Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Free Speech Then and Now

The Supreme Court of Canada overriding a jury verdict of seditious libel against Jehovah's Witnesses saying rude things about the Roman Catholic Church back in 1950:

There is no modern authority which holds that the mere effect of tending to create discontent or disaffection among His Majesy's subjects or ill-will or hostility between groups of them, but not tending to issue in illegal conduct, con­stitutes the crime, and this for obvious reasons. Freedom in thought and speech and disagreement in ideas and beliefs, on every conceivable subject, are of the essence of our life. The clash of critical discussion on political, social and religious subjects has too deeply become the stuff of daily experience to suggest that mere ill-will as a product of controversy can strike down the latter with illegality.

The Supreme Court in 1990:

In applying the Oakes approach to legislation restricting hate propaganda, a meaningful consideration of the principles central to a free and democratic society requires reference to the international community's acceptance of the need to protect minority groups from the intolerance and psychological pain caused by such expression.

A decline of style and substance. What will 2010 bring?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why are Muslims Becoming More Liberal?

The Pew Global Attitudes Project has tracked a consistent decline among Muslims in support for Al Qaeda, and an increase in support for liberal democracy since 2001. Different countries vary a lot, and there are still millions of people who think Bin Laden is great. And you don't need a lot of people to form a terrorist threat (although the bigger the base the easier that is). Moreover, there is a lot of belief that 9/11 was a fake, that Muslim economic woes are the fault of imperialism and so on. But everywhere, things seem to be going in the right direction.

I don't think left or right would have expected this. Certainly one of my main reasons for opposing the Iraq war was that it would make these numbers worse. And Muslims didn't like the invasion and occupation of Iraq any more than I thought they would. The neoconservative hope that grateful Iraqis would make everyone else think the US was wonderful did not -- to put it mildly -- unfold as expected.But even though "George" and "Tony" are never going to be fashionable names for Muslim boys, things have not gotten worse since 2003. The direction of these results also casts doubt on the view that illiberalism is inherent in Islam, a view that seems more common now on the right than it did back when W. was popular.

So why is this happening? Is Fukuyama right after all?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Double Standards Department

Ethiopundit makes the excellent point that what Mugabe had done over the last few months is materially identical to what Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF did in Ethiopia in 2005. Bob Geldof made a bit of a stink at the time, but that was about it. And of course, the communist EPRDF quickly became a key ally in the War on Terror.

Friday, July 11, 2008

McCain is right about Viagara and Birth Control (Even if He Doesn't Know Why)

The lefty blogosphere has been trying to give McCain a tough time about voting against mandating that health plans that include Viagara must include birth control as well. One can't expect them to understand economics, but even if you don't, surely both products are equally valuable to both parties in a heterosexual couple? I suspect some age bias.

Here is what I said at Ta-Nehisi Coates' (very good) blog:

I sort of doubt that birth control vs. Viagara is a man vs. woman issue. It's more of a generational issue. Heterosexual women with older partners benefit from Viagara as much as heterosexual men with younger partners benefit from birth control.

The legitimate argument for McCain's stance is the following. We want birth control (and Viagara)to be as cheap as possible. Mandating that birth control be part of a health insurance plan doesn't (necessarily) make it cheaper. You now have to add the costs of administering the insurance claims to the manufacturer's costs and profit.

Liberals tend to think, "Ah, but if it is insured, the employer pays for it instead of the employee." That's actually wrong. Benefits are just part of your overall compensation. If the costs of drug plans go up, then (all other things being equal), your take-home pay is going to be less. So you pay, one way or the other.

I suppose birth control could be part of a publicly-funded universal drug benefit. It isn't in Canada or anywhere else that I'm aware of, so I don't think this is reasonable.

But what about Viagara? Why should it be insured? I would object to a mandate there too, but it's at least possible that there is an overall gain to insuring it. Erectile dysfunction is a risk that only happens to some people (although it is pretty common at a certain age). So maybe employees as a group are better off spreading this risk across the group, even if it means higher unit costs.

Anyway, neither Viagara nor birth control should be mandated, since that just means paying more for sex.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

How McCain could still win

I realize it's chicken to hedge your bets so soon, but maybe Maliki has given McCain a way out. The Iraqi government is asking for a date certain for withdrawal of US and allied forces. McCain said a year or so ago that if that happened, of course the US would leave.

So now McCain can leave while declaring victory. Iraq has uninspiring elected politicians instead of psychopathic fascist ones. The price in resources and lives is difficult to justify, but, being human, Americans will be inclined to do so -- as long as they know they are getting out.

As I've argued before, "victory" and "defeat" are category errors in Iraq, so McCain would have the benefit of having a position that is logically equivalent to Obama's while being psychologically superior.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

McCain Calls Social Security a "Disgrace"

It's over. We can all obsess about something else.

Is Knowledge a Type of Belief?

When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, everyone knew that knowledge was a kind of belief. The only issue was what kind of belief (was it "justified, true belief" or something else. "S knows that p" entails "S believes that p", although not the other way around.

The interesting blog Experimental Philosophy has a result that suggests many people intuit otherwise. Apparently, people given a scenario about a corporate chairman causing damage to the environment are more likely to agree that the chairman "knew" harming the environment was wrong than that the chairman "believed" harming the environment was wrong.

Is this just a bias, like when we are told that Sandra is a strong feminist and are asked to evaluate which is more likely, "Sandra is a Christian" or "Sandra is a liberal Christian". People will say the latter is more likely, contrary to fundamental axioms of probability.

Or do people have a different conception of knowledge?

Come on baby, get in the road

I agree with Yglesias that the recent Republican attacks on Obama for being a "flip flopper" and moving to the right will likely count as one of the biggest own-goals in the history of American politics. The centre (or "center") is where it's at. McCain could have won this thing on one strategy alone: he's in the middle (not like those other R's) and Obama is a crazy radical with nice speeches.

If Obama is a normal politician who will pander however he needs to, then the median American voter will be relieved. It's time to give the Dems a try. It might be interesting to have a black guy who writes books. McCain's old. But that same median voter has (reasonably enough) some lurking suspicions about this dude. McCain and the Republicans telling you he is just an opportunistic office-seeker like all the others will just reassure those suspicions.

And could we end the "Rove proved that you don't need the centre" crap. First, that is not really how either 2000 or 2004 worked. Second, to the extent that Rove tried a mobilize-the-base strategy, how did that work out for the GOP? One voter switching in the middle is worth two on the edges deciding not to vote or vote for a third party, and there are more voters in the middle.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Is Quasi-Contract Really Dead?

Another book I have recently finished is the second edition of Peter Birks' Unjust Enrichment, which he completed just before he died. Professor Birks made a late conversion to what is now the Canadian approach to non-consent non-wrong based private causes of action -- namely, that we should treat every transaction in which D benefits and P loses as presumptively reversible to the lesser of the benefit or loss. Contract, gift and statutory transfer are all just exceptions to the borader rule. That is a departure from how the common law traditionally dealt with the same issues by presuming gains/losses fall where they lay, but using defined categories of "monies mistakenly paid and recieved", practical compulsion and so on to provide for exceptional reversal. Birks is also "Canadian" in separating out gain-based remedies that do not require any corresponding loss from the law of unjust enrichment.

In one respect, Birks is triumphalist about the success of civilian-style unjust enrichment. He says no one will ever again write a book entitled "Quasi-Contract" because liability for benefits provided under mistake, compulsion, necessity and so on has been completely liberated from implied contract theories.

I wonder. It seems to me that there are a number of reasons non-consent non-wrong based liability will always be closely tied to contract:

*We are always going to let defendants get out if the matter was something the parties could have contracted about. If I mow your lawn before I negotiate a price, you are never going to have to pay unless there was some good reason we couldn't agree to an express contract.

*Unless the benefit the defendant received was cash, we are always going to have to value it somehow, and the only way to do that is to think what would have been agreed to. That inevitably brings the implied or hypothetical contract back in.

*Contract law itself will always have to deal with implied or hypothetical bargains, as well as express ones. Think about any real contractual dispute. If the parties expressly agreed who was going to take on the risk or cost at issue, then you wouldn't expect litigation, other than merely for enforcement. If there is serious litigation, that is because the parties intentions are in doubt, and the judge/arbitrator is always going to be reasoning abut what they "would have" done if they had turned their mind to the eventuality. So inside every express contract is a million implied or hypothetical contracts. And the law of what we do when there is no contract at all should develop alongside what we do when there is a contract but it doesn't deal with the subject matter of litigation.

So Birks' triumphalism is premature. Implied/hypothetical contracts are as hard to banish from practical litigation as from political theory.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


I don't want to give the impression that Zizek is an idiot. This is pretty sharp, for example:

The politically correct version enacts a weird reversal of racist hatred of Otherness -- it stages a kind of mockingly Hegelian negation/sublation of openly racist dismissal and hatred of the Other, of the perception of the Other as the Enemy which poses a threat to our way of life. In the PC vision, the Other's violence against us, deplorable and cruel as it may be, is always a reaction against the "original sin" of our (white man's imperialist, colonialist, cetc.) rejection and oppression of Otherness. We, white men, are responsible and guilty, the Other just reacts as a victim; we are to be condemned, the Other is to be understood; ours is a domain of morals (moral condemnation), whilst that of others involves sociology (social explanation). It is, of course, easy to discern how, beneath the mask of extreme self-humiliation and self-blame, such a stance of true ethical masochism repeats racism in its very form: although negative, the proverbial "white man's burden" is still here -- we, white men, are the subjects of History, whilst others ultimately react to our (mis)deeds. In other words, it is as if the true message of PC moralistic self-blame is: if we can no longer be the model of democracy and civilization for the rest of the world, we can at least be the model of Evil.

Where is the Workers' Country? Samurai Japan?

I have confirming evidence that the only coherent anti-capitalist stand in our Fukuyamist/Grantian age is conservative or reactionary.

I just finished reading the latest from Slavoj Zizek, the too-cool-for-school intellectual leader of academic communism. Zizek's proclaimed goal is to somehow "repeat" Lenin, while acknowledging reality. He rehabilitates Robspierre, Stalin and Mao through the use of the apologist paradox perfected by Chesterton.

Zizek's too smart not to see that it is capitalism that is the genuinely revolutionary force in the world, and that the genuinely mass-based hostility to it arises precisely from this fact. But he doesn't want to do anything as uncool as oppose, say, genetic manipulation of the human germ line. So he retreats into an overtly reactionary fantasy (not that there is anything wrong with that):

In the early seventeenth century, after the establishment of the shogun regime, Japan made a unique collective decision to isolate itself from foreign culture and to pursue its own path of a contained life of balanced reproduction, focused on cultural refinement, avoiding any tendencies towards wild expansion. Was the ensuing period which lasted till the middle of the nineteenth century really just an isolationist dream from which Japan was cruelly awakened by Commodore Perry on the American warship? What is the dream is that we can go on indefinitely in our expansionism? What if we all need to repeat, mutatis mutandis, the Japanese decision, and collectively decide to intervene in our pseudo-natural development, to change its direction?

In other words, the historic task of the left is to stand athwart history, yelling Stop.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day, America

In the spirit of harmony and friendship, I won't revisit the merits of the whole stamp duty dispute. Suffice it to say that as a descendent of United Empire Loyalists, I agree with Matthew Yglesias.

Canadian fact: According to highest legal authority, there is no single day on which we became independent. (Anyone saying April 17, 1982 should be summarily shot.) Instead, we were in a quantum state of sovereign indeterminancy for 12 years. According to the Court in 1967:

There can be no doubt now that Canada has become a sovereign state. Its sovereignty was acquired in the period between its separate signature of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the Statute of Westminster, 1931, 22 Geo. V., c. 4

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Canada Day Thought

Shorter Canadian political elite: Canada is among the most successful societies in the world. It is therefore morally imperative for it to abandon everything that made it that way.