Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.

Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part III: Is the U.S. Denmark?

The Americans who call themselves “socialists,” do not, by and large, think in terms of government ownership of the means of production. Their frequent muted and truncated references to Sweden and Denmark indicate instead that they long for a high guarantees, high services state, with correspondingly high taxation (at least, for the more realistic among them).

When I try to understand the quasi-programmatics of the American left today, I find several axes: End Time-ism, a penchant for demanding that one’s collective guilt be dramatically exhibited; old-style pacifism (to an extent), a furious envy and resentment of the successful; indifference to hard facts, a requirement to be taken care of in all phases of life; a belief in the virtuousness and efficacy of government that is immune to all proof, demonstration, and experience. All this is often backed by a vigorous hatred of “corporations,” though I guess that not one in ten “progressives” could explain what a corporation is (except those with a law degree and they often misuse the term in their public utterances).

I am concerned that the last three features – nonchalance about facts, the wish to be cared for, and belief in government – are being woven together by the American left (vaguely defined) into what looks like a feasible project. I think that’s what they mean when they mention “democratic socialism.” The proponents seem to know no history. They are quick to dismiss the Soviet Union, currently foundering Venezuela, and even scrawny Cuba, as utterly irrelevant (though they retain a soft spot for the latter). And truly, those are not good examples of the fusion of socialism and democracy (because the latter ingredient was and is lacking). When challenged, again, American proponents of socialism refer vaguely to Sweden and to Denmark, about which they also seem to know little. (Incidentally, I personally think both countries are good societies.)

The wrong models of democratic socialism

Neither Sweden nor Denmark, however, is a good model for an eventual American democratic socialism. For one thing, the vituperative hatred of corporations on the American left blocks the path of economic growth plus re-distribution that has been theirs. In those two countries, capitalism is, in fact, thriving. (Think Ikea and Legos). Accordingly, both Sweden and Denmark have moderate corporate tax rates of 22% (same as the new Trump rate), higher than the German rate of only 16%, but much lower than the French rate of 34%.

The two countries pay for their generous welfare state in two intimately related ways. First, their populace agrees to high personal income taxes. The highest marginal rates are 60+% in Denmark and 57+% in Sweden. (It’s 46% currently in the US.) The Danes and the Swedes agree to such high rates for two reasons. For one thing, these rates are applied in a comparatively flat manner. Everyone pays high taxes; the rich are not publicly victimized. This is perceived as fair (though possibly destructive to economic growth). For another thing, their governments deliver superb social services in return for the high taxes paid.

This is the second way in which Danes and Swedes pay for their so-called “socialism” (actually welfare for all): They trust their government and the associated civil services. They generally don’t think of either as corrupt, or incompetent, as many, or at least a large minority of Americans do. As an American, I think of this trust as a price to pay. (I am not thinking of gross or bloody dictatorship here but more of routine time-wasting, exasperating visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles.) The Danes and the Swedes, with a different modern experience, do not share this revulsion or this skepticism.

Denmark and Sweden are both small countries, with populations of fewer than six million and about ten million, respectively. This means that the average citizen is not much separated from government. This short power distance works both ways. It’s one reason why government is trusted. It makes it relatively easy for citizens’ concerns to reach the upper levels of government without being distorted or abstracted. (5) The closeness also must make it difficult for government broadly defined to ignore citizens’ preoccupations. Both counties are, or were until recently, quite homogeneous. I used to be personally skeptical of the relevance of this matter, but Social-Democrat Danes have told me that sharing with those who look and sound less and less like your cousins becomes increasingly objectionable over time.

In summary, it seems to me that if the American left – with its hatred of corporations – tries to construct a Denmark in the US, it’s likely to end up instead with a version of its dream more appropriate for a large, heterogeneous county, where government moreover carries a significant defense burden and drains ever more of the resources of society. The French government’s 55% take of GDP is worth remembering here because it’s a measure of the slow strangling of civil society, including in its tiny embodiments such as frequenting cafés. In other words, American democratic socialists will likely end up with a version of economically stuck, rigid, disappointing France. It will be a poor version of France because a “socialist” USA would not have a ready-made, honest, elite corps of administrators largely sharing their view of the good society, such as ENA, that made the unworkable work for a good many years. And, of course, the quality of American restaurant fare would remain the same. The superior French gourmet experience came about and is nurtured precisely by sectors of the economy that stayed out of the reach of statism.

Poverty under democratic socialism is not like the old condition of shivering naked under rain, snow, and hail; it’s more like wearing clothes that are three sizes too small. It smothers you slowly until it’s too late to do anything.


(5) When there are multiple levels of separation between the rulers and the ruled, the latter’s infinitely variegated needs and desires have to be gathered into a limited number of categories before being sent up to the rulers for an eventual response. That is, a process of generalization, of abstraction intervenes which does not exist when, for example, the apprentice tells his master, “I am hungry.”

[Editor’s note: Part I can be found here, Part II here, and the entire, longform essay can be read in its entirety here.]

From the Comments: Israel and Palestine

Irfan and Jacques are going the rounds on Israel and Palestine (Canaan?). The dialogue, so far, is excellent. Jacques started things off and Dr Khawaja responded with this fine piece of pop-ethnography:

I just spent three weeks in Jerusalem, about a hundred yards from the scene of the action Jacques describes in this post, and spent hours observing the events Jacques describes (and many he doesn’t describe) at first hand. I described this post on Facebook as “factually challenged,” and promised to set it straight. So here I am. (A different version of this comment included about a dozen links substantiating my claims, but the post didn’t go through that way, so I’ll send the links separately.)

I had originally wanted to divide my post into two sections, first laying lay out the number of sheer inaccuracies Jacques has crammed into this post, and then identifying what I would call handwaving claims–large claims made without substantiation, or misleading claims made without clarification. It turns out to be impossible to do this, because Jacques has managed to combine inaccuracy with handwaving in a way that makes it impossible to disentangle the two. In any case, my claim is that when we add the sheer inaccuracies to the handwaving in his post, a rational reader would conclude that the post tells us nothing of value about recent events in Jerusalem.

1. Jacques tells us that there were violent riots in Jerusalem. Correct. He doesn’t mention that despite the outbreaks of violence, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Nor does he venture to tell us who started the violence, or under what circumstances. The word “riot” seems to imply a series of violent disturbances caused or initiated by rioters, but alas, one word can’t stand in for real-world observation of what actually happened. Nothing in Jacques’s account settles the crucial issue: who started the violence?

I have read almost all of the press coverage on recent events in Jerusalem, and saw the events themselves up close–at a few yards’ distance, for hours, in real time. I can’t easily summarize what I saw. There were at least four different demonstrations taking place simultaneously, within a few “blocks” of each other, and different things happened at different places at different times. On some occasions, I saw Israeli police officers either initiating or provoking violence. In other cases, Palestinians did so. There are also questions worth asking about what counts as an initiation of force under these circumstances. Typically, pointing a gun at someone without cause is regarded as a form of assault. But Israeli police officers and soldiers do this all the time. An Israeli border police officer played chicken with me with her M-16 for no reason other than her amusement. If I’d been armed and shot her, would my shooting have been an initiation or a retaliation? Nothing in Jacques’s account settles or even deals with this, but one can’t understand events in Jerusalem without settling issues like this.

Suffice it to say that the press coverage of relevant events, especially the American press coverage, was either non-existent or extremely defective. It is very easy to claim that what took place in Jerusalem consisted of riots if all you do is wait for violence to break out, film it, and then declare that “the event” you just covered was a “riot.” It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that that’s what really happened. And I can assert, categorically, that it wasn’t. In short, there is a lot more to the story than “riots.” For a starters, there were all those events that took place when no one was rioting.

(I’ve discussed some of the micro-level issues involved here on Facebook, some on public and some on private settings.)

2. Jacques tells us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control. He doesn’t mention that “Jerusalem” is a moving and expanding target that lacks an eastern boundary, as does the “Israeli control” he mentions. He also neglects to mention that the phrase “under Israeli control” is an equivocal claim: Shuafat refugee camp is technically within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, but it is run by the UNRWA; it is not de facto governed by the Jerusalem Municipality or by Israel. Something similar is true of the “Haram Sharif” complex that is the subject of Jacques’ post: it is technically within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality, but (as Jacques himself admits) it is managed or administered by the waqf under the auspices of the Jordanian government. Oddly, having told us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control, and then noting himself that Haram Sharif (in Jerusalem) is administered by Jordan, Jacques fails to draw the obvious inference: sovereignty over Jerusalem is contested, not settled. Israel claims sovereignty over “it,” as do the Palestinians, but claiming sovereignty and having sovereignty are two different things. (Many people have asserted sovereignty over Texas, but it doesn’t follow that their say-so resolves the issue.) I put the word “it” in scare quotes because in calling “it” the “Temple Mount,” Jacques manages to confuse a further set of issues that I’ll discuss below (in [4]).

3. Jacques: “In addition, most Palestinians from the adjacent West Bank are allowed to visit on a controlled basis, for religious purposes only.”

Two problems here. First, does Jacques mean to say that most Palestinians are in fact allowed into Jerusalem? This would imply that 51% or more of West Bank Palestinians are permitted into Jerusalem. I’d like to see a source for that claim. There are roughly 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Jacques’s “most Palestinians” claim implies that something like 1.25 million West Bank Palestinians have entry permits for Jerusalem, which strikes me as implausible in the extreme. It’s unclear how many permits are in fact given, but the usual figure is in the thousands. Not a representative sample, but: I know a few dozen Palestinian West Bankers; only one of them has an entry permit for Jerusalem. The rest are consigned to remain indefinitely in the West Bank.

In any case, permits are not given “for religious purposes only.” Permits are given for entry into Jerusalem/Israel, full stop. They’re checked at checkpoints into Jerusalem, but not thereafter, and what is checked is simply whether you have a permit or not, and whether you’re carrying contraband or not (unless a given soldier decides to initiate his own “investigation,” which sometimes happens). Once past the checkpoint, there is no mechanism in place to determine whether someone entering Jerusalem is doing so to pray at Al Aqsa or to score chicks on the beaches of Jaffa (or both). Further, permits are given for a variety of reasons, including medical care, family unification, and work. But they are given far more stingily than Jacques’s description would imply.

I raise both points (one favorable to the Palestinians, the other to the Israelis) to raise questions about the sources of Jacques’ information on the subject. His description of facts on the ground is unrecognizable to anyone who’s actually had to deal with those facts, as I have.

4. Jacques: “At the center of the preoccupations of the three monotheistic religions is a place called the Temple Mount.”

This paragraph of Jacques’ repeats the conventional wisdom on the subject, at least in the United States. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom reflects total ignorance of even basic facts of geography, which is hard to convey to those who haven’t been to the place in question.

Let’s start from scratch. The contested location is a big rectangle located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The western end of the rectangle contains what Jews call the Western Wall and its plaza. The eastern part of the rectangle contains a large complex housing the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa mosque, a few auxiliary religious facilities, and a large plaza connecting them. Parts of the rectangle are declared off-limits to civilians by the Israeli authorities.

Jews refer to the *whole* rectangle, including the Muslim shrines, as the “Temple Mount” and claim it (all of it) for their own. Particularly hard core Zionists want to expropriate the Muslims altogether, claim the whole site for their own, destroy the Muslim shrines on it, build a temple on their ruins, and exclude Muslims from entering. Such people have grown increasingly powerful over the years.

Muslims refer to the *eastern part* of the rectangle as “Haram Sharif,” or the Noble Sanctuary, and claim it, in its entirety, for Islam. Hard core Muslims want to exclude Jews from this area altogether.

It is worth noting, however, that not even hard core fundamentalist Muslims wish to expropriate Jews of the Western Wall, much less build a mosque there, despite the fact that the Western Wall Plaza was built on the ruins of the so-called Mughrabi neighborhood–an Arab neighborhood expropriated and destroyed after Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967.

It is also worth noting that though Israel divides the Old City into quarters, including the Jewish and Muslim Quarters, it permits Jewish settlement of the Muslim Quarter, but not the reverse. The “Jewish Quarter” is conveniently defined to include the Western Wall–though its plaza was built on a Muslim neighborhood, and you have to pass through Muslim neighborhoods to reach it–but no mosque within the Jewish Quarter is permitted to operate at all. Nor has “the Muslim Quarter” been re-defined to include the mosques that happen to lie in the “Jewish Quarter.”Indeed, a passerby would have no idea that these mosques are in fact mosques at all: they’re shut down and deliberately being left to fall into decay. The same is true of mosques in Jerusalem but in neighborhoods where Muslim entry would be deemed undesirable, e.g., the mosque of Mary in Ein Kerem.

Finally, Jacques’s claim that Jews are forbidden to enter Haram Sharif, whether on rabbinical or secular grounds, is laughably preposterous: they do it all the time, and are encouraged to. Indeed, the Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim advertises tours that it conducts into Haram Sharif.

Of all of the claims Jacques makes in this post, this last one suggests (with all due respect) that he has no idea what he’s talking about. The whole controversy over the “Temple Mount” arises precisely because Jews ARE allowed into the mosque complex (and take advantage of that right), and Muslims suspect their intentions in doing so. Contrary to what one reads in the American press, these suspicions have a credible basis. Muslims suspect Jewish intentions in Jerusalem because of the example of Jewish settlement activity in Hebron, where apparently innocuous Jewish entry into a religious shrine led, gradually, to the wholesale expropriation and depopulation of the Palestinian neighborhoods of the Old City. Today, Hebron is (for Palestinians) partly an open-air prison and partly a ghost town. The case of Hebron H2 zone has been amply documented. Jacques follows American convention in ignoring this documentation, and proceeding to talk about Jerusalem as though the two things had nothing to do with each other. Jacques also wonders out loud why Muslims would take issue with what he regards as ordinary security measures.

Even setting aside what “ordinary security measures” have done in Hebron (or Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Silwan, or Issawiya), he assumes that the measures would be deployed in good faith. No one who has actually dealt with Israeli police officers or soldiers would believe this. It may not occur to Jacques, but occurs to them, that security measures can be abused so as to treat the people covered by them as playthings. Jacques’s post shows literally zero awareness of a fact known to just about anyone who has dealt with Israeli security: most border police officers and soldiers are bored, immature, and heavily armed but lightly supervised children between the ages of 18-28 who will do just about anything to relieve their boredom–up to and including murder, battery, and torture. The Israelis may talk up a propaganda storm about their security needs, but once one sees what these “needs” look like on the ground, one’s sympathy for them begins to evaporate.

Further, Muslims and Jews do not “pray within a stone’s throw of each other,” whether literally or metaphorically. Though adjacent to the mosque complex, the Western Wall is separated from it by huge stone walls. Entry into the Western Wall plaza is entirely separate from entry into the mosque complex. Informally (the place is heavily policed, and the police often make their own rules), Arabs are discouraged from entering the plaza, and seldom do. Muslims and Jews only come into contact when Jews enter the mosque area, or when Jews walk (or march) through Muslim neighborhoods en route to the Kotel. I have never seen or even heard of a case in which Muslims entered the Western Wall plaza en masse in the way that Jews enter Haram Sharif. Indeed, doing so would be almost physically impossible. (Put it this way: Muslims would have to be very, very determined to do it.)

Contrary to Jacques’s assertion, Christians do visit both the Western Wall Plaza and the mosques. That they visit the Western Wall should be obvious. If you want a pleasant confirmation of Christians visiting the mosques, I’d suggest searching “Visit Al Aqsa Mosque with Me!” on You Tube. You’ll be taken on a delightful tour of the area with a perky Christian Palestinian woman named Maha who can also teach you how to make hummus or say “Merry Christmas” in Arabic. (Her Old City tour also goes to the Western Wall.)

I wonder whether Jacques has gotten his information from the Wikipedia entry on “Temple Mount Entry Restrictions.” Much of what he says dutifully parrots what is said there. That was a mistake, to put it mildly. Wikipedia is often useful, but not here.

5. Jacques mentions the shooting of July 14, and then mentions Israel’s security measures, wondering why they should be thought so controversial. I have a challenge for him. The shooting of July 14 took place outside of the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa complex, not within it. The attackers came from a neighborhood of Um al Fahm, a city about an hour or so to the north of Jerusalem. As should be self-evident, in order to bring weapons near the Temple Mount complex (which is in the Old City), these attackers had to bring those weapons into the Old City itself. The Old City is a walled structure that can only be entered by a series of gates (seven of them). The gates are easily identifiable, easily guarded, and it’s easily possible to put metal detectors in front of each of them.

If security were the paramount consideration Jacques takes it to be, why didn’t the Israeli authorities install the metal detectors at each of the gates of the Old City? Doing so would have prevented the July 14 attack, and would prevent any similar attack. But installing them in front of Al Aqsa would not have prevented the attackers from bringing weapons into the Old City and shooting someone outside of Al Aqsa, correct? Which is exactly what they did. Why then install security measures in front of Al Aqsa rather than at the entrance to the Old City itself? A common sense question for a person who claims to possess it.

6. While I’m posing questions about “common sense” security measures, here is another. After the July 14 shooting, and in advance of any rioting, the Israeli authorities shut down whole neighborhoods of East Jerusalem–something they do as a matter of course in Jerusalemite neighborhoods like Issawiya, and as a matter of course in the West Bank. I got to see these closures in a tediously microscopic way, and could probably write a couple of thousand words on them alone. But just to make things clear: large swatches of Jerusalem as well as the West Bank are under a semi-permanent state of lockdown, a lockdown imposed by the Israelis on its Palestinian population.

Now, remarkable as this information may be, shootings take place in the United States just as they do in Israel. Indeed, on average, a shooting takes place just about every other day in my county, often just a mile or two from where I live. Yet, no one regards it as legitimate to close down whole neighborhoods over any given shooting, or to institute curfews over them–and to do so simply on the basis of the ethnicity of the presumed shooter. To put the matter as simply as I can: a black person may well shoot and kill someone in a nearby neighborhood in north Jersey, but that doesn’t imply that every black neighborhood in the vicinity of the shooting will be locked down and put under curfew as a result. But that is what routinely happens in Arab Jerusalem, and what Jacques appears to be defending as a matter of “common sense.”

Is it, really? If so, why not try it right here in the States? If we did, would it be any surprise that the people locked down might eventually fight back? Would they be wrong to? The undiscussed issue here is what the police can permissibly do, on ethnic grounds, in the name of collective punishment of what it regards as an unruly population. Suffice it to say that it’s not obvious that collective punishment is a legitimate mode of law enforcement.

Jacques refers to Israel as a “garrison state,” treating its Jewish population as the besieged. The claim is utterly preposterous. Israeli Jews not only aren’t besieged in Israel, but generally don’t feel besieged. Spend some time in the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem and ask yourself whether the people around you are operating with a siege mentality. What Jacques seems not to have grasped is that it is not Israeli Jews who are garrisoned by Israel, but its Palestinian Arab population.

A “garrison” is a body of troops stationed to defend a piece of territory. Typically, a garrison defends an “inside” against outsiders. But in this case, the garrison consists of Israeli troops treating insiders as though they were outsiders–and then complaining about the result. Well, that’s the price of creating a sectarian state in a place where a significant part of the population doesn’t belong to your sect. The more I visit Israel, the more I see of Israel; the more I see of it, the less sympathy I have for Israelis and their supporters. And, I might add, the less patience I have for Americans who defend Israel from afar without knowing what things look like on the ground.

And:

the views he expresses on Jerusalem are well within the boundaries of conventional, mainstream American opinion, which is why I took the time to respond to them. Most American defenders of Israel believe most of the things Jacques asserts, and many would go much farther than he has. American discourse on Israel is just wildly skewed, and French as he may be, Jacques’ views are just an instance of that all-American phenomenon.

More here, including links.

In general I am inclined to side, if I must, with Irfan’s argument, but Jacques, as usual, presents a case, in the threads, that can not so easily be dismissed or debunked:

The fact that, in this case, two Palestinians (with Israeli citizenship) tried to assassinate members of Israeli forces counts for nothing, explains nothing [in Irfan’s argument]. Palestinians live under military occupation, have for the longest time. I am sure it’s really unpleasant. It should stop. Stopping it, of course, requires negotiations between rational, motivated people.

Here’s a bunch of stuff at NOL on rationality (or rather, irrationality). And here is Barry’s long, somewhat famous, essay on Israel, Palestine, and rational debate.

From the Comments: What *are* the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

Rick answers my question:

Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

*Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.

Rational ignorance and institutions

I’m grading a question I gave to my class on rational ignorance so I’ve been restating myself repeatedly… and in doing so refining my view on rational ignorance.

Here’s the basic story: an election is forthcoming and we need to decide how we will vote. One possibility is that we follow heuristics (such as “I’m going to vote for the Democrats”). Another is that we delve through all the available information and make a calculated decision based on what we expect will be the outcomes of each candidate’s proposed policies (or what we think their policies actually will be). In a perfect world the median voter would be making a decision on the second basis. But each voter faces an opportunity cost of being more informed. And because a tie is highly unlikely I can cast a ballot I might otherwise regret but I won’t have to worry that it will actually change the outcome of the election.

The outcome is that people vote stupidly. But if that were really the problem it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Yes, people are wasting their votes. But really, we’re not facing a situation where “the truth” is on the ballot. The real problem is that the terms of political competition aren’t what we want them to be. This is still a Prisoners’ Dilemma, but the outcome isn’t “we all accidentally vote for the jackass.” The outcome is “the competition is inescapably between jackasses.”

In a world where rational ignorance were a problem because of the ignorance part political races would still be about a reasoned debate about how to improve the world. But that isn’t what politics is (and it probably never was). Instead it’s about marketing. It’s about grabbing the scarce attention of voters that has little if anything to do with information or anything you can be ignorant about.

In other words, rational ignorance is not an epistemic problem, it’s an institutional problem. It does not simply change the intelligence of the outcome of a vote, it reduces the role of intelligence and rationality in elections. It changes the rules of the game so that a politician’s efforts towards being “right” have little bearing on their success. What really matters is garnering the irrational support of voters.

Rational Ignorance, Fairy Dust and Pissing Away the Future: Libertarians are Selfish and Stupid

I’ve been workin’ on a farm out in Utah for the past couple of weeks, so blogging has been slow. I’m trying to save up some cash so I can head back west again. In the mean time, here is an old post I wrote that critiques some of the more juvenile foreign policy arguments of Republicans and Democrats.

FACTS MATTER

Hello all,

I thought I’d take up Dr J’s invitation to write something for his blog. This post is largely inspired by the comments thread from his recent post on bombing Syria (for Syrians’ sake, of course) and his latest post on the supposed differences between conservatives and liberals. Ultimately, my goal is to show you how full of shit everybody that participates on this blog really is.

That won’t be hard to do.

Dr J makes the following, factually correct, observation about Leftists (“liberals”):

Conservatives are well informed about liberal programs because they cannot help but be. Few liberals however avoid being pathetically dependent on gross stereotypes of conservatism as a political doctrine. Few even know that it’s a political doctrine based on a well-defined moral stance.

If there is one thing that Leftists are known for, it is being rationally ignorant: the less you know about your opponent…

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My Latest Op-Ed: “…Libertarians Are Selfish and Stupid”

It’s on foreign policy and the straw men libertarians routinely have to deal with. An excerpt:

If there is one thing that Leftists are known for, it is being rationally ignorant: the less you know about your opponent, the easier it is to dismiss him as a “right-wing nut job,” a “Korporate Klown,” or a “Teabagger.” The less you know about your opponent, the easier it becomes to swallow the fall of the Berlin Wall and the stagflation of the 1970s. The less you know about your opponent, the easier it is to forgive Barack Obama for his trespasses (see also this post by an economist, Bryan Caplan, on Leftist ignorance of conservative and libertarian arguments).

Conservatives are indeed more well-informed about Leftist programs and Leftist thought, but this is hardly something to be proud of. Being proud of such a fact is like Cuba being proud about the fact that it is not considered to be the worst violator of human rights in the world.

Read the rest. It’s on Dr Delacroix’s “other” blog. I’ve got a new one coming out either today or tomorrow, so be sure to check in more often and watch the fireworks.

Hopefully nobody is getting too tired of the NOL’s foreign policy focus lately…