So why the low pay? Teacher's low pay is due mainly to the fact that there are tons and tons of teachers! There is a huge supply of teachers. Education schools have huge enrollments - and surveys routinely report that education is one of the most popular majors in the country.
I agree with Rojas’s main point, which is that wages do not and should not reflect some abstract notion of importance. However, in America’s monopolistic government-run public school system, applying a simple model of supply and demand is problematic. The wages paid to teachers result not from the interaction of supply and demand in a competitive market characterized by many buyers and sellers, but by the interaction of monopsonistic buyers (legislatures and boards of education) on the one hand and monopolistic sellers (teachers’ unions) on the other. These two groups negotiate the terms of trade, while the actual customers – students and their parents – are relegated to the sidelines. In such a situation, teachers’ wages could be either too high or too low. (Bilateral monopolies typically yield multiple equilibria.)

As a benchmark, we might be tempted to look at the wages of teachers in private schools, which are generally lower than those of public teachers. But there are a couple of reasons those wages might be distorted by the public system. First of all, the availability of a “free” public education drastically reduces the demand for private education. Only those parents who think the whole price of a private education is justified by the difference in quality will opt for a private school. A voucher system would change the story, of course; under such a system, parents would opt for the private school if the difference in price were justified by the difference in quality. The rise in demand would likely drive up the wages of private teachers. But under the status quo, such competitive pressure is lacking. Second, the lower wages of private school teachers probably reflect the greater desirability of those jobs, as they avoid much of the violence and bureaucracy associated with public schools.

There’s also an important issue of teacher quality. The wages paid to teachers might be high enough to attract enough people to fill all the positions, which is fine if all teachers are equally good. But if they are not, then buyers have to decide what is the right quality level. A higher wage offer might attract more qualified people – potentially drawn away from other important professions, of course, which is why we shouldn’t automatically assume attracting higher quality teachers is a good thing. But there is also no good reason to think the political process chooses the right level of quality. In a private competitive system, parents might well choose higher quality and pay for it with higher wages. The point is not that teachers should get higher (or lower) wages. The point is that a politicized education system is incapable of discovering the answer to that question, which is yet another argument in favor of privatizing education: doing so will allow us to utilize the spontaneous market process to discover the correct wages (or wage schedules) for teachers.