Language Myths

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994). It was interesting but also set a personal record for Most Frustrating Book I’ve Ever Heard. Let’s break down some of the myths he presents.

Myth #1: Children are better at learning languages than adults are.

This strikes me as an utterly stupid and ridiculous claim. But I get why people think it’s true. First, we need to understand something. One of the essential ingredients for any scientific analysis is a control group. You need to compare things before you can make grand claims about what causes what. For example, if you grow some plants and applaud them each day, you can’t conclude that clapping helps plants grow. You need to grow a similar group of plants which you DON’T applaud each day and then COMPARE the two groups. If you find no difference in their growth, you will in fact conclude that the clapping did nothing. If the results go against what you were hoping for, that doesn’t make the experiment “inconclusive”. All proper experiments have conclusions, whether they make you happy or not.

So why do people think kids learn language better than adults? Well, practically all children learn to speak and later to read and write. It’s a natural, effortless process (meaning the effort is forgotten later in life) which pretty much everyone goes through. But any adult who has tried to learn a foreign language knows how challenging it can be. The grammar can seem alien and confusing, there are so many words to learn, native speakers say words way too rapidly, it’s hard to lose your accent, some sounds are difficult to produce or distinguish between and so on. So surely that settles it! Adults can’t learn language as well as kids. Case closed.

However, is it a fair comparison? Here’s what you’d have to do to properly test the claim. Take John Smith, who’s lived in Australia his whole life. He knows no German. We offer to pay his salary for the next 5 years and send him to Germany. He stays with a family and is completely immersed in the German language for the next 5 years. Everyone is patient with him and he receives enthusiastic applause for simple tasks like reciting the alphabet, counting to ten, spelling 3-letter words and using multi-syllabic words. They find him cute and give constant feedback whether they realise it or not – he says something a little wrong and they say it back to him properly. The question is this: after 5 years, who would be a more capable German speaker out of John Smith and a native German 5-year-old?

I have a feeling this experiment has never been carried out. Consider the reality when someone tries to learn a foreign language. They brag about spending a full hour every day studying, listening to recordings, browsing a dictionary and completing online quizzes. Note than 1 hour of German each day means perhaps 10 or more hours of English. Children spend the entire day solely on the language they’re learning. Also, people who try to learn foreign languages use many different methods. Many of them are not effective. That reflects on the methods, not on the adult’s capacity to learn. Also, most adults are working and have many other life commitments. Children’s lives are full of play, exploration and constant feedback and attention when they’re learning to speak.

Pinker mentions how children’s brains grow as they learn language. This doesn’t prove anything. There are plenty of adults who successfully learn foreign languages or other new skills. I learned to skateboard in my late 20s. So adult brains can learn, as can infant ones. And adults who struggle to learn are most likely grown-up versions of kids who struggled to learn. Also, adult brains have a lot of built-up knowledge as well as the capacity to grapple with abstract concepts, think of multiple things at once and self-reflect to a degree that children can’t typically match.

When children learn, they get bombarded with and make use of hundreds of repetitive phrases of similar or identical structure. “Where’s your nose? Where’s your mouth? Where’s your eye? Where’s your knee?” And so on, with lots of vocabulary practice and new structures being gradually added along the way. But adults stare at conjugation tables and use flashcards with little or no human interaction or feedback. The methods are worlds apart as are the unsurprising results. Using the right methods and full immersion and focus, I’d estimate adults as 10 to 100 times faster at learning languages compared to young children.

Myth #2: Lower class speech is simply a grammatical variant of proper speech.

“Yo, so dis nigga was lookin’ at me, right? An’ I was all like – yo, y’all best step back ’cause I ain’t done nuthin’ wrong, ya feelin’ me?”

If you had to guess, would you say this person is more like to be a university graduate or unemployed? Pinker points out that some grammatical structures in “black English” are consistent. Fine. But is that the ONLY difference between the way such people speak and proper English? Yes, I think there’s such a thing as proper English. The difference in language and accents between American, Australian, Kiwi, Irish, English and Scottish people are one thing. Different vowels, slang words and phrases, spellings, conventions, syllabic emphasis and so on. Most of the broad grammar rules are identical. However, the difference between upper and lower class speech of these various places is a much different phenomenon which I would anticipate is strongly correlated with IQ, income, crime, vocabulary, reading level and so on. For Pinker to dismiss the difference as purely grammatical in nature is narrow-minded and “be some stupid shit right there”.

Myth #3: Endangered languages should be saved.

I completely understand if linguists take an interest in all kinds of languages new and old for inspection and appreciation. But don’t force people to use a dying language and don’t force it to be taught in a classroom. Economics is the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses (as Thomas Sowell reiterates time and again in Basic Economics (2000)). Every ounce of energy spent speaking a dying language is energy that could have been spent speaking a living or growing language. Let people use languages in whatever ways most benefit them. If nobody is speaking a language, it simply indicates that it has become redundant, no longer as useful or efficient as the alternatives available. Scientists are welcome to preserve some language somehow but only at their expense. If the costs of preserving it exceed the benefits to be gained from its preservation, that’s simply a message from reality to let it go and move on to more worthwhile endeavours. Similarly, we don’t force people to keep using floppy disks although individuals are welcome to preserve them in some way if they choose to.

Myth #4: A Martian would conclude that all humans speak the same language.

This is too vague to mean anything. It’s similar to perfection. Depending on your definition, either everything’s perfect or nothing is. And with empathy as well. If a woman says “well, as a woman, I think we should do this”, she’s implying that she has some kind of special insight that a man would be incapable of producing independently. But this line of reasoning can only really lead to two possible conclusions. I have blue eyes. Do I speak on behalf of blue-eyed people? And can 31-year-olds understand what it’s like to be 32? Either everyone is sufficiently different to have no idea what anybody else is going through or everyone can empathise with everyone else. Of course, there may be varying degrees of connection and empathy, but there are no clear-cut barriers.

So it is with language. If you’re vague enough then yes, all languages are one and the same. If you’re strict enough, a husband and wife speak different languages since she knows 30 more words and he has slightly better diction. It’s a shame to throw away all the subtleties of overall patterns between languages with this blanket generalisation. And Pinker doesn’t even clarify his definition of language. Surely the ability to communicate back-and-forth is key. In which case, French and Japanese are well and truly different. But of course, there are fascinating family trees of languages, just as there are with living things. And the universe itself could be said to use language – the language of maths, science, time and logic.

Human language may not have been consciously designed, but it evolved within a reality of cause-and-effect and the need to survive. We need grammatical consistency to avoid ambiguity. We rush through or combine the sounds of common words and phrases for convenience and efficiency. We create words for concepts which are constantly referenced. We steal words from foreigners. We make alphabets so that we can spell out words and record our thoughts. We construct complex sentences to express complex ideas, but they usually use simple rules added onto each-other. Earth is full of all kinds of different languages. Of course they have things in common. But many of the deepest connections may have less to do with humans and more to do with the nature of reality itself.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Economics, Language | Leave a comment

Social Darwinism

I am a social Darwinist. How’s that for a controversial start? But let me explain. Perhaps the most famous example of “social Darwinism” is Adolf Hitler and “die Endlösung der Judenfrage” (The Final Solution to the Jewish Question). The Nazis set out to kill all the Jews as well as many other groups they saw as being inferior (they used the term Untermensch, meaning subhuman). This was the holocaust which took over 6 million Jewish lives (civilian men, women and children) during World War II. But this has nothing to do with Darwinism. It is genocide and it is deplorable, evil and sickening.

We need to first understand Darwinism which means understanding the theory of evolution. It’s actually a very tame concept but is nevertheless widely misunderstood. One of the core ideas is that there is no central planner or conscious being overlooking or directing the process. Hence why some religious groups feel greatly threatened by the theory – it directly contradicts their explanation that God created everything, say, six thousand years ago. But importantly, it doesn’t contradict the existence of God himself. Science tells us about the real world, not what values we should have or how to live our life. On the other hand, religion can offer a philosophy of life, a set of values or beliefs to carry, but it cannot tell us about the real world. More on that another time…

The main thrust of Darwin’s theory consists of two complementary processes: 1) random variation and 2) non-random survival and reproduction.

The first simply means that small random changes from the norm can and do occur. We call these mutations. With modern science we can explain these as being due to slight alterations to genetic code, some being caused by cosmic rays but many by more mundane things like errors in copying. Most mutations will tend to be either harmless or harmful since most changes to a finely tuned machine tend to make it worse. But some small percentage of mutations may be helpful in some way. This brings us to the second process.

In the real world, not all living things have an equal chance of surviving and reproducing. Certain attributes will tend to be more useful depending on the surrounding environment, including climate and other living things. In animals, these can include speed, strength, tough skin, sharp teeth and claws, stealth, sensitive hearing, camouflage, good eye sight, wings, fins, fertility, sexual attractiveness, resistance to disease, SONAR, intelligence and many other things. You may have noticed that several of those qualities form competitive opposing pairs that become pronounced in predator/prey arms races. Also, many important attributes may be internal, for example the size and efficiency of various organs. Cows have 4 stomachs but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.

Also, these qualities usually involve trade-offs. Speed may require stronger muscles meaning a bigger diet or one that includes more protein. Any special attention to one part of the body will tend to draw attention away from others. A stronger heart may come at the price of weaker legs, a larger body may come at the price of less oxygen per cell. These are more exaggerated trade-offs but the point is that there’s no free lunch. In humans, the brain uses about 20% of the body’s total energy – that’s the cost of intelligence and part of why we’re relatively physically unimpressive compared to many other animals. That’s also why we don’t see super animals, like a dragon, pegasus or Mary Poppins, with practically perfect versions of everything.

So mutations give a species random variations, most of which are useless and tend to quickly disappear. But some give better chances of survival and hence tend to get passed on. The word “tend” is a key word here. Some “strong” individuals may die nevertheless and not pass on their useful mutations. “Weak” individuals may survive and produce many offspring with less useful mutations. But the general TENDENCY will be for the useful qualities to be passed on and spread through the population over generations. Combine a tendency with a long period of time and you can get incredible change. It must be emphasised that none of this change is planned in advance. It has no overarching aim. It isn’t necessarily “progress” unless you simply mean the species is becoming better adapted to its current environment.

It is absolutely amazing that somehow, over thousands of millions of years, life developed on Earth from single-celled organisms to all the living things we can now observe (and the original start remains mysterious to this day with no single unanimously accepted theory). But evolution is a powerful and adequate explanation. Moreover, there is no competing theory that comes close to offering an alternative explanation.

We might ask, are whales better than ants? Well, they’re bigger. But unless you have a clear, objective way to measure “better”, it’s a hard question to answer. Fish are not renowned for their ability to climb trees but they are great swimmers. The bottom line in evolution is survival and in that sense, all living species today have “made it” and that’s an incredible achievement. I might go more into detail about the wonderful world of evolution another time but for now let’s move on to the next thing.

Humans are special. We are the most intelligent species we know of in the universe. We COULD make jokes about how stupid people can be and refer to whichever dumb celebrity everyone’s currently making fun of at the moment. But any serious analysis has to reach the conclusion that other species don’t even come close in intellectual power to homo sapiens. What’s the most intelligent sentence by a chimpanzee using sign-language after years of training? Something like “me food food me give me food now give give food you give food me”. Three-year-olds routinely construct far more complex and grammatically correct sentences. Does that make us better than other animals? Well, moral questions can be tricky. I’d say most people put human life on a higher pedestal than animal life and I think that’s logical. But let’s analyse why.

I think it’s all about consciousness. I think therefore I am. That’s why we don’t feel pangs of guilt when pulling out a weed – we’re pretty confident it doesn’t think or feel. But when we see an animal being abused, we often feel upset – we know or believe that it feels pain. Suffering can only exist when there’s consciousness. That doesn’t mean we can kill someone in their sleep – I’m referring to the overall potential for consciousness, for being self-aware, thinking, feeling and acting (roughly summarised as being alive).

But consciousness isn’t a black-and-white concept. It exists in degrees. We worry a lot more about a human getting crushed to death than an ant because the human is so much more alive to us – they can love, laugh, cry or be a productive member of society. We’re not really indifferent to ants (most would prefer not to kill one) but we recognise that their lives are perhaps not as profound – they probably aren’t self-aware in any real, measurable way. This isn’t just a relative thing, as if we’re biased to our own species, since we clearly care about many animals. Generally, if asked to rank animals in moral value, I think most people will come up with a similar hierarchy roughly based on intelligence (although many cultures and religions do worship random animals).  To be clear, I think all life should be valued, but the point is that we tend to value conscious or self-aware living things more than others.

Humanity lies on a cusp. We are both a part of nature, but also above and beyond it. We are mortals and Gods. One real result of this power of humans has been a new type of evolution – artificial selection. Technically, this might not be counted as part of true evolution by scientific experts. But you might accurately call it a newly adapted version of evolution itself. Now, instead of NATURE culling the weak (so to speak), HUMANS decide which individuals reproduce while strongly influencing their environment as well. In essence, we can consciously select which qualities get passed on and which do not.

We choose cows that produce tonnes of milk, crops that grow to enormous sizes or grow in every season, chickens that lay heaps of eggs, wolves that are docile (we call them dogs now) and many other examples. To some degree, we also artificially select human beings, simply in the sense that humans can often consciously select their partner, applying scrutinising intelligence to a process that was unthinking in the past (even if birds are very picky, there’s no substantial intelligence behind those picks).

So that brings us to modern society and our new technology-rich environment. A convenient phrase summarising the idea of evolution is “survival of the fittest”, coined by Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). This phrase is very useful, as long as it is properly understood. By survival, we mean both survival and reproduction – the passing on of genes to the next generation. By fittest, we really mean (in a circular kind of logic) whatever qualities help a species survive and reproduce.

So, what qualities count as “fit” in modern society? We’ve seen the kinds of qualities that were useful in the wild. Many of those are still useful, but not to the same degree. Our intelligence has changed the nature of the game a huge amount. Before I give my opinion, please take a minute to try to think of what qualities YOU think help people progress these days, economically and socially.

Done? Okay, here’s what I thought of: being a hard worker, learning from mistakes, keeping options open, not being racist/sexist, being intelligent, being good at communicating, being useful to others, being skilled or creative, being open to new ideas, thinking, standing up for one’s self, giving up on bad ideas (not being stubborn), being friendly, caring for one’s children, being respected (by having qualities other consider worthy of respect) and many other things. Hopefully you came up with some similar things, maybe a bunch that I didn’t think of and maybe you disagree with some of mine. But in my opinion, these are among the most important qualities that can generally help people progress in a wide variety of human environments.

Being strong used to be more valuable when there was more manual labour. But now there are machines and robots to do the heavy lifting so strength is less important (greatly affecting women’s usefulness in the work force). Being attractive may also help but only a small proportion of the most attractive people can actually make money from it. In fact, rich people are often stereotyped as being old, average-looking men with some accuracy. On the other hand, I think the more abstract quality of learning from mistakes is invaluable in most contexts, especially if you can learn from the mistakes of others as well. Not being racist/sexist has the virtue of greatly increasing your options – the employer that hires the very best will slaughter the employer that hires only from the groups he likes.

So, in what sense am I a social Darwinist? I think racism should be allowed to die. Not necessarily racists themselves, but the racist attitudes that live within them. Along with sexism, arrogance, laziness, stupidity and many other opposites to the qualities listed above. So am I saying we should categorise people based on these qualities and then kill all the ones I deem “unfit”? Absolutely not. Remember, evolution involves no central planner so as soon as you try to consciously act to define its path, you’re going against the central idea. Now, with artificial selection we may very well have end goals in mind, but to do the same with humans crosses a line. Humans have their own wills so why should a separate person get to decide who mates with who or even who lives or dies? Of course, even in the case of animals, there are plenty of moral questions which should be considered (perhaps another time). But just as parents are considered to be responsible for looking after their kids, so humans are often granted responsibility over animals with the expectation that they are not overtly cruel.

Hitler may have felt Jews were somehow inferior, but Jews are a whole religious/ethnic group. My sample list of fitness qualities is of a different nature completely. Surely many Jews are hard-working and many are lazy. So that was a big mistake, to lump all Jews in together as if they’re all fit or unfit (in whatever sense). Hitler was also inconsistent, promoting blonde hair and blue eyes which he and many Germans didn’t have and which some Jews may well have had. But the far bigger problem was the huge concentration of power Hitler obtained and the immense hubris he had to undertake to use that power to orchestrate mass murder. That’s completely against the concept of evolution. The whole idea is that evolution happens automatically, either under the rules of nature or the rule of law, not under the arbitrary rule of a dictator.

So the idea is to simply let things play out. The best examples of real social Darwinism are the places which have had free trade and which protect private property rights. The USA is a relatively good example overall (especially after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, since slavery is counter to what I’m talking about, and before FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s) but many other capitalist countries are also good examples, despite gross government intervention. Under free markets, no conscious actor needs to direct the hand of evolution. In fact, it is Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” which will guide individuals to do whatever it is that other individuals most value them doing (and are hence willing to pay them to do). Those who can make themselves useful will find themselves earning healthily and those who learn to make adjustments will tend to progress rapidly on the economic scale (all other things being equal).

This version of social Darwinism I’m speaking of has nothing to do with moral superiority or inferiority. It’s all about emphasising freedom and allowing people to develop and use whatever qualities help them progress, as long as they don’t hurt others. And just as no engineer designed the incredible lifeforms we find in nature, so no social engineer needs to design a masterclass of humans. In fact, evolution has many advantages over conscious design. Ideas can be found that nobody even thought of. Da Vinci may have dreamt up vehicles like the helicopter but to get one actually flying undoubtedly involved a huge amount of trial and error. Eventually some combination of parts worked, maybe partially by accident and we may not fully understand exactly how or why some models worked better than others for a long time.

Cheetahs can sprint with no conscious understanding of Newtonian mechanics. A child can master a ball game without ever hearing the words “gravity” or “acceleration”. They just have to notice some patterns and find what works. Some of the most exciting areas of computer research involve neural networks which similarly make guesses and adjust based on feedback until some combination works. It’s like a sieve being shaken, letting small things fall through and leaving behind the large objects. We test and adjust, test and adjust. All the ineffective ideas fall through while the ones that work stay. Now, who’s to say exactly what qualities are most important in humans? I suggested some reasonable ones but if some strange habit I didn’t mention turns out to be helpful, so be it. We might not understand why until much later. The best or perhaps only way to find out is to test these things in the real world – by letting people freely act and try their best to succeed.

I believe many negative qualities are already well on the way out, things like violence, prejudice, bullying and stupidity. This is not always appreciated since our access to information is heavily biased towards the present. We see modern-day stupidity all the time with no context for the equivalent in the distant past other than things like movies and history books, even the most accurate of which will leave out a tonne of detail. Twitter may seem like a hive for moronic comments, until you reflect on literacy rates just a couple of hundred years ago and wonder what kinds of bright ideas you might have heard back then from random people.

Finally, let me tie this up with some parallels to Nolan’s great film Batman Begins (2005). Spoilers afoot. Bruce Wayne plans to murder the person who killed his parents. He misses the chance and gets slapped by his close friend. He throws the gun away and is lost and confused for years, trying to find the meaning of justice and some purpose for his life. He becomes Batman and fights crime and corruption. But he’s no executioner. He refuses to kill. He doesn’t have all the answers and may acknowledge that the legal system isn’t perfect. But that’s no excuse to compromise his personal principles. He fights Ra’s Al Ghul who believes in some kind of occasional cleansing of society. In the movie’s climax, Batman says:

“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

This summarises things well. The great thing about evolution is that it just happens. I condone no deliberate initiation of violence against others, no limitations on freedom other than limiting the freedom to hurt others. But if people choose to be lazy, to not learn from mistakes, to stubbornly stick with bad habits, we don’t have to save them. With great power comes great responsibility. With the freedom to act come consequences. Let people face the consequences of their actions and let the ugliest aspects of humanity die out. Not necessarily the humans with those aspects, if they learn to let them go, but the aspects themselves.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a comment

Freedom vs. Entitlement

Freedom is perhaps my favourite ideal when it comes to economics and politics. But I’m not planning on explaining exactly why just yet. Partially, that is because the very meaning of “freedom” seems to be quite frequently misunderstood or lazily misused. It’s extremely important to have clear definitions of the words we use. Of course, I always felt “freedom” had a perfectly clear meaning and I never used it without a definite meaning in mind. But I was shocked to hear some people argue: “but what about the freedom to get basic healthcare, the freedom to have basic food needs met” and so on. That makes no sense to me.

Yes, I’d like it if everyone could have food, shelter and a decent job. In fact, it’d be nice if everyone could have a Ferrari Testarossa. But what does that have to do with freedom? What does it mean to “break free”, for example? It means to escape, to break out of the chains holding you back. Freedom means being unrestricted. To not be restricted (by other conscious actors). To be free from coercion. Most definitions mention either this concept of lack of restriction or have some emphasis on “free will”, the ability to think and act for one’s self. In both cases, it’s an absence of negative interference.

I’d like to travel to Mars today. The fact that I can’t doesn’t mean I’m not free. Everyone can step back and say “hey, go for it, bring back some nice photos!” I’m also free to drive to the shops. If my car breaks down, I’m still free but have a broken car. But if someone acts to prevent me from going to the shops, that would be an interference with my freedom. The fact that some people cannot afford food doesn’t mean they’re not free. It means they are poor. That is, unless someone directly stole money from them to cause them to be poor, they are free.

But recently I hit upon a deeper and better way to understand freedom. It has to do with another key concept: property. I’ve always liked dualities and one of the profound dualities of reality is that of nouns and verbs – things and actions. Property and freedom forms a nice parallel to this. What is the most fundamental example of private property? Your self. Your mind, your body, your soul. It belongs to you. That is why rape and murder are deeply immoral – they are violations of private property. I want to acknowledge that the great economist Walter E. Williams uses examples along these lines in many of his speeches – he places an emphasis on understanding property and starting with the self. Going further, most of us own things – clothes, money, a car, maybe a house and all kinds of other things. Stealing and trespassing are immoral because, again, they involve a violation of private property.

So what does this have to do with freedom? Well, freedom has a scope and that scope is whatever belongs to you (and whatever you’ve been given permission to use). The freedom for me to swing my fist ends at the next person’s nose. I’ve always liked that summary of the necessary limitations on freedom. But thinking in terms of property, it all becomes much clearer. You can swing your fist because it belongs to you. But you can’t punch a stranger because their face doesn’t belong to you. I can do whatever I like to my garden, but not whatever I like to yours. Once we understand or accept that things belong to people, it becomes much easier to understand what freedom really means.

One of the great things people can do with their belongings is share them. This means voluntarily giving permission to others to use their stuff. For example, when people have sex, they give each-other permission to use each-other’s bodies. Very importantly, this permission can be removed at any time, for any reason (in fact, no reason needs to be provided). If the permission is withdrawn, the other person must honour the owner’s request in a reasonable amount of time, after which they are violating private property. In the real world, we tend to have a hierarchy of legal stages. Things gradually escalate with court cases being the last resort.

For example, let’s say a couple of teenagers go to the cinemas to watch a movie. Now let’s say they’re loud and obnoxious and fail to be quiet, no matter what. Let’s observe the logical sequence of events: other patrons ask them be quiet before getting annoyed and firmly asking them to “shut up” after which they complain to the usher, the usher politely asks the teenagers to be quiet, then firmly asks, then asks them to leave, then firmly asks, and then, after all else has failed, calls for security or police to escort the teenagers out. Of course, most loud people will reluctantly “shut up” or leave at some intermediate step.

But there are a couple of points I’m making here. 1) Permission is generally given with a scope in mind. 2) Permission is often not stated explicitly but implied according to standard expectations. For example, in modern western culture, you have the implied permission to tap a stranger on the shoulder (say, if they dropped their wallet) but not to slap them. The permission to enter a cinema complex is similarly under the condition that you’re wearing clothes and aren’t planning on ruining a movie (among other unstated but generally accepted rules, think creatively and I’m sure you can come up with some). So when it becomes clear you’re not honouring the conditions of the permission granted, after some warnings, the permission will likely be taken away and soon after you’ll find yourself breaking the law. Even simply putting your hand on someone’s shoulder and refusing to take it off will typically result in an escalation, although you’ll probably be pushed back before police need to be summoned.

I think seeing the world in these terms of property, permissions and the freedom to act however one likes within those scopes makes things a lot clearer. It may seem strange to think of people as property but what could be more profound than realising that your life belongs to you alone and nobody can ever tell you what to do with it? I plan to address to idea of public property as opposed to private property another time. Let’s just say the incentives are very different and when things are “publicly owned”, it usually just means the government owns them.

So what of the “freedom” to get basic healthcare? Well, do you own doctors, nurses and medical equipment? If not, I’m afraid you have no automatic right to healthcare. You have every right to pay for it but to expect it no matter what, well, that is called “entitlement”. Of course, one of the great things people do with their property is trade it. You scratch someone else’s back, they scratch yours. Money is an invaluable lubricant to make these exchanges easier and more efficient for everybody. Do something for money today, buy something from an entirely different person tomorrow. But the minute you believe you’re entitled to something which belongs to someone else, you are going outside the realm of freedom and into the realm of stealing. When the government gets in on the action and takes from some to provide for others, this is most accurately called “legal theft” as Williams likes to put it.

To see free people do what they like with what they own in business and with friends is a wonderful thing. But to see people put claims on the belongings of others is a profoundly ugly sight. It immediately makes me think of high school bullies regularly taking the lunch money of smaller kids. For a long time, slavery was widespread and, even worse, widely accepted as completely natural. Slave owners deemed themselves completely entitled to everything their slaves produced. Of course, there were exceptions, owners who formed close relationships with their slaves and slaves who bought themselves out of slavery. But overall, it’s an awful example of entitlement overruling freedom.

Now, of course we may like to help less fortunate people than ourselves. But let’s not sacrifice language along the way. Once cannot be free to be guaranteed food, shelter and other necessities. One can feel entitled to those things. If that entitlement is to be somehow satisfied (say via political mandate), then this necessarily means reducing the freedom of others who will be forced to provide the required things. Today’s point is merely that this is immoral since it violates private property and has nothing to do with that great ideal, freedom.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a comment

The Rules of the Game

Ever since my “political awakening” of a little over a year ago (when my brother recommended Thomas Sowell to me), I’ve engaged in a number of online discussions on various topics with mixed results. These took place on sites like Quora, goodreads, Facebook (forgive me), reddit and Twitter, each of which have different structures and demographics of users giving rise to different kinds of discussions.  Some have been rewarding while others have been very unpleasant with most sitting somewhere between those two extremes. Many of the most interesting have been in cases where there was strong disagreement and yet things never escalated into heated name-calling. Those cases have been invaluable in terms of having my own ideas challenged, helping me sharpen my arguments, break down points I disagree with and encouraging me to look further into areas I didn’t know about.

I like to try to learn from every experience if possible and I thought I should outline some of the most common examples of “poor form” (as Captain Hook would call it) that I’ve encountered in my electronic travels. For now, I’m focusing less on actual logic and reasoning and more on the meta aspects of successfully holding a decent, respectful conversation. I don’t claim to be perfect myself but I don’t think I’m a hypocrite – these are things which I have firmly avoided.

1) Foul language

This one should be simple. Swearing is fine and even useful in various contexts but when someone turns to rude language the minute someone disagrees with them, it’s a bad sign. Basic grammar and spelling are also important for any communication, decent or not.

2) “People like you”

This phrase has come up quite a few times. Say one thing and congratulations, you’ve unintentionally earned yourself a spot in someone’s mental image of some unsavoury group of people who have terrible points of view. “I think gun laws tend to affect criminals more than law-abiding citizens, so potentially they can risk leaving innocent people more vulnerable.” “Yeah, well I guess people like you only care about your precious guns, not actual lives! God, you Trump fans are stupid.” Notice that assumptions are readily made – maybe you’re a Trump fan and didn’t realise it, maybe you’re pro-slavery even though you thought you were against it. The whole problem with racism/sexism is lumping people into a category wholesale without enough information, exactly what happens when someone gets addressed with “people like you”.

3) Petty insults

These can sometimes be subtle. They’re often unnecessary jabs or pejorative terms injected in between actual reasoning. “Well, if you’d actually read a book in your life, you’d know that…” “Wow, what a load of right-wing propaganda, do you really believe every single thing FOX news tells you?” “That’s a common view of uneducated people, you see what you’re missing is…”

4) Appeal to authority/complexity

“You’re arguing ECON101, I’m talking about ECON503.” That’s close to a direct quote someone wrote to me, I can’t check because that conversation was deleted by them. Science is about simplicity. Good explanations make things clear and easy to understand. Naturally, some things truly are complex. But even so, simple questions and observations should be possible to address in clear, accessible language.

I have a Maths degree. I could easily write a complex-looking paper, mostly full of logical steps with the conclusion that 5 + 7 = 10. It would be completely valid for a child or anyone else to express skepticism without reading my paper. They could very reasonably ask: “But doesn’t 5 + 7 = 12? Surely 5 + 5 = 10.” Then I would need to address their claims in simple mathematical terms. It would not be adequate for me to say: “Well, you didn’t even read the paper and don’t even know your times tables whereas I completed an honours degree at a prestigious university.” So? This is incredibly pretentious and involves dodging the question. Using terms like “dear” can also make it worse.

Unfortunately, scientists are not immune to this fallacy, with some using their impressive social status to push personal political beliefs. All they have to do is flash their SCIENCE card and they’re automatically right while those who disagree are labelled science-deniers. That’s a disgusting misuse of authority.

5) Exasperation

Imagine a teacher explaining how to find the area of a triangle to a class.

Student: “So do we just times the sides?”

Teacher: [heavy sigh] “Oh my GOD, have you EVEN been paying attention?!? Are you serious? Really? How many times do I have to say, multiply the sides and THEN divide by two. Why part don’t you get? Hello! It’s called a FORMULA!!!”

What better way to patronise someone? You don’t get exasperated with someone you respect, it only happens when you believe you’re talking to someone you see as stupid or stubborn. A real teacher values every question. They patiently explain things. They help the student understand with gentle, friendly prodding in the right direction. Similarly, if I express an opinion and you disagree, explain it to me. But if you complain that talking to me “is like banging your head against a brick wall” or start resorting to all-caps and long series of question/exclamation marks, it comes across as extremely rude and doesn’t help me understand. Exasperation can also suggest that certain assumptions are being implicitly made – perhaps they should be clarified before anyone lets their frustration build too much.

6) Making it personal

“Yeah, well I don’t need to hear the opinion of someone who broke up with his girlfriend 6 months ago because he wasn’t ready to get married.” These kinds of details are irrelevant, adding nothing to the discussion and potentially opening old wounds. If you have an issue with someone, raise it directly and politely with them at an appropriate time. Don’t just bring it up abruptly during a back-and-forth discussion to justify that “well, you can’t talk”. Yes, you can point out if someone’s a hypocrite but try to do it without venom and only if it’s directly relevant.

“You think you’re better than everyone else don’t you? I just can’t believe your arrogant tone.” These are big claims. No-one should be saying such things without evidence so ask for it. If they can quote you and it sounds a bit arrogant, then fair enough, you can apologise. But if they just accuse you because you disagree with them, that’s messed up.

7) Not acknowledging things

This is a major thing for me. Why do we have manners? Saying a word doesn’t DO anything, does it? Well, it’s all about acknowledgement. It means a lot and it comes in many different forms. For example, it can be useful in teaching. “Someone give me an example of a fish.” “Dolphin.” “No, that’s mammal, stupid.” That’s a poor response. Much better would be: “Yes, dolphins swim don’t they, but they actually breathe air and don’t have scales. In fact, they’re mammals, not fish! But they can hold their breath for about 10 minutes!” Most sincere incorrect answers have some aspect of logic/truth behind them. It’s much nicer and helpful to first acknowledge the parts that are right and THEN make it clear why it’s incorrect.

Another thing is acknowledging when you’re wrong. For example, I once claimed that homicide rates were 3 times higher in the 1960s than they are today in the US. But I looked it up and found I was wrong. I acknowledged the mistake and gave the correction that homicide rates are currently about half what they were in 70s and 80s. But I find few people are willing to recognise when they’ve been shown to be wrong. They prefer to move on without a simple acknowledgement. That’s all I’m looking for. Not blood. Just something like: “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that, whoops, okay you got me there.” That’s probably happened twice. But things like “yeah, well still there’s this other statistic so yeah, I’m still right” happen all the time.

Another important thing to acknowledge is the conversation itself. One should be able to leave the conversation at any point. But it’s decent to say something like: “Hey, thanks for the chat, I gotta go. You make some good points, I’ll have to look them up. Hey, please read that book I mentioned, trust me, it’ll change your world!” This has happened a number of times and left me with a good feeling, keen to learn more and look forward to future challenging discussions. But quite often it ends more like: “Look, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere here, you clearly don’t understand what I’m saying. All I can say is learn some economics, then we can talk.” This approach is cowardly and pretentious and shows no appreciation of the time and effort put into the conversation. A little politeness goes a long way. Even if you think you’re absolutely right and they don’t understand, that’s ultimately a matter of opinion so why not just acknowledge a difference of opinion and thank the person for sharing their point of view? It’s not that hard.

Conclusion

I’m afraid this is far from a complete list but hopefully casts some light on a few of the most pervasive forms of bad arguing which any online adventurer is likely to face at some point. Notice that practically all of these phenomena are antagonistic in some way and add nothing to the discussion.

Efficiency is the way to go. Make sure every word is on the topic at hand. Acknowledge good points and your own mistakes. Ask questions to clarify things and give the other person the benefit of the doubt before relegating them to a pet label of yours. And maybe most usefully, if you notice someone doing one of these things, call them out on it. Use direct quotes. Draw attention to the relevant parts. Don’t further engage unless they acknowledge their rudeness. This is a matter of self-respect. The sooner you notice these things, the more you can relax knowing that you aren’t just getting heated over the politics but are being disrespected and not putting up with it. If they refuse to be decent, move on. Yes, that can sometimes mean a lot of moving on. Perhaps Quora has been the place with the best overall standards of discussion in my opinion.

Just as the T-800 learned to combine lingo in the classic movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day (“chill out, dickwad”) so some people manage to effortlessly combine these poor forms of argumentation:

“WOW. You ACTUALLY believe that? Well, I guess it’s not surprising your mother’s no longer talking to you since you’re such a racist arsehole. I suppose you’d prefer big corporations running the show. That’s all people like you care about, helping the big guy and keeping the poor down. I read that link you probably got from Google in, like, 20 seconds, but I’m still right as proven by this link (provides a link). Man I’ve spoken to some dumb people before but fuck. Do me a favour and research for more than 10 minutes next time before trying to argue with someone who actually has an advanced education and understands economics. IT’S NOT MY JOB TO EDUCATE IDIOTS LIKE YOU. Thakns.”

That was made up. But it’s not nearly as bad as some of the things I’ve actually run into. Don’t be that person. Be the person that calls out those people and can actually healthily engage in adult conversations about politics.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a comment

Fascism vs. Communism

Communism seems to be accepted as being on the far left of the political spectrum. But it’s always struck me as odd that fascism is considered by some to be an extreme of the right-wing since I find it so foreign to my beliefs and principles and more similar to communism than most other systems. Of course, politics isn’t one-dimensional so the whole idea of left vs. right is not always clear – what exactly is the distinction and can all political opinions be clearly placed at some point on the spectrum? Some 2-dimensional representations make a slight improvement, perhaps distinguishing between economic and social considerations or using terms like authoritarian and libertarian. However, many of these diagrams are still quite confused or contradictory and in any case, politics isn’t 2-dimensional. When criticising poorly developed characters in movies, the terms 1-dimensional and 2-dimensional are often used interchangeably as meaning lacking depth.

Another important detail is that, for whatever reason, people on the same political side tend to reach similar conclusions to each-other on a wide range of seemingly unrelated topics. If I know your opinion on the minimum wage, there’s a good chance I can guess your rough stance on income inequality, gun laws, abortion, immigration, welfare and so on. Yes, there are exceptions where someone has mixed opinions (being in the “centre”) but they are just that – exceptions to an otherwise strikingly consistent rule. This is too much to be a coincidence and suggests that the political left and right have some deeper fundamental disagreement from which their differing conclusions stem.

Thomas Sowell approached this subject in A Conflict of Visions, published in 1987. A rough summary being that the right have a “constrained” vision, “which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish”, while the left have an “unconstrained” vision, “in which human nature is malleable and perfectible”. Other than this and Sowell’s later writings, I’m not aware of any deeper, more insightful or thorough analysis of the prominent political divide between left and right. But I wasn’t planning on going into that, the point is more that a divide exists and that its cause doesn’t have a simple, widely accepted explanation (at least not yet).

So what is communism? Probably the most famous proponent was Karl Marx. The central idea can be summarised in the famous slogan:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

(Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen.)

This is a majorly flawed approach to economics. Abilities are not set. Ask a group of kids to clean up and they’ll groan and whine. Offer them lollies if they clean up and they will fly around the room, bursting with excitement, cleaning with unlimited energy even though they appeared lethargic just a moment ago. Adults are not fundamentally different. Ask me to wash a stranger’s car and I’ll look at you with a puzzled look and say “no”. Offer me $5,000 and I’ll eagerly ask when. In fact, someone else will probably say “hey, I’ll do it for $4,000”. Profits motivate people in multiple ways and the amount of work they’ll do will greatly be affected by whether they’re working for profit or simply because they’re expected to (or for fear of being put in jail if they don’t). Needs are similarly not set. They are incremental. What if a family needs a new window and a new microwave? Which one do they need more? How does communism decide which of the vast and varying needs to meet first? Why be careful with things when your need for replacements will be automatically met?

Anyway, I wasn’t planning to get into the details of the problems with communism, but let’s note that its historic record when implemented has been one of economic stagnation, drenched in the blood of tens of millions of its citizens. You see, not only is it economically awful but it requires central planning which necessitates a great accumulation of power in the government. It’s no coincidence that it often entails a powerful dictator at its head. As Milton Friedman emphasised a number of times, you want the system in which the inept, greedy or evil can do the least harm.

“The power to do good is also the power to do harm.” – Milton Friedman

Communism is a system that entrusts a huge amount of power to a select few individuals – about as far removed from what Friedman recommended as you can get. Even with the best people, terrible mistakes or injustices can occur (for which they pay no price) but with the worst people, massacres of innocent people can become routine. One might also ponder what kind of person such power would attract. Humility and self-restraint are not qualities which come to mind.

But isn’t fascism similar, with a powerful dictator at the head? Why are the two systems considered polar opposites by some? I think I know. Communism puts emphasis on EQUALITY as a major goal. That is, equality of results as opposed to opportunity. That all people will work to the best of their ability and all will receive what they need (the word “need” is the bane of any decent economist). It may sound nice as a utopian fantasy but it involves control by the government, far less individual freedom and completely throws away any semblance of economic logic. And fascism? Well, it’s all about INEQUALITY. Propping up the strong, loyal, pure-bloods and suppressing or killing the weak and foreign.

The thing is, both systems are founded on control. Something I consider the political left as being obsessed with. For example:

Person A: “We should ban all guns. They kill people.”

Person B: “Why don’t we let people own guns if they want to. People kill people.”

Person A: “So you think everyone should own a gun? Wow, I didn’t realise you were so pro-gun…”

What person A says tells us more about them than anything else. For them, the opposite of forcibly taking all guns is to force everyone to own a gun. Apparently the concept of individuals being free to choose is completely unthinkable. It’s an unstated axiom that people must be controlled. This is just a simplified example, but the line of reasoning is common. Similarly, using such deluded logic, the opposite of forcing people to be on the same level is, apparently, to force people to be on different levels – thus, the opposite of communism is fascism. Once again, the concept of freedom, of small gov’t and free, responsible individuals trading or using their private property however they see fit (capitalism) is foreign and doesn’t even come into the equation.

Just as discrimination is bad, so is reverse or “positive” discrimination. It’s still discrimination! Just as a powerful gov’t confiscating property to make everyone equal is bad, so is gov’t confiscating property to make one group better than another. Both are based on absolute control and are polar opposites to classical liberalism which places freedom above either equality or inequality as goals. Communism and fascism are merely opposite sides of the same coin, systems obsessed with pushing one group’s ideas onto everyone. One puts more emphasis on a proletariat uprising, throwing away basic economics along the way, the other’s focus is on nationalism, seeing one race as superior to another and justifying genocide. But they’re both morally disgusting and arrogant. They’ve both failed by any measure a number of times.

Meanwhile, capitalist countries have continued to flourish and give rise to the highest living standards ever seen. They’re full of people living better than past generations could imagine with enough spare time to argue and protest that some people earn more than some others. Economic explanations are ignored in favour of calls for radical change. If only they understood what happens when you sacrifice freedom for the sake of a persuasive but deeply flawed vision.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a comment

“Unpaid” Work

In discussions of women’s pay in the workforce, the subject of “unpaid work” is sometimes brought up, the point being that women do more than their “fair share” of the work at home. Yes, on average, women do more housework than men. But to say they aren’t paid is incredibly naive. It’s rarely disputed that women spend much more than men, estimates usually being that they spend some multiple of what men spend, say 3 to 5 times as much overall with areas covered including housing, food, computers, healthcare and cars. What’s AMAZING, is that most sources I can find outlining this fact put the emphasis on how to market to women, with no apparent surprise or interest in how women came upon this wealth in the first place. For example:

STATISTICS ON THE PURCHASING POWER OF WOMEN (from girlpowermarketing, an agency self-proclaimed to have “well-honed expertise in marketing to women”)

Want A Piece Of The 18 Trillion Dollar Female Economy? Start With Gender Bias (title says it all)

Suppose an unemployed woman marries a rich man. A few months later, she is seen wearing expensive clothes and jewellery, occasionally drives a Ferrari and spends most of her time relaxing in a mansion, still unemployed. Sometimes she goes on a shopping spree, experts are still trying to determine how she funds these adventures. She also cleans the dishes sometimes (that’s probably the least believable part of this story). Is she unpaid for cleaning the dishes? This is an exaggerated example, but should hardly strike anyone as a foreign concept – the rich housewife.

Most women don’t live this lifestyle but the statistics are clear – less women have a job, of those that work less work full-time, of those working full-time they work less hours and they take more time off. Partially as a result of this, they earn maybe half of what men earn in the workforce. Women also do more work around the house, including looking after kids, cooking and cleaning the house. But the fact that women spend on the order of 3 times what men spend (on average) indicates quite clearly that their services are well-paid. Shared accounts are a common phenomenon among couples.

But let’s look at things from another angle. So women do work around the house. Who should pay them? The government? I clean my teeth, should that be paid for by the government? What about day-to-day cleanliness, practising piano, working out, writing articles, pouring myself drinks – should these be paid? Or is it husbands that should pay? What would that look like? Would they keep records of what their wife does and pay them a salary with income tax taken out? Of course, husbands already pay their wives but no attention is given to this fact because it doesn’t get explicitly stated or kept track of – why would it? Do feminists WANT women to pay tax on what their husbands pay them?

But there’s a deeper point here. My dad often builds/fixes things around the house. Perhaps there’s a leak and he seals it. Maybe he makes a DVD rack or sets up an impressive home theatre, including extended walls, lots of cables and painting. Of course, all these raw materials cost money but the total spent is far less than it would have cost to hire people to do it. Hence, my dad saves a lot by doing things himself. In essence, he’s hiring himself to build/fix things. A dollar saved is a dollar earned. Is it unpaid work? No. He pays himself. He could very well take money out of his wallet, put it on the table, shake his own hand, pick up the money, put it back into his wallet and give himself a pat on the back. But that would be redundant, not to mention a cause for concern for any witnesses.

Now a revolutionary concept:

Payment only occurs when two people exchange with each-other.

You don’t pay yourself for things you do for yourself. To take a crude but apt example – you have to pay for a handjob but masturbating is free (you pay yourself in effect). Similarly, housework is a part of life. Everyone has to do basic things for their self like getting dressed and driving to work. Those things aren’t paid occupations because no exchange is occurring. If you helped someone else get dressed or drove them to work, that would be another story.

When it comes to household chores with people living together, that’s a matter for the occupants to work out. Since men are often out busy working, women tend to take up the daunting challenge of housework and looking after kids (although many women also work, leaving the tasks to a hired nanny or relatives). If husband or wife are unhappy with the arrangement, they can discuss it. A true feminist would have no doubt that women are fully capable of speaking up for themselves and striking a compromise that reflects their interests counter-balanced by their husband’s. A nanny or cleaner could be hired but that would incur further costs – something to be weighed against the alternatives. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to married couples, any group of people living together need some arrangement for household chores. That’s their business and needn’t require money exchanging hands or receipts (although that’s also possible).

Another argument is that women aren’t just spending on themselves but on their children and families. But this is an example of moving the goal posts. Why is it a problem that men earn more than women? Who are they earning it for? If you credit women with spending on their kids and husband, perhaps you should credit men for earning money to be spent on their kids and wife. It is a responsibility of parents to look after their children and that typically includes various expenses. But what fraction of female spending is for that purpose? And what fraction for men? Can we assume that the former exceeds the latter? If you take an 80/20 female/male split and assume that half of it is spent on kids, that still leaves a 40/10 split for what gets spent on the individual. This is just a rough way of looking at it, but all other things being equal, getting to spend more is a huge personal advantage.

What if we look at the end result – goods and services? If you walk around a house, how much of it belongs to or is used by the husband compared to the wife? I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that women have less stuff or that they get less leisure time compared to men. Garages are often full of tools and men’s stuff. But who has the larger wardrobe? Who gets pedicures and manicures? Who has more jewellery? Who has more time to enjoy the house, the pool, the car? Who mows the lawn, takes out the rubbish and takes the kids fishing or camping? But it’s not a competition. It never was until a number of feminists took things way too far.

Mothers and fathers both have tough, important jobs and it’s very difficult to assess who’s bearing the heavier load on average, nor do I think it’s anyone’s place to do that. I’m attempting to bring more attention to where its needed. That men EARN the money that women SPEND. That both sides of traditional male/female roles have advantages/disadvantages. That doing things around the house for yourself, roommates or family is not usually a paid occupation for obvious reasons. I focused on married couples (of the old school variety with a man and a woman) because that’s the main area of contention – the setting of the complaints about “unpaid work”.

I don’t see why individuals can’t be respected enough to lead their lives the way they see fit. Men and women are smart enough and strong enough to negotiate to get what they want out of life as much as possible, without self-righteous demagogues speaking on their behalf. I think everyone should each pull their weight while calling out those in their life that don’t. Those that push political crusades based on isolated statistical patterns taken out of context shoudn’t be allowed to shut down or bully those who disagree with them. They should be heard, laughed at and then we can move on with our lives in the real world. Okay, now who’s paying me for hanging out the clothes today? Do I hear $5?

 

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a comment

Gay Marriage

“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

This is the question being asked of Australians in a plebiscite currently occurring (September 2017). As one person on Facebook astutely pointed out, it’s meant to be a private poll, not an opportunity to convince others of your opinion or to make judgements of anyone who votes a particular way. But nevertheless, emotions and feelings are high on both sides and the issue is being brought up regularly – it’s hard to escape.

For many, the answer appears to be obvious. Mediocre thinkers like myself can only dream of being so knowledgeable as to reach conclusions so effortlessly. But in addition, a lot of the same people choose to go the extra step of labeling anyone who disagrees with them as a “bigot”, among other less-civilised terms. This is ironic since their behaviour is a textbook example of bigotry based on most definitions: “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions” (Merriam-Webster). People are entitled to take this attitude but it seems to reflect a rather fascist way of looking at things, not especially compatible with democracy (at least not when the majority disagrees with them). Is their no value in discussion? In attempting to persuade another or allowing someone else to persuade you?

Certainly discussion is an important and valuable tool for exchanging knowledge and ideas, but only if it’s constructive and two-way. Unfortunately, as with so many political questions, this is rarely the case. People talk past each-other, arguing on completely different levels, making different implicit assumptions and frequently misunderstanding each-other as well as the question itself. Before one becomes adamant or passionate about a point of view, it is wise to be informed. I will try to break down the question as best I can.

Firstly, religion cannot be used as a basis for making decisions politically or otherwise. Religious beliefs may affect the values, attitudes and opinions of some people but ultimately we have to judge those outward qualities on their own grounds. If you think homosexuality is bad, you can’t “prove” it by pointing to the bible. You need to justify why it’s bad based on facts and logic.

Secondly, the question has nothing to do with “love”, “equality” or “rights”, no matter how often these words may be brought up or in how passionate a context. Using such terms is an effective way to present the issue as being one-sided and hardly worthy of a second thought. Who can possibly be against “gay rights”? Only “homophobes”. Anyone who votes “no” must be against “equality” and hence worthy of lecturing, insults and social ostracism. I’ll go more into these terms later.

Many view marriage as a traditional bond between a man and a woman and feel that any change to that fact introduces risk or some kind of slippery slope where other structures can easily be modified or torn down. This is a valid point of view. Indeed, it’s very foolish to take a structure which has existed for a long time and casually change its meaning, without first carefully considering the possible effects, including those which might not be obvious or take immediate effect. Laws develop over time and behaviours adjust surrounding them.

For example, the welfare state in the US was greatly expanded starting in the 1960s with one of its main purposes being to help single mothers. An unintended side-effect has been to incentivise single motherhood, the rates of which have sky-rocketed. Among blacks especially (representing a poorer minority, more sharply affected), the trend has been extreme – children born out of wedlock went from about 22% in 1960 to 72% in 2010. The point here is merely that negative unforeseen side-effects were caused by a new policy. Changes in laws can have drastic effects not planned in the first place. We can’t assume that a change in marriage laws is good or bad, it needs to be analysed.

Much of the problem with this whole debate originates in the concept of conducting affairs via the government. It means that people get in each-others faces over things because everyone has a stake in it – it’s one size fits all (marriage in this case). If you change it, you offend those who value its traditional meaning and if you don’t, many will feel you’re promoting intolerance and inequality – there’s no way to appease both sides. On the other hand, when free markets are allowed to operate, various different things can co-exist and people can go about their business. “¿Porque no los dos?”

I’m strongly against bullying and discrimination in general. But it’s important to recognise that marriage was never a “right” in the first place. It’s a specific type of bond endorsed by the government – a union between a man and woman, capable of independently producing children (and in that way fundamentally different from a homosexual union). In fact, it usually consists of limitations, rather than enhanced opportunities. For example, progressive tax rates mean that paying tax as a combined individual is more expensive than as two separate people (this may not apply in Australia, although there are other financial effects). Also, since everyone will grow up to be a man or woman, everyone can legally get married. The definition is not against gays or lesbians, nor does it attempt to judge or suppress people. Who is anyone to change this long existing definition of marriage?

Some may point out that this hasn’t always been the “definition”. For example, the Australian 1961 Marriage Act, did not originally specify marriage as between a man and a woman and only in 2004 was this amended. But this was simply a matter of clarification. The definition of marriage before then was based on common law and had been consistently practised as only applying to heterosexual couples. If a law doesn’t explain what a “shirt” is, that simply means that the definition is felt to be clear. In the case of “marriage”, it has been similarly clear throughout history.

Now hang on, interracial marriage was illegal in certain places and times throughout history. Surely it was right to change marriage back then so why not again now? Shouldn’t we continue to move forward? Well I don’t think the concept of marriage itself ever originally limited the races of the people involved. There have been extra layers of racist laws in the past and yes, it was good for those limitations to be removed. Also, race doesn’t have clear lines. There’s a continuum of people between any two races which you name. But the sexes are discrete and functionally different. In addition, their roles in society are different, for better or worse.

“Marriage equality” is a confusing concept. Should cousins be allowed to marry? Three or more adults? Children? Of course, the question being presently considered only applies to same-sex couples but by making an argument on the basis of “equality”, these various alternate forms of marriage come to mind. Which of them should be valid? Perhaps it should be two consenting adults. Well, that sounds reasonable but you have to be clear about that at the outset. And if it can be changed once, who’s to say it won’t change again? There are a lot of laws prohibiting smoking in many places. These didn’t come all at once, they came bit by bit. Had some people known exactly where it was all leading, they might’ve had a different opinion.

Should women be able to use male toilets at will in the name of equality? Can men get maternity leave? Do they not have the “right” to such a thing? If a company designs a toy geared towards girls, is it discrimination if they don’t also produce an equivalent which is intended for boys? Shall all things be made equally accessible to all people regardless of the original intention or purpose of the thing?

Suppose there were laws for houses but no laws for apartments. Shouldn’t people who own apartments have the same “rights” as those who own houses? Well, yes there should probably be some similar laws. But houses and apartments are not the same, nor is one “better” than the other. There may be small houses which are almost like apartments or spacious apartments which feel like houses. But a few key facts would keep them as different entities. Should the exact same laws apply to both or should a similar set of laws apply to each with the potential to evolve differently? Even if I can’t name a specific problem that transferring all the laws from housing to apartments would cause, that doesn’t change the fact that it is unwise and probably better to make some adjustments.

Similarly, there are laws for straight couples but not quite the same ones for gay couples. Should we transfer them across? Some straight couples can’t have children or might be terrible parents. A gay couple might adopt kids or use a scientific method to produce children and end up being great parents. There is overlap between the two groups. But nevertheless, they are functionally different. Hetero couples are far more likely to have kids. Is domestic abuse going to have the same patterns in a homo couple? In a lesbian couple, both “mothers” can be pregnant at the same time, while in a gay couple, neither “fathers” can ever be pregnant. Two gay men may earn a fair amount more than a straight or lesbian couple in many cases. It’s not clear to me that applying laws and practices which have developed over decades to new groups of people is wise or will have no unexpected side-effects.

Another analogy is toilets. We have separate male and female toilets. But female toilets don’t discriminate against men, they’re just not designed for them. The current system allows the toilets to tailor to their users – male ones have urinals, female ones have tampon disposal units. Those features are pretty redundant to the opposite sex. It’s beneficial to most of the population to keep them separate. And one isn’t better or worse than the other. If only male toilets existed, women might be quite annoyed and ask for access. We could then either open up the toilets to women or create separate toilets just for women. I think the latter is the better option.

Some seem to see marriage as being just about love. Well, in that case, I don’t doubt the love that can exist between two men or two women. But I’m sceptical about whether that’s all that marriage entails, in laws and in behaviours. I don’t think laws should be changed on the basis of making people happy or to give them “acceptance”. I don’t look up to married couples nor do I look down on gay couples. Should we make a law that all black people must be referred to as “professor” in order to give them a boost in social standing? Think of all the happiness that would create for black people!

There are two options which I’m generally in favour of:

1) Create a separate “gay/lesbian marriage” as an official recognition of the existence of homosexual love/partnerships/families in modern society. It needn’t replace nor overlap with traditional marriage but offer many of the same basic functions. Over time, the laws and behaviours surrounding it can evolve without disrupting the practices relating to straight couples.

2) Better yet, the government should get out of the marriage business entirely. Let any consenting adults sign contracts and have ceremonies and celebrations (religious or otherwise) however they like. Don’t try to incentivise or reward or recognise certain kinds of unions, but let people be free to do what they want. Nobody has to be forced to attend or acknowledge or support other people’s ceremonies but everyone has to abide by the law. Private lawyers could offer packages based on the common needs of various kinds of partners so that they can quickly and efficiently get all the “rights” from each-other which they desire.

So either a new set of laws should be introduced or we hand the whole process of marriage over to a nation of free individuals. We decide their own fates without having to stamp our personal vision of the world or what marriage truly means on others.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment