Tuesday, 12 April 2016

More about the obscene lie of "trickle-down" economics

     I've written before about how trickle-down economics is mislabeled, because it mixes metaphors with inconsistent gravitational fields. The term will not die, though; just the other day I found myself in an argument with a business owner who insisted that if only his taxes were lower, he could afford to hire more people and let that wealth trickle on down.
     Inadvertently, he formulated his claim in such a way as to make the absurdity of the theory so clear to me I felt compelled to blog about it here. Think about this: What he's saying is that unemployment happens because rich people don't have enough money to hire anybody.

     Seriously, that is what the whole tax-cuts-for-the-rich, trickle-down ideology really boils down to. If only the rich could get a break on their taxes, they could afford to hire some of those unemployed people and create jobs and wealth for everyone. Our economic ills are, apparently, due to the rich not being rich enough.

     Now, if you have any sympathy for the idea of the rich being job-creators, you'll probably be suspecting at this point that I've unfairly stated the theory in the most absurd way possible, and I'm ignoring the subtle genius of Reagan's brilliant insight. After all, the fellow I was arguing with seemed pretty sure that it was his hefty tax bill that kept him from expanding, and shouldn't he know better than I the details of his own business? Doesn't it make sense that, if the state confiscates too much of the proceeds of productive enterprise, there will be nothing left to finance the further growth of that enterprise?
     Of course it sounds plausible, and all the more so because it has been so enthusiastically promoted as wise economic insight for nearly four decades now. But that plausibility begins to fall apart if you look a little closer at it.

     For example, if you've ever done your own taxes, you're probably aware that you can deduct expenses from your gross income. The basic principle is that if you need to spend money to make money, the money you had to spend is not counted as income when you recover it. Think of it this way: If you buy $100 of materials, and turn them into finished goods which I buy for $120, your income is $20, not $120. So our tax system is set up to tax you on your $20 gain, not the $120 in gross revenue.
     Now, if you run a business in which you hire people to work for you, their wages are classified as an expense for your business. This means they're not taxed (though your employees may have to pay income tax on it, minus their own deductible expenses -- the same rules apply to them). So what this means is that in fact, you can't actually blame taxes on your profits for not leaving you with enough  money to hire more workers; if you just went ahead and hired those workers from your business' pre-tax revenues, you wouldn't pay taxes on the portion of revenue used to pay their wages.

     The point here is that if a business isn't hiring new people, it's simply wrong to blame that on their taxes being too high. And the same is true for capital investment and other forms of expansion: our tax system is carefully designed to have all sorts of exemptions and deductions to encourage growth, which only makes sense, because the more money you make, the more taxes there are to collect. The taxman's interests are actually aligned with yours here. Sure, tax policies can be made smarter, but that's not a synonym for "lower".

     The other thing that's disastrously wrong about trickle-down theory is that it applies an extremely simplistic model of investment. To be fair, it's the model that most of us learn through school and which is reinforced in ordinary household economics and even in games like Minecraft: You need to save up a surplus pool of resources to build stuff. If you haven't punched enough trees or gathered enough vespene gas or saved up enough coins in your piggy bank, you can't start your project.
     This makes good intuitive sense, and it is a prudent way to manage your affairs. But it is almost shockingly naive to assume that entrepreneurs and job-creators are limited to this approach, and all the more so when you consider that the richest of the rich made their fortunes either in or at least in large part with the assistance of the finance industry.
     You see, entrepreneurs do not start out rich, and then decide they finally have enough money to trickle it down to everyone else. They start out by seeing an opportunity to get rich, a way to provide something that people will pay them for. Of course, as mentioned above, it often takes money to make money, so they have to come up with the capital to get started, to build a factory and to buy materials and hire and train staff, and in so doing they create jobs and growth. But here's the thing: they don't need to have all the resources to do that themselves up front.  They can get a business loan from a bank. They can incorporate a corporation and sell shares. This is why we even have a finance industry: to raise the capital to finance the exploitation of profitable opportunities!

     (It's true today, of course, that a large amount of entrepreneurial activity is dependent on billionaire investors, but that's largely because we have concentrated so much wealth in the hands of billionaires; the institutions of finance and banking would work just as well with millions of small investors as they do with a few huge ones. Indeed, billionaire investors are the old-fashioned, pre-finance way of doing things. Back in the day, you had to go to the king or some other extremely wealthy noble to get your bright idea funded, and there was little incentive to do so since His Majesty would own it all. Also, he only had so much time to divide among all the clever people pitching ideas, and would probably rather be hunting anyway. This is why the emergence of financial markets, publicly traded companies, credit and other innovations in the Renaissance led to such unprecedented economic growth as we've seen in the last few centuries. It's also, I submit, why that growth is slowing down as we concentrate the money again in the hands of a few billionaires.)

    So this is why I say that trickle down theory is so preposterously backwards. Despite its superficially plausible rhetoric, it really does boil down to the claim that our economic malaise is due to rich people not being rich enough, and that if only they had all the money, we would all be much better off. And that is an obscene lie.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

How to be an Informed Voter: Ignore Election Coverage!

     Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who wishes she were more informed about the upcoming election, and asked me if I could recommend any reading material. My first instinct was to suggest both a left-leaning and a right-leaning source, in order to try to hear different perspectives, but in all honesty it seems to me that, at least within the United States, that's a bit of a problem. Frankly, I could not think of a right-leaning source I felt in the least bit comfortable recommending, because the once respectable GOP conservatism of Eisenhower and Arnold Vinick seems to have imploded into a seething morass of irrationality, anger and hatred, and explicitly right-leaning press is what dragged it there. But of course, I also couldn't in good conscience recommend just following the explicitly left-leaning press.
     Nor, however, could I recommend even the most steadfastly nonpartisan press. It isn't that they don't make an effort to give voice to both sides. Indeed, that in itself is sometimes a dangerously misleading tendency; by being impartial between any two opposed positions, you may give undeserved credibility to the flaky crackpot view that probably ought to be ignored. ("Is the Earth toroidal? Most scientists say of course it isn't you idiot, but here's someone with a revolutionary new theory that we're standing on the inside of a big donut. Let's hear both sides.")
     No, the real problem with election coverage is that the attempt to cover it impartially inevitably reduces to horserace analysis: who's ahead in the polls, how people are reacting to this or that speech, what strategies the candidates will use to win this or that demographic, who "won" the debate, how many electoral votes this state is worth, and so on. And none of this is in the least bit helpful to the voter who is trying to decide whom to vote for.

     I confess, I follow that stuff, too. I do, after all, care passionately about the outcome of each election, and it's hard to resist any information that may shed light on what's going to happen. But from the perspective of someone wanting to figure out whom to support, it's worse than useless. So I was at a bit of a loss for how to answer my friend's question: what could she read, in order to become better informed when the time comes to cast her ballot?

    So here's what I ended up suggesting: don't pay too much attention to the election coverage, at least until you've got some idea which way you lean. Instead, remember what's important about elections: whoever gets elected is going to be making policy decisions about important issues, and this is really what matters. You may not know or care about every issue, but there are many that will affect you personally, and many more that you probably ought at least to be aware of.
     Ask yourself, then, what it's important to you that government deal with. Are you worried about the economy? About terrorism? Crime? Climate change? Good. Pick one or two issues, and read up on them. Newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, videos, everything. Become known to your friends as someone who's very interested in a particular subject, and they'll often send you links or refer you to people with similar interests. Talk. Listen. Think.  Get to know enough about a subject that you feel astonished at how much more there is to learn. Be able to fairly represent at least two contrary opinions held on the subject.
     Bear in mind that each and every author or source you consider has its own biases and agenda, and take that into account. Read and research with the understanding that nobody is going to give you The Answer, though most of them will try; you're going to have to formulate your own opinion by synthesizing everything. While there's a good chance you'll find some expert in an area with whom you agree on an awful lot, realize that there's no escaping responsibility for forming your own opinion; even the decision to defer to an expert is a decision to choose that expert to defer to.

     You don't need to become an expert, of course. The goal here is really just to become an educated lay-person, so that you know enough about the vocabulary and concepts to be able to understand the gist of what the experts are talking about. And once you've reached that point, then you might want to go and hear what the candidates in the election campaign (remember the election?) have to say about it. Because then you will be able to listen to their ideas, and get some sense of whether or not they actually have any understanding of the issue, and whether or not their policy proposals make sense. Only then should you start to make up your mind as to which candidate you support.

     If you start at the other end, choosing a party or a candidate, and then forming your policy opinions to follow, well, you're kinda shirking your democratic responsibilities. It's all very well and good to look to your leader for leadership, and defer to him or her on those areas you don't know enough about to form your own opinion, but before they're elected they've no claim to your deference. Their authority as a leader is something that you choose to give them, and you ought to think carefully about whom you entrust with it.

     Once you have decided who you're going to vote for, of course, it's going to be very hard to resist the temptation to follow the horserace. So go ahead. Watch the pundits, read the polls, get frustrated and irate or thrilled and elated. More likely both. You'll want to know who wins, because you'll have a good reason to care, and that is actually a good thing.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

On being law-abiding, and the coerciveness of the law

     "Hey, I have no intention of ever murdering someone, but why do we have to have a law telling us not to, and threatening us with life in prison if we do? Why is it okay for the State to coerce us into not murdering each other?"

     An argument often raised by libertarians against this or that law (often the law requiring them to pay taxes) is that law is inherently coercive. That is, they'll claim that taxes are morally indistinguishable from robbery because the government is putting a gun to your head and demanding you hand over your money. Sometimes, if they're capable of nuance, they'll qualify this by saying that some taxes are necessary, and only excessive taxes are morally bad because you're being coerced to hand over more than necessary. In any event, they focus on this coerciveness, the fact that the might of the state makes a credible threat of punishment if you fail to comply, as the fundamental evil of law generally. Sometimes a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

     It seems like a slam dunk argument, but when I reflect on why I (and most people) obey the law, it begins to ring hollow. The fact is, I do not obey the law simply to avoid punishment. I obey the law because it is the law; I have committed myself as a rational autonomous being to abide by the law, even when it is not in my immediate interests to do so, because I recognize a moral duty to be law-abiding. While I may not agree with each and every statute on the books, I embrace the concept of law itself, not least because it includes mechanisms for challenging unjust laws. I have written before of why I choose law over lawlessness.
     Now, of course it is true that if I were to break the law, I would be subject to punishment. And yes, the threat of a fine is an inducement for me not to park illegally, but here's the thing: I try to avoid parking illegally regardless of whether or not there is a risk of a fine, and if I do occasionally get a ticket, it's usually because I underestimated how long an appointment would last and didn't put enough in the meter, not because I took a calculated risk and thought I could get away with it.

     It's important to stress here that I am not advocating a blind obedience to the dictates of Parliament, or that Just Following Orders is in any way an appropriate moral stand. One of the best things about our law is that there is always (supposed to be) a mechanism for review and considerations of justice. If I'm arrested for a crime I didn't commit, the law obliges the Crown to prove it before I am to be punished. If I'm arrested for a crime I did commit (whether by accident or by moral lapse or by civil disobedience), I still have the opportunity to argue my case for why the law should be struck down, or why I should receive a discharge or a lesser sentence. And the statutes are responsive to lawful democratic and political forces as well. When I say I believe in a moral duty to abide by the law, I include all of the lawful means to challenge, amend and reform the law. Even civil disobedience, the deliberate breaking of an unjust law to bring about its reform, can be done with a fundamental respect for Law generally.

     It is this fundamental respect for Law generally that I am advocating here as "law-abidingness". A law-abiding person accepts that the law itself is a valid reason for acting, independent of any punishment provisions. One may also consider the punishment provisions as a reason for acting, but to the law-abiding person, punishment cannot be the only reason for obeying the law. Moreover, while the law-abiding person will not require the threat of punishment to comply, she should probably accept that punishment provisions are a pragmatic necessity to ensure that non-law-abiding citizens also comply.
     Punishment is not for law-abiding citizens. True, they may be punished if they break the law just like anyone else, because the law is unable to distinguish between scofflaws and law-abiders who just happen to have broken the law for some reason. Law-abiding people may object to the severity of a particular punishment, or to the content of a particular statute, but they do not object to the fact of punishment in general as a part of the law. The law-abiding person may not be happy about the coercive element of the law, but places the blame not on the law itself but on the non-law-abiding person who makes that coercive element necessary.

     What this means is that the libertarian who objects to a law because it is coercive is not, ultimately, coming from a position of law-abidingness. Of course it is coercive, if you aren't committed to obeying it out of a sense of moral duty! But that is no principled objection. Complaining that the law should not be coercive is really just to complain that there should be no law at all.

     So please, if you're going to make the argument that taxes are bad because they're coercive, don't call yourself a libertarian. Be honest: you're an anarchist.

Friday, 4 March 2016

On Disagreeing with Lifestyles

    I have seen the following quote, attributed to Rick Warren, shared at least a half dozen times, and feel it needs a reply.

     "Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone's lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense.  You don't have to compromise convictions to be compassionate."

     I'm not taking issue with the central message, with which I agree completely: of course it is possible to disagree respectfully with people you love! And it's true that a lot of people do not understand that.
     What I'm objecting to here is two words which, particularly when combined as they are in this way, contribute to perpetuating another huge lie. These words are "disagree" and "conviction", and while this may seem like a minor quibble, it's important. Bear with me as I begin my quibbles, please.

     First, you don't disagree with someone's lifestyle. A lifestyle is not a belief or a propositional claim with a truth value to be endorsed or rejected; it's a fact about the world. You may not share someone's tastes, in which sense you might disagree with their claim that Kiss Destroyer was better than Fleetwood Mac Rumours, but you cannot disagree with the fact that they prefer Kiss. No, you don't disagree with someone's lifestyle: you disapprove.
     I can understand why Pastor Warren chose "disagree", however. It's softer, less judgmental. But for that reason it is dishonest, because judging is precisely what you're doing when you say you "disagree" with someone's lifestyle. You're not just saying you yourself would make different choices based on your own different preferences; you're saying that they ought to choose as you would.
     Now, Christians, like most people, don't want to appear judgmental, but it's particularly a big deal when Matthew 7:1 says "Judge not, lest ye be judged." But to be realistic, we're always making judgments about choices other people make, and indeed in many cases we have a moral obligation to do so. We are smarter when we apply our brains together; if you think I'm making a mistake, you may well be doing me a favour by calling it to my attention.
     There's much more to it than that, of course, but the basic point is that we can and do and sometimes even should apply our own judgment to other people's choices. And if we're going to do so, we should at least be honest about what we're doing.

     You could argue, I suppose, that no, they really don't disapprove of someone's lifestyle, they just disagree about it. And sure, that could be the case, but for the rest of the argument. If I disagree with your belief that maple walnut tastes better then espresso swirl, we can happily coexist eating different flavours of ice-cream, and the very idea that I would hate or fear you for such a disagreement is too preposterous to be the huge lie accepted by our culture. It's only plausible that I'd hate or fear you if I in some sense disapproved of your preference, if I thought you were doing something wrong instead of merely enjoying something that had no appeal to me. And that is where conviction comes into it.
     "Conviction" is a word we sometimes use to insulate our beliefs from scrutiny, to signal a presumptively virtuous inflexibility. We fancy it an unforgiveable weakness to compromise one's convictions. And sure, there might be some big-picture generalities that it's appropriate to treat this way: that other minds exist, that morality matters, that the Truth is something we should seek to know. But the practical, contingent questions: Who else has a mind? What does morality actually demand? What is the Truth? Forming convictions about these questions is at best premature, and at worst a guarantee one will never adequately consider possible answers to them.

     In general, I don't think there is a meaningful distinction between one's "convictions" and one's opinions generally. And ultimately, that's what I object to about Pastor Warren's quote: it creates an artificial distinction between beliefs, and one that is deeply biased in favour of the judgmental. They have a "lifestyle" that we disagree with, but we have "convictions". Someone's gay? Well, hey, that's just a lifestyle; they can compromise that, if they come around and see the light. But "disagreeing" with that "lifestyle" is somehow elevated to the level of conviction, something that mustn't be compromised.

     I call nonsense. You can't have it both ways. If you're disagreeing with someone's lifestyle, then that's really all you're doing. You're not "sticking to your convictions"; you're just privileging your opinion over theirs. Offer your criticism if you must, but don't pretend it's some noble display of moral strength and commitment to your conviction; it's one person sharing a different perspective. Alternatively, if you want to insist you're acting from conviction, then recognize that it's not up to you to determine what is included in someone else's conviction; what you see as a mere "lifestyle choice" may well be their steadfast, principled stand on conviction.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Constitutional Liberty and Marijuana

     I have recently been pondering the obstacles in the path to legalization of marijuana, and in particular the fact that Canada and the United States are both signatories to international treaties such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 which oblige them to treat cannabis as proscribed substances. In other words, it's not simply a matter of repealing national laws; countries are also bound by international law, which isn't subject to a simple vote in Parliament or Congress.

     An argument occurred to me the other day, though: what if it turns out that the laws criminalizing marijuana are themselves unconstitutional? Can international treaties override national constitutions? I reflected for only a moment before realizing: no, of course they can't. The authority of Canada's government derives entirely from the Constitution Act; the government be obliged by treaty to exercise a power it does not have.
     (But the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs predates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by 21 years; at the time of the Convention, did Parliament have the authority to enact these laws, you may ask? Well, sure. But plenty of laws which were perfectly constitutional when they were passed have been struck down or modified by the appearance of the Charter, so that's not necessarily an issue. It might be a bit more of a problem internationally, if it is felt that any time a country wants out of a treaty it can just amend its constitution, but not all countries can easily do that; both Canada and the U.S. have enormous political and procedural obstacles to any amendment.)

     So I went to look it up. Not surprisingly, the constitutionality of marijuana laws has been addressed by Canadian courts, most directly in a pair of related Supreme Court cases called R. v. Malmo-Levine; R. v. Caine. And I have to say, I'm actually rather disappointed in the court's discussion of the s.7 Charter right to liberty, because they come so very close to getting it right.
     They talk about the sort of thing that s.7 is meant to protect, and end up speaking of "the right to an irreduceable sphere of personal autonomy wherein individuals may make inherently private choices free from state interference." And I think this is a fine way to speak of liberty, except that they then go on to say "the Constitution cannot be stretched to afford protection to whatever activity an individual chooses to defined as central to his or her lifestyle".

     But I suggest that this is exactly what liberty is all about: the autonomy to defined for oneself what  activities or choices matter. The precise minutiae of what one chooses are not the subject of liberty; liberty exists when one is free to choose. In concluding that "[t]here is no free-standing constitutional right to smoke pot for recreational purposes", the court echoes the American case of Bowers v. Hardwick in which Justice Byron White infamously denied "a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy".
     Of course there is no such specific right. There is also no constitutional right to eat ice cream or mow your lawn or pick your nose or to wear a sombrero while taking a shower. Very, very few of the specific ways we can exercise our liberty are articulated as specific rights, and those usually show up elsewhere in the Charter or the U.S. Bill of Rights: Freedom of speech, the press, religion, assembly, etc. But this is just what liberty means: that you are the one who decides how you spend your limited time on this planet.
     I often say that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an improvement over the U.S. Bill of Rights in some ways, which it ought to be since we've had a couple of centuries to watch how the latter gets into trouble. In particular, I think that the unambiguous and absolutist text of the Bill of Rights creates unnecessary conflict. The 1st Amendment states that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, which sounds terrific until you realize that Congress kind of has to be able to abridge some freedom of speech. But in the U.S. they tend to get around this by pretending that some forms of speech aren't really speech. Fighting words, for example, or obscenity, are excluded by a kind of fiction that real speech says something "worthwhile". In Canada, however, we have s.1 of the Charter, which guarantees the rights of the Charter "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." So, instead of pretending that, for example, a law against uttering death threats doesn't violate "real" speech, we just admit it: Yeah, you bet we're going to violate your freedom of speech, but we have to if we're going to maintain a free and democratic society. And we have the Oakes test, a four-part inquiry that courts use to decide whether or not a violation of a Charter right is in fact justified in a free and democratic society. (This is why I was disappointed with the Court's finding that there is no charter right to recreational marijuana; such an answer might have been appropriate in the U.S., where they don't have an equivalent to our s.1, but here there's really no excuse.)
     Perhaps the court fears that if it were to recognize that every law infringes on liberty, every law anyone found inconvenient would suddenly be challenged as unconstitutional.  I do not believe this is likely, because there already exist legal principles to exclude most such litigation. Most statutes and regulations, after all, are not the wholesale imposition of limits on our freedom generally, but rather policy choices on which way our freedom (which would be unavoidably limited in any event) is to be limited. For example, in practice, even in the absence of official state regulation, a convention would almost certainly emerge as to which side of the road people would habitually drive, so as to avoid collisions; passing a law that formalizes a standard and makes it universal is not so much The Man telling us what we can and can't do, but Parliament codifying what is essentially a private tort right. Along similar lines, the Crown is obliged to make rules governing the effective stewardship of our collectively owned and managed assets; it is clear that our individual liberty to manage some of these things would be impractical to the point of impossibility if we were to try to subdivide them, so any complaints about an infringement of liberty by such laws can be dismissed by pointing to the fact that one still has a democratic (and arguably more effective) way to exercise the liberty that is putatively infringed.

     But yes, there will be some laws that actually are challenged on precisely this liberty basis, laws like the prohibition on recreational marijuana, or indeed on homosexual acts. And to that I say, that is exactly the sort of case in which infringements on liberty ought to be justified under s.1. If you pass a law that infringes someone's liberty to engage in some activity or other for no apparent reason other than that a majority of the population disapproves of it, well, then, yes you do need to provide your s.1 justification! That's kind of the whole point.
     Now, in Malmo-Levine, the court only went so far as to establish that, since some people are harmed by the use of marijuana, it is open to Parliament to decide how to deal with that harm, and prohibiting its possession for recreational use is a valid option. That's not necessarily wrong, so far as it goes. But I do rather wish that, instead of simply concluding that there is no s.7 liberty interest at stake, they recognized that yeah, the law actually does violate liberty, and proceeded to the s.1 analysis.

     I'm not going to do a full application of the Oakes test here, just a cursory run-through to give you the idea of how it works. If it were actually before a real court, they might well weight factors differently and have different evidence, so this is not an actual legal opinion on whether or not the Canadian prohibition on recreational marijuana is unconstitutional. Disclaimers apply.

     The Oakes test asks first: Is the impugned law aimed at a pressing and substantial objective? That is, if you're going to violate a Charter right, you'd better have a pretty good reason, and not just any reason will do. Remember that s.1 requires that an infringment be justified in the context of a free and democratic society, so that pressing and substantial objective should be understood in that context. In Malmo-Levine, the court assumed that the purpose of marijuana laws was to prevent harm to both users of marijuana and innocent passers-by who might be put at risk by stoners losing control. Admittedly, our perceptions of what marijuana does to people have changed a lot since Reefer Madness, but arguably protecting people from dangerous drugs would qualify as a pressing and substantial objective.
     The next step is to ask if there is a rational connection between the impugned law and the objective. It's not enough to scream "Dear God, won't someone think of the children!" if you can't establish that your law might somehow plausibly actually protect the children. On the face of it, banning a dangerous drug does seem rationally connected to the goal of protecting people from it, so the law might well pass this step, too. Except, of course, that our perceptions of the effects of marijuana have changed considerably, to the point where we might meaningfully ask "Yeah, I agree we need to protect people from dangerous drugs, but how does banning a non-dangerous drug like marijuana actually help with this?"
     The third step of the Oakes test is mimimal intrusiveness: Okay, given that we may actually need to violate a Charter right to achieve the pressing and substantial objective, does the law here violate that right more than it has to? Is there an obvious way we could reduce the infringement and still achieve the objective? In the case of marijuana, we might notice that the people at greatest risk of harm from the drug are adolescents and young adults, whose brains are still developing, and argue that we could protect such people just as effectively by putting age limits on the prohibition, rather than just banning it wholesale. We do this with alcohol already. So perhaps the current law might not actually pass the minimal intrusiveness test.
     Finally, the last step is the proportionality test: Even if we're rationally trying to address a pressing and substantial objective by the least intrusive means possible, are we still doing more harm than good? That is, is the amount of harm we're preventing by the impugned law worth the sacrifice in liberty? And here, I think, is where not just marijuana laws but the entire War on Drugs runs into profound difficulty, because the harm done there is staggering, in part because it suffers from its own addictive feedback loop.

     Still, my purpose in this post isn't really to argue that marijuana should be decriminalized. It's rather to suggest that the courts ought to take seriously this idea that s.7 protects liberty generally, and it is not for the courts to decide which exercise of personal autonomy counts as important enough to warrant protection; the mere fact that a law cuts off an option that a person would otherwise have been able to exercise should be enough to engage the Charter right to liberty. In most cases, the law will easily survive the s.1 analysis, but if it doesn't, shouldn't it actually be struck down anyway?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

More Pseudolegal Nonsense that drives me insane

     I've received this image in my Facebook feed a few times now, so it's passed my unofficial threshhold for debunking it on my blog.

The text reads (for the benefit of the search engines):

"Well officer... a crime requires an injured party. Seeing as there isn't one, I can assume you're attempting to manufacture my consent to a contract with the state's corporate policy in order to generate revenue as part of a racketeering scam."

     There is just so, so much wrong in this to address, but the first thing I want to point out is the smug smarty-pants big words tactic, to make it sound like the author knows what she's talking about. Now, I have no problem with people using big words. But here's the key to effective, honest writing: only use words that help you to be understood by your reader. Big words can do that, if you're writing for an audience who actually understands those words and the big words are clearer or more precise than simple common words, but if they have to be used correctly. 
     Take, for example, the phrase "manufacture my consent". That will probably ring a few bells as people recognize the title of a book by Noam Chomsky. Oooh, how learned and erudite this person must be, citing Chomsky! Except that Chomsky's book was about the role of mass media as a propaganda institution; this is a traffic stop, a one-on-one interaction between a police officer and a driver that has nothing to do at all with mass media. Ironically, the meme itself is much closer to an instance of propaganda.
     This is a clear sign that the smartass driver in the meme really doesn't actually know what these words mean, and is using them more for their authoritative sound than for any actual attempt at explanation.

     So here's what some of the words actually do mean. 

     Crime: Actually, crime does not require "an injured party". You're thinking of a tort. Tort law is concerned with correcting private wrongs, where a defendant's misdeed causes some kind of harm to a plaintiff. Notably, the police will usually not pull you over for committing a tort; it's up to the injured party to sue you to recover damages. And in tort, it's all about compensation, not punishment; the plaintiff shouldn't be the one to pay the price for the defendant's actions. 
     Crime doesn't actually require an injured party, at least not in the way we usually think of a plaintiff. This is pretty obvious when you consider the crime of murder: a dead person cannot sue, because, well, dead. At law, a dead person is not a person at all, and has no interests. (Their family can sue in tort for loss of their loved one, but that's separate from the crime of murder.) When someone commits a crime, they offend against the Sovereign, the King's Peace, the law of the land. That's why criminal cases are prosecuted by the Crown in Canada and the U.K. as Regina vs. Allegedbadguy ("Regina" being Latin for "Queen"), or by The People in the U.S. And the purpose of prosecuting crime is not to compensate Her Majesty for the loss to her sovereign dignity, but to punish you, to deter you and others from disregarding your duty to obey the law. 
     Now, traffic regulations are what we call quasi-criminal law. That is, you don't usually get a criminal record for just going over the speed limit or failing to signal a lane change, and they tend to be punished with fines instead of jail terms, but they are based on the same legal principle: the state can pass laws regulating what you can and can't do, and can punish you if you break those rules. I've written before about traffic regulations and why they're justified, so I'll not rehash that here. But the point here is this: yes they absolutely can and indeed should enforce the law even if there is no "victim".

     Consent/Contract: To consent is to agree, which is vital for a contract to have any legal effect; that's why it's traditional to sign contracts, to signify that one agreed to be bound by the exchange of promises. In the present context it's not clear what consent has to do with anything, because traffic laws are not based on consent. (Well, they sort of are, insofar as democratic governments pass laws on the authority given them by the people in elections, which means that collectively we have consented to those laws, but unlike a contract, laws passed by the legislature do not require your individual consent for you to be legally bound by them. Another reason why you should vote; those laws are going to bind you whether you like it or not, so you might as well try to have some influence over how they're made.)
     In fact, the term "consent" is here being used as part of the pseudo-legal nonsense spouted by Sovereign Citizen types, in which all government power boils down to semi-magical contracts that can be dispelled with the right incantation of disbelief. They're just ridiculously wrong about that.
     And how the hell can you have "a contract with the state's corporate policy"? I mean, a contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties based on an exchange of promises; the state can be a party to a contract, but not the state's "corporate policy". Could you enter into a contract with my fear of mushrooms, or the Coca Cola Company's annual report? These things are the preferences or desires of persons, but not persons. Talk about "consenting to" such things is just incoherent nonsense.
     In any event, the issue of consent is irrelevant. Your duty to obey the speed limit, or any other law of general application, does not depend on your agreeing to do so.

     Racketeering Scam: This part, actually, is sometimes true, but in a way that undermines the whole argument. You see, a racket is when you use an otherwise legitimate transaction as a cover for extortion or embezzlement. For example, in a protection racket, you might record on your books expenses for "security" or "consulting" or "friendship association dues", but what you're really paying for is the privilege of not having your business burned down. What's key is that the cover transaction is prima facie legitimate.
     There is no question that traffic enforcement is sometimes the basis for a racket. Cities like Ferguson, Missouri, have infamously become dependent upon fines instead of taxes for revenue, which creates perverse incentives for law enforcement. (Hint: A perfectly successful enforcement program results in nobody being arrested at all, because nobody breaks the law. Every arrest is, at best, a partial failure. When you measure your success by the raw number of arrests, you're doing it wrong.) These situations are often the result of an attempt to lower taxes, which is popular among property owners and the wealthy because it shifts the burden onto other people, usually people with less green in their wallets and more brown in their complexions. 
     But as bogus as these schemes are, it's important to note that the cover transaction, a fine, is in principle a perfectly legitimate arrangement. Although the enforcement regime may be corrupt and fraudulent, they are still trying to pass it off under a legitimate cover, because while there may be a fairer and more effective way to calculate fines for traffic violations, traffic regulations are valid, and fines are a valid way to enforce them.

     Look. Nobody likes to get a speeding ticket. I get that. And it's entirely natural to be angry when you get one. But just because you find rules inconvenient doesn't mean they're unfair, and just because some pseudolegal babbling makes you feel vindicated doesn't mean you are.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tactics and Tactfulness: Some Thoughts about Tone Policing

     Okay, I take it back.

     A couple of years ago, I wrote in this post that the argument-from-anger fallacy doesn’t seem to be used outside of the capital punishment debate. Yesterday, however, it was used on me in a discussion about effective rhetorical technique.

     A friend of mine had been involved in a nasty online squabble, and we were talking about how it came to this. When I identified what I thought were some rhetorical missteps, the topic turned to “tone policing”. Tone policing, if you've not heard of it, is an argumentative tactic in which you object to the tone of your opponent and refuse to listen until she calms down or speaks more politely or otherwise complies with your standards of civility.
     Actually, I'm probably being generous with the word "argument"; it's really more of a bickering move. Bickering differs from argument in that the objective is essentially personal: bickering is about being the "winner", while proper argument is more generally concerned with establishing which proposition is more likely to be true. I suppose you could say that bickering is a specialized form of argument for resolving propositions about who's the better bickerer, which about is the only situation in which ad hominem is the whole point and thus not a fallacy.
      One of the things that makes tone-policing such an attractive ploy is that it seems to turn your opponent's own passion against them: if they feel strongly about a matter, you can impeach their credibility by claiming they're "emotional", while simultaneously scoring points portraying yourself as the more calmly rational one. And, it has the added benefit that few things are more infuriating than being told to calm down; not only do you get to disparage their objectivity on the offensive, but they will often lend support to your claim by reacting more angrily. So it can be an effective trap, especially against someone who is prone to anger in the first place

     Of course, I fancy myself a bit of a rhetorician, and so I tend to look down my nose at the techniques of bickering. Outside of that specialized arena, they're really bad habits, and even in that arena, a skilled rhetorician can easily counter them ("Why yes, I am passionate about this issue, as a matter of fact. Aren't you? Why not?"). And so I'll confess to having been just a wee bit hurt when, in identifying the tactical error that led to the harassment, it was suggested that I was engaging in tone policing and victim-blaming.
     And yet, I can see where the confusion arises, because my critique had been, in part, about how anger was the cause of the tactical error. As my friend put it, it's easy to step back and be rational when you have no skin in the game.
     Yes, it is. Conversely, though, it can be hard to stay rational when you do have skin in the game. And that's why tone policing is such an effective bickering technique. But it's also why it's so important, in rhetoric as in martial arts, to learn how to channel your anger effectively, not to be channeled by it.
     My friend seemed to think I was criticizing the angry escalation as unjustified, as if I was urging politeness and patience, and condemning too forceful a counterattack. To quote the analogy offered: "He had his foot on my neck, your honour, so I stabbed his leg."
     But that wasn't my criticism at all, because it''s not what my friend actually did. Stabbing the leg of the person standing on your neck is a perfectly valid move, and not an overreaction at all, but it takes a certain presence of mind to reach down to your belt, draw your knife, and strike effectively. No, what my friend did was essentially to scream with rage and flail around with much sound and fury but doing virtually no real damage, while leaving the foot firmly in place.

     Or not, actually, because the opponent had not actually succeeded in placing foot to neck, either. Yes, it might have been an infuriatingly offensive racist or sexist claim that, because it is widely accepted, does great harm and should not go unchallenged, but it was a straw on the back, not a boot on the neck. And while a ton of straws can immobilize you just as brutally as a well-placed boot, in the context of an online argument, they might as well be on someone else's back; your freedom of movement to respond however you like is not compromised at all.
     This is the other way in which bickering and disciplined rhetoric differ.  In bickering, the victor is usually the one who goes away smugly triumphant, while the loser is left angry and humiliated. If I fling an insult at you, and it makes you angry, that's actually a way of scoring points in bickering, and the angrier I make you, the more it's worth. And so in a bickering contest, an additional straw on the back can be a tremendously efficient attack, because it can draw on the weight of all the other straws already there to make you so much angrier.
     But in disciplined rhetoric, you're trying to present ideas that your audience (ideally including your opponent) will feel obliged to accept. This requires tact. It's not about being polite as such, but about deftly maneuvering the point of your argument past your opponent's defences so that it can strike the conscience effectively. And chief among the defences you want to get past is anger: you must avoid using arguments that directly draw the anger of your opponent (except perhaps as a feint).
     That sounds paradoxical, so think about it from the other side. When your opponent says something that makes you angry, think about why that is. Almost always, it's because something about it is wrong in some way. Perhaps it makes you angry because what he says is unfair, or untrue, or unsound. (If it makes you angry because it is true, then you should probably concede defeat, or at least retreat to reconsider your position.) And when your opponent says something unfair, untrue, or unsound, that is where to strike. And you strike not by emphasizing how angry it makes you (remember, nobody cares what you think), but by laying bare exactly how it is wrong, so that your audience and even your opponent are forced by their own faculties to reject it. Angrily, even.

     The point, then, is not that you shouldn't be angry in argument; on the contrary, anger is a vital part of the rhetorician's instincts and skills. Moreover, if it's not something that gets you angry on some level, it's not worth arguing about. Rather, the point is to learn to cultivate and refine your sense of anger, so that you may use it effectively. To the extent that rudeness offers an excuse not to listen, yes, tact is necessary, but do not mistake this for meek politeness; it is not about asking them nicely to agree with you because you said please, but about maneuvering past their defences with ruthless precision so that the full force of your logical argument will strike home.
     This is not tone policing. In fact, it's the key to defeat someone who attempts to tone-police you. Why does it make us angry when someone tells us to calm down and be polite? Because it's all kinds of hypocritical. Focus in on that hypocrisy, and bring it out for all to see just how ridiculous or infuriating or contemptible it really is. ("Really? You're so upset by my being upset that you can't listen to what I'm upset about?") By all means, let your anger show enough to give context and to make your argument relatable, but do not let your anger be the argument.
     When you do that, you're likely to fall into the trap of thinking greater anger makes for greater argument, but the very angriest people are often the most wrong.