Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Half-Baked Idea for Patent Extraction Rights

     I have written before about my disdain for patent law and the notion of intellectual property in general, but today I thought I'd share an idea I had a few years ago while thinking about the issue of patenting living organisms, which yesterday's post reminded me of. The idea is to create a new kind of property right which would hopefully establish an economic interest in maintaining biodiversity while encouraging basic research.

    But first, let me start with mineral rights, at least as they are handled here in Alberta. When you own land here, you do not actually own the rights to the minerals under it. Those belong to the Crown, which is one of the ways our government generates income, by charging royalties to the companies that want to drill for oil. That doesn't completely cut out the landowner, though, because to get to those minerals, you usually need to go through the landowner's property, and that often involves a fee.
     Now, this got me to thinking about a possible structure for biological patent rights. Under the current system, you go out and do some research and when you find something novel and useful about some organism, you can apply for a patent and there you go. It's as if an oil company could just go out and look for oil wherever they wanted, and then file a claim for the exclusive right to drill when they find it, without ever having to deal with landowners.
     So what if there were the genomic equivalent of a landowner, someone who owned not patents on an organism or its DNA, but the right to apply for such patents? So, for example, suppose I own the patent extraction rights for the genus Taraxacum, and the various species of dandelion. I don't necessarily own any actual dandelions, just the right to apply for patents on them. Then, if some pharmaceutical researcher discovers a medically useful protein in a dandelion leaf, and wants to patent it to bring a profitable new drug to market, they need to talk to me and work out a licensing arrangement: I will license them to apply for the patent in exchange for a flat fee, or a share of their profits, or whatever we agree on.

     What's the point of this? Well, the owner of the patent extraction rights would be economically motivated to do two important things: conservation and research. If I own the patent extraction rights for Taraxacum, I can now demonstrate an economic interest in preserving the species, which means I can have standing to sue someone who puts them at risk, and claim real damages. This internalizes an externality, as the economists say. Secondly, it's now in my interest to do and publish basic science about Taraxacum, because it boosts the chances that someone out there will recognize a patentable use for the plant, which could turn into a lucrative license arrangement for me.
     Consider also the issue of indigenous peoples and their traditional lore about the plants they've used for generations. At present, a scientist can go learn from the locals how they use this plant to treat this disease, take a few specimens back to the lab and reap the benefits of a patent on it, even though most of the actual work in discovering the plant's use was done by someone else. But if the patent extraction rights for these species were vested in the indigenous peoples themselves, they would have a way to share in the profits derived from their knowledge, as well as a justiciable property right in preserving their ecosystem.
     Arguably, the patent extraction rights to the human genome should be vested in the Crown on behalf of all humanity, and used to ensure that all patents on life-saving therapies are licensed on terms that do not exclude any humans who need the therapy.

     So there is my crazy half-baked idea, thrown out there for all the world to consider. Please accept my invitation to criticize it mercilessly in the comments below.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse: Refuting Another Paranoid Chain Letter

     Yet again I find myself responding to one of the inane Facebook memes that appears in my feed. The text of this one reads:

Why did the US government
invent and patent EBOLA
Patent number #CA2741523A1
Patent number #8124101
The AIDS cure
Patent number #5676977
The CANCER cure
Patent number #6630507
Seems like they are trying to
cause an epidemic, making us Ill,
then keeping us sick...

     Wow. So much wrong. Let's start, first, with ignorance of the law. Patents are a form of intellectual property designed to encourage inventors to come up with new stuff. See, the problem with inventing is that if you have a great new idea that makes people's lives better, the only way to keep other people from using that idea is by not telling anyone about it, which kind of makes it hard to make money by inventing. You can maybe make things using your idea and sell them, but if you do that there's a good chance someone else will figure out how you did it, and then who'll buy from you? And even if you do manage to keep your method a secret, when you die it's lost, which is good for nobody.
     So patents are kind of temporary legal monopoly on new ideas. In exchange for filing an application with the patent office, which includes a complete explanation of the invention and how it works, you gain the exclusive right to use the idea for twenty years. (This varies with jurisdiction and is sometimes amended by statute, but the exact length of time doesn't matter for this explanation.) If someone else uses  your idea during this time, you can sue them, and of course the fact that you've published a patent means it's fairly easy in principle to establish whether or not they actually used your method or came up with some other process. (It doesn't matter if they independently came up with your method all by themselves; the fact that you were the first to patent it gives you the legal monopoly, and too bad for them.) So you have 20 years to make as much money as you can from your brilliant idea, and then the patent expires and anyone can use it without having to pay you anything.

     What does this mean for patents on EBOLA, SWINE FLU, The AIDS cure and The CANCER cure? Well, first of all, it means that all of these patents are by definition public knowledge. When you patent something, you tell everyone else how to do it so they can do it for themselves when the patent expires. If you had a bioweapon form of Ebola virus or swine flu, the very last thing you'd want to do is patent it. You'd want to keep it as secret as secret can be. So the fact that someone has patented these things means it's completely ridiculous that they're planning on using them to make us sick. I think patents are an inefficient kludge that may cause more harm than good, but the basic principle of what a patent is kind of makes it impossible for them to be evidence of a grand plot by the evil gubmint to make us all sick.

     Okay, so maybe the author of this forward didn't know what patents are and how they work. Lots of people don't, and that's okay. But that doesn't excuse the sheer idiocy of their paranoid rantings. I mean, if you're going to make claims about patents and what they mean, the least you could do is go and look up the patent itself. Let's do that now.

Ebola: Ebola virus causes a nasty and very frequently deadly hemorrhagic fever that's killed nearly 2,000 people in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. It's scary, to be sure, but scientists studying it tell us that it doesn't actually spread all that easily and we shouldn't be panicking. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have managed to isolate and characterize specimens of the virus, and as often happens, they've taken out a patent on it. (A patent doesn't mean they invented the virus; it just means they claim to have discovered its genome in a meaningful way so as to make further inventions, such as a vaccine, possible.)
     A lot of labs, including those at the CDC, routinely file for patents on things they find that could be economically useful. That doesn't mean they plan to make money off it, though. Bear in mind that the job of the CDC is to control the spread of disease, a task they might find considerably harder and more costly if some big drug company manages to patent a treatment. So by pre-emptively patenting the virus itself, any cure based on the virus will be subject to the CDC's patent rights, so the CDC can negotiate with whatever private company finds a cure, in order to keep them from charging unreasonable prices for it.  So, I am not in the least bit worried about the fact that the CDC might hold a patent on the Ebola virus, although I am still more than a little uncomfortable about the idea of patenting life-forms. But more on that in another post.

Swine Flu: Swine flu was not invented by anyone, but patent 8124101 is for a genetically modified version of the naturally-occuring virus which was developed to improve the efficiency of preparing flu vaccines. I, for one, think that flu vaccines are a splendid idea, and I get mine every year, courtesy of Alberta Health Care. While I don't have to pay out of pocket for the vaccine, my government does, so I'm really rather pleased to learn that this patent was assigned by its inventors to Mount Sinai School of Medicine, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the United States of America through the Secretary of Agriculture, and not some for-profit pharmacy corporation. 

AIDS: Another thing to remember about patents is that the invention doesn't actually have to work to be patented. Patent 5676977 is titled "Method of curing AIDS with tetrasilver tetroxide molecular crystal devices", which sounds awesome until you realize that being able to kill HIV in a test tube isn't necessarily all that helpful for curing AIDS. You can kill the virus by boiling it in chicken fat, too, but that's not a very helpful discovery when the virus you're trying to kill is lurking within the living cells of a human patient.
     Two more crucial details about this patent. First, it's not held by the U.S. government at all, but by Antelmen Technologies Ltd. of Providence, Rhode Island. Presumably Antelman hoped the discovery would be profitable, and I don't know, maybe it has been. But that's kind of moot, because the patent was filed May 31, 1996, which means that it's pretty close to expiry, at which point it becomes fair game for anyone to start making molecular crystal devices with tetrasilver tetroxide and go cure AIDS with it all they want. 

Cancer: Oh, man, this one annoys me. See, I'm not an oncologist or a microbiologist, so I'm by no means an expert, but I have undergone successful (so far) surgery and chemotherapy for a Stage III cancer, and I've learned just enough about cancer and how it's treated to be able to recognize when someone knows less than I do.  Talk about a cancer cure is dangerous nonsense, because cancer isn't a simple, single disease. It's a whole category of diseases which have one thing in common: cells dividing when they're not supposed to. The human body has hundreds of different types of cells, some of which are supposed to divide and some of which aren't, and there are thousands and thousands of ways their DNA can get screwed up to produce a cancer-type disease. Some of them can be cured, some of them cure themselves, and some of them will kill you dead. We're learning lots about how cells work, and amazing progress has been made (hey, I'm alive, in case you hadn't noticed), and maybe we'll have cures for all of them some day, but anyone who says there is "A cure for cancer!" is smoking something.
     And I mean that literally. Lately I've seen a lot of talk about cannabis as a cure for cancer, usually from people who are enthusiastic about marijuana. Now, personally, I'm all for decriminalizing pot, mainly for philosophical reasons (I've never tried the stuff, myself, and was never tempted to, even when I was on chemotherapy), and I think it's probably very useful medicinally, especially for cancer patients. It's supposed to be good for suppressing nausea, for one thing, and I can attest that chemo can really get you puking. It may even be effective for directly treating some cancers.
     But, as I said, there is almost certainly no such thing as A cure for cancer, and I strongly suspect that some people are vastly inflating the promise of cannabinoid drugs for the ulterior motive of Freeing The Weed. And indeed, that seems likely if you actually read patent 6630507, for "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants". It's not a "cure for cancer"; it's potentially a treatment for a particular set of conditions which are sometimes associated with cancers.
     And yes, the patent is assigned to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What does this mean? Not much, as long as cannabis remains illegal, making research into its properties inconvenient at best. Maybe the evil gubmint is holding onto the patent so it can sue stoners for patent infringement if the weed is freed? Doubtful, but I have heard that one of the side effects of marijuana use is paranoia.

     Explains a lot, actually.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Government and Governance: Why We Ought To Vote

     This is part three of a series of three posts about the role of the state and the rule of law. The previous two posts have been about the claims society makes upon us, and why we shouldn't object to them. We ought to obey the law because properly constituted law makes us more, not less, free. We ought to pay taxes on our use of collectively administered assets (such as our use of the money system) because the owners of those collectively owned assets (i.e. us collectively) are entitled to collect a fair price for the benefits we enjoy from their use, and we are better off than we would be without the exchange.
     But here's the catch: it doesn't matter if you buy these arguments, because you cannot opt out of The State. You are bound by its laws whether you like it or not. I have argued that we ought to consider ourselves fortunate to have laws and taxes, but what if you don't? And what if it seems that the country you live in doesn't really adhere to these noble principles? What then?
     Well, the good news is that we live in a time when virtually every government on the planet at least pretends to a legitimacy based on some sort of democratic ideal. Yes, there are a few theocracies and the occasional monarchy that claims authority based on some sort of divine right, but for the most part, even the most repressive tyrannies at least claim to represent the people. Even the Khmer Rouge called their regime "Democratic Kampuchea", and the Kim dynasty calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".
     To be sure, such oppressive states are just plain ol' dirty rotten liars when they say they are democratic. Mao hinted more than a bit at his true philosophy when he wrote "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." And when dealing with raw, might-makes-right totalitarian coercion, there are really only two options: total resistance or total surrender.
     But very few regimes today are quite so brazen. Nearly everyone at least claims to respect some sort of principle of justice or right beyond "do as I say or else". And that is a start, even if it is a bluff. For now.
     What I want to suggest here is that the way to deal with government is to call that bluff, even if you believe it is a bluff. If your government tells you it respects your rights, then exercise them with confidence and good faith, even if you suspect they don't really want you to. Hold them to their word. Make them be the liars and the lawbreakers.

     This will sound naive: do I not understand that corrupt systems will simply disregard my arguments, and lock me in jail or worse regardless of the merits of my arguments? Of course I do, but it is every bit as naive to assume that corrupt systems will be nice to you if you do everything they say. Corrupt systems are corrupt, and inherently untrustworthy; you cannot rely on them to keep their word either way. They very well might just shoot you for fun, or to make an example of you, or whatever. The fact is, when you're living in a lawless tyranny, there really is no such thing as playing it safe. Some risks can be reduced, but often at a cost of accepting increasingly oppressive conditions.
     Moreover, most of the time you will not be dealing with the supreme dictator at the top, but with some lower-level functionary, and in all likelihood, that functionary will be as scared of angering the regime as you are. If the regime says it respects these rights in its citizens (whether it sincerely means it or not), then you can characterize the functionary's infringement of those rights as an act of disloyalty, at least enough to raise some doubt in the mind of your functionary and open a discussion.

     In the individual instance, it won't always work, but then, what does? If he's intent on locking up up or shooting you, there really isn't a safe way to avoid that. But in the long run, in the big picture, rights do not suddenly spring into being by a single glorious armed rebellion; they take root and grow as we collectively begin to recognize, demand, and eventually assume them. The American Revolution was, to be sure, a defining moment, but it didn't happen in a vacuum; the fundamental rights which were codified in the Bill of Rights were not invented in 1776, but had already evolved and were well established within the English common law tradition, even if they were not yet uniformly respected.
     In short, fake it 'til you make it. Whether or not you believe your legal system means what it says when it claims you have rights to a fair trial, to vote, and so on, if you (and others) take it at its word, and go out and exercise those rights as if they actually exist, then The Powers That Be will either have to start actually respecting them, or issue some sort of embarrassing retraction.

     I often hear people despair that democracy doesn't work, that the system is too corrupt and the Powers That Be are too powerful to allow us to make any difference, and that our only hope is armed rebellion. This I reject categorically, not because I reject violence generally (although I do) but because pragmatically it almost never works, and even when it succeeds in overthrowing a corrupt regime, it will almost always replace it with another tyranny. Only if there is a deep and broad commitment to the fundamental principles of law and justice can it be otherwise, but such commitment is not brought about through violence. Violence is utterly incompatible with justice. One may, on occasion, be compelled to defend against violence with violence, but one should never be under the illusion that arguments are won that way; once the fighting stops, the questions of justice and right remain unanswered, even if the ones asking them are dead.
     There are also people who feel that to cooperate with The System is to endorse it and thus become complicit in its injustices. That is a fair criticism, but an empty one, because refusing to participate in trying to improve the world is no way to keep your hands morally clean. The world we live in is the world we live in, warts and all, and we cannot absolve ourselves of its impurities by pretending we have nothing to do with them. As satisfying as the sanctimony of withdrawal can feel (and I am no stranger to such self-indulgence), it helps no one. Criticism should be constructive; if it isn't, it's merely veiled self-congratulation.

     So what I am urging, then, is to engage within the system for the change you want, even (especially) if you don't have any faith in the system. Vote. Write letters to your elected representatives. Read and consider the views of people who disagree with you, and talk with them on the assumption that they'll listen and maybe even change their minds, even if you don't think they will. If you think your rights are being violated, don't be afraid to speak up. But even more importantly, make sure to speak up when you see someone else's rights being violated, because ultimately, your rights are only effective when they are respected by other people, so fostering a culture in which people habitually consider the rights of others is more effective than one in which rights are seen as solely tools of self-interest.  Rights, and the rule of law generally, are matters of convention; the law only has power over people who believe in it and agree to be bound by it. We will always be vulnerable to the actions of other people, law or no, so it is in our interest for those other people to bind themselves to the law, and that is more likely to happen if we all act like we expect them to do so.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Defending (a little) Theistic Evolution

     Today I saw this article by Greta Christina, which offers four reasons why theistic evolution fails. As should be evident by now, I tend rather strongly to an atheist view of things, particularly explanations of the origin of the universe and humanity. However, it seems to me that the arguments in this article rather unfairly misrepresent theistic evolution, and I'd like to speak up a little in defense of that view, even though I don't actually share it.  For those who don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize very briefly. Theistic evolution is the view that evolution is just the way that God chose to make us. The article claims that this view is flawed in four ways, which I'll address in turn below.

"1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution."
     Ms. Christina argues here (correctly) that the theory of evolution is all about probabilities, and is fundamentally undirected. That's actually its chief merit as a theory; it provides an account of how such amazing complexity as we see around us could have arisen without the need to postulate any kind of deliberate intervention.
     Where she goes astray is in assuming that theistic evolution must be directed in that sense. That is, she seems to believe that the God of theistic evolution was aiming specifically at producing us, of all the beings that could have come into existence through unguided natural selection. No doubt many theistic evolutionists do believe this, but it's not at all a necessary assumption for the theory.
     The reason I think it's not necessary is because I've "created" so many undirected virtual universes myself, in roleplaying games and simulations, where I quite deliberately included random elements because I wanted to see what evolved naturally within the system I'd put in motion. Now, to be sure, I'm not deemed to be eternal and omniscient, so it's possible for me to do such a thing without knowing in advance the outcome. But even if we suppose the God of theistic evolution to be omniscient, that doesn't mean that His foreknowledge is the same as intervening at any particular step in the naturalistic evolutionary process; the sequence itself unfolds in exactly the non-deterministic fashion it would without postulating God. The problem here is not with theistic evolution per se, but the deeper philosophical problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with our notions of randomness and uncertainty.

"2.There's not a scrap of evidence for it."
      No, of course there isn't, and there shouldn't be. The mistake Ms. Christina is making here is in thinking that theistic evolution is a scientific claim, intended to explain something about the world that atheistic evolution cannot explain alone. It isn't. Rather, it is an attempt to preserve elements of a myth with deep personal meaning, in the face of the complete triumph of scientific reasoning. The thinking theistic creationist completely surrenders to science, at least in the arena of trying to understand how the physical universe works. The evidence shows that evolution is how we got here, so that's what the theistic evolutionist accepts. God is not a part of the theory at all. God is postulated entirely outside of the reality that the theory alone governs and exhaustively explains.
     Personally, I have no need of the postulate, but as an avid player of what-if, I recognize that there may be a solid aesthetic reason for including it. But aesthetic preferences are not evidence, and as long as that's understood, I have no beef with theistic evolutionists.

"3. There's a whole lot of evidence against it."
     This is actually the same mistake as in #2 above, and related to the error of #1. Scientifically, theistic evolution is exactly the same theory as atheistic evolution, and relies upon exactly the same empirical evidence. Theistic evolution does not make any of the special predictions Ms. Christina claims it does. The God of theistic evolution may or may not have preferred for us to have sinuses or blind spots or external testicles or any of the countless engineering imperfections we evolved with, but He chose to let the laws of nature produce whatever world would come into being, and He saw that it was good, warts and all. That doesn't mean He thought we'd be better off with an appendix; it means that of all the potential beings in the multiverse, He apparently didn't prefer the perfectly engineered ones to the naturally evolved ones. If I believed in God, that'd make me feel profoundly loved, which is kind of the point of the theistic part of theistic evolution. The evolution part doesn't need God at all. He's just a bonus, a source of comfort for those who need Him.

"4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious."
     This is a completely valid criticism of the anthropocentric creationists, who assert that God made everything for our benefit, but again, it has no bearing on theistic evolution, which is just evolution-with-God. True, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that such a God is at best brutally indifferent to the suffering of the creatures in this naturalistic universe, but theistic evolution at least has something like an answer to this: the naturalistic universe is what it is, and God wanted a naturalistic universe rather than a human-centered one.
     But that's one of my chief criticisms of a lot of mainstream religion, the preposterous notion that God should care about whether we get that raise or contract this disease or get hit by that bus, and the incredibly vain superstition that God will favour us in this life if we ask Him nicely or recite the proper incantation. Such a god is demonstrably non-existent by empirical comparison with the null hypothesis, and unworthy of worship if He did exist. The God of theistic evolution is not posited to intervene in such ways, and so there's no reason to blame Him for cruelty or incompetence. Blame Him for fatalism, perhaps, or better yet ourselves for not being fatalists.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Leviathan, Inc.: Why We Ought to Pay Taxes

     In the previous post, I argued that law exists for the purpose of increasing the freedom of those bound by it, and I spoke of a liberty dividend, the net gain in liberty that we receive in exchange for the freedoms we surrender. In this post I want to further explore the analogy of the State to a business corporation.

     A corporation is an artificial legal person. It can own property, enter into contracts, and exercise various other legal rights. Unlike natural persons, however, the corporation is owned by its shareholders. Yet it is important to remember that the assets of the corporation itself are the property of the corporation; just because you're a shareholder in the Coca Cola Company doesn't mean you can help yourself to free Cokes at the local bottler. Rather, you own a stake in the enterprise as a whole, which means that you get a say in how it is run. (Which means that if you want free Cokes, you need to elect a board of directors who will implement a policy to give away free Cokes.)
     There are lots of reasons to form a corporation, but most importantly for this discussion, a corporation allows one to undertake large projects beyond the capacity of any individual. If a bunch of entrepreneurs wanted to build a ship to engage in merchant trade, it would be prohibitively unwieldy for each to manage their own portion of the investment, hiring the shipyard and crew and buying materials and cargo and fuel and supplies. It's much easier to simply pool all the money, and appoint someone to coordinate the whole project and delegate responsibilities. And by constituting the enterprise as a separate legal person, the investors can greatly simplify the dealings with customers, contractors and clients.

     Now, the state differs from a typical business corporation in several respects. For one, you don't get much of a choice as to whether or not you invest your liberty with the state. You may have the option to emigrate to a different state, but wherever you go you're going to be subject to the local laws. As I argued in the previous post, it's actually a good investment and you ought to welcome it, even if you're not practically free to refuse.
      For another, you buy shares in a business corporation with money, which means you can own multiple shares, and that entitles you to multiple votes when electing the board of directors. The investment we make in the State for our shares is not money, but the liberty we surrender to its laws, and since each of us in principle surrenders the same individual sovereignty, each of us should have exactly one share; no one's vote should count for more than anyone else's.

     But our liberty need not be the only thing we invest with the state. There are various sorts of things which we can think of as collective assets, valuable finite resources that all of us have moral claim to but which cannot be conveniently divided up into individual shares. It makes sense to manage these resources as a single unit, on behalf of the people collectively. Governments already do this for many resources when they allocate radio bandwidth, establish fishing quotas, and charge royalties for logging and mining.
     It's true that there are some laissez faire ideologues who believe that all collective assets should be divided up and owned privately, and that a robust private law system (i.e. torts and contracts) would be sufficient to resolve the conflicts that would arise. But that would require an ideal world like the one of introductory high school physics, where the absence of friction and air resistance makes almost everything seem possible. In the real world, rivers flow and the wind blows and what I do in my allotment of ocean will unavoidably spill over into yours. In fact, it's a good thing that air and water circulates around the planet, as that's fundamental to keeping our ecosystems functioning. Sorting out who has rights to what would actually call for much more government involvement (in the form of courts hearing private tort/contract cases) than simply managing shared assets as a single unit.
     Some shared resources can be divvied up, of course, but others can't, not just because it would be impractical to do so but because the value of the resource comes from its being unified into a single cohesive system rather than broken up into many competing parts.
     Consider measurement systems, for example. We are so used to everyone knowing what a meter or a kilogram or a second is that we rarely imagine how much more complicated everything would be if we didn't all use a single standard system of measurement. It's only when we have to deal with backward countries that still use inches and ounces that we have some inkling of the confusion, but even there we enjoy the benefit of having fixed conversion rates between standards, rather  than everyone just picking their own poetic description for "This much".
     Think for a moment how insanely complicated our lives would be if we didn't have single unitary standards for standard units. We'd get by, but it'd take up a lot of our time trying to sort out how much rice it should cost to trade for how much cotton thread. Because, after all, the other hugely important unitary standard we all rely on and take for granted is money.

     Like standard units of measurement, the existence of a single system of currency improves our lives in countless ways. The time and effort saved by being able evaluate our trades with standard units is truly staggering, but we are so used to to using dollars that we don't even think about how powerful the system is. We take the convenience of money so much for granted, that we don't even think to put a price on it; we assume it should be free.
     But why should it be? Why should anything that makes your life easier be given to you for free? If there's a widget that saves you $10 of effort every day, it doesn't matter how much it costs me to produce that widget; if I can let you have it for less than $10 you still come out ahead, and have no reason to complain.
     So stop and think about how much it's worth to you to have a functioning system of currency. How much does would you pay for the benefits of living in a world where you can use the concept of a dollar to speed up your calculations and negotiations? Where you can buy insurance against risk, or pool your money with others in a joint stock corporation, or buy a house with a mortgage instead of having to save up enough gold to buy land outright? Money's a ridiculously powerful thing that we all benefit from, but the benefits are greater the more you use it. People who use a lot of money, and who therefore have access to the more powerful uses of money, ought to be willing to pay a lot more for the use of the money utility than people for whom it is a mildly more convenient alternative to barter.  It does not matter how much it costs to create and maintain the money utility; the price you are willing to pay for its use should depend on the utility you get from it.

     Now, what makes the money utility useful is the fact that all of us collectively agree to use it as a standard, and that we all agree to accept its promise of value. (Indeed, you could argue that the person who will do an hour's work for $5 contributes much more to maintaining the value of a dollar than someone who bills out at $300.) It therefore is arguably one of those collective assets of the sort the State can and should manage on our behalf, and if it is economically practical for the State to turn a profit by charging a premium for the use of money, then it ought to earn as much profit as it sustainably can for us by doing so. In the case of the money utility, the premium the State charges has a special name: tax.
     What I am trying to suggest here is that the way we usually think of taxes is wrong. We have traditionally thought of taxes as a necessary evil at best. Historically, warlords extorted tribute from people they subjugated. In time, they justified it by spending some of that money on public works that benefited their people. We still think of tax as the powerful government confiscating our property, sometimes for our own good to pay for roads and hospitals. But it's a mistake to think that what we're paying for is roads and hospitals, because then we (quite understandably) get angry at having to pay for benefits that other people use and we don't, and we elect politicians who promise to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes, whether or not that's actually a good idea (sometimes it is, but not always).

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Liberty Dividend: Why We Ought to Obey the Law

     I've recently been involved in a number of conversation about the proper use of law and the role of government. Since my thoughts have been coalescing around a general theory of such things which I haven't fully articulated yet, I have decided to attempt to do so in a series of blog posts. The first element I'm going to address is law, which I've touched on before but not quite with the attention I mean to in this essay.

     As I've previously written, I think of law as the weapon of choice for final resolution of disputes in any society that aspires to consider itself civilized. But I haven't yet explained in detail how I think this weapon works, why we should prefer it to guns or swords, and what that means for how it legitimately can and can't be used.

     To begin with, a weapon is a tool which is used to diminish the capacities of a target in some way or other. A gun or sword takes away an opponent's choices mainly through blood loss and the incapacity that results, while the law takes away choices by agreement. (Sure, there may be coercion involved through penalties imposed for breaking the law, but law-abiding citizens generally obey the law because they have agreed to do so.)
     But why would anyone choose to give up choices? All other things being equal, aren't more options better? Isn't it irrational to surrender freedoms that one might conceivably some day wish to exercise? (You might think you would never want to murder someone, so why not give up that freedom? But if no one ever had a reason to murder anyone, we wouldn't need a rule against it.)

     In fact, surrendering freedoms can sometimes be a very smart move. On his way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus had to sail past the Sirens, whose song invariably overcame the willpower of any who heard them, drawing them to sail onto the rocks where they would be shipwrecked and drowned. Clever Odysseus knew that all he had to do to get past this peril was put wax in his ears and the ears of his crew, so they could not hear the Sirens. But Odysseus wanted to hear the song, too, so he had his crew lash him to the mast and ordered them to ignore him until after they had sailed clear of the danger. And so, by deliberately giving up his freedom to control his ship, Odysseus achieved what no one had ever done before: he heard the Sirens' song and lived to tell about it.
     There are lots of non-mythical examples of how surrendering some autonomy can be a smart choice. With respect to the criminal law, we are all better off (more free) if we give up the right to murder each other in exchange for the right not to be murdered, because being murdered extinguishes all freedoms. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the surrender of autonomy through contract law. Seriously, would you do business with me if I said, "I will bring you a bushel of wheat for that piece of silver, but I reserve the right to break all my promises once the silver is in my hand"? The whole point of contract law is to allow us to make (and thus rely on) binding promises. By giving up the ability to break our promises, we gain a greater ability to trade with each other.

     I argue, then, that law is something which we ought to obey as rational beings because doing so has the net effect of increasing our practical liberty. We may, on occasion, obey the law out of fear of coercion rather than civic duty, but that need not undermine the legitimacy of the law itself. Odysseus wanted to steer his shop onto the rocks, and was prevented by the brute force of the ropes around him, but his choice to be bound by those ropes in the first place was not invalidated by the fact that he changed his mind under the influence of the Sirens. What matters is that law over all must increase our liberty, regardless of how we may bicker about any particular instance of its constraining our liberty. If law in general makes us freer, than we ought to obey it.
     So, the principle I want to articulate here is that properly constituted law represents an investment of liberty: we surrender some of our liberty to the State, which then uses that liberty capital to generate a profit, a surplus of liberty which is then distributed back to us as a liberty dividend. (A regime whose laws do not generate a net gain in liberty is owed no obedience by its citizens. It may impose its will by force, but it cannot claim to be lawful.)

     And this is where the moral obligation to obey the law comes from. I need know nothing about your personal moral beliefs and what other moral duties you may feel you have, but can assert that a moral duty to obey the law almost certainly follows from your own value system.

  • If freedom itself is a value, this is trivial; you ought to do that which maximizes your freedom, which is what a properly constituted law is meant to do.  
  • If you do not directly value freedom, you probably value something else for which freedom is at least an instrumental good. That is, if you think being nice to puppies is important, then you should want as much freedom as possible in order increase the likelihood that you will be able to find a way to be nice to puppies in any situation that arises. The same logic applies if you think you ought to sacrifice puppies to Cthulhu, or put things on top of other things, or whatever it is that you may value. Ergo, you ought to obey the law in order to maximize your capacity to advance whatever primary values you do have.
  • If you do not value the freedoms that law creates, and prefer the freedoms that it constrains, then and only then do I admit you have no particular internal duty to obey the law. But if you are willing to bear the risk of being murdered or maimed or violated by others, in exchange for your own freedom to murder or assault and violate others, then you can have no principled objection to being imprisoned yourself.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Memetic Pathology of Rape Culture

     People have been talking a lot about rape culture lately, and how to eradicate it. I'm completely and enthusiastically in favour of this project, but I think it's important we understand what we're up against from a memetic pathology perspective. In particular, I want to argue that rape culture is more like cancer than it is to an infectious disease, and so we should tailor our approach to it accordingly.

     Eradicating an infectious disease is, in principle, easy. All you have to is kill off all the virus or bacterium or parasite that causes the disease, and that's that. Infectious pathogens are organisms that have evolved sophisticated tricks to get into the body of the host and use it to reproduce more pathogens. These pathogens aren't simple; they are products of countless generations of natural selection, honing and refining their genome to enable them to overcome the various immunities in hosts that are also the product of countless generations of natural selection. Once the last polio virus is destroyed, no one will ever again contract polio, because a common influenza virus isn't clever enough to just spontaneously re-invent for itself all those neat gadgets polio had to sneak into a cell. In short, it's really hard to start an infectious disease from scratch.
     If rape culture were like an infectious disease, eradicating it would be a simple matter of not teaching boys to rape. Without being taught that rape was okay, goes the theory, they'd never get it into their heads to force themselves on girls without consent.
     But that's kind of silly. I mean, the idea of raping someone is not exactly rocket science. Toddlers quite spontaneously and independently discover the secret of hitting people, so any idiot can come up with the idea of using force to get one's way. And if the way one wants to get is with someone else's body, then it doesn't take a great deal of imaginative genius to devise a scheme to which we would properly attach the label "rape".

     Now think about cancer. Although it may be triggered by a virus or some environmental factor, cancer starts out as something going haywire in the finely-tuned instructions that control when and how a cell divides. (Most cells aren't supposed to divide at all, once they become specialized for a particular function as a nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell, etc.) The cell replicates when it's not supposed to, often growing into a tumour that interferes with the proper functioning of the tissue it's in. Now, cell replication is still a remarkably complex process, and there's an awful lot of biochemistry involved, including genes that perform vitally important functions in a healthy cell. But in a cancer, these otherwise healthy genes and sugars and lipids are put to work supporting the out-of-control cancerous replication. The basic mistake that turns the whole process cancerous is just a dumb mistake, not some fiendishly clever set of genes from a highly evolved virus. Any idiot can toss a monkey wrench into the machinery and make it start malfunctioning.
     The same is true, I think, of rape culture. Any idiot can come up with the idea of forcing sex on someone else. Most of the time when that happens, the person immediately recognizes why it would be morally wrong, and it stops there. (Likewise, most potentially cancerous mutations never develop into tumours.) But occasionally, the idea will get past the immune-response of that morality meme, often because we human beings are just so diabolically clever at rationalizing justifications for why we deserve what we want and what we propose to do about it isn't really that bad, after all, and in fact maybe she really wants it and just needs to be given the opportunity to admit it and... etc. etc. etc. 
     I think, then, that rape culture is best understood as consisting of the kinds of cognitive tools that facilitate such rationalization. There are a few truly pathological memes in this complex, such as the moral concept of the slut (which I'd love to see eradicated from our vocabulary), but I suspect that most of the ideas that contribute to facilitating rape-thinking may actually perform useful cultural functions, just as most of the genes that allow a cancer cell to grow also perform important roles in healthy cells. But they likely could benefit from some refinement, to make them less susceptible to excusing rape.
     For example, consider the idea of consent, the absence of which turns sex into rape. But notice how closely the concept of  "consent" is to "permission", and thus how it ties into our way of thinking about sex as something done by men to women, rather than something two do together. Patients consent to treatment by surgeons who often work while the patient is unconscious. So even when we take pains to talk about the importance of consent, we are still unwittingly using and reinforcing a conception of sex where the verbs are all transitive ones, with active subjects and passive objects who are screwed with or without consent. 
     We could, instead, talk about consensus instead of consent. They both mean the same thing, actually, but "consensus" emphasizes the agency of all parties to an agreement, rather than implying a passive permission-granter. In fact, it goes farther than that, because our talk of men requiring the consent of women tends to reinforce a blindness to the role of male volition here. We blame women for implying their consent; we don't even think about men's consent because we just presume that a Manly Man must always be willing. And that, of course, is an idea that is central to rape culture.

     So my point here is that it isn't enough to say we need to stop teaching boys that rape is okay. It isn't even enough to say we need to start teaching them not to rape. Rape culture is a cancer that metastasized ages ago, and has become thoroughly integrated into even the tissues we're using to try to fight it. We need aggressive meme therapy, to replace even apparently helpful memes like "consent" with alleles like "consensus" that are more resistant to facilitating and rationalizing rape-thinking. That means we need to be a lot more conscious and reflective about how we think and talk about sex and sex roles generally. It's going to be tiresome, and we're going to be sick of the cure long before we're well. It's going to be especially tiresome and draining on those men who take pains to remind us that #notallmen are rapists, because those of us who aren't rapists are prone to think we're cured and don't need any treatment. 
     Sorry, guys. It really is just like cancer that way.